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Writing Pokes: The Perfect Tool for Review & Differentiation

We all know that kids need a lot of practice and reinforcement with writing skills. We also know that they all don't need to practice the same ones.  The trick is finding a way to help our students attain the skills that they need as individuals. But how can we keep them all working ahead without boring some students and frustrating others?

I decided to create some Writing Pokes, task cards that I can pull out while students are working on their writing. These pokes focus the students on one task at a time, so they can target a skill and not get overwhelmed with the revision process. The back of each card has a brief reminder of the term/skill in the poke. For example, a card from my free Essay Structure Pokes might ask the student to look over his/her introduction. The back of the card lists ways that they can lead into a thesis. These reminders are brief, and students may have to refer to their notes for further instruction, but it's a great starting point, one that allows the students to work more independently.

These pokes are a great tool for differentiation: you know that Jonathan has trouble writing thesis statements, Carly never has a topic sentence in a paragraph, and Thomas has mastered the basics, so it's time for him to experiment with his diction. When these students are writing, you can quickly instruct them all by giving each one a poke that focuses him/her on the skill they need to improve. Jonathan gets one that reminds him to check his thesis statement, Carly will work on creating topic sentences, and Thomas will get out the thesaurus and make more effective word choices.

In order to use these effectively, I have a series of tracking forms, with columns that match the skills I want students to master. For example, one of my Sentence Fluency forms lists different types of phrases that I'd like my students to experiment with. When one of my students illustrates that s/he knows how to use an appositive, I check that off. When I want them to revise, I'll look at the forms and see where there are areas of weakness, pull out a corresponding poke, and give it to the student. Your brain might work differently than mine, and you might prefer to check the column in an area where the student needs work. Regardless, it's an important step for tracking the skills of each student.

You can also use these pokes after you've taught a lesson on certain concepts that you want students to work on in their writing. Let's say you've just taught a lesson on word choice. You want kids to review what they've learned, so you pass out pokes for practice. You could give part of the class a poke that instructs them to use a metaphor in their writing, while other students are given one that asks them to use tactile imagery. Yet another group could be working on choosing the best word for the job. After they've had time to do as the poke instructed, they could trade cards with other students.

There are many ways that you can use these pokes --there are even editable cards so you can create your own. Check out my free Essay Structure Pokes and see what you think.

Happy teaching!

Teaching Speaking & Listening Skills

We English teachers spend a lot of time teaching our kids to read and write, but I'm not sure that most of us (myself included) spend as much time explicitly teaching speaking and listening skills. Most times, we just assign a speech, presentation or debate and just kind of expect that our students will know what to do at the time. Or, we might just give a short review of the things they should do: maintain eye contact, speak slowly and clearly, use your voice and body for emphasis. 

I know, that that's pretty much all I ever did until the last couple of years, and I was often disappointed with my students' presentations. More recently, I've come to accept that I was a big part of the problem.

I've always used lots of informal presentations in class, so kids could practice. I would give them an issue or topic to discuss, hand out chart paper and markers, and instruct them to record their ideas on the paper. Later, each group would take turns presenting their ideas. They would have a poster that was not well organized or easy to read -- completely useless for the audience. However, they used the poster for themselves as a giant notepad: each speaker would turn from the audience toward the chart paper, and read off their portion of the presentation.

It was not engaging. And it was all my fault.

These skills would carry over to their formal presentations: poorly constructed slideshows and lots of reading from the screen. I decided it was time for me to start explicitly teaching speaking & listening skills and now I build time into my instruction to do just that.  Read on to see what I did this week with my kiddos:

So, on Monday, after my kids had passed in their latest writing assignment, I launched into my Disney unit, one of my favourite lessons to get them thinking about the world around them. This lesson points out the gender and racial stereotypes that occur in many of the older Disney movies, and then gets the kids to evaluate whether or not they've improved with newer ones. I told them that I was going to present some ideas that they may whole-heartedly agree or disagree with. Because it was also a listening exercise, I instructed them to write these points down in their notes, and to record examples that would support my points -- or refute them.  I explain that they will need these notes for the discussions and activities that we will do as a class later.

