Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Jigsaw Activity - Best Answer

Sometimes we need ideas for activities that get students up, moving, and collaborating with their peers.  This allows them to demonstrate their thinking in a different way.  One fun way to accomplish this is to use this jigsaw activity - best answer.

Have a variety of different questions that you want students to be working on - you will want about 4-5 students working on the same question.  You will also need different coloured post it notes.  Each question correlates to a different colour.

Post the questions on the board and ensure that students understand which question correlates to each colour.  Distribute one post it note to each student - you can distribute these randomly, or you can be strategic based on the students that you have in your class - and tell them to write the best answer that they can to their question on their post it note.  Once all of the students have written down an answer, they will get up and find all of the classmates who had the same coloured post it note.  As a group, they will determine who had the best answer.  They should be able to explain why they chose the answer that they did.  They will share their question and answer with the class.

My favourite time to use this activity is in exam preparation.  I will use an old reading comprehension multiple choice exam and complete the reading (short story, poem, non fiction) together.  Then I take the questions associated with the text and use these as the questions that students will answer on their post its.  Students will not see the four multiple choice options.  After students present their best answer as a group, I will show the four multiple choice options.  As a class, we discuss which of these options comes closest to the answer that the group came up with.  Then we will see if that is the correct answer.

Food for thought... what are some fun activities that you can do as an alternative to traditional exam prep? 

Monday, 16 November 2015

Exit Slip - What is the Question?

Many times, I want to do a quick check to see if my students have the knowledge and understanding that I want them to have on a given topic.  There are lots of quick "exit slip" activities that I have used, and this is one of my favourites.

I call this assessment activity "What is the Question?".  It allows for differentiation, because students can "question the answer" at their own level.

For this activity, I write an answer on the board.  This answer is the topic that I want to ensure that my students understand.  For example, I might put up the name of a character.  I tell students that this is the answer to a question, and I need them to tell me what the question might be.  I like to use mini whiteboards with this activity - each student has a mini whiteboard, writes their answer down, and holds it up for me to see.  This ensures that every student answers the question, but students don't have to worry about other students seeing their own answer.  I can do a quick scan to see where my students are and move on with my lesson.

Food for thought... what are your favourite exit slip activities?

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Vocabulary Building Activities

English teachers are always looking for new ways to teach vocabulary.  Sometimes, telling students to "write the definition in your own words" or "use the word in a sentence" just isn't going to cut it.  Here are a few fun ideas:

Write key vocabulary terms all over the board.  One at a time, students come up to the board, choose a word to erase, and tell the class something about that word.  You can support your struggling students by choosing the order that the students come to the board in a strategic manner.  You might also decide to give the words to students ahead of time to reduce anxiety.

Play What's Up.  This app, promoted by Ellen Degeneres, has an add on that allows you to enter your own words.  You can enter vocabulary words and have the students play.  Player one holds the phone or iPad with the word to his or her forehead while player two tries to get player one to guess the word.

Play Funglish.  This is another idea from Ellen... she must love English teachers!  There are three categories- "Definitely," "Not," and "Kind of."  Students put descriptive words in these categories to try to get the class to guess the word.  

Food for thought... what are your favourite vocabulary games?

Monday, 9 November 2015

Showing vs. Telling

English teachers often tell their students to "show, not tell."  We know what this means.  But what about our struggling students?  How can we model this for them?

One easy way to talk to students about showing vs. telling is to brainstorm what we might see in certain situations.  Take some very basic sentences that students might write about a character:

-He was sad.
-He felt happy.
-She was scared.
-She felt embarrassed.

Now how can we "show, not tell" in these sentences?

Let's start with the word "sad."  Have the class brainstorm how you might know that someone is sad.  Perhaps they have tears all over their face, they are blowing their nose with a tissue, their bottom lip is trembling... these descriptions "show" sadness instead of stating that someone is sad.

Try a gradual release of responsibility with an activity like this.  First you can show them how you would complete the activity.  For sentence number two, have students share answers as a whole group and you can write down their responses.  For sentence three, have students work together with a partner or in a small group.  Finally, have students brainstorm on the last sentence individually.

