January 2017 - Room 213

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Teaching in Turbulent Times

Teaching in turbulent times: helping students raise their voices
I never dreamed that I'd have to write a post like this -- after all, I'm living in 21st century North America, during a decade that has seen so much positive social change. I teach in a school whose population is almost 20% refugee and immigrant students. I have a class with twelve of twenty-one students who were born in another country. This is a huge change from when I started teaching, but our province has opened it's doors to refugees and has changed the face of our school greatly -- and for the better.

My heart bleeds for my students and for the many immigrant students in Canada and the US. Yes, it's very different for our kids. Our country's doors are still open. But what must it be like for them, knowing that just next door, their countrymen (and relatives) are being banned, shunned, vilified? Will they feel afraid that it could happen here? I know that we will have to be hyper-aware of this in the next few weeks and do all we can to deal with any emotional fallout that might occur.

I also think we need to use this opportunity to talk about indifference and about raising one's voice in the face of injustice, even when it's not in your own backyard.  I'll never forget the first time I taught Wiesel's Night. We had just finished the first section of the memoir and Alex, a very earnest girl in the back row, drew our attention to this quote, when a young and deluded Wiesel asks: Annihilate an entire people? Wipe out a population dispersed throughout so many nations? So many millions of people! By what means? In the middle of the twentieth century! "How could it happen in the middle of the 20th century?" she asked, incredulous. She, and her classmates could not conceive of the idea that the rest of the world looked on and did not do anything about the Holocaust. They decided that it had to be the nature of news at the time -- it took people much more time to find out the facts. That had to be it.

That night, I prepared a slideshow that showed them the genocides that have happened since World War II, even ones in the media heavy 21st century: Rwanda, Darfur, Sudan, Bosnia, Yemen, Congo, Syria, and many more. I showed them the number of people killed and then asked if they were aware of this. I asked them what they did to stop it. "What can we do? It's so far away? We're only teenagers!" The discussion was fierce. Then, I put the quote from Wiesel back up on the screen: In the middle of the twentieth century? We've learned so much. We've come so far, and yet we still look away.

So what can our teens do when we are so far away? They can donate money, join groups, sign petitions, all things that do help, but are very remote for them. They may not see it as doing much. That's when it's time for JFK's quote: one man can make a difference, and every man should try.  It's a good time to get the kids to research Malala Yousafzai, a young girl who stood up against all odds and made a difference.  Or Craig and Marc Kielburger who, as teenagers saw injustice and then dedicated their lives to empowering youth.

Not all of out teens will be able to do heroic and global actions like Malala or the Kielburgers.  But they can make a difference. When they see injustice, whether it's a playground bully or a political one, they can raise their voice. When they see a group in their community that is oppressed, they can find ways to help. When a decision is made in their world that they know is morally wrong, they need to speak up.

What can we do as teachers to help them? We can start by finding ways to make them aware of what is going on in the world. I know we need to avoid being overly political, but with the texts we use in English class, there are always opportunities to find links and ideas we can discuss. Night, Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird, Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, 1984, Of Mice and Men, are just some if the classics in our classroom that tell tales of oppression and hate -- and ways to overcome them.  We can teach our students how to debate and argue in ways that are effective and logical. We can teach them the importance of listening to and considering opposing views (your students will have them. How we handle and model reactions to this is so important). We can ask that they consider facts and both sides before they make a decision. We can give them an assignment that requires them to stand up for someone in their community. We can model empathy and caring. We can expect it in our classrooms and hallways.

There's so much that one person can do.

This year, when I teach Night, I will show them this story from the Washington Post that explains that Anne Frank and her family were denied the chance to flee to the US during World War II.  At the time, Frank wrote: "It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality." But she also said "It's a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart." We can't let today's grim realities crush our ideals. People are truly good at heart. Help your students see that, to see the humanity in everyone, and to always, always respect it.

Do you have any ideas or lessons that teach students how to raise their voice? I'd love to have you share them in the comments!

Final Assessment Conference

I wasn't planning to write a post today, but during my twelfth grade class this morning, I was reminded of how powerful our final assessment conferences are, and I wanted to share that with you.

