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Grade Student Responses Quickly

I think I could wager a guess that grading journals and notebooks is not your favourite teaching task. They can take a long time to wade through and can become an onerous and dreaded job.  

But it doesn't have to be that way.

First of all, I love what journal/notebook writing offers our students: responses, free-writes and writing prompts let them spread their wings and experiment with new things. They are an outlet for their thoughts and a place to build new skills.  So how do we give our students this opportunity without chaining ourselves to our desks? Read on to find out the solution I've arrived at, as well as a freebie. You can grab it here so you can try it yourself.

This is the key. It's what will allow your kids the freedom to write and you the ability to give fast feedback. I make my kiddos well aware that I will not read every word they write, but that I still expect them to do their best with each entry. 

How do I get high schoolers to do this?  I don't tell them ahead of time which entries I will grade, so they need to make sure they work hard on each one. The notebooks come in every two weeks, which usually means they have done at least ten responses. I will choose to read two or three of them, based on what I want to assess at the time.

How do I choose what I will read?

Last week we were focused squarely on word choice. I gave my students a variety of things to respond to like photo prompts, and questions about their independent novels. They also did a number of quick-writes on controversial topics. Each of these was preceded by a lesson on word choice.  We also talked a lot about ways that authors can develop their ideas. Therefore, I knew I wanted to read entries that showcased what the students had learned about language and idea development. The quick-writes would not be the best choice for the latter, as they just didn't have time to fully flesh out their points. Therefore, I chose three entries that they spent more time on and that would showcase their use of language.

Spending some time creating a rubric that helps you get through the process is time very well spent.  Part of my rubric always includes a completion grade. Even though I'm not reading everything, I want to give them credit for doing the work. I make a list of the entries that were to be in the journal, and as soon as I open one, I count to see that they are all there. If they are, the student gets full marks for completion.

Next, I'll turn to the entries that I've chosen to read. However, I don't write any comments on the page. Instead, I use a yellow highlighter to point out several words or phrases that illustrate effective use of language -- perfectly chosen diction, a metaphor, a sensory image, etc. Then, I use a pink one to highlight some words and phrases that could be stronger. Because we also worked on idea development, I underlined one or two ideas that could be pushed and wrote "MD" (for more detail needed) in the margin.

As I said, I don't write anything--no explanation as to why a phrase was highlighted and not even a note on the checklist. If you check it out, you'll see that it's blank. That's because the most important step comes after I give them back. The form lets students know which entries were read, and so they need to find the highlighted words/phrases and to try to figure out what I was doing. They write their guess on the feedback form, and then they have a conversation with the students around them to see if they are all on the same page. Finally, they need to suggest a better word or phrase to replace the ones highlighted in pink. 

Every time I've done this, they quickly figured it out and had good discussions about better word choice. The point of this little exercise is that I want them to be doing the thinking. If I spend all my time writing explanations that they may not read, it's a bit of a waste. This way, they need to figure out my color code and come up with better wording. In other words, they are doing the thinking.

I could ask them to pass in another assignment where they rewrite the phrases highlighted in pink, but it can be enough just to have them recognize that it wasn't the best word choice. Plus, I will have other assignments that require them to use what they've learned about language.

One thing I've learned in my almost thirty year journey as a teacher is that I can't read and grade everything. However, I have learned some tricks that keep the students learning and me sane. This is one of them.

Do you have any tricks for faster grading? If you do, please let us know in the comments!

Reading Workshop and Teaching Skills & Standards

I get a lot of questions and concerns from teachers who are reluctant to try reading workshop because they have standards that have to be met. I totally get this fear. Workshop requires that we let go of a lot of control. When we do the full class novel we can clearly see the path we need to take to teach literary analysis to our kids. Reading workshop takes us down a road less travelled without that clear map.

I've written about ways to meet reading and writing standards before, but today I want to dig a little deeper into how I teach skills to kids who are all reading a different book. Let's look closely at one of the common core standards for reading literature in grade nine and ten:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone.

In the old days of teaching a full class novel, I would deal with this in a variety of ways, but my favourite method was to assign quotes from the text and ask them to analyze the author's word choice. If we were doing To Kill a Mockingbird, there wasn't a quote that couldn't be analyzed with a quick Google search, so I didn't always know if the kids were doing the work on their own. Now, I require that my students find the quotes to analyze in their own texts, in class, without any electronic help.

Let me show you how.

