April 2016 - Room 213

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Last night at supper, my fifteen year old referred to me as "just a transferrer of knowledge." I retorted that he was wrong; I was a facilitator of learning. You know fifteen year olds, so you can totally picture the eye rolling that occurred across the table. I couldn't let him go with an eye roll, so I told him what I meant: I don't think it's my job to tell my students what I know about reading and writing. It's my job to help them figure out what they know.

I realized today,  at the end of my tenth grade class, that I was practicing what I had preached the night before. It was a lesson that worked really well, so I'm sharing it with you:

1. The students came to class having read chapters nine-twelve in To Kill a Mockingbird.  We had a bunch of students away on a band trip, so they were told that they would be leading a discussion on the chapters with the rest of the class next week. I told them to form four groups and to have a twenty minute discussion about what they thought was most important in the chapters.

2. After they finished, I took one or two students from each group to form four new groups. Each group was assigned one of the chapters, and each student was given a sheet that said: "The purpose of chapter __ was...."

3.  Next, I told each student to think about the overall purpose of 
his/her assigned chapter.  Then, I told them to write for two minutes explaining their answer and their rationale. When the time was up, they passed their sheet to the student on their right. This time, I gave them three minutes, because the students had to read what the previous students had written, then add new points to back up what they said -- or respectfully disagree and write why.  Regardless of which they did, they had to add new details to the sheet.  We repeated the process until each student wrote on each sheet. Then, the sheet was returned to the original writer so s/he could read the details that were added.

This technique, if you don't know already, is called a WRITE-AROUND and is an excellent way to get kids to fully develop ideas.

Next, I gave each group this sheet and had them focus on the specifics of their assigned chapter. The final question asks them to create a chapter title that captures the essence of the chapter and its purpose or lessons.  I told them not to just pick an obvious, easy title, but one that would really cover the important elements of the section they had been assigned.  They didn't find it easy, but it was a good critical thinking exercise for them.

On Monday they will take the lead with the rest of the students after they return from the band trip. After wondering around today, listening to their discussions, I'm confident that they have the knowledge to do so.  I can wait to watch them facilitate the learning for their classmates.


A Guided Release Essay

I'm a big fan of the gradual release model: modeled instruction, guided practice, independent practice. It removes the mystery, gives students a chance to practice in a risk-free way, and then lets them go it alone, once they've built some confidence.

Last week I wrote about the "tortoise and the hare" approach that I'm taking toward teaching my Pre-IB class to write strong literary essays.  Well, we're still plodding along on their way to a completely independent (and hopefully ah-mazing essay).

We've just competed the first eight chapters of To Kill a Mockingbird, and have discussed the various lessons Lee has been teaching: you need to climb in someone's skin to understand him, sometimes it's ok to bend the law, and your class does not define who you are. I decided, on the fly this morning, to use this as an opportunity to do some gradual release.

We had worked on the concept of "bending the law" yesterday, and had collected examples of how and why Lee suggests that this is ok.  I wrote a semi-complete paragraph and uploaded it to Google Drive/Classroom.  I also added a bunch of instructions:

TASK: to write an essay that illustrates the lessons Lee teaches in the first eight chapters of the novel.

The following is a paragraph that could be in the above essay:
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee has her readers ponder the idea that rules can sometimes hurt, if followed too closely. Atticus first introduces the idea to Scout when he tells her it’s ok for them to read at home, even though her teacher told her not to. Then, both he and Lee provide further examples to illustrate why compromise is ok. For example, Boo Radley’s family rigidly follows a code of behavior and lock Boo up forever, preventing him from growing as he could, if he were allowed to interact in the real world. The Radleys, and other “foot washing Baptists” believe in devoting their time to the study of the literal words of scripture, and as a result, they see Miss Maudie’s time with her flowers as sinful. Miss Maudie, deeply religious herself, feels it is better to find a connection with God by creating something beautiful in the world, because she believes there are more important things than strictly following the letter of the law. Maycomb itself bends a law for the Ewells, who are allowed to hunt off season. If that law were strictly followed, the Ewell children would starve, so the town looks the other way when necessary. With these examples, Lee seems to be showing her readers that maintaining life, like the children and the flowers, is so much more important than following inflexible laws that can end up hurting people.