Food for thought... how do you help your students to be more descriptive writers?

Friday, 6 November 2015

Writing Games - Musical Writing

When I talk to my colleagues in other content areas, they are always telling me about games that they play to reinforce skills with their students.  Math games, History games, Science games... and of course games in Phys. Ed.  These are always discussed with great joy as students love playing these games and they seem to do a really good job of teaching content in an engaging way.  So what are some games that I can play in English Language Arts?

One idea is Musical Writing.  It is a fun spin on Musical Chairs.  Although it is based on a game meant for young children, I have played this game successfully with high school students.  It gets kids up and moving, and it has students practice writing in context.

Set up chairs so that they are facing outward in a circle.  There should be a chair for each student.  Unlike traditional Musical Chairs, you will not be removing chairs as the game goes on.  Students will each sit in a chair with a notebook and a pen or pencil.  Students will be given a particular time frame to write.  This time frame should be very short, but think about your students and their abilities when you choose a length of time.  The teacher will need to decide if there will be a prompt or if this will be an opportunity for free writing.  I like doing this activity with a prompt because it will allow students to see how different writers approach a similar prompt in very different ways.

Allow students to write for their given times and then have them stop and drop their writing on their chairs.  Just like in musical chairs, play music for a few moments and have students travel around in a circle.  When the music stops, they stop, sit down, and pick up the writing that was left behind on the chair.  They must read what has been written so far and then continue the writing.  The teacher should consider that each round of writing will require more time to allow students to read the story that has been created thus far by their classmates.

When the game is almost over, tell the students that this will be the last round.  When the music starts, their job will be to read the story and conclude it in some way.  Once the stories have been wrapped up, have each student collect his or her original notebook and read how their first few sentences were changed by their classmates.  Have students share any extraordinary stories with the class.  You might even do a carousel activity to allow students to read all of the stories.

Food for thought... do you have any favourite ELA games?    

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Character Values-Based Report Cards

Characters are a big part of what makes reading fun.  We connect to characters - whether we love them or hate them.  We want to see what decisions they will make and how their relationships will evolve.  We want to see how their lives will end up.  Teachers are always on the hunt for engaging and meaningful assignments that will help their students to better understand the characters that they are reading about.  Creating a values-based report card for a character is a method that can be applied to any character in any text.

First, you must come up with a list of values.  This list might be generated by the teacher or by the students.  Each student might be working with the same list of values, or they might have different lists.  Then the student must assign a grade and a comment to each of those values, similar to what they would see on a report card.  You might even want to use the report card that your school uses as a template for your character report cards.  Students are required to think critically about characters, and they are also working on using strong vocabulary.

Here are some possible examples of character report cards - what grades and comments would you leave for the following characters?

Iago (Othello)

Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird)

Gilbert Grape (What's Eating Gilbert Grape?)

Gregor Samsa (The Metamorphosis)

Auggie Pullman (Wonder)

Food for thought... what grades would you give to these characters and why?  Which characters would you like to grade?

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Blogging in the Classroom

Chances are, you follow at least one blog.  From the term "web log," a blog is essentially a digital journal of a person's thoughts.  Many are content specific - fitness, cooking, sports etc. - while others are more informal and conversational - lifestyle blogs.  This means that there is a blog for every interest.  Why wouldn't we tap into this opportunity for high-interest texts for our students to read?  Blogging allows students to:

Build reading skills- giving them high interest texts will help increase student engagement.  Teachers can use these texts to allow students to practice reading skills.

Learn in a cross-curricular manner- skills and content from all subject areas can come together in a blog.  Reading and writing skills from the English Language Arts curriculum, technology outcomes, and fine arts outcomes can combine with content from Science, Math, and Social Studies.  Why not have students write a blog entry about the process of completing a lab in Biology?  Or about the mock election held in Social Studies?

Communicate to an authentic audience- posting online gives students a global audience.  Even if school district policy requires your student blogs to be private, they will be publishing something that their classmates have access to.  When students create content for people other than the teacher, they need to learn what it means to take audience into account.

