November 2015 - Room 213

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'Tis the Season in Room 213

Thanks to Julie and Lauralee for gathering us together again for a holiday blog hop.

I seriously cannot believe that the calendar page is turning to December on Tuesday.  The fall flew by with the usual flurry of any school year.  It's been a good semester for me, and one thing I love most about December is that by now, my classes are all gelling; we've gotten to know each other and we feel comfortable. So, for me, it's like having multiple "families" that I can enjoy the excitement of the season with.

However, my school families are made up of a wonderful mosaic of cultures.  Our province takes in a lot of immigrants and refugees, and 20% of out school's population is made up of students who have come here from another country.  In my classes, I have students from China, Korea, Nepal, Syria, Iran and the Philippines. Obviously, not all of my students are Christian, so I try to be very aware of the fact that not everyone celebrates Christmas. Christmas isn't "banned" from our schools, though, so I don't ignore the fact that many of my students do celebrate it.  

One thing we all have in common is our humanity, so I try to focus on the caring part of the season.  I set up a collection can in the classroom and the kids will put in their spare change -- or some large bills, if they so desire.  I tell them I will match whatever goes in there, and before we leave for the holidays, we will select something from the world vision catalogue to use our money on.  In the past we've bought a rooster, some fruit trees and classroom supplies, but this year I'm going to suggest that it go to help Syrian refugees. We have a lot of Syrians in our community already and are expecting more refugees after Christmas, so I'm hoping my students will agree to reach out in this way, whether we send the money to World Vision again, or give it to one of the various local organizations that are sponsoring a refugee family. 

It's an activity I look forward to every year, because it puts the focus on the real meaning of the season, rather than the materialistic part we get so caught up in.  It's also an activity that is not connected to any one religion or culture, but one that focuses on the fact that we all need to reach out and help each other.

As I write this, I'm thinking about the fact that we get so excited about helping at Christmas, but that after the decorations are put away, we kind of forget about it until the next year.  Maybe I'll leave the can out for all of 2016 this time!

If you'd like to get your students even more involved in service to others, check out my Christmas Research Project.

Happy Holidays!


Socratic Seminars -- the mini version

Build student confidence with mini-Socratic seminars
Last fall, I shared my frustration with Socratic seminars. Regardless of how strong my class has been in the past, I found the discussion stilted. Too many big pauses. Lots of  uncomfortable people. I gave the students more guidance and modelling, but I still wasn't happy.

Other teachers raved about their seminars, so I went to visit one on a prep period.  The seminars were fine, but I still didn't see a natural discussion happening.  Students followed the rules, took turns posing questions and waited awkwardly while others answered their questions.  Yes, they were guiding the discussion and thinking for themselves, but I was watching the clock.  And I wasn't alone.

This year, since I'm always tweaking, I tried something new.  I'm actually still in the middle of it, but I thought I'd share anyway.

Graphic organizers for Socratic seminars
My students are reading independently and using reader's notebooks to record ideas, observations and questions they have as they read.  The last time I looked at the notebooks, I saw that a lot of students were posing some really interesting questions.  So I asked them to choose one of them and to write down a little detail about how it came out of the text they were reading. Then, I asked them to pose the question so it could apply to everyone's novel.  They were given the organizer to the right, to record their ideas.

I modelled this process for them first, of course. I grabbed three students that I knew could go with the flow and demonstrated how I wanted the discussion to go.  First, I told them I'm reading Pride & Prejudice with my IB class. and that my question was How does one find the strength to stand up against a strongly entrenched societal belief? I told them a little about Lizzy Bennet and how she views marriage, just giving them enough detail to show where the question came from.  Then, I asked, "Do any of the characters in your novel have to stand up for their beliefs?  How do they find the strength to do so?"  My guinea pigs answered, using details from their books.  We got a bit side-tracked and talked about real life too.

That was the prep work. I told each person to prepare their questions and then for the next five days we did "mini"-seminars. I am lucky to have a small seminar room off my classroom, so while the rest of the class read, I took groups of five into the group room for their seminar.  I grouped them with those they were most comfortable with, and off we went.

The result was just what I had hoped for.  Not all groups were amazing, but all were good.  The conversation flowed, the answers were detailed, and it felt like a real book club discussion. Minus the wine.