A) Together: find two quotes that would further develop the points in the paragraph. Embed them in the appropriate place. You may need to tweak my wording a bit.

B) Together: write a paragraph that discusses how the children learn to “crawl in someone's skin” in the first eight chapters. Lee also illustrates that it’s...

C) Together: write an intro to an essay whose thesis is focused on the lessons Lee teaches in first section.

D) Copy the above (A & B) into your own doc.

E) Individually: write a paragraph that explains how and why Lee contrasts the Ewells and Cunninghams. (Your topic sentence and focus should fit into the “lessons” concept.)

F) Individually: write your own conclusion to the essay.

G) Be sure there are appropriate transitions between all paragraphs. (and think about best for paragraphs)

I haven't seen the end result yet, but they worked away and had great conversations as they did. If you'd like to try this gradual release model with your class (and tweak it) you can access my HERE.



Six English teachers with a love for Shakespeare are hosting a giveaway in honor of Shakespeare's birthday. (It's also the 400th anniversary of his death.) One lucky winner will get six great lessons that can be used with ANY Shakespeare play. So what can you win? Click on the links to get a preview and find out how to enter. Presto Plans has a lesson on Shakespeare's Language called "What Would Shakespeare Say?" Need some room decor? Room 213 is offering a Shakespeare Word Wall and Posters. Tracee Orman has a great way to introduce Shakespeare with a Life and Times Power Point. The Classroom Sparrow has a handy reference guide with her Shakespeare Mini Book. Reach for the stars with Brynn Allison's Astrology Based Characterization Activity. David Rickert's Comic Lesson on Iambic Pentameter will introduce students to the way Shakespeare writes. The raffle will run from Sunday, April 24th to Sunday, May 1st. How do you enter? Simply click the link below and enter your favorite Shakespeare quote. It's that easy.

So why do these teachers love Shakespeare?

Presto Plans:
"Since students often feel that Shakespeare isn’t relevant today, my goal when I teach his work is to find ways to relate the plot, characters, and themes to their lives. What I enjoy most about teaching Shakespeare is seeing my students make a personal connection to universal themes (loyalty, ambition, jealousy, betrayal) that emerge in his work. When students can make those connections, the class discussion always becomes far more interesting and engaging, and I know Shakespeare still has a place in today’s classroom."
Room 213:
"I love teaching Shakespeare because not only is he a brilliant writer, but he understood what makes we humans tick. What I enjoy most of all, though, is finding ways to draw students into his plays. Most have preconceived notions and dread when it comes to Shakespeare, but I design my lessons and activities in a way that helps connect the plays to their lives and, that way, it's more interesting and enjoyable for them."
Tracee Orman:
"I love the moment when students hear famous lines spoken that they never realized were penned by Shakespeare. Today in class we covered Marc Antony’s “Cry Havoc! and let slip the dogs of war” quote in Act III of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. After that scene, I showed them the beginning of an episode of Big Bang Theory where Sheldon quotes the phrase after he seeks revenge on the person who hacked his World of Warcraft account and stole his weapons. There are so many great allusions, quotes, parodies, and references to Shakespeare; I love opening their eyes to them. When former students email or post/tag examples or references they come across on my social media pages, it warms my heart to know they not only still remember this play from sophomore year, but they actually understand the reference or allusion."
The Classroom Sparrow:
The best part about teaching Shakespeare is the level of engagement the plays can bring to a classroom. Most students are not excited about Shakespeare because they have a hard time understanding the language, but once they start reading the first few acts, the students are eager to find out what will happen next. By the end of the unit, students have a better appreciation for Shakespeare in that many of his themes are timeless.
Brynn Allison:
"Reading any of Shakespeare's works is difficult for my students, many of whom read several levels below grade level, but this challenge is what makes teaching Shakespeare so rewarding. My students are incredibly proud of themselves when they begin to read and understand his plays. Acting out key scenes and making connections between the timeless themes in Shakespeare's dramas and real world issues helps to increase students' comprehension. Have students practice insulting each other using Shakespeare's language before reading the first scene in Romeo and Juliet or by conducting a People magazine-like interview of Portia and Calpurnia from Julius Caesar. Activities like these help students to see that world in Shakespeare's plays is not so different from their own."
David Rickert:
"I love the challenge of teaching Shakespeare to students who are reading it for the first time. I love his plays. They have comedy, tragedy, thrills, chills, and just all around great writing. There are some wonderful metaphors in the plays, and I find myself using them in everyday language without thinking about it."
Good luck!