Build digital literacy- in an increasingly digital world, students need to know how to be digitally literate.  How do they determine whether a website is a good source?  Creating a blog will require that students take these factors into account as they create their own content.  They will also need to learn how to effectively engage in an online conversation, how to be a good digital citizen, how to ensure that they are leaving a positive digital footprint, and how to ensure that they are not plagiarizing.

Learn how to give and receive effective feedback- blogs are social in that they allow the reader to engage in a conversation with the author via blog comments.  So what does it mean to leave a good comment?  Is it okay to say, "nice blog!" to all of your friends?  Is this really engaging in a conversation and enhancing learning?

Food for thought... have you ever tried blogging with your students?  How did it go?  Is something keeping you from blogging in the classroom?

Friday, 23 October 2015

Why I Use Twitter in the Classroom

If you ask my husband, Twitter is stupid.  He has the misconception that it is full of people taking pictures of their lunches and sharing insightful thoughts such as, "OMG it's PSL season @Starbucks! #fall #basic #bestseasonever."  Sure, that exists.  However, that isn't my scene.  I see Twitter as a classroom and PD tool.

As a PD tool, I use Twitter to keep current on educational trends.  I can follow key hashtags (#abed, #edchat, #elachat, etc.) or people who regularly post great content to read great articles on issues that matter to me.  Not only can I read these articles, but Twitter allows me to interact with the authors and other readers.  This adds layers of meaning to any educational experience.  I also create professional relationships with other teachers.  I can throw out a question, like, "What are your favourite ways to teach To Kill a Mockingbird? #tkam #elachat" and get feedback from English teachers all over the world.  

More importantly, Twitter is a great way to bring an authentic communication tool into my classroom.  I have already posted about using Twitter as a tool to teach editing.  I came across this version of Bloom's Taxonomy, which associates tasks that can be done using Twitter with categories from Bloom's taxonomy.  For example, inventing a Twitter app is an example of "Creating."

As Twitter only allows its users to post 140 characters at a time, it requires you to be very concise in your thoughts.  This can be applied to many situations.  Some teachers have created Twitter pages for a text that they are studying and assigned characters to students.  Students are required to tweet as their assigned character to retell the most significant events from the novel or play.  This requires students to really focus in on what is important and get a point across briefly.  For example, if you ask your students to write a tweet that summarizes Banquo's message in Macbeth.  If they are able to accurately get their thoughts across in 140 characters or less, you know that they truly understand the text.

If I wanted to get my feet wet and get started with a professional Twitter account, I might start by using it simply as a communication.  Create a hashtag for your class and post messages about what you did in class, homework assignments, and upcoming due dates.  Since students can add the Twitter app to their phones, they can follow you and get alerts when you update your page.  If you send out a quick reminder about tomorrow's test or the essay that is due on Monday, it might be just the reminder that students need.

Food for thought... do you have a professional Twitter account?  How do you use it with your students?      

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Cool Tools for Teachers

I have come across many cool tools for teachers, and I thought that I would share a few of them in one post.  All of the tools here are free or very inexpensive.

  • If you want to be able to ask your students to participate in class in a random order or if you want to make random groups, this random name generator will allow you to do so.  
  • Have you ever wanted to make Jeopardy, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or Wheel of Fortune Games for your students?  These Powerpoint templates will allow you to do that easily.
  • Do you use whiteboards in your class?  If so, you know what a pain they can be to clean.  This tip to use WD40 looks like an easy solution.
  • If you like colourful bulletin boards, you will love the idea of using plastic tablecloths from the dollar store as a background.  Check your OH&S policy before putting any materials on your walls or bulletin boards.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Writing Stronger Conclusions

When teaching my students about essay writing, they often complained about conclusions.  Their conclusions were bland and often pointless, and the students knew it.  What they didn't know, however, was what to do to fix it.

The key to writing a good conclusion is to make sure that you know what the point of a conclusion is.  We often teach students that a conclusion is "an upside down" introduction.  For example, I might tell students to start their essay by introducing the topic, indicating the text that they will be discussing, and finally narrowing in with a specific thesis statement.  If I tell them to write an "upside down introduction" as their conclusion, that means that I want them to restate their thesis, revisit their textual examples, and go back to discussing the topic of the essay.  Now what does this mean to a student?  I don't believe that it tells them anything - why would I tell students to write something that they already wrote?- and this is why they write weak conclusions.

