Monday, 2 May 2016

I Read... The Crossover

If you are looking at a beautiful combination of poetry and storytelling, grit and heart, then I would highly recommend The Crossover by Kwame Alexander.

I had picked up The Crossover for a few reasons.  First of all, it is an award winning YA book (2015 Newberry Medal and Coretta Scott King Award Honor).  Secondly, I was intrigued by the use of poetry, font, and space in the storytelling.  Finally, it looked like something that would appeal to young male readers.  You might say that I had high expectations, and they were blown out of the water.

The Crossover follows twin brothers Josh and Jordan, who inherited their talent and love of basketball from their father, a former champ.  The close-knit family also includes their mother, who is Assistant Principal of their school.  The story is split into six sections - warm up, four quarters, and overtime.  Aside from the obvious connection to the game that the boys love, there is a second layer that relates to the importance of family and growing up.  Interspersed throughout the story are 10 rules of basketball (that could be renamed rules of life).  I  would love to see students apply these to their own lives and write their own rules of _______________ (fill in the blank with their passion or interest).

I loved that the family story was so typical.  This is a positive example of what a family can look like.  Everyone loves each other and looks out for one another.  When there are tensions in the family, they are very easy to relate to - jealousy, feeling abandoned, changing priorities.  The story revolves around consequences of our actions, but never rings false or "preachy."  I also loved the way that the book addressed race - with subtlety that is more powerful than any in your face depiction that I can think of.  When Josh and his father are pulled over for having "a broken taillight," the tension is palpable.  This is a great opportunity for teachers to talk about racism today.  I find that when I teach To Kill a Mockingbird, students can get the sense that racism is behind us.  The Crossover quietly reminds us that this is not the case.  By the end of the story, there is a life-changing family tragedy (I won't spoil it for you) that had me in tears.

The poetry had a hip-hop feel, and the use of font size and word placement added to the story - I could feel the movement of the boys running up and down the court and hear the swish of the net whenever they sunk a ball.  While some readers might find the poetic form offputting, especially if they feel that poetry is too academic, commit to 1-3 chapters.  In no time you will forget that you are reading "poetry," and instead feel that you are listening to a performance.  If I were to look for something to criticize about the book, it might be that it seems like an oral form that has been written down.  I think that the execution is marvellous, but I can imagine that some might say that they would like to hear and/or watch the story rather than read it.

If you have a reluctant young reader in your life, especially a boy, see if you can hook them in with the promise of short chapters and sports.  Once you're hooked, you will be in for an absolute treat.

Food for Thought... what are some of your favourite modern YA novels?

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

I Read... Pop Sonnets

I can't tell  you how many times I have heard a teacher say that their favourite way to teach poetry is through music.  It's the easiest way to hook kids in.  Once a student knows that they can bring their favourite songs in as texts to be studied, they are automatically engaged.  One of my most successful activities was using "Firework" by Katy Perry as a vehicle to teach figurative language.

When I stumbled across the Pop Sonnets website, I was an instant fan.  Top pop songs are turned into Shakespearean sonnets.  When Pop Sonnets came out with a book, Pop Sonnets: Shakespearean Spins on Your Favorite Songs, I was first in line to pick it up.

Now I use this as a model to introduce the format and content of Shakespearean sonnets.  Students study the rules of Shakespearean sonnets alongside not only Shakespeare's work, but also with samples from Pop Sonnets.  Once students understand the structure and the purpose of the sonnets, I ask them to complete an activity.  Students must A) rewrite one of their favourite songs into a "Pop Sonnet" (students know that I am tech savvy enough to see if they have copied their sonnet, so these are always original) and B) students must find one of Shakespeare's sonnets to compare and contrast their piece to.  By doing this, students not only show that they fully understand the form, but they are also demonstrating that they can make connections between Shakespearean text and modern texts.

Food for Thought... how do you use music and poetry together in your classroom?

