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Lesson Planning: Build in Time for Productive Struggle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A writing prompt that challenges teens' thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lesson Planning: Three Things You Should Consider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Getting Your Students Ready to Learn After the Break

Back to school
How do we get those tired teens ready to learn?
Yes, I'm well aware that the person under the covers could be you. But it's likely most of your students too. After a long break, it's hard for all of us to get back in the game. Yet, when you teach in a semestered system, the transition from vacation to work has to be fast: exams are looming in the near future, so we can't spend too much time easing those teenagers back into the daily grind.

A little thought and planning can make the transition much easier. We do need to get them re-focused, but if we can do it in a way that includes a little fun and/or gets them up an moving for a bit, then we are much more likely to get engagement.

1. If you're still in the middle of a text or unit: 

You might choose to dive right back into a text or an activity, especially if you weren't able to finish a unit before the break (like me). Last year, I created this activity to get my students thinking about Animal Farm again. They filled in the first sheet and then I got them moving, using the post-it note activity. You can grab it for free at my TpT store. This time, I'll be using it to do a quick review of Macbeth before we move on to Act IV.

I'm also going to begin class with this quick grammar/writing review. I always attempt to make these a little less dry by creating a story that might grab their attention. You can grab this one too -- it's editable so you can change it up if you like.

2. If you're ready to start something new:
Whether it's time to start your next unit - or even to begin review-
ing for finals - the first day back is not the best day to do that, because the kids are still half asleep. Why not try some learning stations designed to get their heads back in the game? You can create your own review stations by posing different questions at each one, or you can save yourself some time and check out my latest product. It helps kids get organized and focused, requires them to review the feedback you've given them, and allows them the opportunity to creatively represent what they know. Most importantly, stations will get them moving around on a day when they are in zombie mode!

Regardless of what you do on your first day back, I hope you had a restful and rejuvenating holiday. All the best in the new year!

The Christmas Countdown is on!

The year 2016 is drawing to a close, and I'd like to take this time to thank all of my loyal followers.

Every morning this week (December 12th - 16th), you will receive a gift in your inbox, a short exercise you can use with your secondary students to keep them focused AND have a little holiday fun. There will also be some surprise discounts, sales and giveaways that you'll want to know about.

Just be sure that you are signed up for my newsletter (and you have me in your contact list) so you don't miss out on any of this holiday fun. If you haven't done that already, just look under the three images at the top of my blog--you can drop your email in there and then just wait for your freebie each morning this week.

If you haven't downloaded them already, I also have some gift tags that you can use to give your students a sweet little treat. You can find them for free at my TpT store.

Enjoy the last few days before the holiday, and have a very merry Christmas!


A conference is a short conversation between teacher and student, one that allows you to provide direct instruction and/or to gather information for assessment. Whether you use a workshop approach or a more traditional one, you can easily incorporate this strategy into your classroom, and if you do, you'll increase the learning AND cut down on your pile of grading. What could be better than that? 

If you don't conference with your secondary students, you need to start now. It's been a serious game changer in my classroom. Here's why:
Conferences are the quickest, most efficient way to find out what your students know and to help them learn. When you take in an assignment, it can be days before you find out what they have learned and even more days before the student gets the feedback needed to fix or improve something. But, when you are conferring one-on-one with a student, you have access to their thinking in a way that no exit ticket or written assessment will ever give you.  You find out right away what they know and where they might be deficient, and you can get to work right away helping them build the skills they need. That's the beauty of the conference: the teaching and learning is instant. Conferences also put more pressure on the students to actually do the work. They can often fudge their way through an assessment on reading by using Sparksnotes, or by listening to what other students say during class discussion; however, it's hard for them to fake it during a face-to-face discussion.