Now because these are tenth graders who have not had a lot of experience with note-taking, I pause after the first few major points that I make, and ask them: what kinds of things did you write down?  If I think they're taking notes on unnecessary info, I'll tell them, and we'll discuss why. I will also pause every now and then and remind them to write down examples that support or refute my points.

Depending on the class, I may ask them to pass these notes in.  When they know that I'm looking at them, then they are much more likely to do so. This group is pretty keen, though, so knowing they'd need the notes for later was enough.

After my lesson, I told the kids that I wanted them to discuss their responses in groups -- reassuring that it was very ok to disagree with me. However, I wanted them to make sure that during their discussions the were adding to my points with more examples, or refuting them with different ones. I also wanted them to bring the discussion into other areas of the media, not just Disney.

Once they'd had a chance to debate, I asked each group to pick an element of the media or pop culture, other than Disney, that promotes positive or negative messages to teens. I made sure each group was covering a different topic; then, instructed them to plan a short presentation for the rest of the class to share their ideas and observations. When I passed out the paper and the markers, I pointed out that the purpose of the paper is for the audience: it should have a title with their topic followed by bullet points that highlight what they want to tell the group. Heads nodded in agreement.

And then they all started writing their notes on the paper.

I stopped them mid-tracks and asked  them to repeat what I'd told them about the posters. They responded perfectly. But their chart paper told a different story.

"OK," I said. "flip that paper over. Titles and bullets only."

They complied, but it was a struggle, because they were fighting against old habits. Hard.

At that point I passed out the index cards that I had for them, and told them that each person should write their own notes on the cards. They took a few minutes to sort that out and complete the task. Then, I asked each person to summarize the point that was written on the card in a short phrase or "title".

"That's your bullet point," I said. "It's just a guide for the audience to follow, not something for you to refer to. You should look only at your index card -- and the audience, of course."

Once we got that figured out, the posters took shape and became useful tools for the audience.

It was time to present.

But there was one more bit of instruction: I told the audience members to take note of things they agree/disagree with, so we could have a full class discussion after each group shared their ideas. This keeps them engaged and, of course, listening.

We only got through half of the groups today, but I was very pleased with the results. It took more work to get there, but the posters were good, the students faced the audience, and we had great debates after each one.  Next we have to work on the "OK ums..."

(Note: these are informal discussions, for skill building only. When it's time, we'll move onto more formal presentations, and at that time, I will include a section in the rubric for listening skills. I also have students evaluate each other during group discussions, so they know that their ability to listen and contribute is being assessed.)

I've also changed my lessons to include a lot more speaking opportunities for my students. You can read about how I use group discussions to introduce To Kill a Mockingbird here.

Happy teaching!

5 Steps for Better Research Essays

Do your students struggle with the research process? Are you tired of reading poorly paraphrased work? You might like to try the process that I've fine-tuned over the last few years. It's not perfect, but I've been reading much better essays since I started doing this.

The biggest problem I see with student essays is that they view the research as an end in itself, not a tool they can use to support their ideas. They use the research they find to make their points - to fill up their essays - rather than to support the points or arguments that they want to make.

To avoid this, I insist that they must choose a topic that will allow them to write a complete first draft that has NO research. Not a quote. Not a stat. I tell them that if they can't write a rough draft without looking outside themselves, then they just don't have enough to say on the topic. The essay needs to be about something they are passionate about or something that they know a lot about already -- and not because they've done research on it before. I stress that it's ok if some paragraphs are under-developed in a rough draft, because they are just getting their ideas down at this point.

The key to teaching kids to use research effectively is to focus on the steps necessary to do so. When I do a persuasive research essay, I require that they pass in all steps of the process in a writing folder, not just the good copy.  This way, you ensure that (for the most part), the students will complete each stage. Because students are required to pass in their first draft, they do not skip this all-important step of writing a rough copy that comes completely from them, with no outside sources.