In my instructions to my students, I tell my students that the point of the conclusion is to tell the reader why everything that they just wrote about matters.  English teachers love to use the phrase "so what," and it is very applicable when talking about conclusions.  I have had several students tell me that they don't think that what they are writing about matters at all.  After all, this is not an activity that they would partake in if they weren't forced to do it in class.  This is when we discuss themes that are important to all humans.  Take your thesis and ask why this is matters in relation to the greater human experience.  What themes are highlighted?  What have you said about those themes?  Why does this matter?  This is what you want to discuss in your conclusion.

Food for thought... how do you help your students to write stronger conclusions?

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Evidence Based Language

When I analyze data from standardized exams, I consistently find one thing - that students struggle with supporting evidence.  In my experience, this means that students struggle to understand the difference between an example and evidence.  Students do a great job of finding examples from a literary text that relate to a given thesis statement.  However, this is not what is required when writing a critical or analytical essay.  This task requires supporting evidence - information that persuades the reader to reach a given conclusion.  I often tell students that when they think they are done writing an essay, they should add two more sentences that clearly explains why they believe that the example that they have described proves that their thesis statement is true.

Since this is such an important skill that students need to develop, it is important for me to scaffold the skill into more manageable bits.  By breaking up a complex task into smaller steps, I allow students to find success by mastering less complex tasks.  This will help me to build confidence so that when students are eventually asked to write a critical or analytical response to a literary text, they feel that they are well prepared and capable.  One of the early pieces that I teach my students is the language to use when using evidence in their writing.  Some of the words and phrases that students are encouraged to use in their own writing are:

  • because...
  • for instance...
  • for example...
  • I noticed...
  • one reason why...
  • from the reading I know that...
  • according to the text...
  • it said on page...
  • when the author said...
Not only are students encouraged to use this language when using supporting evidence, but they are also asked to notice these terms when we study mentor texts.  By noticing how other writers use supporting evidence, they can see how to more strongly convince their reader of their conclusions.

I encourage my students to use this language not only in their writing, but also to practice speaking about examples vs. supporting evidence.  Often I will put students into partners or small groups and assign an essay prompt.  For example, I might give the class the essay question, "are Romeo and Juliet truly in love."  From there I will assign one partner the pro side and the other the con.  Using evidence based language, students defend their assigned viewpoint.  The key to success here is ensuring that students use the given language every time they provide a new piece of supporting evidence.  This helps them to ensure that they are truly providing evidence for their side, not just giving examples.

Food for thought... how do you ensure that your students are able to provide strong supporting evidence?

Monday, 19 October 2015

Character Archetypes

In order to be a better reader and writer, it is vitally important to understand how and why characters are created.  One important tool in an author's toolbox is the archetypal character.  This refers to the kind of character who we see in texts time and time again.  You can see examples of character archetypes in literature, film, and television:

(Image Credit: http://kimberlysbarton.com/fixing-the-geek-archetype-chart/)

Once students can identify archetypal characters, they will become better readers.  Being able to categorize a character as, for example, the hero means that the student immediately understands a great deal about the character.  Without putting in a large amount of effort, the student understands that this character has likely had a traumatic event that led them to embark on a quest, that this character will likely have some sort of supernatural help or guidance, and will prove him or herself several times.  Knowing this means that it is easier for the student to delve deeply into other aspects of the character and plot.  

As a writer, having a strong understanding of archetypes can help a student to write stronger characters.  Does the student want this character to act conventionally?  In that case, the character should exhibit common characteristics of the archetype that he or she belongs to.  Does the student want the character to defy conventions?  Understanding the character archetypes allows the students to decide how their character will differ.

When I teach students about character archetypes, I like to use the film Shrek.  Since the story is a fractured fairy tale with an unconventional hero, it is a wonderful and accessible way for students to explore character archetypes.  At the beginning of the film, it is easy for students to categorize each character.  By the end of the film, however, some of those characters will have defied expectations.  Students can follow along the typical heroic journey and take note of instances where conventions are broken.