Conferences can quickly zero in on an idea or skill, and they do not have to be long to be very effective at doing so. Think about a skill that many of your students need to develop. In my class this semester, there have been two things that keep popping up as areas that need work: idea development and embedding quotations, and I've done conferences for each of these. While my students are writing, I walk around with my clipboard and ask students to show me where they have embedded a quotation, for example. Each student points to a place where they've attempted to do so (I tell them before I start, so they are ready when I get to them), and I can quickly assess whether they've done it correctly or not. If they haven't, we have a quick conversation about how they can fix it.  Some of these conversations are very fast -- I just have to look to see that the student is on the right track. Or, I might just have to ask, "what's missing at the end?" The student replies, "Oh! The page number!" and I move on. If they are struggling, I sit beside them and give them more direct instruction. With the conferences on idea development, I call students up to my desk and ask them to show me a paragraph that they think needs more work in that area. I ask them questions, give them suggestions and they go away with a better idea of how to improve that paragraph; the hope is that they will apply this knowledge to the rest of their writing.
We all know that students can "hide" during class activities and discussions. Because of this, we can often go a whole semester without really getting to know some of the kids in our room. Conferences change this.  During one-on-one time, the students  speak to you directly, without concern about what others will think. I've been amazed how some of them open up when they get the chance. It's a wonderful way to not only build rapport with all of your students, but also to really get to know where they are in their learning. You can talk to them about their interests and direct them to books they might like, or help them to find topics to write about. Most importantly, you get that chance to meet them where they are so you can help them learn.
Conferences are effective for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest is that it will cut down on the time you spend grading. Traditionally, the only way we had to assess our students was through tests and written assignments. Yes, we assess oral work like presentations, but the bulk of our assessment tends to come through pen-to-paper work. This results in a lot of evening and weekend work for us, and delayed feedback for students. It doesn't have to be this way. One of our outcomes in my district is that students need to be able to evaluate the effectiveness of literary devices in the texts they read. In the past, the only way I assessed this was the literary essay, and they wrote several throughout the semester, so I could give them feedback on one before they wrote another. Now, I conference with them, asking them to evaluate the use of literary devices in their independent novels, or in mentor texts that we use. I can instantly see their thinking and direct them if they need direction. They still write a literary essay, but only after conferences that allow me to assess and instruct each student directly. The result? The essays are much better -- and I'm marking fewer of them.  
While less grading might be enough to convince you, the most important reason to start conferencing is because your students will learn more. Conferences happen during the learning process, while the students are attempting to achieve a goal, not after. Instead of getting back an essay with a grade, covered with your scratchings about vague statements, underdeveloped ideas and mechanical errors, they have had those conversations with you before the summative assessment -- and have a chance to improve their work before passing it in. The reality is that when they get the feedback a week or more after they have completed the writing assessment, it's ancient history for them. That paper that you poured over, giving lots of instructive comments, goes into their backpacks or lockers (or waste basket) never to be looked at again. Conferences allow you to give your students the feedback when they need it -- while they are working on the assignment and when they are more likely to retain the learning.

I just did a PD session with the teachers in my department on conferencing, so I know what the burning question is. Most teachers cannot deny the lure of a strategy that will cause more learning and create less grading. However, it can mean a big switch in the way we do things. Many of us are used to a "stand and deliver" approach: we develop our lessons, the students sit there and listen, and then they do their work. It's all in our control. In order to conference, we need to let go of that control. If we are conferring with one student, the others are on their own, possibly not doing what they are supposed to be doing. How do we set things up so we can confidently conference while our students work?

First of all, are we every truly confident that our students are actually working? Just because we have a beautifully planned lesson, and they are sitting at their desks quietly, doesn't meant they are working -- or more importantly, learning. You may have delivered the most amazing lesson on embedding and citing quotations. Your slide show may have been beautifully engaging. Your class may have sat there quietly as you taught. But, some of them, many of them, even, may not have really learned the skill. When you conference, each student is held accountable to the learning. And, if Joey and Johnny are chatting about the basketball game while you conference with Sally, they are still going to get that one-on-one time with you later, time that will hopefully result in them learning. Let's face it, Joey and Johnny were still thinking about basketball during your beautiful lesson too!

So, I invite you to try some conferencing in your classroom. It takes some time to get the hang of it, but once you do, it will become a very important tool in your teacher toolbox.  Grab this form to use as you conference. Fill in your students' names and, across the top, write in the topics that you are covering during the conferences. You can assign them a number grade, if you wish, to help you remember where they were at the time of your discussion. You can download it here.

Have you tried conferencing with your students? If you have, I'd love to hear about your successes and failures. Leave a comment!

Holiday Gifts for Big Kids!