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WOW. It's been 400 years since Shakespeare's death (and 452 since his birthday).  To celebrate this amazing man, all of my Shakespeare products will be 20% off today.




I've been making a conscious effort to do more speaking activities in all of my classes.  First of all, the curriculum demands it, but secondly, and even more importantly, I know that speaking is a powerful tool for thinking.  When I need to figure something out, I need to talk about it.  So do my students.

We started Mockingbird this week, and as with most things I give kids to read, I never give them chapter questions; instead, they meet in groups after reading a section of the novel and discuss what they think is important, not what I guide them to think.  They had their first discussion today and it was, I believe, the best one I've observed in a long time.  And there's a reason for that.


Speaking and listening as part of the pre-reading stage

Yesterday, we started with discussion stations.  I had created a pile of task cards, grouped in a variety of categories, that had them thinking about issues in the book.  Categories included: What would you do, Make a case for and against, Would you rather? Explain and  Describe. Students moved in groups of five around the stations, selecting a card from the stack at each station. Each of them had to complete the speaking task on the card.  They had animated discussions and got into some of the really important concepts from the novel, like Is it OK to read books with the N-word? Or What does courage mean to you?

Speaking task cards for pre-reading-get your students thinking before they start!Then, today we had our first group discussion about the novel.  They were to have read the first four chapters and met to discuss what they believed to be important.  I've done this many times before, but this time I was hearing them bring in some of the ideas that we had discussed yesterday.  For example, instead of just discussing the rumors around Boo Radley, they were tying it in with the fear of the unknown.

After we had our full-class discussion, I asked them about this: Did the ideas you discussed yesterday influence what you talked about today? Twenty-six heads nodded, and several commented that the chats helped focus their discussion because those concepts were fresh in their minds.

Previously, I would begin my TKAM unit with some quick-writes, ones that focused on some of the ideas I had on the task cards.  But you can only do so many quick-writes, so only a few of the concepts get explored.  The discussion stations allowed students to explore multiple topics -- and practice their speaking and listening skills.

The cards are available in my TpT store, but you can make up your own as well.  Just brainstorm the important ideas and concepts that are part of the text students are reading, then group them using the categories I listed above - or your own.  I had many options for each one, but as long as you have four - six for each station, then each student in each group can speak to a different topic.

At the beginning of each rotation, I gave them a minute to select a card and gather their thoughts. Then, each student had two minutes to speak to his/her topic.  This took approximately ten minutes per rotation.  We have seventy-five minutes together, so there was time at the end of the class to continue any discussion they found interesting.

I'm currently working on a set of discussion cards for Macbeth.  Let me know if you'd like to see some speaking activities for other texts!

The Joy of Leaning: Part Two

Last week I wrote about a "eureka moment" that some of my students had while working on their group presentations.  I told you that there was a part two to the assignment, and here it is:

After my students did their presentations, I had them summarize their conclusions, and wrote them down to project on the Smart Board.  I color-coded them and then asked the students: if each statement were a topic sentence in an essay, what would the thesis be? We did a "thesis-throw down" ala Caitlin Tucker, and had a great discussion about how to develop and fine-tune a thesis. (note: we didn't spend any time evaluating each topic sentence; as long as they were in the right ball park, I wrote it down).
Once we had chosen the thesis statement, we decided on the best order to present the ideas. Because I had the sentences on the Smart Board, we could easily move them around and think about what worked best.

However, as students debated the order, it became clear that there was another issue: there was a lot of overlap in the topics.  I told them I knew this; in fact, it was part of my plan.  The topics worked fine for group presentations, but there were ideas that could be used for more than one topic, so organizing all of these as an essay would take more thought.  So, we discussed where the over lap would occur. They decided that the two middle points could be finessed into one, but that there would still be some possible overlaps if we were to actually write the essay.