To help them with this, I show them an exemplar that I've written, a draft that has no research. The draft is focused and organized, with a clear thesis and topic sentences; however it needs more detail and a lot of wordsmithing.  I point out to the students that my draft needs revision and research and that we'll use it later to show them how to improve their own essays. Next, I assign due dates for their outlines and first drafts to be complete. The past few semesters, I've put even more emphasis on the pre-writing stage with my planning stations. It's a very effective strategy to ensure that my students begin the process with an organized plan for writing their essays.

One step that many students skip is the one that requires them to actually look at their draft and decide which areas would benefit from outside information or quotations. They will just start Googling broad topics, hoping that something useful will show up in the search. To prevent this, we spent time working on how to narrow their search. First, I had them look back at my original draft. They got out their highlighters and I instructed them to indicate areas on the essay that would benefit from research -- and to note what kind of information it needed. For example, would a quote from an expert support a point? Did I need some facts and statistics for another one? They were spot on in their suggestions. It's always easier to evaluate someone else's work than one's own, so I think this step really helps them see what the need to do in their own work.

The next step, of course, was to look at  their own drafts. They highlighted and wrote notes in the margins, all before I started my lesson on how to paraphrase.

Unintentional paraphrasing is rampant. Students think they are paraphrasing properly, but they are really only changing a few words here and there. My students are always shocked when I tell them that using more than three words in a row from an outside source is a no-no. But I don't leave it at that; instead, I take them through some exercises that show them how to paraphrase and give them practice in doing so. Once I feel like they understand the steps they need to follow to research properly, we get out the Chrome Books and they begin to look for information that can support their ideas.
This year I gave them organizers to use as they researched. They recorded the information they found on the sheets, in point-form, and used these notes - rather than the original source - to include the research in their papers. This is a key step. I believe that a lot of unintentional plagiarism occurs because the kids copy-and-paste a nicely written sentence that they've found, and change a few words here and there. If, however, they record the information in short form, and work from their notes, they are much more likely to make the information their own. The essay will still be in their own voice 
and style, rather than peppered with the voice of other people.

I give them a day or two to complete the research and have them bring a hard copy of their newest draft to class.

At this point in the process, I feel like students have the basics covered. They have a draft that is focused and organized, with their ideas fleshed out with the research they found. It's time for the students to look at their word choice and sentence structure. This is always an important part of the revision process, but if we want them to smoothly incorporate research into their writing, we need to provide them with lessons to show them how to do that. For example, how do you effectively embed a quotation from an authority? How can you avoid using "says" all the time? When you use paraphrased information, how do you transition into it? Students need time to focus on those skills if we want them to smoothly incorporate their research.

They also need time to learn how to do in-text citations and works cited. Creating each is not hard. It's just time consuming. And boring. I acknowledge that fact and then give them time to work on it. I remind them how to do the citations. I show them examples of poorly done works cited and have them find the errors. And, if they do a poor job on their final copy, I ask them to redo it, because the only way they'll learn is if we hold them accountable to the process.

I know all of this takes more time, but it really is time time well spent. It has certainly made a huge difference in the quality of papers I get to read.

Do you have any tips for helping students research? I'd love to hear them!

Writing Lessons: The Power of Words

During a stormy February, I was teaching my Pre-IB class about the power of words. We talked about avoiding tired words and using active, vivid verbs. I did lessons on conno-tation and tone, and on sensory imagery and figurative language. However, I didn't want my students to just be able to identify language techniques and choose effective words when they write; I want them to understand how language choices can affect meaning. I want them to be able to recognize this in the texts they read as well as use it in their own writing, so I designed a series of lessons and activities to teach them how to do so.

After each mini-lesson on word choice, we would read. I instructed the students to get some post-it notes and mark passages that illustrated the author's use of language. For example, one day they looked for strong verbs and another they looked for words with strong connotation.  I ask them to look for one technique only in the beginning, so they can focus without getting over-whelmed. When we finished reading, students did a turn and talk and shared the passages with a partner, explaining the effect of the language choices as well. I was very pleased with the conversations that they had about language -- it was clear they were learning!