The best -- and most surprising part -- came today.  There's a guy named Zach, who sits at the back of my class and doesn't participate much at all.  When called upon, he gives me a sweet smile and an almost imperceptible shrug.   He's passed in next to no work and, as a result, he's failing.   It was his turn in the seminar room today, and to be honest, I didn't expect much.  Thankfully, he blew me away. He came prepared, he was animated in discussing his book, and he gave great, detailed answers to his group mates. I sat there, amazed. When I looked at him, eyebrows raised, afterward, he knew what I was asking. "I don't like speaking in front of the whole class, " he said.

Now, you most likely don't have a seminar room attached to your classroom, but I bet you have a Zach.  It may not be easy to find a quiet space to have these discussions, but if you do, the results will be worth it. There are creative solutions that will allow your students to do the speaking activities we require of them in a way that doesn't make them too uncomfortable.  For example, many of our teachers conference with their students, and they just take them into the hallway while their students read.  Mine were reading while the group was in the seminar room, and every now and then I had to open the door and give them the stink eye; but for the most part, they read quietly.  A seminar in the hall might be unconventional, but it just might work.

This was the happiest I have ever been with Socratic seminars.  Never once did I look at the clock, and not one student indicated that s/he was nervous about the assignment. Now, there will be times when my students have to address the whole class --there's a speech and a debate on the horizon--but hopefully the success they experience in the mini-seminars will give them more confidence when that time comes.

Engaging the disengaged through creative writing

Engaging the disengaged through creative writingOne of my favourite classes to teach is my twelfth grade general English class. These are the kids who made choices that pushed them off the academic track, choices that often have very little to do with their intellectual ability and a lot more to do with what has gone on in their lives.  Currently I have a teen dad who is putting a lot of time and energy into being there for his three month old son. I have another guy who has spent most of his life in a group home.  He loves to rap and write poetry but he sees no sense in most of what we do in school.  Beside him sits another young man who is off drugs for the first time in two years, and he is working so hard to stay clean and to do well in school .  Two girls have come here from refugee camps and are grateful to be in the class, but their English skills are so poor that the work is often too difficult for them. You get the picture, because it's one you've seen many times before.

These classes can be difficult to manage, but the rewards are great, especially when you can find a way in through the hard crusty exterior some of these kids have put up to protect themselves from school.  The general classes in my district are designed to be a watered down version of the college prep classes.  The students see much of the material as irrelevant and boring.  And they're right. 

I've done a lot of things over the years to make their lessons more relevant to their lives, but this semester I'm trying to do more creative writing with them as well.  

The fist thing I did was to buy everyone of them a writing notebook.  We use them to experiment and explore without worrying about mechanics.  They like that.  The pressure's off.  There will be many other opportunities for us to work on their spelling and grammar.

One of their favourite activities for notebook writing is to contribute to the Encyclopedia of An Ordinary Life. If you've never checked out Amy Krouse Rosenthal's very original spin on memoir writing, do so. Following her format, the students record encyclopedia type entries about whatever strikes their fancy.  Under "A" they might write about what makes them awesome or anxious.  Or, they may expound on their love of apples or, as Kevin did, why he believes he is above average.  When we work on their encyclopedias, I provide coloured pens and stickers, so they can pretty it up a bit. They love it.

Engaging the disengaged through creative writingTwo weeks ago, because it was Halloween week, they worked through learning stations that had them plan, write, revise and edit a spooky story. They loved the direction that the stations provided and they worked well at creating their stories. 

The end result was a pile of spooky tales that are not going to put Stephen King out of business.  Some of them were hard to get through because of broken English, misspellings and mechanical errors.  But I loved reading them, because I could tell they cared about their stories.  They tried their hand at foreshadowing.  There were many similes and metaphors, and there was a lot of scary detail.  I have to push and prod to get much detail out of them in more traditional assignments, so it was wonderful to see so much of it, even if I had to wade through blood and gore and zombies to get it.

In years past, I shied away from creative writing with this group of students.  This year, I stretched outside my comfort zone and I'm so glad I did so. Now, almost every class starts with one of them asking, "Are we going to write today?"  Music to my ears.