Food for thought... do you have any great activities for teaching character archetypes?

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Values Based Writing - Turning Points

In my position I have been lucky enough to work with several great teachers and organizations.  One program that I really believe in is Turning Points, which is supported by The Learning Partnership.  Turning Points is a program that allows students to explore their values and to discover their own voice as a writer.  Students are walked through a variety of activities that allow them to think about who they really are and how they became that way.  Eventually, students write a narrative essay about a turning point in their lives that illustrates one of their core values.  These narrative essays can be submitted to the Turning Points contest for recognition and publication, but the value of the program is really in the classroom.  I like to think of the contest aspect as the icing on the cake of a wonderful writing journey.

One of the group activities that students might complete is a Prioritizing Value Words.  In this activity, students get into small groups - about four to five students is a great size.  Each group gets an envelope with a variety of value words inside.  Think about the group of students that you teach and the makeup of the small groups when deciding how many words to distribute.  As an example, a group might get these words:

  • attentiveness
  • committment
  • cooperation
  • generosity
  • honesty
  • respect
  • wisdom

In their groups, students will be asked to rank the words in order of importance.  This will require some negotiation skills.  For example, one student might have been the recipient of a great act of charity and so generosity is very important to them.  Other students might not feel that generosity is high up on the list.  These two students need to come to a compromise.

In my experience doing this activity, I have seen many shapes come out of this activity.  Some groups make a line from most important to least important.  Others make a circle with a core value in the middle.  I have seen some groups make cross shapes and totem poles where certain values are given equal weight.

Not only is this great for getting students to think about values, but it also is a wonderful activity to facilitate positive group work.  It is also a great vocabulary building activity.  Students are sitting down and discussing the meaning of several key words as a group.

Food for Thought... what are some of your favourite writing activities?

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Even More Reading Strategies That Work for Secondary Students

Over the past few days I have shared two reading strategies that I presented at a conference for new teachers.  Today I will share the last strategy that I shared with them, which supports students during and post reading.

This final strategy is called "First Word Last Word" and was adapted from an Adaptive Schools strategy for successful meetings.  For this strategy I asked the teachers in my session to go back to the reading that I had given them and to star one to three words or phrases that stood out to them.  It could be for any reason - they strongly agreed, they strongly disagreed, it confused them, it angered them, it reminded them of something, etc.  If I was going to use this strategy with a group who hadn't already read the text, I would tell them to underline or highlight the words and phrases that stood out to them as they read.

After everyone has chosen some stand out selections from the text, teachers break out into small groups.  In a class, I have found that four is the ideal number for this activity.  The group operates in the following way:
1. Person one reads one of their selections from the text out loud.  They do not offer any further commentary.
2. Person two responds in one of two ways.  If they also highlighted that selection they say, "I also chose that selection, and I chose it because...".  If they didn't highlight that selection they say, "I didn't choose that selection, but I think that you might have chosen it because...".  Nobody may comment on anything that Person two says.
3. Everyone in the group repeats step 2 until they return to Person one.  Person one then explains to the group why they chose that particular piece of text.
4. Now person two will act as the first person and completes step 1.  This continues until every person in the group has had the opportunity to be the first person (or the person with the "first word and last word").

This strategy tends to be very popular with teachers because it is simple, it is easy to apply to anything that students might be studying, and it works.  Some of the reasons why this strategy works are that it:

  • builds confidence in struggling readers - they have a voice and they hear their ideas being validated by their peers. 
  • is completely based on text - not personal - and therefore allows students to avoid judgement.
  • involves all students.  Everyone has a role and a voice.
  • requires students to practice finding and describing the significance of text details.
Food for Thought... what are your favourite post-reading strategies?


Tuesday, 6 October 2015

More Reading Strategies That Work for Secondary Students

Yesterday I shared a pre-reading strategy that I shared with a group of new teachers at a conference this past weekend.  Today I will tell you about the during reading strategy that I shared.