Writing Lessons -Word Choice

The students also worked though a series of collaborative activities designed to get them to practice what they had learned.  For the first one, I put different scenarios on the top of chart paper, arranged the students in groups, and instructed them to brainstorm words and images that could describe their assigned scenario. After a few minutes I started handing out "cards" to some of the students.  If their group was working on describing the classroom before a math exam, I gave one student a card that read "you're great at math" and another that said "you have test anxiety; other students received cards that read "tone", "strong verbs" and "imagery." I told them to start adding language that reflected what was on their card -- and not to tell the others what it said.

Writing Lessons -Word Choice
Once they had finished, I asked the "cardless" kids to guess what was written on their group mates' cards. After the guessed (or not) the student adhered it beside the words they had written on the poster. If they were having trouble guessing, I hovered and asked some questions to get them there.

This activity worked really well. First, the kids were given the opportunity to see how their words can change a writer's intended meaning. Someone who is introverted, for example, will describe a busy school hallway very differently than one who is a social butterfly. Their work also provided me with an opportunity to give some formative feedback. One thing I noticed was that most of the students were writing only one word, rather than full phrases.  I reminded  them of our lesson on imagery and figurative language and told them not to forget to use those tools as well.

Writing Lessons -Word Choice

Next up came one of my favourite group exercises. In the past I've had students work in groups to write a descriptive paragraph that captures the essence of a sour key.  I use it to teach the power of brainstorming, by having the students brainstorm words/phrases to describe it in three stages: how it looks, how it feels and  how it tastes. Then they write a group paragraph with the best one winning the remaining candy. Competition is always fierce! 

This time, however, I threw in a twist. After they had done their initial brainstorming, I gave each group a card that instructed them to write from a certain perspective. One group wrote as health enthusiasts and another as sugar addicts. One group wrote as though they were dentists, and another as candy "snobs". The resulting paragraphs were, of course, very different, and the kids got to see, once again, how language shapes meaning.

Finally, I had them do a writing prompt based on this photograph:

Writing Lessons -Word Choice
Before they wrote, I asked them to consider the girl: does she like to be by herself? Does she hate the cold? Is she an explorer? A dreamer? Why is she there? I gave them a few minutes to decide on the perspective from which they would write, then gave them time to complete the task.

The descriptive paragraph was one of the many writing prompts that they had in their journals. The journals had a variety of entries, and not all descriptive. I wanted them to recognize that language is equally as important in expository and persuasive writing, and after each entry, I asked them to go back and underline at least two places where they used language for effect.
Formative assessment tip

When I collected the journals, I did not write a single thing in the margins. Instead, I used a pink and a yellow highlighter. If I saw an example of effectively used language, I highlighted it in yellow; I used the pink one for language that could be more powerful.  I did this twice in each journal entry, and when I passed them back, I told the students to look it over and try to figure out what my color code meant.  They weren't long in doing so -- another sign that they had learned. Next, I had them attempt to use stronger language for their "pink" phrases, and write it in the margin. I'll look at their changes the next time we conference.

I've created two new products that are focused on teaching kids to use their words wisely. If you're interested, you can check them out: Writing Lessons: Word Choice and Writing Challenges

Happy teaching!

5 Ways to Get Students to Use Your Feedback

Does it make you crazy when you spend so much time crafting great feedback for your students, only to see their rubrics or assignments in the garbage can? Or, worse, seeing them make the same mistakes over and over, even after you've shown them how to improve? We're teachers. We want our kids to learn and grow. So how can we ensure that our feedback is not just a colossal waste of time?

One obvious way to make them use the feedback is to have them redo the assignment, but we all know the HUGE problem with that option -- it takes too much time. So how can we give feedback that gets used without spending every waking hour grading?