Chart Paper, Post-its and Formative Assessment

Those of you who follow me know I have a thing for chart paper and post-it notes. Nothing has changed.  Last week I did an exercise that allowed me to give my students fast feedback in a way that was much more enjoyable than them writing another essay that I would have to mark.  They will be writing an essay soon, but this activity will hopefully make it a less painful process for the writers and for me, the reader.

The students came to class having read a chunk of Pride & Prejudice.  I had told them to take good notes on the character development of Collins and Wickham.  When they came in the door, I gave each student a handful of post-it notes (two different colours). I told them to take a few minutes to transfer points from their notes to the stickies.  Read on to see what happened next:

Formative assessment activities get students thinking and learning, with less marking for you
Formative assessment activities get students thinking and learning, with less marking for you
Formative assessment activities get students thinking and learning, with less marking for you
Formative assessment activities get students thinking and learning, with less marking for youFormative assessment activities get students thinking and learning, with less marking for you

An effective formative tool:
When they had finished the activity, every student had more practice in collecting evidence, organizing ideas and staying focused. It took seventy-five minutes, and I truly believe they got more out of it than if I had taken in an assignment and given them the feedback a week later. Now don't get me wrong: those finished assignments are very important. I'm just saying there are multiple ways to get them to learn how to write about literature that allows us to have a life too!

Check out Active Reading with Post-it Notes for more ideas for using this tool. You can also find more formative assessment ideas in my Formative Assessment Power Pack, as well as on my Pinterest board:

Follow Room 213's board Formative Assessment Ideas on Pinterest.


Understanding Theme: Putting the Puzzle Pieces Together

Understanding the theme of a story can be challenging. Like all human beings, students want to take the easy way out. They read a difficult text and they want "the answer" to magically pop into their heads, without doing any mental stretching to get there.  They think that we English teachers will look at any piece of writing, no matter how complex, and automatically understand everything the author did. Not so.

Teach students how to understand theme in a story

The difference between us and them, along with lots and lots of experience, is that we know there are steps one needs to take to uncover an author's message.  There's no moral at the end of the story, so we need to look for clues within the lines to discover what the writer is trying to tell us.

For years, I've used the metaphor of puzzle building to teach my students these steps. I tell them that as they read they need to scatter the pieces so they can put them all together and see the big picture--without the aid of the one on the puzzle box.  Some things will be obvious, like the corners and edges, but others are much more difficult to place.  However, as with puzzles, readers just need to put in the work it takes to patiently discover where that piece of sky actually fits.

Teach students how to understand theme in a story
Since I've been falling in love with learning stations, I decided to create one that would take my students through my puzzle metaphor.  We are doing short stories right now, and I wanted them to be able to write about the ways the author develops the theme of the story.  They need to move beyond just identifying the writer's message and be able to articulate the methods s/he uses to do so.

I gave each group a piece of chart paper that had each page of the story pasted in the middle (they had read and annotated the story individually for homework). Then, each group began at one of the following stations: title, plot, setting, point of view, conflict, character, recurring elements and quotations. Each station contained task cards that asked them to record information about that particular element.   They were encouraged to write all over the story and chart paper as they answered the questions.

After about ten minutes, groups moved clockwise to the next station, taking their chart paper/stories with them. Once every group had been at each station, they were given a new task card that said: The final task card said: Look at the information you have collected and record a summary statement on each of the puzzle pieces. Your statement should capture the most important info for each category. Put the pieces together and try to see the big picture: what is the author’s message?  
Learning stations for discovering theme
The final step was to fill in the pieces and then put them together (I had cut the pieces out, but it was time consuming. Next time the kids are getting the scissors!).  Once they completed that step, they had a discussion about author purpose, while I circulated, nudging where necessary.  Every group came to an excellent conclusion, even if they took a different angle than the rest.  

After that, we worked together to create a piece of writing that explained the author's message.  They will go through this process again (see my previous post) and write about theme as a group and then create their own for a third story.  Whew.  It's a lot of work to get them there, but I believe that by showing them the process, by breaking down the steps, they will have a far better understanding.

Since using these stations in my class, I've tweaked them a bit, and they are now available HERE in my TpT store. I hope this activity can help your students better understand the process of discovering theme.

Follow Room 213's board Formative Assessment Ideas on Pinterest.


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