First of all, I teach my students to be active readers, and sticky notes are the perfect tool for this. I give them a blank template and ask them to put stickies on each square. Then I put each one through the copier to put instructions on their sticky notes.

Each sticky guides students to look for the writer's craft in their novels. This sheet focuses on author's use of language, which is what we've been learning about this week.

Next, we spend a number of days talking about the power of words, looking at various ways that authors use language for effect, using short mentor texts to illustrate different techniques. We also do some short writing exercises to get students working on their own craft (the best way to get them to understand how authors shape meaning is to learn to do it themselves). 

After each mini-lesson, students spend time reading their novels. As they read they will look for author craft. Today, for example, I'm doing a lesson on vivid verbs. Students will find at least one passage where the author has made a deliberate verb choice to create an effect. After they read, they will share this passage with a partner. Then, I will instruct them to re-read some of their journal entries, underline weak verbs, and replace them with stronger ones.

Tomorrow, we're taking a closer look at figurative language and imagery. Next week, we delve into character. Each time, I will repeat the process above. The pattern is the same with each literary element I address:

1. Give the lesson
2. Use mentor texts for illustration
3. Have students look for examples in their novels
4. Get them to practice the skill in their own writing

I use this sticky technique during the first weeks of my workshop, focusing each week on a different topic. Then, as we get further into the semester, I start doing conferences with the kids so I can assess their skill attainment. In order to ensure that they come to their conferences prepared, I give them bookmarks that guide their preparation. The bookmarks work like the sticky notes, but give the kids more room to write notes.

What about assessment? I take their notebooks in every few weeks. I do not read every entry. Instead, I look to see that all entries are complete and part of their grade is just for completion. Then I randomly choose two entries (ahead of time) that I will read. They don't know which ones I will choose, so the hope is they will do all well. I will also assess their skills during conferences. Finally, we end the semester with a full class novel. By then more of them have decided that reading is ok and most have learned that they can analyze text on their own. 

It was scary the first semester when I started using this approach, and I was fearful of the same things I've heard from you: how will I make sure my kids are learning when we aren't all reading the same text? Now, after several years of doing it this way, I can confidently answer the question. Reading workshop does allow you to teach to standards and, in fact, results in more kids learning the skills we want them to master. 

If you'd like to try this sticky note activity, you can check it out here.

Teaching Point of View and Perspective

Would you like your students to have a better understanding of  point of view and perspective? Immerse them in activities that go beyond the definitions, ones that have them looking through the eyes of another. Read on to see how we're doing that in Room 213.

Like Atticus Finch, I believe that one of the most important things we can teach our students is to try to be more understanding and tolerant. It's because of this that I start every tenth grade class with the inquiry questions: where does intolerance come from? How can we become more tolerant?

We use these questions as a guide for most of what we do in the class, especially our reading. I always start the semester with six weeks of reading and writing workshop and then we turn our attention to full class texts: To Kill a Mockingbird, A Separate Peace and Inherit the Wind. Each of these offers students some clues for their inquiry.

This year, I decided to step it up a notch with our reading workshop. I'm requiring students to choose a book with a character who is different than them in some way. Proponents of the reading workshop model may say this takes away choice, one of the pillars of workshop, but I disagree - there are so many great books available that provide students with ample opportunity to crawl inside the skin of another person so they can learn from them.

So, in the hopes of giving my students a good head start with their inquiry, I made a plan:

First off, I need to make sure my kids understand the concepts of point of view and perspective; more importantly, I want them to understand how they work together. It can be a little dry just to drone on about first person, second person, etc. plus I want them to understand the concepts beyond just parroting back the definition.

We spent a couple of days discussing how we form our opinions and that they are based on a lot of things like our background, experiences, values and beliefs. I begin with an exercise that I wrote about here. It's one of my favourite exercises to get kids to understand others.

Next I gave each student a pink and teal post-it. I told them to write, on the pink post-it, the first word that would pop into their heads if they met someone who had bright blue hair. Then, I asked them to pretend they were their parents and do the same with the teal post-it. They put the notes on the wall and a pattern was clear: the pink post-its had more positive tone overall, while the teal ones had a more negative or surprised tone.  We discussed why that might be, and the kids had lots of theories. One insightful young lady pointed out that they interact and are friends with students who dye their hair crazy colours and know that they are just like everyone else, while their parents may not have that experience and so they don't get the chance to learn that. At that point we talked about how our experiences can affect our perspective of things, and if we want to understand others' actions and reactions (and possibly change them), we need to also understand their perspective.