At this point, I handed out a short non-fiction article to all participants.  This would act as the text that we would be delving into together.  I chose an article from Kelly Gallagher's Article of the Week site, which is my go-to website when I need to hunt down a brief, interesting text.  The first strategy that I shared is something that I call "Key Details."  The teacher gives the students a specific task or "thing" to look for in the text.  The article that I shared this past weekend was about high school football players getting concussions, so I asked the teachers to underline or highlight any word or phrase that related to consequences (positive or negative) of a concussion.  With another group, I gave an article about teenagers and sports drinks.  With that group, I asked them to underline or highlight words and phrases that related to imagery.  As the teacher, you simply need to think about why you are teaching this particular text in order to determine what you want students to pay particular attention to.  Some ideas might include:

  • character details/characterization
  • plot
  • mood
  • conflict
  • figures of speech
  • give an essay prompt (this could also be done with prompts from standardized exams such as the PAT or Diploma exam)
The teachers completed this activity either on their own or with a partner.  Once everyone had read the article, I asked them to come to the front of the room and write down one or two words or phrases that they had noticed.  I had chart paper in the room, but you could use the chalkboard or whiteboard in your classroom.  This gets kids up and moving, at least a little bit, and I always find that kids love writing on the board.  It also means that every student will have his or her ideas recognized by the teacher and classmates.  There are no right or wrong answers here, and there is no judgement or personalization of the ideas on the board because students are simply choosing text details.

Once everyone has added to the board, I read the words and phrases out loud.  Then I ask the group if they can see any categories forming.  I use different coloured markers to put the words and phrases into different groups and write the names of the groups somewhere on the board.  Once we have a few categories, we talk about how this information can help students to have a better understanding of text.  In addition to aiding reading comprehension, this sets students up for success with any activity that involves supporting evidence - an idea that many of our students struggle with.

Some of the ideas that are emphasized with "Key Details" are:
  • It's okay for kids to have different passages highlighted - there are no right and wrong answers.  This is a safe way for students to have a voice in the classroom.
  • Students have a focused reading task that keeps them on track and motivated.  This encourages close reading.
  • Students start to understand how writers write.  Every word is chosen for a reason.
  • Focusing on particular words and phrases, and revisiting those as a group, is a great vocabulary builder.
  • Fantastic preparation for writing an essay.  Students have a focus for a thesis statement, and the categories help students with supporting evidence.  The essay question could be: How does the author use ________________ to reveal __________________?
Food for Thought... what are your favourite during reading strategies?

Monday, 5 October 2015

Reading Strategies That Work for Secondary Students

This past weekend I had the pleasure of presenting a session at our local Beginning Teachers Conference.  I love this conference because the delegates are so eager and hungry for support.  I also got to meet a lot of new teachers at our English Language Arts Council booth.

My session focused on reading strategies that can be used to support secondary students.  In my classroom, I would notice time and time again that students required support in order to hove complete comprehension of any complex text that we read in class.  I remember one time in particular.  I was talking about bird imagery in To Kill a Mockingbird and one student called out in class, "but how do you know that?" - they had no idea how we could both read a text and they could completely miss something that was so obvious to me.  The answer to that student's question is that I am a good reader.  So how can I help that student to be a good reader as well?

The answer is that we still need to teach students how to read, even if they are teenagers.  I found a great quote that says, in primary grades students learn to read and in secondary grades students read to learn.  This was a huge a-ha moment for me, and really required me to rethink how I teach.  I have always been a good reader, so it is hard to put myself in the shoes of a struggling reader.  So what are the strategies that I use to help me to understand texts?  I needed to really deconstruct my own reading process, name the strategies that good readers use, and think about how to show students how to practice these strategies.

In my session, I walk teachers through three strategies - a pre-reading strategy, a during reading strategy, and a post-reading strategy - that they can apply to any text that they might be teaching.  I choose a non-fiction piece for all of us to work through together.  The pre-reading strategy that I shared came from one of my favourite literacy resources for older students. When Kids Can't Read by Kylene Beers is one of my top picks as it has tons of sample strategies that have been proven to support struggling readers in the secondary grades.  The strategy that I shared with these new teachers is called "Possible Sentences".

