As part of our advisory curriculum this year, I have been leading my advisees in conversations about the growth mindset and have been impressed by their candor and their willingness to reflect upon their own mindsets. My students have acknowledged that it is often not easy for them to focus solely on the grade they receive. Though we talked about many reasons for this, one observation from an advisee really hit me:
Just Say No to Book Reports and Yes to Blogging!
I wish I could remember the name of the graduate school professor I had who facetiously made this statement about book reports – “Yes, the first thing I want to do when I finish a great book, is to make a diorama” – because that really struck a chord. Not that there’s anything wrong with dioramas per se, but like many, usually when I read a great book, I want to process it and talk about it. I do not want to make a mobile of important characters and symbols (is it bazaar that I can still picture the mobile I made in third grade but have no idea what book said mobile was on) or run to find the nearest empty shoebox. Thus, in my attempt to stop destroying reading for my students, I have tried to change up the dreaded summer reading project to hopefully! make it a bit more interesting.
In the past few years, I have asked students to write a book review of the various required readings that they have done, and although I don’t think this was a bad approach, it really only allowed me to view their writing once school had already started. This was helpful but would have been more beneficial over the summer when I try to do a lot of planning. So, in trying to work “smarter not harder,” I have dropped this activity and instead am asking my students to respond to some discussion boards via our classroom blog.
Although I firmly believe in having students create the content on the blog, for this summer blogging experience, I have asked students to respond to questions I have created, seeing as the majority of these students have not done any form of blogging before. Basically, I am using the blog as the means for threaded discussions. Below, you will find my process for creating the posts regarding our summer reading book The Book Thief. You can also check out our Summer Reading Page and feel free to add to our discussion if you have read The Book Thief!
Thoughts about Process:
- Why a blog and not Schoology or something similar: If this were done during the school year, Schoology discussion boards would be a great tool, but seeing as the summer is a time to create new classes and archive previous information on the site, I felt this activity would be easiest with something I could easily control and that was also very simple to use for new students.
- Optional “I’m confused” posts: The Book Thief is a fairly long book that can sometimes be confusing due to the unique narration style. I decided to create a few posts allowing students to ask questions regarding the book as I didn’t want them to continue reading not having any idea what was going on. So far, these haven’t been used, and they may not, but at least the students (and parents) know they are there if need be. I monitor all posts, so students can respond to their classroom’s questions but if there is an error in information, I can easily delete the post.
- Limited number of discussion boards: I will be teaching a small class next year of about 48 students. I did not want to have so many discussion boards that there ended up being little discussion. I also wanted to make sure my students responses to said discussions were varied and not repetitive.
- Required number of sentences per posts: I’ll admit that this is something I hemmed and hawed about as I am not a firm believer in this approach. However, I do not know these students all that well nor they me. They do not know my expectations, and I do not want them to “mess up” because they didn’t understand what I was looking for. Requiring a certain amount of sentences and providing models for what good responses look like makes sure that students are taking the easy out and also makes sure they provide enough information that I can use as pre-assessments.
- More required responses to classmates than individual thoughts: I want my students to read what their peers are writing. This will allow them to see a book at a different level. If they are only writing down their own thoughts, they will never stop and read what their classmates have written. So, I can guarantee that they will read at least four of their classmates thoughts simply by making this requirement.
- Models, Models, Models: It’s no surprise that I just finished Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like Us, a book that discusses the importance of modeling while teaching writing. I have provided many models of both good and bad comments so that my students know exactly the type of writing I am looking for. Continue Reading
My education instructors would probably be terribly disappointed to find out that some of my “best teaching moments” have not come from careful planning and thought but were merely off the cuff ideas. Case in point – finally finding something to actually get 8th graders to edit a piece of writing – ON THEIR OWN!
I view editing differently than revising and always tell my students that it is the last thing they should do before turning in a piece of work. Students write all their essays on GoogleDocs in my class, and although I do typically have them print out a paper to revise, they often will stick to the computer for editing. This doesn’t mean they do it well or even have any idea where to start. I finally came to the conclusion this year that I could not leave my students to edit on their own, even after what I believed was careful instruction, but that I needed to give them time in class to edit their writing, so I could actually watch their approach.
This year as I reviewed some tips with students regarding things they should look over and some strategies for doing so, I suggested they use the Find feature on their browser to look for common errors. Little did I know that this one spur of the moment thought – and it was just that – would have such a great effect on my students’ writing. We brainstormed things that we could put into the Find feature: we found commas to make sure we were putting them in the right places, looked for words that frequently cause fragments (if you’re familiar with Jeff Anderson’s Mechanically Inclined, they are known as AAAWWUBBIS words), and even typed in some commonly misspelled words among other things.