After a few days of delving into perspective, we talked about how it is tied into point of view. I gave them some notes and some examples to illustrate that even a third person narrator is affected by perspective. 

Today, we are going to do a group writing exercise to further illustrate the importance of perspective. Groups were given a photo prompt -- some had the same photo, but a different description that directed them to look at the photo from a certain perspective. I gave the kids time to brainstorm ideas using the sheet pictured on the right; then, each team got a big post-it note to write the thoughts of the character they'd been assigned. Finally we posted the notes throughout the class, and the kids did a gallery walk to guess what each group was trying to capture.

Now, in order to make sure they really understand this -- and to dig into our inquiry questions -- I want them to practice what they have learned. I instructed them to choose a novel with a character who is different from them in some way -- whether it's age, gender, race, interests, socio-economic status, etc. We will be working on other things as they read,  but we'll be taking a close look at the perspective of the characters they have chosen, as well as how narrative point of view is used in each text.  They are going to have several short writing and research assignments in conduction with this unit, and I hope that by the time we are done, they will have learned something about not only author craft, but also another perspective.  

If you'd like to use this lesson, it's all organized and ready to go. You can check it out at my TpT store here.


The Socratic Debate

This year I wanted to switch things up. I usually end the semester with a formal debate, but given the cast of characters in my twelfth grade class, I was a little apprehensive about how well they would do. Not many of them were great at discussion; most put little effort into their work. I could foresee poorly researched and presented debates that would be torture for all of us.

Instead, I devised a plan to "force" them to follow the thinking process that should precede a debate, and called it a "Socratic Debate". Here's what I came up with:

In the past, I've found that students don't always do enough thinking about a topic before they begin the process of planning for a debate -- they just dive into the research and cling to an opinion that they form before they have any facts to base it on. Then, they grab at any details and quotes that will support this opinion, often without really spending the time to understand what the research tells them.

To prevent this, I decided to add a Socratic seminar phase before they planned their debates because it would allow them to explore a topic first. First of all, they filled in an exit ticket that asked them to supply some topics they'd like to debate. Then, I chose one topic per group of students (I had five groups of six) and began to look for some articles they could read that explored the issue. My goal was to find one article/student and to ensure that a variety of view points were represented.

Each student was given an article to read for homework. We were using Google Classroom, so they were instructed to underline or highlight important information in the reading and to use the comment option to frame questions they could use for a Socratic seminar the next day (they would use Chromebooks during the seminar so they didn't need to print). I emphasized the fact that the purpose of the seminar was not to debate the topic, but to explore all sides of the issue. We practiced this in class, using an article about the Apple shareholders that are calling on a study on the impact of e-devices on youth.

The next day, each group conducted their seminars simultaneously as I walked around, observing. The students did not do them in front of the whole class for two reasons: we were running short on time, and I wanted them to feel comfortable exploring the issue without an audience -- that was the purpose of this stage anyway, to have a meaningful discussion not to speak to the audience.

At the end of the class, the students had to do a reflection on: a) how they felt about the topic before the seminar and b) if their opinion was changed, and why or why not.

Finally, it was time to debate. I felt that, after the seminars, the kids were in a much better position to choose a side. However, their choices did not always result in evenly matched teams, with three on each side. I encouraged some to volunteer to take on the other side, explaining that a good debater must know both sides really well. I didn't care if each side was perfectly even, either. My plan was not to have a formal, structured debate. Instead, I wanted the kids to learn to effectively debate an issue. What's the difference? Well, most of us don't find ourselves arguing a point in two to four minutes. We do, however, find ourselves having heated discussions where we have to defend our positions. The informal debate lends itself much better to training our kids to be able to do that. 

To prepare for this debate, each student was given four index cards: two white ones and two coloured ones. They were to write the points they wanted to make in support of their view on the white cards (along with evidence and details); on the coloured cards, they wrote anticipated points from the opposition, as well as the evidence they would use to refute it. I gave them the index cards and insisted that they use on only them because I didn't want them reading a speech. 

On the day of the debate, I placed eight chairs at the front of the classroom. The six students in charge of the debate sat in the first six chairs, leaving the last two open -- one was the hot seat and the other, the on deck chair. 

