April 2015 - Room 213

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Growing an Essay--an update

Last week I wrote about the process my grade ten class was following to "grow' an essay.  I found that, while they had a good understanding of the novel and knew what points they needed to make, they were struggling with putting it all together into a strong, cohesive essay.

We started with Caitlin Tucker's thesis throwdown excercise and then moved to them working together to do the pre-writing and planning for separate paragraphs.  Each individual had to write a paragraph that would develop the thesis.

Finally, they were grouped so that each group member had a different paragraph.  Their task was to work together to create an essay. They had to write an introduction, decide on the best order for the paragraphs and then write a conclusion.

The "meat" of the assignment was in the discussions they had about how to arrange and connect the paragraphs.  I gave them markers and highlighters and told them to find areas in the paragraphs that were repetitious.  They could cross these sentences out and/or add in ideas to make the argument more focused.  Another important task was to write in transitions, so that the paragraphs connected to each other.

The students found the process difficult, but very helpful.  I knew it would not be easy to take five separate paragraphs written by five different writers and make them work together.  However, the conversations that the kids had to make their choices were amazing.  It made me proud to hear the questions they asked each other and the comments they made.  They were talking about writing like writers.  It was a wonderful thing.

The "essays" that they constructed on their chart paper were by no means amazing.  It is hard to write a group intro and conclusion.  It is hard to combine the ideas of many.  But, in the end, they came away with a much better understanding of the writing process.


Writing Prompts

In that magical ideal world, our students would come to us, armed with sharpened pencils, eager to spend the period writing, writing, writing.  They would come to class early, turn to a new page, bend their heads and begin.

We don't live in that world, do we?  The reality is that some of our students are reluctant writers.  Some are lazy thinkers.  Many have a confidence problem and are worried about someone judging their words. And most, like us, can't always think on demand.

That's why I love writing prompts, especially ones that are used for practice and exploration, not marks.  They can take the pressure off and allow students to experiment without the fear that can come from having to pass in a polished piece of writing.  Hopefully, though, the confidence they will gain from playing around with their words will lead to those polished pieces.

I've been collecting prompt ideas and sources on a Pinterest board.  Here are some of my favourites:

I love the daily writing prompts published by Writer's Write Creative Blog.  They are creative and smart, and offer a broad range of activities that students can use to build their writing muscle.

Photo prompts are lots of fun, because students can take them in so many directions:

This Pinterest board puts a fun twist on the writing prompt.  Interesting images are paired with a series of unrelated words.  For example, the instructions for this one are: this photo, plus any or all of the following: linen / letterhead / mask.

The internet is a wonderful tool to help us engage our students in the writing process.  Whether we inspire them with cool photography, art, inspirational quotes or creative prompts, the end result is the same: we give them a chance to spread their creative wings. That's always a good thing.


Gallery Walks for Critical Thinking

One of my favourite strategies to get students to think critically about text is a "gallery walk."  Students form groups to discuss a topic and record their ideas on a piece of chart paper. I give them markers and instruct them to write their response, ideas and/or quotations in an organized manner, so readers can follow their thought process.

When they finish, we post the chart paper at various locations in the classroom, leaving enough room so groups can gather around each sheet.  Groups will appoint a "tour guide" to stay with their sheet and the rest of the group moves clockwise to the next sheet.

The next step is for them to read the responses on the poster they have moved to, aided by the tour guide from the group that created it.  Students will then add new points and/or questions on post it notes that they will add to the chart paper.

The tour guide will go back to the group and send a new person to act as guide for the next rotation.  Groups repeat the process until they have been to each sheet.

Once we have completed the process, I bring them all together to wrap things up, to get them to come to a conclusion about the original question posed. By the time we have our full class discussion, they have fleshed out a lot of ideas, and debated points with each other.

The gallery walks work well for a number of reasons.  First, all students need to contribute, not just the usual keeners who want to answer every question.  The dialogue, then, is between everyone, and not just the teacher and a handful of students. And because they are instructed to add points to each poster they visit, they need to work on fully developing ideas, not just skating across the surface of them.  Finally, the kids get a chance to get up and move around, rather than sitting at their desks all period!