In about fifteen minutes, students realized that they found a good number of errors in their work, but more importantly that they found errors that they knew how to fix. They were excited to make the changes and felt accomplished at the work they put in. . At the end of the year, when I asked students to edit their papers on their own and reflect on the strategies that they used to edit their work, the majority of the class used the Find feature. Several even commented on their formal evaluations that this was something that greatly helped them as writers. It was important that they realized how quick this strategy was and how much it could improve their work. Let’s face it – 8th graders don’t exactly have long attention spans, especially for things they do not think work.
Something often so simple is easily overlooked but can be extremely powerful. This tool was helpful for my students because it was tangible and allowed them to focus on one thing at at time. I often tell them that the best writers are not those that do not make mistakes but are those that realize the mistakes they frequently made. This simple strategy allowed my students better understanding of their own writing and better grades as a result. And who can complain about that!
I declared at the start of the New Year that 2013 was going to be the year to make things happen. It has yet to disappoint. This summer will bring a new position, a new apartment, and a new anterior cruciate ligament. Needless to say, the former two are a bit more exciting. Although I am eager to start my new position as Dean of Middle School students and to move from residential life to the suburbs, I am actually most excited about the changes I will get to bring to my teaching next year.
At my school, we have had some major changes in administration, which has worked hard to connect our educational practice to our mission and best practices in education. We are attempting to move beyond the fifty block periods (although we still have them for right now) and are being encouraged to build interdisciplinary unit plans and dabble in project based learning. F.I.N.A.L.L.Y.
Although I am not always on board with change and do sometimes view decisions with cynicism, to me, I am finally being asked to teach in a way that I truly believe works best. It’s also helpful that there is so much research to align with these ideas.
As I approach my ninth year teaching, seventh year of teaching the same course (holy cow!), I feel a sense of renewal regarding what I can potentially infuse into the curriculum and parlay to my students. No seven year itch here. I’m just itching to begin! This summer will be my first summer where I actually am required to work, but I don’t think it’s going to be a problem at all. Any advice regarding PBL projects, particularly, in the English classroom, please feel free to share!
I sat in bed the other night, crying giant ugly tears like a baby. No, no one had died. I was not severely injured or waking from a nightmare and there was no major tragedy going on in my life. I simply was reading a beautiful book with a bright blue cover. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars was a superb, heart-breaking novel that, though intended for young adults, could be read by anyone who searches for characters that are complex and easy to adore and plots that are both sophisticated, intriguing, and real.
I remember reading Lurlene McDaniel’s books about cancer when I was younger. These books were everything a pre-teen girl could want – filled with love, sadness, and drama. No, they weren’t award winning, but I adored them and likely read every single work that she wrote during that time in my life. Green takes a different approach to writing about cancer patients and does not hide the hideous ugliness that cancer paints on its victims. This is what makes this book special and why you are able to fall in love with his characters. Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters are not just two teenagers in a book that fall in love while dealing with cancer, they are characters that come to life and force us to really understand how horrific disease can be for youth and all those who connect with them. Most importantly, it allows us to see that cancer, no matter how hideous it might be, does not define who you are, no matter what your age.
We don’t like to think about children or teenagers suffering from a disease that makes it difficult for them to walk or breathe or forces them to confront their own mortality. But that doesn’t hide the fact that this is the life of some of the youth in our world. Green honors these children with a beautiful story by creating an incredibly smart and witty heroine who, even though you know her inevitable fate, you root for. And although cancer obviously factors in to the story, ultimately, this is not a story about cancer – it is a story about friendship, love, and the great ability that humans have to affect their world and each other. That’s what Hazel and Augustus are able to do – they make life better for each other and the people that they meet along the way. No, their life is not easy, but it is still life and they must learn to live it.
Although I do think this book is best suited for students high school and beyond, I believe that it is a book many would enjoy. I often judge a book by how deeply it affects me and grabs at my soul. This one not only grabbed it, but held on for quite a while. The fact that I finished it within the last two weeks and already want to read it again should also be a good indicator of how much I enjoyed it. Though at times it is difficult to read in terms of emotion, – you will laugh at loud and may cry some ugly tears – it is very, very worth it.
Word of the Week: Failed.