We started with the side in favour of the resolution. Students moved to the hot seat to make their points and waited their turn to speak in the on deck chair. After the each side had a turn to present their arguments, the rebuttal portion of the debate began, with students moving to the hot seat when they wanted to refute a point. Once the group had exhausted their arguments, members of the class were invited to take the hot seat to join in the debate.  They had been instructed to take notes of the points their classmates made and to choose a point they wanted to add to or refute. Things got really heated once the whole class got involved, I think because the group felt the heat was off them at that point!

It took us two days to get through each of the informal debates, and I was quite pleased with the results. The students seemed to be more engaged with the material than they had been in the past, and I watched them dialogue with each other, rather than just read prepared speeches that they had little engagement with.

If you'd like to try this process in your own classroom, you can check out my Socratic Debate product on TpT.


Are Worksheets a Bad Practice?

Worksheets have a bad reputation these days. They are seen by some as mindless busywork with little focus on real learning. That is the case in some circumstances, but only if the work on the sheet is not serving any purpose other than filling time, or hunting and pecking for facts that don't really matter. 

It's not the sheet itself that can be the problem; it's the tasks we ask students to complete that determine whether the activity is worthwhile.

Sometimes our students do need to learn facts. In Bloom's Taxonomy, remembering is at the bottom of the pyramid for a reason: it's the foundation that holds everything else up. The problem occurs when students spend too much time in the basement of Bloom's. Yes, it supports the other levels, but good teaching pushes students up the taxonomy where they do more creative and critical thinking. If we want to encourage this kind of thinking, we need to give our kids many opportunities to analyze, evaluate and create.

Let me illustrate with some examples from my classroom. We've just finished a unit on Macbeth. I wanted students to remember and understand some definitions like pathetic fallacy, comic relief and equivocation.  I also wanted them to remember certain poetic techniques that Shakespeare uses. Because these things were important for my students' understanding of the themes of the play, I wrote some of these notes on the board, and provided other information on a handout. Then, when I gave them work to do later, I didn't ask them to spew back the definitions, I asked them to apply this knowledge and use it to analyze, evaluate and create. 

For example, here's a question that I had on a worksheet for the first act of Macbeth: 

Ross describes Macbeth using an allusion. What is the purpose of this allusion? Is it appropriate for Macbeth, based on what you learn in this scene? Why or why not?
With this question, students have to know some facts: they need to know what an allusion is as well as what Ross calls Macbeth. To answer it, they need to apply their factual knowledge and then use it to evaluate Shakespeare's choice. I don't have them spend time answering questions about facts they already have; instead, they use the facts and use them for higher order thinking.

Here's another example: 

The witches greet Macbeth as the Thane of Glamis, the Thane of Cawdor and king hereafter. What does Macbeth’s reaction to the witches’ words tell us about his character? Give a thorough response with specific examples and at least two quotations.  

I could have asked students to list the predictions of the witches, but instead I gave them these facts and used the question to get them to analyze and to demonstrate (apply) the skill of choosing and embedding quotations in their answers.

Finally, I gave them this task on their worksheet: 

Write a diary entry for either Macbeth OR Banquo where you reflect on your meeting with the witches.

Students then had to use their knowledge to create something new. This was meant to be a relatively short draft, not a major assignment. Too often we save the creative tasks for projects, rather than building these activities into our daily lessons. Creating is at the top of Bloom's taxonomy but that doesn't mean it can only come at the end. Instead, find ways to build students' creative muscles on a daily basis with short activities that allow them to explore their own craft and technique.

NOTE: it's an important skill for students to be able to recognize key facts, rather than just being spoon fed them from the teacher, either through questions or notes. To give them the opportunity to build this skill, my worksheets will often have a space for students to record the key facts from the text they have read. 

If you're a subscriber to my newsletter, you'll be getting some activities you can use to create worksheets that get your kids  thinking as they move up Bloom's Taxonomy. If you aren't, you can click here to sign up! You might also want to check out these activities that can be used with any text.


Use Narrative Writing for Understanding Literature

Narrative writing
Telling stories help us understand the world around us and helps us understand ourselves. Why, then, not use them to understand literature?

The writing we assign based on a novel or a play is often a literary analysis essay and, as much as that form of writing has its place, I've never seen it create much engagement from the majority of students.  Yes, there are a handful of future English teachers in our classes who think literary analysis is fun, but the reality is that it will not inspire most kids to get excited about what they are reading and writing.