They aren't doing that, however. Not this time. I'm still building skills and confidence and so I want them to focus on just one topic for now.  They are going back to their original group topic, and each student will write on that only.  They'll submit to Google Drive and I'll give them some feedback before they do their good copies.

I'm being a tortoise with all of this, I know.  But, I am seeing a lot of progress with this slow and steady approach. I will have many of these students next year in the IB program; I know where I want them to be by next year, and I'm hoping that by the end of this semester they will feel more confident with writing  a literary analysis.



We all know that there are many ways to make our students happy: no homework, easy classes and even easier marks.  Throw in lots of jokes and a few movies, and you've got a recipe that has students thrilled to be in your class. But will they learn anything?

Too often we equate "fun" classes with those that are slack, where very little meaningful learning occurs. However, I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. In fact, the more engaging your class is, the more likely that your students will learn, even if they stumble into it.

Here are five things that work for me:

You've heard all of this before, I know.  But it's so important it bears repeating.  You need to be yourself and show your students that you are a real person with a sense of humour, with hopes and fears, with a tendency to make mistakes.  Don't go in there trying to be this perfect, polished person who knows it all. There's nothing more powerful than showing your students that you don't know something -- and then what you do to change that.  However, while you're being "real" with your teens, remember that you are the teacher.  Be friendly, but take a stand, draw the line, whatever metaphor you want to choose--just make it clear that you are the adult in the room and you have a very important job to do.  You can be fun to be with, but in the long run your students will respect you more if you give them structure and discipline.

For the most part, what we are doing in our classes is not rocket science.  However, students can easily get stumped because they just don't know what to do and, more importantly, how to do it. We can't always assume that they know how to interpret, analyze, revise, etc. just because they should have learned how to do it in earlier grades.  You would never hand a new driver keys and say "drive"; instead you'd get in that car with him or her and show them what to do.  I've been guilty many times in the past of telling my students to complete a task, without showing them.  Now that I focus on the learning process, my students are much more engaged.  And I don't stop at showing them either.  I build in activities that require they actually go through the process when it comes to analysis and revision, for example.  Most of us teachers are students by nature.  We know how to learn.  The greatest gift we can give our students is to teach them how to as well. I blog about process activities quite often: check out this a recent post.

If the task you give your students is too easy, it can be a little boring. If it's too hard, they'll get frustrated. Ideally, you give them something that's exactly what they need. Dan Pink, author of Drive, calls these Goldilock's taks because they are "just right".  When a student feels that they can do it, they will.  How do you do this in your classroom? After you've given your students the tools they need to do a complex task, give them an activity that requires them to reach a little further than they have before, something that requires them to synthesize information they have on hand and to use the skills you've been working on. Resist the urge to tell them how to do it and be there to facilitate their learning.  You can read about how I did this with my class HERE.

Whenever you start something new, explain to your students what they're doing and why they're doing it. Show them how the lesson is relevant to their lives, other than the fact that it's part of the curriculum so they need to learn it. Look for news articles, pictures and videos that relate to your topic to use as a hook.  Then, plan your lessons so the students aren't just sitting there taking notes, doing questions and/or listening to you.  If they need information on something, find a novel way to get them to find it, like research stations.  If you want to know that they read and understood something, put them in groups and give them a task that will show their understanding.  Keep tons of post-it notes, chart paper, markers and highlighters on hand so you can build in activities that get them thinking, learning and moving.

This is something that has transformed my teaching.  I used to think they wouldn't do assignments that wouldn't be marked.  I found out I was wrong. In fact, it's just the opposite.  Once that fear of a bad mark is removed, most students are happy to do work for feedback. It takes the mystery away: we tell them what they need to do to improve and they do it. You can read about my journey with formative assessment here and  about a successful activity here.

What makes students excited about coming to a class? It can be that they know it will be easy and full of fun, light activities.  However, students will also be excited to come to a class where they feel confident and successful about learning.  We know that learning can be fun.  The real challenge - and joy - of teaching is getting our students to believe that too.

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THE JOY OF LEARNING: Helping your students think critically on their own.

Teach students to think critically and to feel the satisfaction that comes with solving challenging problems.
It was one of those learning moments that I wish I could have captured on video.

My tenth graders were working on a group presentation for the novel A Separate Peace.  Each group was give a question that started like this: How and why does John Knowles use... None of the questions had a quick and easy answer. Each one required a great deal of thinking and piecing ideas together.  Every group was struggling.