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Is Shakespeare Still Relevant?

Ok, so the plays are over four hundred years old and the language is difficult.  Kids will let out an audible groan whenever the teacher announces that Shakespeare is next.  So why are his plays still on almost every high school English syllabus?

It’s a question that a colleague of mine asks on a regular basis.  He is a fabulous English teacher who loves to teach poetry. He is also our drama teacher. Not a likely candidate for someone who would like to remove Romeo & Juliet from his to-do list, eh?   His problem with the bard, and his omnipresence in our curriculum, is that there are so many good modern plays out there that are so much more accessible. The kids find Shakespeare difficult and inaccessible, so why not make a change?  I agree with him on most counts–there are other great plays out there. The kids do find it difficult.  But I still think we should teach it.

The fact that the kids find it difficult is a non-starter for me.  We want to give them challenging work so they can reach beyond where they are; if we don’t, there is no growth.  We don’t keep lifting the same five pound weights at the gym if we want to get stronger, and we can’t expect our students to become better critical thinkers if we don’t add some mental weight to their tasks.
However, his point that students find Shakespeare inaccessible is the one I have the biggest problem with.  Every year when I start Macbeth,  I hear the groans.  But I don’t let them throw me off.  I ask my students to give me–and the play– a chance. I think one of the biggest problems with the study of Shakespeare is in the way it is delivered. Pages and pages of scene questions and quotation analysis are not going to do much to help students fall in love with Shakespeare.  Instead, we need to find ways to make the story relevant to their lives.  I mean, really, how many of us have struggled with temptation? How many of us have made a mistake that we regretted later?  And, how many of us have succumbed to outside pressures, doing something that we know we should not?  Poor old Macbeth is definitely someone a modern-day teenager can relate to!

When I teach Shakespeare, I use an inquiry approach, asking a question before we start, one that students will use for their investigation of the play. The question is this: What can we learn about human nature and how can we apply these lessons to our own lives?   We will still do some traditional activities, like looking at quotes, understanding character development, etc., but with everything, we will be looking through this lens: how can we learn from Macbeth?  Then, when we are finished, students will complete writing assignments and projects that illustrate their learning.  They will still read, write and present. They will still need to use quotations from the play.  But they will do so in a way that is much more relevant and interesting.
Now, I can’t say that I win them all over.  However, every semester I hear students tell me that they liked the play a lot more than they thought they would.  What more can a teacher ask for?
So what do you think?  Is Shakespeare still relevant?  If you think so, how do you hook your students?
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What's Growing in My Classroom? An Essay!

It's time for the Secondary Smorgasbord again, and this month's topic is fresh ideas.  So by now you may be scratching your head at my title.  An essay?  You might be thinking: There’s nothing fresh about that!

However, it’s not the product that’s fresh in my room, it’s the approach I’m trying.  My advanced grade tens are starting to venture into some work that is more difficult than what I’ve given them before.  So, I decided to mix things up a bit and try a  more collaborative approach.
We started yesterday with Caitlin Tucker’s thesis throwdown.  Students were given the prompt for the essay and then, in groups, they had to construct a thesis.  Five minutes later they went head-to-head as we chose the best ones.  It was a blast, and we had so many good discussions about what makes a good—and better thesis.

Next, I divided them into five groups and gave each group a topic to explore that would develop the thesis.  Their homework was to meet on Google Drive to brainstorm.  Today, we went to the lab and I "dropped in" to each group as they worked to write a focus statement and collect evidence based on their topic.  I gave them a little nudge or suggestion if they were getting off track. Tonight they are using Drive again to plan a brief presentation on how their topic develops the thesis.

Tomorrow, we will have the presentations and discuss and debate the points made.  The next step will be for each student to use the knowledge they gained to write a paragraph based on their topic. They will complete those in the lab on Thursday.