In this strategy, I previewed the text that we will be reading.  I choose a variety of words and phrases from these four categories: people, places, problems, and solutions.  All of these words and phrases must already be familiar to students.  In addition, they must have meaning on their own.  For example, I wouldn't include "Susan" as a person because the students don't know anything about Susan.  I would, however, include "a student" as a person.

Once I have a collection of words and phrases, I project these on the board for students to see.  I ask them to work on their own or with a partner to create five sentences.  They must use up all of the words and phrases on the board, and they may add as many words as they need to those words and phrases.

There are many ways to adapt this activity.  I may use more or less words depending on my students.  I may have them write more or less sentences.  I might have them share their sentences, or I might not.  I might ask students to self-check their sentences for accuracy as they read the text, or I might leave the activity as it is.  The simple act of writing these "possible sentences" has activated several reading strategies used by good readers:

  • Good readers make predictions.  This activity teaches students to make predictions if they don't automatically do so on their own.
  • Good readers make connections to prior knowledge.  This activity teachers students to consider their prior knowledge as they rearrange the given words and phrases into sentences that make sense.
  • Good readers read with purpose.  Struggling readers tend to open a book and look at the words without focus (have you ever read a sentence over and over and realized that you have no idea what you just read?  Imagine the frustration that you would feel if this was the norm.).  This activity gives students a focus because they are now keeping an eye out for the words and phrases that they have previewed.
  • This activity is also a good vocabulary builder as it exposes students to vocabulary and requires them to consider words that would best connect the ideas that they have been given.
Food for Thought... What are your favourite pre-reading strategies to support struggling readers?

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Summarizing Texts

One of the strategies used by good readers is to summarize.  It sounds like a simple idea - extracting main ideas and supporting details from a text, determining what is most important from what you have read.  In my experience, however, I have found that students can have trouble summarizing texts.  In one reading assessment that I commonly give, students are asked to summarize an informational text.  They are given a graphic organizer and are asked to organize main ideas and supporting details.  Many students look at this question and simply write down every single fact that they can remember from the text, ignoring the structure of the provided graphic organizer.  This shows me that they need support to learn how to extract main idea and supporting details.

One simple phrase that I like to use with students who need help summarizing is "somebody wanted but so then."  It is easy for them to remember, and it can be applied to any text that they are reading to help them to summarize and get down to the most important part of the text:

SOMEBODY: Who is the main character?
WANTED: What did the character want?
BUT: What was the problem?
SO: How did the character try to solve the problem?
THEN: What was the resolution?

Food for thought... What strategies have you used to support students who struggle to summarize texts?

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

I Read... A Long Walk to Water

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park is a wonderful book to share with students.  I picked it up when I was looking for culturally diverse books.  Our district has a large number of Sudanese students, so A Long Walk to Water stood out.  It tells the story of two Sudanese children - a boy in 1985 who becomes one of the Lost Boys and a girl in 2008 who spends her days walking to collect water for her family.  The two stories come together in a beautiful, though predictable, way.

The first thing to keep in mind is that this is based on a true story.  The story of war and conflict in the Sudan is important to share, and A Long Walk to Water is a safe way to introduce this story to children.  It shows the reality of the situation through the eyes of a child, but the violence is never gratuitous.  That said, be sure to preview this text before introducing it to your class.  I think that it would be appropriate for Grade 5 and above, but there are sensitive issues (for example, a man is murdered in front of one of the protagonists) and these require sensitivity and understanding of your students.

While the story of the modern-day protagonist is tame in comparison, it is easy for a child to relate to.  Imagine that, instead of going to school, you had to walk to the only safe water source twice a day to keep your family alive.  Your entire life is about water.  By getting inside of the Sudanese girls's thoughts, we can put ourselves in her shoes.  This lends itself to some great writing or role-play activities for students.

The story ends on an uplifting note, suggesting that we can transform hardships into opportunity.  How will you change the world?  How do difficulties in life shape you into a better and stronger person?  If you are looking for a text to model these values, A Long Walk to Water might be the right match for you.