As  I circulated around the room I heard this a lot: "We don't get it.  We have a lot of quotes and stuff from the book but we can't put it all together."  They wanted me to tell them what to do, but I wouldn't.  Instead, I asked them what they knew already and then gave them one or two questions to deal with, ones that didn't tell them anything, just guided them down a good path.

One group was given the task of answering How and why does Knowles contrast summer and winter? They were all over the place, but they were talking and thinking. They were also working in a group room that connects my classroom to my neighbour's and, at one point,  I could hear them whooping and hollering in there.  I immediately went in to tell them to quiet down, because they would be disturbing the other class. When I opened the door I was met with all of their hands in the air and several of them yelling, "We got it!!!"

Teach students to think critically and to feel the satisfaction that comes with solving challenging problems.
They proceeded to tell me their "answer" to the question, and before I could even ask they excitedly pointed out the evidence they had to back it up. They had their post-its lined up and organized and couldn't wait to tell me how they came to their conclusion.

It was a teacher's dream: students excited about their learning.  I just hope that the next time they get a challenging question that they recall that moment and how excited they were to figure something out on their own.

Here's the procedure I followed for the activity:

1. Come up with a question that they will need to work to answer. In our case, we had been discussing and taking notes on the novel, and I knew that they had all of the ingredients to answer the questions, but that would have to do a lot of synthesizing of the information they had.

2. Students began with a quick-write so they could gather their thoughts individually before they met in their groups.  For me, this is a very important step because too many of them will just sit back and let the keeners take over in the groups. This way, everyone starts the thinking process.

3. I gave them post-it notes and told them to begin by putting ideas and/or quotes that related to the topic on the notes. I stressed that they shouldn't worry about answering the question--just stay on topic and look for evidence.

4. Once they had a lot of ideas, I told them to start grouping similar ones together and then to start looking for patterns.

5. Up until this point, all was good. They felt confident in what they were doing.  But when I said it was time to start finding an answer (or answers) to the question, the struggle began.  They wanted a quick and easy one, and it just wasn't possible. They had to talk it out, do a lot of thinking and a lot of debating.  As I said above, I wandered around, asking a probing question here and there, but never provided an "answer".

It took us two full periods, but each group had their eureka moment.  Only one screamed and hollered over it, but I know that most were very pleased that they were able to come to a consensus on their own. The most powerful part of this exercise is that they were focused on the thinking process and learned that they had the tools to deal with a complex problem.

Their presentations are today.  They don't know this yet, but there's a part two to this activity.  Stay tuned.



Writing a literary essay can be difficult, especially if the student doesn't approach it as a thinking process that takes some time.  Many students just want to write in one sitting, skipping over the all-important process that will help them create something good.
Teach your students to focus on the writing process

I've written before about my class of over-achievers.  They want to do well and this desire can actually get in their way sometimes, because they over-think a task so much that they get paralyzed, unable to actually get the job done for fear of not doing it "right". The first part of the semester with them was all about skill-building with low-risk assignments so I could get them over this fear. However, the clock is ticking, and I know that it's time to move on; they need to write their first literary analysis essay, but I decided to take a detour of sorts, and do a practice one first.

However, I didn't tell them that's what we were doing.  I kind of tricked them into it...

We're reading A Separate Peace and had spent a lot of time discussing Gene's envy of Phineas in the early chapters of the novel. They had also read an article from Psychology Today about the causes and characteristics of envy.  So, one day last week, I booked the chrome books and told my students we were going to do a series of quick-writes, something they are used to and something they see as low-risk.

For the first quick-write, I asked them to write about envy from their perspective--not from the author of either the novel of the article, just their own thoughts and experiences with the emotion.  They wrote for five minutes and then I told them to stop and look at the Psychology Today article.  I told them to find one concept in the essay that relates to Gene in the novel and to write that quote at the beginning of their next quick-write, followed by examples from the novel that illustrate how Gene exhibits this particular trait. After five minutes, they picked another trait from the article and repeated the process.  Finally, I asked them to do another quick-write where they offered advice to Gene on how to overcome his envy, based on what they knew of his character, and on what they had learned in the article.