Friday, we will bring it all together.  I will put students in different groups this time, so all five topics are represented.  They will use their individual paragraphs to construct a full essay.  I plan to give them a couple of pages of chart paper and they will have to decide on what order the paragraphs will appear, write an intro and a conclusion and tie the whole works together with transitions.  We will tape all of them on the wall and the kids will do a gallery walk to see how others put it all together.

My hope is that by working together and by having good dialogue about the choices they make, my students will have a better understanding of the process they need to follow to write a thoughtful, well-developed essay.  They've been skimming the surface of late, and I want them to start digging deeper.  And hey, it is spring.  A great time for digging!
This Smorgasbord is brought to you by:


Snow Days, Ticking Clocks and Teaching What Counts

Welcome to my blog hop about what really matters in teaching.  Read on  and be sure to check out the other great ideas below!

This year has been one for the record books.  As a Canadian teacher, I am no stranger to snow days and snow banks, but both piled up like never before this year.  It all started at the beginning of second semester and ended (I HOPE!) the week after March Break.  The snow was not continuous, of course, but enough of that beautiful white stuff came down to result in fourteen days of missed classes due to one lane highways plugged with snow that had nowhere to go. Luckily we aren't required to make them up; we just have to find creative ways to get everything covered.

After March Break, when we were off for three days for road clearing (what?), I started to stress about how I was going to get it all done: however could I do all that I needed to do with my students before exams in June?

And then I shook my head.

I have never been one who is driven by content or the number of pages read.  The primary skill I focus on is not close reading or writing or research. We do all of those things, yes, but I try to do it in a way that focuses on the learning process, not the final product.  I won't always be there with my students to guide them as they learn (and I don't think they want me to be either!).  So, I decided to stop stressing, and did some reflecting about what is most important.  Here's what I decided to focus on for the rest of the year, regardless of how many texts I get to cover:

1. Working with my students' natural curiosity and desire to learn. We all have it, that innate drive to know and understand. With every unit I teach, I find ways to show them how what we are studying is relevant and useful to their lives. I think this is important, not only to get them to engage in the material, but also to show them that learning is fun.  If they believe that, if they see that following their curiosity is a worthwhile activity, they will keep learning long after they leave my room.  If kids don't see a reason why to engage in the texts and assignments we give them, they usually don't. I have found if I skip that step and rush forward into the material, I don't get the buy-in that is so necessary for the next item on my list.  Dropping the fun introductory activity you have for a new novel, for example, might seem like a great way to save time, but I'd argue that that lesson is probably the most important one.

2. Learning how to learn is such a key component of our students'  educational journey, and so I firmly believe that I should take the time to work on the process, rather than just focusing on that end product.  I was reminded of this when I came back after March Break.  My advanced grade ten class was starting a new novel and I had great plans for engaging and lively Socratic Seminars (you can see them in a previous post).  However, the first one fell flat.  Really flat. I was really disappointed.  But, after discussing the failure with them, I discovered that they weren't ready yet.  We had missed so many days in the semester that I hadn't done the scaffolding necessary to get them where I wanted them.  I had dropped important lessons in an attempt to get "caught up", but in my rush to do so, I forgot why those lessons are so important.  So, we're stepping back and spending the necessary time to teach them how to approach reading a novel independently.  It might mean I have to drop a text at the end of the semester, but that's ok.  And, by admitting my failure and showing the students what I learned, they were able to see that it's ok to fail, as long as you do something about dealing with the failure.

3. Modelling my own learning-- I used to spend hours making sure I knew the ins and outs of everything before I started teaching it.  If I was doing a poem with students, for example, I would pick that baby apart until I felt like I knew everything I needed to know--but that only portrayed me as an "expert" to my students, not a learner.  They need to see that sometimes we don't know, but that when we don't, we know what to do. Yes, there are times when we do need to be the "expert", but it's also important to model your own learning with students.  You can do this deliberately by starting the class with a text  you have never read before and working through it with the students.  You can also do it by admitting when you don't know the answer to something and showing the kids what you do to figure it out. Taking the time to be a learner with my students is also a step that I won't drop, because I know how important it is. 

So, the next time I feel a little stressed about the calendar, I'm going to take a deep breath and remember what really matters--getting kids excited about being life-time learners.