But first a little background:

Our English department has, over the last number of years, developed a final assessment for our students that is process based, rather than a sit down, pen and paper exam.  The students answer the following question: what have you learned about human nature, based on the literature you have studied in this course? They need to reference three different texts and make connections to the real world.

The final paper is due on Thursday, but last week they had to go through and pass in several steps of the process it takes to write a great essay. First, they participate in a small group seminar that explores the topic; then, they pass in a thesis/proposal for my feedback. Over the next few days they work on collecting the evidence they will need to complete the assignment. They pass in these notes for feedback as well.  For each step, they are given a grade, with 40% of the final devoted to the process, and 60% for the final copy.

The last step before the good copy is to meet with me to discuss their progress. Today, they needed to show me a complete first draft of the essay and, more importantly, be ready to discuss what they need to do to turn their draft and ideas into a final product. To do this, they were instructed to go through the feedback they've gotten over the semester to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses, and to inform their decisions about what to work on in the final stages of the process.

These conferences are always the best part of the year with my students. Because it's their final assessment, most of them take it very seriously, even the ones who didn't always put forth their best effort all year. Most spend quite a bit of time reflecting on their feedback, and so we have some very meaningful conversations about what they can do to improve their essay. I don't read and revise the draft. Instead, I tell them to remind me of their thesis and to walk me through the argument. I ask them if they have any questions or concerns about the direction the work is taking them. Almost always there's a little a-ha moment as I chat with them about their plans for the final copy.  And regardless of what it is they need to work on, it's ten minutes of one-on-one time that we get to spend together before they leave my class.

You may not have the freedom to have a final assessment like the one I described, but this type of conference could still work. If you're having a final exam, for example, you could plan to conference with the students about what they need to work on in preparation for the exam, or on what they've learned about themselves as students.  You just need to plan to have your class working on something that does not need your direction, and then take your students one by one for a conference. I'd suggest you take them out into the hallway to give them some privacy -- it's amazing how they can open up when you have them one on one!

Conferences are not just good for the end of the year either! You can read my post on why you should use them all year long here.


Lesson Planning: Using Workshop for Literary Analysis

In a few short weeks, our semester changes,  and I will meet my new tenth grade Pre-IB class.  Next year, most will enter the International Baccalaureate program, and they will spend two years doing a great deal of focused literary analysis. My job over the semester will be to get them primed and ready for that.

Over the last few years, I've switched the structure of my regular academic classes to include reader's and writer's workshop. While I've included many elements of a workshop approach in my IB and Pre-IB classes, I've only dabbled with them, feeling like I just don't have the time with those classes to devote to the workshop approach. This semester, however, I'm going to dive into it with my tenth grade class, because my experience with my seniors shows me that it works. My premise is that if I  provide them with the choice and opportunity to explore and experiment with the techniques of great writers, then they will be better able to do the literary analysis expected of them in the IB program.

So how am I going to do this?

First off, I'm going to divide the week in two. Half (2-3 days, depending on the week) will be spent in workshop mode; the other half, on full class study. This post will be about my plans for the workshop part of the week; my next post will be about our full class activities. As with all of my planning, I'll start with a healthy dose of PEAs (Purpose, Engagement & Assessment):


My main goal with reader's workshop in my regular classes is always to install a love of reading and to increase reading stamina. With the Pre-IB's it's a little different. Most of these kids are already voracious readers, so I don't need to turn them on to it. While I will always emphasize the joy of reading, with these guys I need to start looking very closely at author purpose and technique. The trick will be to do this in a way that does not interfere with the whole premise behind reader's workshop -- to give them choice and freedom.

My goal with both reader's and writer's workshop will be to investigate what makes great writing, and the techniques writers use to engage their readers. As we journey through the reader's workshop portion of our week, I will start every class with a mini-lesson that will lead into a reflection or short assignment for the students. Then, they will have at least fifteen minutes to read.

On the first days of reader's workshop, I'll do mini-lessons on opening lines. Students will reflect on and discuss how the authors of their books draw the reader into the their tales. They will also be asked to do the following writing prompt in their notebooks: If you were to write the story of your life, what would the opening lines be? 