It's December first. I must admit, I'm a little shocked to realize that. The semester has flown by, and before we know it, it will be Christmas break.  While you're spreading Christmas cheer, don't forget your students. High school kids (and teachers) like to get gifts too and there are many easy and quick ways you can give them a little something without breaking the bank.  You can find a bunch of super cute gift ideas, including my own, on TpT. Search under #LastMinuteGiftsforBigKids to see what other secondary sellers have created -- there are so many great ideas, I think you'll have trouble chosing!

I know it can be hard to find time to celebrate the upcoming holidays with secondary students, especially for those of us who come back to end of semester exams in January. However, there are ways that you can acknowledge the festivities and still keep your students on the all important task of learning. 

Last year, I wrote a post about how to survive the Christmas countdown -- check out that post to get another freebie you can use. For this Christmas season, I've created a new product that  has students compare the themes in O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" with Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace", so they can come to understand what real giving means. It's something you could use at any time of the year, but it's especially good for the lead up to the holidays.

Whatever you do to celebrate the season, I hope you have lots of fun with your students!

Animal Farm is Always Relevant

Unfortunately, George Orwell knew what he was talking about. His novella is not just a condemnation of what happened during the Russian Revolution; it's a cautionary tale that can be applied to many events that happened since it was written, from political revolutions to student council elections. Unfortunately, it's always relevant.

So when I walked into my classroom on Wednesday, November 9th, I knew I had to send my students to the library for the book. I had planned to do it later in the semester, but my Canadian kids were so fired up over the results of the American election, that I realized the iron was hot and it was time to strike. Things don't always turn out the way you expect. Politicians and advertisers can be manipulative and deceptive, no matter what side they're on (or what country they're in). However, the most important lesson that comes from this text, in my opinion, is that we are all responsible. We all have to listen critically to what we hear. We all need to think and speak and act.

We started with learning stations so students could work independently to get the background information they need to understand what's happening in Orwell's allegory. Then, I always begin by reading the first chapter to them. We spend time looking at Old Major's speech and talk about what makes it inspirational for the animals: he spoke to their very real fears and concerns with language rich in imagery and emotion. Before we delve into the rest of the book, I spend a few days looking at other inspirational speeches, like MLK's dream speech. We learn how to use rhetoric and I assign them their own "dream speech", where they have to write about an injustice in their lives and use rhetoric to present it persuasively. (Side note: there were moments of frustration for me here. So many of my kids could not think of an injustice. "Can we google it?" several sad. It shows not only their privilege, but their apathy. Hopefully they'll learn a bit from Orwell's message-- apathy is not an option!).

For the rest of the novella, we focus on answering the inquiry question: what can we learn about human nature from the study of the text?  I ask students to read - not to answer chapter questions - but to take notes on the following: the corruption of the dream, the use of language for power and control, and the responsibility of the other animals.  After they've read several chapters, they meet in groups to discuss the notes they've taken. I circulate as they do so, directing them toward passages that they may have missed. We do this until the book is finished and then have a big discussion, followed by some assignments that they will do to illustrate what they've learned from their reading.

During and after reading, we're making connections to real life. We look at advertisers and how adept they are at playing to our fears and other emotions. We look at other dictatorships since Orwell wrote the book, and at how even in democracies, politicians manipulate us. And, underlying all of that, is the fact that we let them. We are either not smart enough to see through their tactics or are too apathetic to care about it. It's a cynical view, one represented by Benjamin in the novella, but it's pretty darn accurate.

I like to get the kids to find these connections themselves, but I always help them along with this, by providing some links myself. This year, I assigned them Charles M. Blow's opinion piece from The New York Times.  It was timely and perfect to use to assess whether or not they were understanding how to use rhetoric, as well as Orwell's message. I copied the story onto a Google Doc  and had them highlight, in different colours, examples of rhetorical devices used by the writer. Then, I told them to write a short paragraph at the bottom of the doc, explaining why Orwell would be impressed with Blow. They had to reference not only his article, but examples from the novella.

Because we did it on Google Docs, I had them highlight each rhetorical device in a different colour -- took me no time to grade!

We're still finishing up. The book has been read. Notes have been taken. Speeches are being written. Tomorrow I will assign their project, one that will ask them to use language to inspire positive change, not to manipulate. I'll keep you posted on how my apathetic, privileged teens do...I'm hoping they rise to the occasion!

All of these are available in my Inquiry Unit on TpT.