Teaching Students to Analyze Text

Teach students to analyze text with a gradual release of responsibility activity.When I was in high school, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, my English teachers told me what to think about the texts we read.  They would assign texts and corresponding questions.  We would answers the questions, go over the answers and then memorize said answers when test time came. It was all about regurgitation, not independent thought.

Today, I want my students to be able to approach a new text and do the literary analysis independently, without needing me (or Sparksnotes) to tell them what to think.  Now, I don't drop them in the  wild forest of analysis without a compass and hope they come out unscathed.  Instead, I use a gradual release model to show them how to approach text.  

First we spend some time learning how to close read, talking a lot about the kinds of clues to look for, things like:

Big moments in the plot
References to the title
character development
conflict—developing, continuing or resolving
Author’s craft:

figurative language
structure of the text

You can find all of this in my free Close Reading Bookmarks and Tips .

deep read
After they've learned about close reading, I begin with short stories, because of their brevity, before we move onto longer texts.  Then, I will use a little bit of gradual release as we study three short stories.  The first one is one of my all time favourites:  The Singing Silence by Eva-Lis Wuorio (I’d provide a link, if I could, but I can’t find an e-copy).  The story is about a wonderful old guy named Vicente, who discovers that true contentment is not found in your pocket book, but in doing what brings you joy.  It is just chock full of good messages and I use it as a jumping off point to writing about literature.  First I will set a purpose for reading the story: to analyze the character of Vicente and to discover the author’s message.  I will direct them to take notes with that purpose in mind and will model the process of close reading with them, using the first few pages of the text.

When they have finished a close read, I will have them turn and talk to a partner.  What did they learn?  How would they describe Vicente?  What evidence would they use to back up their statements.  We will discuss their discoveries as a class and then I will model how to write a literary paragraph. We will repeat the process with theme.
Next, I will assign the story, Saturday Climbing, by WD Valgaardson, another text that deals with finding contentment.  Students will get the same instructions: close read, paying attention to character and theme.  During the following class, they will work in groups to discuss their notes and then to complete a group paragraph, based on the model we co-created the previous day.  Once they are done, they will trade with another group to mark that group’s paragraph with the same rubric I will eventually use to mark the paragraphs they will write on their own.  On the way out the door, they will provide me with an exit ticket that will guide my instruction for the next day–what do they still not get?
group paragrasOn the final day of this process, they will be assigned The Spaces Between Stars, by Geeta Kothari, and the task of discovering the theme.  The end result will be a good copy paragraph that they will pass in for formative assessment.
Once we have completed this process, students feel a little more confident when we move onto longer and more difficult texts.  Hopefully, by providing them with a reading compass, they will know what direction to go in that wild forest of literary analysis!