During the first week, I will give them an on-going assignment for the term: they will be watching for "great writing" in the books they read. Starting the next week, students will meet in groups to share the passage(s) they chose. Each person will lead a discussion on why the passage is "great writing"; then, the group will come to a consensus on which passage is the best one. They will read it to the full class and explain why they chose it. I'm hoping to start a graffiti wall of great quotes, so you can watch for that on my Instagram feed!

The writer's workshop component of my first week will focus on "great writing" as well. My first mini-lessons will be about word choice. We will look at mentor texts that illustrate how diction affects meaning, and students will experiment with this in their own writing. 

The workshop approach is perfect for focusing on active learning. I will spend time at the beginning of class using mentor texts to illustrate techniques, as well as in modelling my own writing. However, the bulk of the work will be in the students' hands as they look for examples in their novels and attempt to replicate it in their writing.

Students will be asked to purchase a notebook to use during workshop. We will use it for responses as they read their novels and explore the way the authors create meaning with their words. Writer's workshop will also begin with mini-lessons and mentor texts that teach them techniques, but most of the time, students will be creating, conferencing and revising. We will regularly use workshop stations to not only help them stay focused, but also to provide time for them to conference with me and each other.

Because each student has choice about his/her reading and writing, and because they will be focused on the process, they will be actively learning, not just passively taking in information.


One of the biggest questions I get about using a workshop approach is about assessment. I've already written a post about how to plan it for the whole workshop. Check that out if you want an overview.

The assessment during the first few weeks of my workshop will be formative only.  I will give verbal feedback during class discussions, asking questions and probing if I feel they need to move in a different direction. For example, if I ask for a response about how writer's pull the reader in with their opening lines, I may get this response: it makes me want to keep reading. I will respond with: why?  Can you read us a portion of the opening that you find engaging? What is it that makes it so? My experience is that students need some coaching on how to give good, well-developed answers, so we will do a lot of that in the first few days.

At the end of the first week, I will ask them to pass in any written responses that they have completed, and I will give them feedback only, and not a mark. I will also aim to conference with each of them in the first two weeks. The conference will focus on what they like to read, as well as their strengths as both a reader and a writer.

Essentially, the assessment in the first few weeks is used to give them direction and feedback -- as well as for me to get to know my students. I want them to know that my classroom is a place to explore and take risks, so I don't want to introduce summative marks for a while, especially with this group. As I said, they are high achievers, so they can get a little paralyzed when they know a mark is at stake.

So, that's the plan for my first few days and weeks of the workshop portion of my class. My next post will focus on the focused work we will do on the non-fiction section of the course. Stay tuned!

Would you like to get some support as you plan a workshop approach in your secondary classroom? Join my Facebook group, Secondary Reader's & Writer's Workshop Support. Send me your email to room213custom@gmail.com, or search this link. 

Do you have any questions, concerns or suggestions for how to plan reader's or writer's workshop in your classroom? Please leave a comment!

Room 213 Celebrates Kindness

I'm thrilled to be joining The ELA Buffet and Desktop Learning Adventures, hosts of The Secondary Smorgasbord, as we spread some kindness, something the world always needs a little more of. Be sure to read to the end of the post to grab a freebie from me and many others!
Our students belong to a generation of young people who are much more tolerant than previous generations -- but are they more accepting? These are some of the questions I'll be exploring with my students this semester, and these posters will be decorating my classroom walls as a reminder.

My new tenth grade class starts the first week of February and, as we have in the past, the class will spend the semester investigating the following inquiry questions: Where does intolerance come from? How can we build a more accepting society? 

All of the texts we read during reader's workshop and full class studies will provide them with a place to discover answers to these questions. A Separate Peace  will show them that sometimes the enemy is within. To Kill a Mocking bird will teach them not to fear the unknown and to empathize with others. We will also do other short stories, poems and essays that will help them on their search. The end result will be a multi-genre project that illustrates what the students have learned about the roots of intolerance, and their suggestions for how to plant acceptance and kindness in the world instead. 