1. Require students to keep a feedback log.
Get them to record "skills to work on" every time you give them feedback. Then, the next time they do an assignment, ask them to highlight an area that demonstrates where they attempted to improve.

2. Ask for a feedback reflection after you return a graded assignment.
When you return an assignment, ask students to read your feedback at home that night and then write a reflection on what they need to do to improve. Ask them to hand it in the next day.

3. Find time to conference during the process.
I can't say enough about the importance of conferencing with students. It helps them learn, and it makes your grading easier. Conferences don't have to be long and should focus on one specific skill: "Katie, last time you had trouble with transitions. Can you show me where you used one in this assignment?" Katie can quickly show you where she used one effectively -- or not. If she still hasn't figured it out, you can do a quick, on-the-spot, just-in-time lesson with her.  (I've written in more detail about conferencing in this post.)

4. Don't give written feedback on the assignment.
Instead, highlight areas that are done well in one colour, and areas that need work in another (you could also use straight lines and squiggly lines). Give the assignment back to the students and have them tell you either verbally, or in writing. why each area was highlighted.

5.  Don't give them a grade until you have done one of the above.
Unfortunately, our students are often only concerned with that grade at the top of the assignment. Once they see it, many don't even read the feedback. Make sure you record the grade, but only put feedback (or highlighting) on the assignment. Then, only after you get a reflection or do a conference, give the student the mark.

Most importantly:
In order to use these strategies, you need to carve our more time during your classes. One way to do this is to assign and grade fewer assignments. Yes. I mean it. That doesn't mean that you're slacking off or that the kids are getting an easier course. It's quite the opposite, really. If you put more emphasis on skills attainment rather than on the number of assessments, then students might have fewer things to do, but they are more accountable for mastering skills. Quality trumps quantity every single time.

What about you? Do you have any tried and true tips for getting the kids to use your feedback? If you do, please share in the comments!

Teaching in Turbulent Times

Teaching in turbulent times: helping students raise their voices
I never dreamed that I'd have to write a post like this -- after all, I'm living in 21st century North America, during a decade that has seen so much positive social change. I teach in a school whose population is almost 20% refugee and immigrant students. I have a class with twelve of twenty-one students who were born in another country. This is a huge change from when I started teaching, but our province has opened it's doors to refugees and has changed the face of our school greatly -- and for the better.

My heart bleeds for my students and for the many immigrant students in Canada and the US. Yes, it's very different for our kids. Our country's doors are still open. But what must it be like for them, knowing that just next door, their countrymen (and relatives) are being banned, shunned, vilified? Will they feel afraid that it could happen here? I know that we will have to be hyper-aware of this in the next few weeks and do all we can to deal with any emotional fallout that might occur.

I also think we need to use this opportunity to talk about indifference and about raising one's voice in the face of injustice, even when it's not in your own backyard.  I'll never forget the first time I taught Wiesel's Night. We had just finished the first section of the memoir and Alex, a very earnest girl in the back row, drew our attention to this quote, when a young and deluded Wiesel asks: Annihilate an entire people? Wipe out a population dispersed throughout so many nations? So many millions of people! By what means? In the middle of the twentieth century! "How could it happen in the middle of the 20th century?" she asked, incredulous. She, and her classmates could not conceive of the idea that the rest of the world looked on and did not do anything about the Holocaust. They decided that it had to be the nature of news at the time -- it took people much more time to find out the facts. That had to be it.

That night, I prepared a slideshow that showed them the genocides that have happened since World War II, even ones in the media heavy 21st century: Rwanda, Darfur, Sudan, Bosnia, Yemen, Congo, Syria, and many more. I showed them the number of people killed and then asked if they were aware of this. I asked them what they did to stop it. "What can we do? It's so far away? We're only teenagers!" The discussion was fierce. Then, I put the quote from Wiesel back up on the screen: In the middle of the twentieth century? We've learned so much. We've come so far, and yet we still look away.