New Year’s Resolution: Failed.
I didn’t plan on purposely failing my New Year’s Resolution, to blog daily, the same week that the adjective for our class blogging word of the week challenge was “failed.” It was merely a poetic twist of fate. I had all intent to fully commit to my goal, to stay up late in the night if needed, quoting Shakespeare and sharing my wondrous wisdom (sarcasm) with the world. Unfortunately, need for sleep and my obsession with spotlighting the WA English Blog to the masses won out over sheer desire, and I haven’t actually submitted a true blog post – until now – in about 10 days.
I am typically not one to make resolutions, and – never one to be cliche- if I do make them, I follow them. But this was something I really wanted to do. I had committed to this challenge so that you, my precious students, could see that I believed in the value of blogging and to show you that even English teachers can grow from continued practice. Now, don’t think that my failure is an escape from your monthly blogging assignments, and that I am going to come in to class and say, you know what, this blogging isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. I’m not. I still LOVE blogging and am amazed at the work you have produced. And even if you aren’t admitting it to me, I know that many of you really enjoy it too. Instead, I am writing because I want you to realize something about failure – if we don’t fail, we don’t grow. OK, sometimes I enjoy a good cliche.
I now realize that my goal was too lofty, that I do not have the time or energy to commit to blogging every day. I also know that in trying to write daily, I was struggling to find things to write about, and, as a result, the quality of my posts was not as I would have wished. But I also let you down in the process because this is something I wanted you to see me do. Perhaps I made a little “Jerry” mistake – you know, our buddy from The Chocolate War. Perhaps I didn’t really think about my decision before I committed to it and by going in blindly, I set myself up for failure. I realize, now, after the fact, like Jerry did, that I made a mistake. But unlike Jerry, I am not giving up. What fun is that? And what kind of teacher would I be then?!?! So instead, I am re-evaluating my goal and thinking about how I can make it happen.
My new goal is simply to try and blog each day, to at least think about it. If I can think of something to write about, I will. If I can’t, I won’t force it. Each night, before I shut my computer down to do a little leisurely reading – who am I kidding, if it’s Tuesday, I’m watching Dance Moms - I am going to sign on to my blog and see what comes of it.
There might be days when I post five times and days when I don’t post at all. Maybe I’ll get to 365 posts by the end of the year. Maybe I won’t. I do know that this is an approach I can handle and that I will both grow as a teacher and an individual from doing so.
In the past, I might have let my failure get me down. It would explain the 8 blogs I have attempted and since deleted – one post does not a blog make. But not this time. Not with you watching. This time it is going to help me succeed, which is what I hope for all your future failures.
“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far it is possible to go.”– T.S. Eliot
We are reading The Chocolate War in class right now, one of my absolute favorite books to read and teach. I love it because my students tend to hate it or strongly dislike it. This makes for fantastic class discussions. If you aren’t familiar with the Robert Cormier classic, it is a very pessimistic look at corruption in schools and is centered around a line from T.S. Eliot’s “Lovesong of J. Alred Prufrock” – “Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?”
To better help my students understand the risk that the main character Jerry Renault took so that they could better understand Cormier’s approach and the book’s ending, we had a discussion about “smart” risk vs. “dumb” risk. In a “Yay vs. Nay: Are you Risky” warm-up, I learned that most of my students are quite daring – or at least they are when they are playing Yay vs. Nay. Many would sky-dive, chance not studying for a test, run with the bulls, and shock of all shocks lie to a teacher! They assured me that the latter would only be in extreme cases of avoiding hurting someone’s feelings if you say, didn’t like her haircut.
The idea of risk-taking can be seen as quite negative, but in reality safe or “smart” risk, as we called it, is the only way to achieve personal growth. If we never leave our comfort zones, then we cannot stretch ourselves and see what potential positives could come our way. I, as a teacher, obviously want my students to grow in all aspects of their life. I support and encourage them to take safe risks and praise their attempts. This means different things for different students and it is important to acknowledge who a student is when we are encouraging risk. As a teacher I know this, as a person, however, I sometimes forget.
This year, I am attempting to be bolder in my risk-taking. I tend to be someone that is rather slow and steady and avoids leaping into anything. I have already set goals that will help me accomplish this, have thought about potential consequences, and have support systems in place to help me achieve success. This might lead to big changes or simply a better understanding of self, but regardless of the outcome, I will be better for having tried it. I try, as much as possible, to practice what I preach, so I know I have to step it up. As I teach my students when reading this book, in order to “disturb your universe,” you have to take a risk, but as long as that risk is “smart” and you are ready for the possible repercussions, it probably isn’t that risky after all.