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Argue Like a Lawyer

I've mentioned the struggle that students have with supporting evidence in the past. So what is an authentic situation where supporting evidence is vital?  As teachers, we have probably all gone to the example of a teenager arguing with his or her parents.  If you want to extend your curfew, how can you convince your parents?  I don't know about you, but that approach has never garnered great results for me.  When I was watching TV one night, an idea came to me.  Sidebar - isn't that always the way?  A teacher's brain is never fully "off"!  You can barely turn on the television without catching a courtroom drama.  Lately, my students have been into The People vs. O.J. Simpson and Making a Murderer.  This means that your students have likely watched a lawyer - real or fictional - make a strong argument.  Why not use that experience to your advantage in the classroom?

I use this activity as an alternative to writing a plan or outline for an essay.  First of all, the students need a strong position or thesis statement.  What are they trying to prove?

Now they need to think like a lawyer.  How will they convince the jury, or the teacher, that they are right?  I tell them that they need to give me three reasons.  These three reasons need to be in their own words, and a reason is not a restatement of something that happened in the novel that they read.  Finally, students need to make a counterclaim.  They need to think of a strong reason that someone might disagree with them and disprove it.  Finally, they need to come up with a strong closing argument.  I might have students watch some examples of opening and closing arguments to see how lawyers use language to their advantage.

Food for Thought... How do you get your students to use strong supporting evidence?

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Grammar Journals

I hate teaching a grammar unit.  The idea seems crazy to me - kids hate it, teachers hate it, so why do some of us insist on teaching this way?  I think the answer is that we know that kids are struggling with grammar and conventions, and use of technology certainly doesn't seem to be helping things.  We feel a responsibility to help our students to be better writers.  One idea that you might try instead of those dry worksheets is a grammar journal.

Grammar journals allow students to apply their knowledge of writing in a practical way.  The journals are also a safe place where students can take risks, knowing that errors will not hurt their grades.  Students are given various journal prompts - anything that you as a teacher would authentically have them write about.  These prompts might be related to literature being studied in class, might be based on an issue that is relevant to students, or it might be a free writing activity.

Prior to giving the students their writing prompt, give a mini lesson on the grammar skill that you want them to practice.  I would usually pull lessons from trends that I was noticing in their work.  If comma splices were showing up in my major writing assignments, I would do a mini lesson on comma splices before introducing my journal prompt.  Students would then be told to pay special attention to their use of commas in their writing.

I like to have students write two column journals.  On the left hand side, students will write their journal entries.  On the right hand side, they will make comments related to the mini lesson.  So in this case, students would write about their use of commas.  They have the opportunity to reflect on their use of commas, places where they left commas out, and ask questions.  

Food for Thought... how do you teach grammar?

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Making a Counterclaim

In the past, I have discussed the struggle that students have with supporting evidence.  One tool in the toolbox that will help them to write stronger, more convincing essays is writing a counterclaim.

A counterclaim is a claim that rebuts a previous claim.  Some students shy away from making counterclaims because they fear that introducing another point of view will weaken their argument.  In fact, a strong counterclaim will do just the opposite.  When the author gives the reader several strong arguments as to why his or her thesis is correct, they are providing good evidence.  If they can imagine how someone might try to prove their thesis wrong, recognize that argument, and give evidence that their argument is stronger, they are providing great evidence.

If you are trying to come up with a strong counterclaim, take a good look at your thesis statement.  Pretend that you were going to write an essay using the exact opposite thesis statement.  What would be your strongest argument?  Now use that as the basis of your counterargument.  Think about how you can convince your reader that, not only is your argument great, but the opposite argument is weak.

For example, I might be told to write an essay discussing whether or not Romeo and Juliet were truly in love in Romeo and Juliet.  If my argument is that they were not in love, but merely lust, that is my thesis statement.  For my counterargument, I have to consider that some people will say that Romeo and Juliet were in love.  How can I prove that this is wrong?  I might use Romeo's feelings for Rosaline to show that, for Romeo, love was a fleeting emotion and that, given more time, he likely would have fallen out of "love" with Juliet as well.

Some sentence starters to help students to integrate counterclaims into their work are:

  • Some might argue...
  • While it might be true that _________________, it is important to recognize that ...
  • While others might say that _____________, a stronger argument is that...
  • It is commonly believed that _____________, but...
  • ____________ may be true, but...
  • It is easy to understand why one might think ______________, but the facts suggest...
  • Some critics/researchers have said _______________, however...
  • It is often thought that _________________, but the truth is...
Food for Thought... what are some of the strong counterclaims that you have seen students make?  How did you help them to write that counterclaim?