So what can our teens do when we are so far away? They can donate money, join groups, sign petitions, all things that do help, but are very remote for them. They may not see it as doing much. That's when it's time for JFK's quote: one man can make a difference, and every man should try.  It's a good time to get the kids to research Malala Yousafzai, a young girl who stood up against all odds and made a difference.  Or Craig and Marc Kielburger who, as teenagers saw injustice and then dedicated their lives to empowering youth.

Not all of out teens will be able to do heroic and global actions like Malala or the Kielburgers.  But they can make a difference. When they see injustice, whether it's a playground bully or a political one, they can raise their voice. When they see a group in their community that is oppressed, they can find ways to help. When a decision is made in their world that they know is morally wrong, they need to speak up.

What can we do as teachers to help them? We can start by finding ways to make them aware of what is going on in the world. I know we need to avoid being overly political, but with the texts we use in English class, there are always opportunities to find links and ideas we can discuss. Night, Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird, Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, 1984, Of Mice and Men, are just some if the classics in our classroom that tell tales of oppression and hate -- and ways to overcome them.  We can teach our students how to debate and argue in ways that are effective and logical. We can teach them the importance of listening to and considering opposing views (your students will have them. How we handle and model reactions to this is so important). We can ask that they consider facts and both sides before they make a decision. We can give them an assignment that requires them to stand up for someone in their community. We can model empathy and caring. We can expect it in our classrooms and hallways.

There's so much that one person can do.

This year, when I teach Night, I will show them this story from the Washington Post that explains that Anne Frank and her family were denied the chance to flee to the US during World War II.  At the time, Frank wrote: "It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality." But she also said "It's a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart." We can't let today's grim realities crush our ideals. People are truly good at heart. Help your students see that, to see the humanity in everyone, and to always, always respect it.

Do you have any ideas or lessons that teach students how to raise their voice? I'd love to have you share them in the comments!

Final Assessment Conference

I wasn't planning to write a post today, but during my twelfth grade class this morning, I was reminded of how powerful our final assessment conferences are, and I wanted to share that with you.

But first a little background:

Our English department has, over the last number of years, developed a final assessment for our students that is process based, rather than a sit down, pen and paper exam.  The students answer the following question: what have you learned about human nature, based on the literature you have studied in this course? They need to reference three different texts and make connections to the real world.

The final paper is due on Thursday, but last week they had to go through and pass in several steps of the process it takes to write a great essay. First, they participate in a small group seminar that explores the topic; then, they pass in a thesis/proposal for my feedback. Over the next few days they work on collecting the evidence they will need to complete the assignment. They pass in these notes for feedback as well.  For each step, they are given a grade, with 40% of the final devoted to the process, and 60% for the final copy.

The last step before the good copy is to meet with me to discuss their progress. Today, they needed to show me a complete first draft of the essay and, more importantly, be ready to discuss what they need to do to turn their draft and ideas into a final product. To do this, they were instructed to go through the feedback they've gotten over the semester to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses, and to inform their decisions about what to work on in the final stages of the process.

These conferences are always the best part of the year with my students. Because it's their final assessment, most of them take it very seriously, even the ones who didn't always put forth their best effort all year. Most spend quite a bit of time reflecting on their feedback, and so we have some very meaningful conversations about what they can do to improve their essay. I don't read and revise the draft. Instead, I tell them to remind me of their thesis and to walk me through the argument. I ask them if they have any questions or concerns about the direction the work is taking them. Almost always there's a little a-ha moment as I chat with them about their plans for the final copy.  And regardless of what it is they need to work on, it's ten minutes of one-on-one time that we get to spend together before they leave my class.

You may not have the freedom to have a final assessment like the one I described, but this type of conference could still work. If you're having a final exam, for example, you could plan to conference with the students about what they need to work on in preparation for the exam, or on what they've learned about themselves as students.  You just need to plan to have your class working on something that does not need your direction, and then take your students one by one for a conference. I'd suggest you take them out into the hallway to give them some privacy -- it's amazing how they can open up when you have them one on one!

Conferences are not just good for the end of the year either! You can read my post on why you should use them all year long here.