We will begin by creating a class code of conduct for discussions, so everyone in the room will feel comfortable sharing his/her views and experiences. Then, the students will work through a series of reflections and discussions that will hopefully lead them to a new understanding of why we treat others as we do. The posters will be part of the reflections that the students do. I will use them as a powerpoint for writing prompts, and after we discuss the students' responses, the poster will go on the wall. 

Would you like to try something like that? You can grab the free posters hereActivities for teaching kindness and acceptance in the secondary classroom.


Lesson Planning: Build in Time for Productive Struggle

Lesson planning for high school English
Lesson planning is a complex task that looks so simple from the outside. Those of us who have seen lessons flop and fly know too well that a good lesson takes a great deal of time and thought.

I'm in that thinking stage. In my last post I wrote that I was going to get more specific in this one, but I'm not there yet. That's because I'm still thinking a lot about my incoming Pre-IB students and where I need to take them. Bear with me as I explain:

My grade eleven IB class is about to write a midterm, and there's a lot of stress, because they realize there so many things they still need to learn. It's the same every year. And every year I reflect on what I could have done differently when I had these students in tenth grade.

One of the biggest issues with this bunch of over-achievers is that, until they entered the International Baccalaureate program, they haven't had to struggle much in school. It all came so easily to them, as did the high marks that made them and their parents so proud. The IB program is the first time in their lives that most of them have slammed up against an academic challenge, and so they don't always have the skills to deal with having to struggle to find an answer. So, one of my biggest challenges with the Pre-IB's is to help them build those skills.

One of the first things we will do is discuss the importance of failure in the learning process. We will begin with writing prompt that asks them to reflect on their own attitudes on failure, followed by small group discussions on the concept. Then, I'll provide them with several articles to read that focus on failure and growth mindset. (click for the lesson) We will continue the discussion after they've read the articles, to see how their reading may have changed their thinking. I've done this before, and we always have great discussions -- but what these kids know intellectually doesn't always help them when things get challenging. Therefore, I need to plan to give them many opportunities to experience productive struggle, opportunities to try things that are just beyond their reach, so they can apply what they learn about growth mindset and, more importantly, so they can grow.

Now I know that all of you don't have an advanced group of learners like I do with this class -- in fact most classes have a mix of attitudes and abilities. That doesn't mean that you can't teach them to embrace productive struggles well.  You may need to differentiate and provide different challenges to different students; just be sure that you always provide one that will present a bit of a struggle, but not one that's too difficult. Start with some relatively easy tasks and then turn up the difficulty level when you think they are ready.

Here are five ways you can provide some challenging opportunities for all types of learners:

1. Ask challenging questions and coach students through the process of finding an answer. Start with a turn and talk or a quick-write to give students a chance to start the thinking process; then, have a class discussion. When you get an "I don't know" response, don't move on to another student. Ask: how could we figure it out? What strategies could we use? Then, model strategies that the student could use to get to an answer. When you get an incorrect or incomplete answer, don't say no, that's not it; instead, say something like, you're not quite there yet. Then probe further or give a clue that could help them get closer. Always be aware of your voice and body language -- celebrate great attempts, so student know that trying is an important part of the learning process. Praise students for attempts and hard work, rather than for the 'right answer.' This works best when the question posed doesn't have "an answer" and during the activity you are just exploring theories. Essentially, you want to set an environment where it's a fun challenge to figure something out, rather than a "test" of whether one is right or wrong. A great way to model this is to have students try to stump you with something challenging. You can model your process, as well as your attitude toward the productive struggle.

I should add, that if you want them to learn that failure is part of the learning process, then you need to give them a safe place to take risks and "fail". Formative assessment is the tool for that, and you can read about my journey with that here.

2. Give students a writing prompt that challenges their thinking or forces them to think outside their comfort zone. You can get into some really controversial topics like gun control, or you can try to challenge the teenage psyche. I thought of an idea for this when walking through the halls of our school this morning, and noted that every second teen was wearing Bludstone boots with rolled up jeans or tights. They look nice, but they all look the same. I was struck by how crazy it is that they all feel they need to wear the same "uniform." I also know that they feel the need to fit in. So, a writing prompt like this will make them struggle -- they either have to find a good reason to back up their belief in dressing like everyone else, or to think about whether it does make sense or not. There's a challenge there, either way.