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Writing a Thesis Statement

For some reason, the word "thesis" scares students.  As soon as I tell my students that we are working on thesis statements, I automatically hear the groans.  But is it really that hard to write a thesis statement?  I would argue that it isn't.  After all, teenagers don't seem to have a problem arguing with their parents and teachers!  If students take a few steps to ensure that they have a solid, workable thesis statement, they will have a stronger essay.

The first step is understanding the topic.  Here is an example of an essay topic that my students might get:

Discuss the idea(s) developed by the text creator in your chosen text about the role adversity plays in shaping an individual's identity.

When I look at this topic I need to think about A) the idea(s) adversity in my text - how will I define adversity?  Who undergoes adversity?  Who is changed by adversity? B) how that adversity shapes an individual's identity - what was their identity before the adversity?  What was their identity after?  and C) given both A and B, what idea(s) do I think the author is trying to develop?

So what text am I going to choose to write about?

What character(s) will I discuss?

What is my position on the essay prompt (what idea(s) is the text creator developing)?

Are there any qualifications that I need to make (is this always true?)?

What is the reason for developing this idea (what good might be gained through my position)?

An activity that I like to do with students is working on thesis statements as a group.  This requires the kids to discuss different perspectives, negotiate, and come to a consensus as to the best possible thesis statement.  The group brainstorming tends to sound something like the following:

We will write about Death of a Salesman.  If we look at the adversity that Willy faces, we see that he cannot handle adversity and as a result he kills himself.  We can see that this has a negative impact on his family through Linda's words.  But do all people who face adversity kill themselves when they can no longer handle things?  Obviously not.  What is it about Willy that leads him to this decision?  Is it the fact that he lives in a world of fantasy and now that he has been faced with reality he can't deal with it?  So our thesis is:

People who avoid reality by escaping to a perfect fantasy world are unable to cope with adversity in the real world, so when they can no longer escape they take extreme measures to deal.

Once every group has written a thesis statement, I would have students write these on the board.  Then I will edit them, either on my own or with their help, to model ways to improve the thesis statement.

If your students are still struggling, a great resource to check out is Jim Burke's thesis generator.

Food for thought... how do you help your students to write better thesis statements?

Thursday, 10 March 2016

How to Write an Awesome Review

English teachers are often looking for authentic reading and writing contexts for their students - how would a writer or a reader in the "real world" approach this situation?  One example of writing for an authentic audience is writing a review.  There are people who make a living from writing book, play, restaurant or movie reviews.  People seek out these reviews before making a decision as to how they will spend their leisure time.  Student reviews can be posted in a school setting or online so that students in your class are writing for a real audience and not just their teacher.

I write quick book reviews on this blog, and to be honest I know that they aren't my best writing.  I struggle with giving a review that doesn't give away too many plot points.  I could certainly take my own lessons to improve those reviews!  I might ask students to review a film or book that we have studied in class, or I might ask them to choose something independently to review.  I have even had students review the cafeteria food - luckily our school cafeteria was fantastic and earned raves from the student critics.  Here are the instructions that I give my students when writing any review:

1. How will you draw the reader in?  Like any kind of writing, you need the reader to be interested in what you have to say.  If you are struggling with that first hook, I often tell my kids to ask a thought provoking question or to think of a surprising fact related to the review.

2. What are you reviewing?  This is where you need to describe the reviewed "thing," and this is where I struggle to not give away too much.  What kind of food do they serve at the restaurant?  What is the book or movie about?  The reader needs to know if this is a "thing" that they are interested in learning more about.

3. What did you think?  It isn't enough to say that it was good or bad.  Why?  Maybe you didn't like this book, but you think that a certain audience would.  Show, don't tell, what led you to your final judgement.

*Note- sometimes it is helpful in step 2 and/or 3 to compare your "reviewed thing" to something similar or to contrast it against something dissimilar.  For example, "if you like John Green, you will love Rainbow Rowell."

And that's it - three simple steps to help students to write for an authentic audience.

Food for Thought... Have you ever had students write reviews?  What did they review and how did it go?