I'm not suggesting that we forget the literary essay, only that we should consider other forms of writing sometimes, especially ones that allow students to make real connections to the stories we ask them to read.

Narrative writing lessons and activities
I love this quotation from Graves because it gets to the heart of what I'm trying to say here. Our traditional method of assessing literature may lead to "well informed" students but not to passion. Narrative writing can, however, because it allows students to explore their own truths and to develop skills that are effective for all types of writing: organizing, sequencing, using transitions, choosing the best words, showing, etc. 

So how does it work?

Begin with some discussion and pre-writing that allows students to explore ways in which the events, characters and/or themes of the story relate to their own lives. Encourage them to choose a meaningful event from their lives so they can write about something that matters to them. That is the key. Once they are engaged in the subject, they are far more likely to dig into the writing and work on honing their skills. And, because they need to link to something from the text, they will be exploring important elements of the text at the same time.

With this kind of assignment, I always ask my kids to use an allusion to the text in their narratives. This does two things: it illustrates a connection to the text and allows them to use this literary device in an authentic way.

If you want a more literary focus, you can ask students to pass in an explanation with their narrative. I'd strongly suggest that this not become a mini-literary essay, however. You can ask for a brief paragraph that explains the connections, as well as quotations that illustrate this.

If you'd like to try this with your students, I've just created an assignment to use with Macbeth and To Kill a Mockingbird. You can check them out HERE and HERE. You can also give your students a more focused look at narrative writing with my stations.

Narrative writing for Macbeth


Activities for the Week Before Christmas

It's not just the elementary kids that are climbing the walls before the holiday break; secondary students have a hard time focusing too. And who are we fooling? The teachers would rather be home nestled by the fire, sipping cocoa, as well.  

It's going to be a long week because exams are shortly after we return from the break, and there's curriculum to be covered. However, we can keep teaching and learning and still embrace the festivities. All week I'm going to be sharing the tricks I've got up my sleeve. I can't promise they'll keep my kids on track, but at least I'm trying! 

DAY ONE: Today, my students are starting Act IV of Macbeth, which I plan to finish before we leave on Friday. However, when they do their independent reading at the first of class, and while they're doing their work, I'm going to create a cozy atmosphere by projecting a crackling fire on the board.  I plan to tell them that it's the "launch" for the week and that I'll build in a little holiday fun each day -- as long as they keep doing their work.

DAY TWO: We're still finishing up Macbeth, so I'm going to put students in groups and assign each one a major and minor character. They will be instructed to write a Christmas wish list for one and New Year's resolutions for the other (you can just use resolutions if you want to avoid Christmas references). Students will be instructed to demonstrate their knowledge of both the play and the assigned characters in their lists. After, each group will present to the class and we'll have a discussion, if need be, about what we might add or take away to make it a more accurate representation. It's a great way to add a little festive flavour to the review of the play!

DAY THREE: If like me, you're sliding into the holidays with a test, or will have exams in January, you can let your students review by adding a textual twist to some holiday songs. Distrubute copies of lyrics to groups and let them change the words so the song matches a character or theme in the work you are studying. Students could do this on their own as well, if you're doing Reader's Workshop. If you want to avoid references to Christmas, you can try "Winter Wonderland", "Jingle Bells" or "Frosty the Snowman".

My kids used "Winter Wonderland" to make some connections to Macbeth. Here are some examples: The witches sing/Are you listening?/On your blade/Blood is glistening/A horrible sight/You're guilty tonight/Walking through the heather stained with blood. 

It's the fourth day of the week before Christmas and we are going to look ahead to the new year. After the break, my kids are going to start debating, and I want to start honing their skills. Kelly Gallagher's latest article of the week looks at which type of tree is better for the environment. I know that this activity is more directly related to Christmas, but the environmental spin can make it more relatable to everyone.

DAY FIVE: We made it!! It's the final day of school before the holidays. We've done our reviews and it's time to relax a bit, reflect on successes during the semester, and set some goals for our return in the new year. I'll turn on the fireplace and play some holiday tunes while my students write a letter to themselves. I'll ask them to acknowledge their victories as well as their struggles this semester. Then, I want them to set goals for a successful end of the course when they return after the holidays. I don't have time to use it today, but I'll be using The Superhero Teacher's New Year's Workbook in January to get them more focused on visualizing an amazing 2018 for themselves. It's chock full of activities to get kids to inspire kids to set goals!

I hope you have an amazing holiday! 


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