A writing prompt that challenges teens' thinking

2. Use mentor sentences and texts to teach important concepts and skills. Decide on what it is you want your students to learn and then provide them with a text that illustrates that skill in use. Ask them what the writer's purpose is and how s/he achieves that purpose -- don't tell them what you want; leave it open-ended to see what they come up with. For example, one thing I will be working on with my tenth grade class is the various ways that writer's develop ideas. One way is by using analogies. I will give them several passages from mentor texts that illustrate this, and ask them: what did the writer do? Why? I'll give them time to read and reflect; then, we'll discuss their theories as a class. The struggle occurs because unlike a focused question (find the analogy) they don't know what they are looking for when they see the text, and have to draw on their skills as an English student to figure it out. I always tart with some easy texts and then build to more complex ones as they get more skilled. I will also emphasize the importance of this as a process: when we read for the first time, we don't always know what the author is doing. However, if we learn to make educated guesses, then we will be much more able to analyze literature with confidence. This is another place where you can model your own process. Ask students to randomly select a passage from a text, and you can show them the strategies you use to analyze text.

*You can easily differentiate this process by providing students with different texts.

3. Use group challenges and activities that are challenging and will force the students to do some critical thinking. You can do these as bell ringers at the first of every class, or as a once a week activity that requires students to work together to solve a challenging task. The competition factor with these makes the challenge much more fun.

4. After you have taught and scaffolded certain skills, have students apply these to something new. For example, after you have taught methods of characterization using a series of short stories, give them a story that was not discussed in class and have them discover the author's methods without any guidance from you. Pick a story that's a little bit harder than the ones you've done in class. I've written about this gradual release model in a previous post that you can read here

5.  Whenever you can, make the learning student-directed. I rarely give students questions about a text, because I feel that tells them what to think, and points them directly toward what I think is important. I will use some guiding questions at the beginning of the year, but after that we dive into activities that get them working and thinking independently about the texts. It's not always easy for them, but then there's that productive struggle again. The beauty of this process is seeing the looks on their faces when they actually "crack" a difficult problem.  I wrote about a wonderful "eureka" moment that my students experienced last year, in this post. 

Lesson planning for high school English
If you'd like some activities that will provide your students with some moments of productive struggle, I've got a whole pile of them in my Activities for Critical Thinking Bundle.

How do you find opportunities for productive struggle in your classroom? I'd love to hear your successes and failures -- because we know that failure is a part of the learning process! Please share below.

Lesson Planning: Three Things You Should Consider

Lesson planning is a very important part of our jobs. I've had a number of readers comment that they'd like to know more about lesson planning, so I'm starting a series of posts about the process I go through when I plan mine. This first one is about the overall process that I use, and I'll follow it up with more specifics over the next few weeks.

Now, I certainly don't want you to think that every day I go into Room 213 with a perfectly planned lesson that has every student engaged and excited about learning. The reality is that some days I fly by the seat of my pants. Some days the lessons aren't great, and they flop.  But, some days, the magic happens, and it's almost always when I've planned a lesson with intention.

What do I mean by that? Well, there are things I've learned over my two decades in the classroom that I know work. Some of these things have come from my own reading and research, or from the professional development I've received. Most, however, have come from experience, from my day-to-day observation of teenagers and how they learn. So, when I plan with intention, I keep the following things in mind:

1. I need to have a clear PURPOSE and a clear path to get there: 
When I begin my lesson planning, I ask myself: why do I need to teach this and, more importantly, why do my students need to learn it? If I'm delivering content, is there a reason beyond the content itself? Is the information just filler, or will they need to use it to for some higher order thinking? Let me give you an example: when I introduce Macbeth, I spend some time talking about the Jacobean belief in The Divine Right of Kings.  This is not just to give them a history lesson, or something I can test them on later, but so they can use their understanding of the concept to evaluate how Shakespeare emphasizes it in the play. They need the facts to do the analysis.  If I decide that the facts are indeed filler, I'll change my tack, and move onto something else.