Although I though I had read Lois Duncan’s Stranger with My Face when I was a teenager, reading it last week made me think otherwise. If I had read it, I didn’t remember a single things about the storyline. As a huge lover of mysteries – though not necessarily of the thriller genre – I was looking forward to reading a book geared more toward my student’s age group than my own.
Laurie lives on a small island off the coast of New England in a beautiful house and things seem to be going perfectly for her the summer before her senior year. She has a great boyfriend who has introduced her to a new, more popular, social scene and she enjoys her fun, albeit somewhat different family. And although she isn’t always confident about her looks and isn’t easily able to identify herself with her parents, she is happy. This all changes when her boyfriend swears he sees her out and about after she tells him she is sick and cannot be his date at a party. Laurie knows she was home but cannot make her boyfriend believe her. As she returns to school that fall, she realizes that her boyfriend isn’t lying – a stranger exists with her face. What unfolds is a sometimes riveting tale of Laurie’s attempt to figure out just who this person is and includes some interesting information on astral projection.
As I read this book and thought about whether or not my students would latch on to it, I found both positives and negatives. I think my students, especially the Pretty Little Liars lovers would enjoy the thrilling aspects of the book – it is quite suspenseful and Duncan does a great job leaving cliff hangers at the end of nearly every chapter. You do want to keep reading. I just don’t know if the book has lasting power. Written in the early 80s, there are many things that do not transfer into our modern age. Whether that be allowing high school students to drink or inappropriate comments about a character with a disfigured face, there is a lack of universality to this book in terms of setting that I think some students would have some difficulty with. In addition, Duncan jumps in time a great deal. Major things happen but are not really described well; they are simply mentioned as new things unfold and, as the reader, you are left wanting more. Continue Reading
I’ll never forget how I learned to correctly catch a softball. It just so happened to take place on the same day a softball cracked my collarbone. Not only did my mother learn never to leave me alone at practice again (of course, it happened to be the first time she ever just dropped me off) but I very quickly realized that trying to catch a pop fly by holding a glove at your waist instead of at your shoulder was not proper form. Well, at least I was “under it.”
My unfortunate mistake cost me a summer of playing ball and swimming in a pool, forced me to wear a harness for a month and prevented me from raising my arm past my shoulder for a good three weeks. Yup, I learned a hard lesson. And sometimes, I hope my students will learn hard lessons as well. No, I don’t want them to fracture body parts, but I do want them to make mistakes. Because it isn’t just cliche – you actually do learn better and often more when you have done it wrong at least once before. Knowing not what to do is just as important as knowing what to do. You have a better sense of how things work and will become more successful in the future as a result.
Recently, my students had difficulty answering vocabulary related short answer questions completely, so we analyzed questions and responses to determine why some replies were better than others. By the end of the brief lesson, I had a firm belief that many of my students who had gotten it wrong the first time had a much better sense of how they should attack this style question in the future. They, in turn, were more confident, were better able to explain their knowledge, and most importantly, did not simply just accept their first attempt as weakness.
How one responds to failure or challenge truly defines one’s character. Simply accepting it and refusing to learn from it shows weakness but embracing it can be extremely rewarding and powerful and a sign of strength. As teachers, we have a responsibility to encourage failure, to let our students know that it is okay to get something wrong or to find something difficult. But we cannot just simply leave it at that. We have to help our students move on from their challenges, help them fix their mistakes, and allow them to reflect upon past difficulties. We have to build up their confidence so they realize that smart people aren’t perfect and don’t always have it right, especially the first time.
As a ten-year old, my parents could have let me decide never to play softball again; they could have accepted that I was scared to get back on the field, that I clearly wasn’t very good. But they didn’t. Instead, they and my coaches supported me, taught me how to prevent the same thing from happening, and even made me laugh at my mistake. Without that support, I would never have come to love a game as much as I still do. To err IS human, but it is not just forgiveness that is divine, it is the ability to move beyond a mistake, learn, and grow from it.
So yes, I hope my students do sometimes get it wrong because I want them to feel that incredible feeling that comes from growth. That same feeling I felt when I eventually caught the ball the right way and not with my collarbone.