This process took twenty minutes--five minutes per quick-write.  After they were done, I asked them to skim over everything they had written; then, I asked them what they had actually done.  It took a minute or two, but finally, someone said, "This kinda seems like an essay."

Exactly.  I told them that the first reflection on envy could be used as a broad lead-in to the essay, and then asked them what was missing if that was to be their intro.  "A thesis?" many asked.  Right again.  But, I pointed out: you'll need to come up with a transitional statement between your ideas about envy and the statement you'll make about the novel and the article in your thesis.

We went on to discuss the things they would have to change and add in the remaining quick-writes, like more specific detail from the novel to back up their points, and transitions between the paragraphs.  I told them that they only had four paragraphs, and that I would usually expect more than that, but that this was a starting point, a practice structure. I booked the chrome books for the next class for them to work on the "essay" before they submitted it to me as a rough copy for feedback.

I've seen the results and I'm very happy with their drafts.  They are much better than what I usually see in the first analysis essays: the intros are good, the points are focused, the examples are well chosen.  I've given them feedback and they are going to use it to create a better copy.

What I liked most about this process, this tricking them into writing an essay, is that I found a way to remove the stress that usually accompanies the statement: "We're going to write a literary essay."  I thought about ways to get them to write a draft, and that draft was complete in twenty minutes. Usually, they spend too much time stressing over the best way to start, or what evidence to use. I took that mystery away and in doing so gave them an experience that will hopefully give them more confidence for the next time.

I'll find out soon.



Teach your students to annotate text as they do a close reading - and put the responsibility for learning on them.I'm not a huge fan of chapter questions, for a number of reasons. The main one is that they usually direct students too much, telling them what to look for, what's important to note.  I much prefer an approach that puts more of the responsibility for thinking about the text in the students' hands.

My Pre-IB's have just stared reading A Separate Peace.  We did six weeks of Reader's Workshop, but now, because of the nature of the course, I need to get them focused on a full class novel. They need to do a close read, and take notes as they read and after each chunk of the book is finished, they will meet in groups to share their notes and decide on the important elements of the section.

However, when I've done this before, students come to class with pages and pages of notes and books heavy with post-it notes hanging off the pages. Over-doing it when taking notes is almost as useless as taking none at all, because the student just becomes overwhelmed.  So the first thing I did was photocopy some sections from the first chapter, and we worked through the close reading process together.  With the first page, I told them to highlight what they thought was significant and after that, to choose two of the four paragraphs that really aren't that important, other than for pushing the story along.  They, as I suspected, over-highlighted. But after our discussion, they did a second page, and this time, they were able to focus more on the important parts of the section.  It worked so well, I will do it again later in the book, just to remind them. Once is rarely enough.

Teach your students to annotate text as they do a close reading - and put the responsibility for learning on them.
I also tried something else new to try to get them focused and looking for good detail.  Instead of having them read three or four chapters and then meeting in groups to discuss their notes, I assigned one chapter a night for two nights. Then, when they came to class, I passed out post-it notes and had them write down one or two things they noted about the two main characters, any themes they see "lurking" and any interesting use of technique by the author. Next, they put the post-its on the appropriate chart paper that was hanging on the walls.

Teach your students to annotate text as they do a close reading - and put the responsibility for learning on them.We repeated this the second day, and then I put them in groups to start organizing the post-its.  Similar ideas were put together, and headings were created. We did a quick gallery walk so everyone could get a good look at the other groups' work.

Yesterday they arrived in class having done a close reading of two more chapters. They met for the first time in groups to discuss the whole picture. They were encouraged to get up and add more post-its to our chart paper on the walls.  I over-heard rich discussion and several added to our collections on the walls.  They still need a little more direction, and I'll try to get them a little more focused next week.

Teach your students to annotate text as they do a close reading - and put the responsibility for learning on them.
However, for now, I'm liking the open-ended nature of this approach.  It puts the responsibilty for close reading and studying the novel in their hands in a way that a more teacher-directed approach does not.

If you want to give you students some help with close reading, you may want to check out my close reading bookmarks.  They are free in my TpT store, and the product includes a short slide show to introduce close reading to your students. You might also want to check out Active Reading with Post-It Notes.


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