If I'm giving my students something to read, I consider if it's just for enjoyment or to gauge comprehension. Or, am I using the text as a tool to teach a skill? If I'm teaching them a skill, is there a purpose for them to learn it? Will I need to break it up in chunks and do some scaffolding? For example, if my end goal is to get my students to write a persuasive essay, then I will chunk up the skills they need to be able to write a good one. To teach them idea development, I will show them how other writer's develop their ideas and have them practice using different methods of doing so themselves.  If I want them to deliver a speech, we will chunk those skills up too, beginning with partner and small group discussions.

It's not just me who needs to understand the purpose of my lessons, though. The students need to know what their learning goal is; they need a target at which to aim. I also think they need to see how the skills they learn are relevant to their lives beyond the assessments they will do. This is so easy in an English class where we teach them to think critically and to communicate effectively -- it's not a stretch to show them how those skills will be very valuable in their own lives. Let's go back to the persuasive essay: when teaching them those skills, I'll often mention how important it is to be able to present organized, logical and well developed ideas when they're trying to persuade their parents to let them do something, or to make any kind of change in their world.

Active versus passive learning
2. I need to ENGAGE all students in learning: 
There will always be a handful of students in our classes who will learn regardless of what we do, because they want to succeed. However, there's often a large number who are happy to fade into the background and do just what they have to to pass. I've never been very happy to let that happen in my room, so I purposely plan my lessons so more of them need to engage and be active in their learning.

This graphic is nothing new. I'm sure most of you have seen it before, but it's a great reminder of the way kids learn best. It also illustrates that the best learning happens when kids are actively doing something, rather than just sitting back and listening or watching. Those activities are not bad -- in fact they are sometimes very necessary. I just try to be mindful of the number of active versus passive minutes in my daily lessons. I might start with a quick lecture to give them necessary information, or I might use the first of class to demonstrate good writing in a mentor text and/or have them watch me model a close reading strategy. But then, they start doing all of the work.

I have a number of tricks and techniques that I draw on for active learning. One of my favourites is the turn and talk. I will pose a thinking question, have the kids do a quick write,  and then each kid will turn to a partner so they can share their ideas. I love this strategy because it requires all kids to think, not just the one or two who always raise their hands. Write-arounds work well for this too: group kids in fours, pose a question and have each kid answer it. They pass their answer to the kid not the right, who will expand on or challenge his/her answer. Repeat four times. You can find this strategy, and many others designed to elicit higher order thinking, in my Activities for Critical Thinking Bundle.

Those of you who follow my blog know that I'm a big fan of activities that require chart paper and post it notes. In fact, I think they're must haves in your classroom. You can use them in so many ways to get students to collaborate and to think critically.  Click here to read about some of the ways I use them for active learning in my class; hopefully it will inspire you to think of some ways you could do so in yours.

3. I need to ASSESS the learning: 
The only way to know if real learning happened is to assess the students, so when I plan, I have to consider the ways I will measure their success. This includes, of course, your end of unit assessment, whether that be a test, a presentation or a written assignment. But it also includes the all important formative assessment you will do along the way.

Research tells us that students need to practice a skill three times before they master it, but I didn't always give them that many opportunities to do so, mostly because I had visions of monster piles of paper on my desk, and me with a never-ending chore of grading papers. That was before I learned not only better strategies for formative assessment, but also the power of it to improve student learning. Now I use it regularly, and always include it in my planning.

How do I find the time for at least three opportunities to practice something? Well, I can tell you that I am not taking essays in three times before I give a summative mark. That would be crazy! Instead, I give students feedback in class as they are working independently and in groups. I give them more focused help during conferences. I also build in time for students to give peer feedback on student work. Keep following my "Peek at my Planning" posts to find out more specifics about how I do that.

So those are the three major things I keep in mind when I plan with intention. Follow along as I share my plans for the first few weeks of my new semester.

What are your "must-do's" when planning your lessons? I'd love to hear what you do too! Please leave a comment below.


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