Most books geared toward teaching reading acknowledge that activating prior knowledge and providing frames of reference are essential to achieving deep comprehension. This does not just mean teaching information essential to understanding the setting or plot but also means giving students necessary information that will help “frame,” as Kelly Gallagher refers to it, their reading. For difficult literature, this is especially important as it helps students have a better context for what they read.
Prior to reading a text, I will spend time with my students examining the title, reviewing the back of the book, the cover, and the first line of the text as a way for them to think about what they read before actually reading it. In addition, I create iMovie trailers of the book for the students to view. These, I believe, have been especially helpful and give the students a good context of the story. They also, if done well, can really work to get a student interested in a story they may otherwise find burdensome.
The key benefit to making a trailer is that it can be adapted to connect to the goals of the unit. For example, I want my students to focus on the ideas of power and corruption when reading The Chocolate War, which I was able to emphasize in my movie trailer. The trailer can be used to make predictions prior to reading the novel and can be shown again throughout the novel to confirm or negate these predictions or as a means to remind students what they should focus on while reading. Frequently, my students have referenced the movie trailer in our discussions of the book, as it did help give them a sense of the story before they read it and allowed them to make connections. In addition, it is a great source for visual learners.
Below is the iMovie that I made for The Chocolate War to give you a sense of how I use it in the classroom. Some clips were taken from the actual film that were found on YouTube.
Although I did not use them, I do think the iMovie templates found on iMovie 11 could be very helpful for a novice user. Teachers could also use iMovie trailers as a way to extend a novel by having students create them after finishing a book. All in all, I find this a very good strategy to prepare my students to better understand their reading.
Camera Photo Credit: Mike Licht
I have used Google Docs (now Drive) in the classroom for about six years now, and I can honestly say that it has improved my ability as an English teacher probably more than any other tech-related tool. I could list a bunch of different reasons why I think it is something that every student and teacher in the country should be using, but perhaps that will come later. Instead, I want to discuss its ability to allow me to grade better and offer more detailed and specific feedback to my students.
I did not start out by grading online even after the first couple of years of using Google Docs, mostly because it seemed a bit tedious. As an English teacher, it was frustrating to have to add in things like commas and then change the color so the student knew that I had changed his work. It was easier for me to just grade by pen. Despite this, there were times when I would provide feedback and grades online, and even when it was somewhat burdensome, I realized that the quality of my comments was much higher – largely because I could type faster than I write, write more, and not be held back by the writer’s cramp that most English teacher can identify with after grading a stack of 60 three-page papers.
My students appreciated the feedback online as well. They didn’t have to worry about figuring out my cursive/print style hand-writing, easily could identify which portion of the paper I was talking about as Google Docs highlights the section of the writing attached to the comment, and didn’t have to worry about losing the paper if they wanted to go back and see prior mistakes. Their positive response made me realize that even if it was at times tedious, the good far outweighed the bad. Plus, it became tremendously helpful for me to be able to have a record of my comments that I could look back to when writing grades and assessing future work. I didn’t have to worry about making photocopies. And when I needed to find a previous piece of writing, I didn’t have to search through the stacks of paper still waiting to be filed at the corner of my desk. Do teachers actually have time to file?? Everything was neatly arranged in folders that students had created and shared with me on Google Docs. Portfolios? Check.
As I began to solely grade papers online, I also realized that I was doing too much for my students. Fixing sentences with poor punctuation, re-writing structures to help students get them to sound right, or pointing out every single mistake did not help them – especially when for the most part, they didn’t re-write their final drafts. Now, instead of identifying every mistake, I focus on things I am going to be assessing and color-code student’s work in terms of the type of error they make. For example, spelling or mechanical mistakes are highlighted blue and sentence structure mistakes are highlighted in red. Students then must go back and figure out the type of error they made – with help if necessary – and re-write the sentence so it no longer contains a mistake. This forces them to actually think about what they did wrong and, more importantly, it puts the corrections in the hands of the person who needs to know how to fix them, and it makes my students more independent and responsible for their own learning.
I will, of course, continue to grade online, but also know that sometimes I wish I had a pen that I could add symbols like arrows or stars to what I am grading. This is why I was so excited to see that there is an app soon to be coming to the iPad that will allow you to mark-up a Google Doc with a stylus. The app is called gradeonipad and I, personally, cannot wait for the email to come through that says I can give it a try. With this app, I can’t imagine why any English teacher would continue making his/her students print out papers that they are then forced to carry home if they had the option. And even if you don’t have access to an iPad, give Google Docs and online grading a try. Trust me, it’s worth it.