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Learning on the Move

In honour of The Literary Maven's linky, I'm reposting this entry from my old blog:
move pinLike many teachers across the country, I just spent the last two days in meetings.  After a summer of relaxation and moving to the beat of my own wishes, I was required to sit for hours in a hard plastic chair while my well-intentioned principal droned on about the same information that he had written on the text-heavy slide show he was projecting.  Every now and then we got a chance to question and discuss, but for the most part, we sat and listened. And squirmed, and doodled, and tuned out, and wished we were back on the beach.  Afterward, many of us wondered about the wisdom of having sixty people who have been off for two months sit still all day.
Ironically, many of us will do that very same thing to our students today as we pass out schedules and drone on about procedure and rules.  Like us, they will squirm, doodle and tune out as they try to get their minds and bodies ready to do it all every day of the semester.   Like us, some of them will still learn despite their wish to be somewhere else.  However, wouldn’t it be better if we could find ways to wake them up and to be active while they learn?
The human body is not designed to sit for long periods of time; yet, that is exactly what it does in school.  In  Brain Rules (2008) brain researcher John Medina states that “physical activity is cognitive candy” and that “exercise boosts brain power”.   In fact, study after study points to the same conclusion: learners need to move.  But is this research  just about kinesthetic learners?  Definitely not, for we all benefit from moving and stretching.  It gets the blood flowing, it boosts creativity, and it breaks up the monotony of sitting in those hard old seats!
I’m lucky to teach with some creative and inspiring teachers who use lots of active learning in their classes.  One physics and math teacher has a trunk full of toys and games that get students moving as they learn about the principles of physics. If you walk by his class on the right day, you might even witness students in egg throwing contests. His most popular game, though, is in his math class, where enthusiastic students play “Sig Fig Says” to learn about significant figures. Another math teacher has a chin up bar hanging from the ceiling so students can take action breaks, and a biology teacher has exercise  balls for students to sit on so as to better engage their core.  Others have taken students paint-balling to re-enact battles in WWII or the feud between the Montagues and Capulets. The students in these classes clearly have lots of opportunity to move to learn. But do you have to go to great lengths to get your students’ bodies and brains moving? Do you have to spend hours thinking up crazy lesson plans and field trips?  No, because there are some very simple ideas that you can use every day. The simplest is to just allow students to stand up and stretch half way through the class.  Or, when they do group work, tape a piece of chart paper on the wall so they have to do their work standing up.  If you’re comfortable letting them leave the room, send them for a walk ‘n talk as they discuss their ideas.  Send them in pairs or small groups for a walk around the school, or outside on the school grounds.  You can find many of these ideas in my free product, by clicking on the image to the left.
grammar gamesLast year, I also started developing a series of Grammar Games.  I was soooo tired of correcting the same, basic grammar errors that I thought I’d try a more kinesthetic approach.  I created cards containing parts of sentences that, when put together, form a grammatically correct sentence.  I hand out the cards and then students have to find matches to help them complete their sentences.  They have a great time running around the classroom, trying to be among the first to get a match.  It makes grammar a little more fun, and I can give them immediate feedback without having to correct a bunch and exercises. 
In a few weeks we will begin essay writing and I will use a very interactive approach to this, too, as students work together to develop ideas for an essay, and then create a “kinesthetic essay”.  They activate all of their learning styles and, hopefully, better understand how to write an essay.
So today, when I meet my new students, I do have to give them a lot of information as we start the new year, but I plan to get them out of their seats so they don’t drift off to zombie land.  And every day after that I will plan opportunities for my students to move and interact.  The last two days of staff meetings served as a great reminder of how important these things are for engagement and learning!
Have an awesome new semester with your students.  If you have any great ideas for active learning, please share them in the comments!


Free-writes & Quick-Writes--One the Best Tools in a Learner's Toolbox

I love free-writes and quick-writes and O'Connor's quote sums up why.  Students often struggle to express their ideas, often for a variety of reasons: they don't care, they don't want to take the time to think about it, or they just don't know.  When teachers give them these low-stakes and low-stress writing opportunities, they can take the time to explore their ideas (and maybe even care about them).

What's the difference between a quick-write and a free-write?

A free-write is just that--free.  Students are given an opportunity to explore their ideas without a prompt or any direction from the teacher.  There are no rules, so they can be free to go wherever their thoughts lead them.

A quick-write is done in response to a prompt and can be used for creative and analytical writing.  I use them often to get students to explore their ideas on the texts we read.  If I just ask a question: Why do you think the author...? I will get my keeners with their arms in the air, while the others let them do their thinking for them.  But, with a quick write, all of the students will explore the question and their responses to it.  I rarely collect them, or require anyone to share unless s/he wants to.  This makes for much less stress and a greater chance that the students will actually think about the question posed.

After a free- or quick-write, I get them to read through what they have written, looking for nuggets of wisdom. They can use a highlighter or just underline ideas that they think are important.  If you want to extend the activity, they can do a quick-write on the idea they have highlighted.  You can use this if you want them to really develop their ideas--it's great for getting them ready to write an essay.

With both methods, it's important to stress how the writing can be used as part of the learning process.  Whether they are collecting ideas for a writing assignment, or trying to figure out a difficult text, free-writes and quick-writes are effective tools that the students can use at any time.

How do you use these writing tools in your classroom?


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