Food for thought... what are some of your favourite texts to teach that include diverse protagonists?

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Teaching Author's Purpose

When you teach a text, how much time do you spend focusing on author's purpose?  I'm willing to bet that you spend more time focusing on what is in the text (characters, setting, plot) than what went into creating the text.  Now think about your students' writing.  How could it be improved?  Is there a clear voice or tone established?

Author's purpose is vital in understanding writer's craft.  The most common reasons that people create a text are:

  • to persuade
  • to inform
  • to entertain
  • to explain or to teach
Once a student can identify author's purpose, they can delve into how text creators fulfill that purpose.  How does he persuade the audience?  What tools does she use to entertain you?  Using texts that you are using in class as mentor texts allows students to see examples of strong writing techniques and to analyze these techniques.  This makes it easier for them to apply these elements to their own writing.  

So when your students are reading a text, tell them to ask themselves the following:

  • Why was this text created?  
  • By whom?
  • What techniques are used to attract my attention?  
  • How is the text put together?
Once students can answer these questions about mentor texts, tell them to apply this to their own writing:

  • Why am I writing this text?
  • What biases might I bring to my writing?
  • What techniques can I use to fulfill my purpose?
  • What is the most effective way for me to put this text together?
Food for thought... how do you teach author's purpose?  

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

I Read... Thug Notes

I am so happy to talk about Thug Notes.  If you aren't familiar with author Sparky Sweets, you should be.  He creates videos that break down classic pieces of literature with a "street smart" twist.  I consider myself to be a very literate person.  I have a degree in English, I teach English, I read a lot, I can talk about literature all day... and I learn something from every Thug Notes video that I watch.  I can't say the same for SparkNotes.

One of the problems with literature is that it doesn't seem accessible to the average person.  People think that they need to be academics to appreciate Shakespeare, Faulkner, or Kafka.  This couldn't be father from the truth.  In reality, these books were created with the common man in mind.  Reading books from a wide variety of authors has enriched my life.  It makes me a better person who is able to appreciate life in a different way.  I make new connections.  I understand people and perspectives different from my own.  I have greater empathy.  These are the reasons that I am a reader.  But how can I convince a teenager or a non-reader that they should spend their precious time and energy reading Beowulf or Homer's Odyssey so that they can be a better person?  Those books look hard!  

This is where Thug Notes comes in.  It presents literature in a new way and illustrates why it is worthwhile to read complex texts, but it never "dumbs things down."  Sparky Sweets breaks down each text for the average person, but also teaches the reader about things like motif, themes, images, and symbols.  Here is an example of the Thug Notes video breakdown of To Kill a Mockingbird (warning: adult language and content):


The Thug Notes book is very similar to the videos, just in written form.  Many of the books that we teach year after year (Romeo and Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby. Lord of the Flies...) are included.  Sparky Sweets breaks down why a reader should care about the text, plot summary, characters, themes, images, symbols, and significant quotes for each piece of literature.  You will also find classroom tips sprinkled throughout.  For example, "What is a foil?  There all kindsa ways to describe thangs, and one of da easiest for us to understan' somethin; is when there's some kinda comparison bein' made.  A foil is when you got a character contrastin' wit' anotha so you can see betta what a playa's like."  That might be the best definition of "foil" that I've ever read.

I would suggest that you check out a video or two and see what you think.  If you're a big fan, definitely pick up the book as well.  Thug Notes is not for the weak of heart - there is definitely strong language and content throughout.  But if you're okay with that, I think that you're in for a real treat.

Food for thought... what do you think of Thug Notes? Is it something that you would ever introduce to your students?


Saturday, 12 September 2015

How to Choose a Great Book

The bookstore is my happy place.  If I need to unwind, you will likely find me wandering the aisles of my nearest Chapters, Starbucks in hand.  I find it calming, but it can be overwhelming if I am on a mission to find a great book for either myself or for students.  There are so many books out there that it can be hard to know where to start.

I came across this image on Pinterest that illustrates some important points when helping a student to select a new book:

(Image credit: http://learningwithmrsparker.blogspot.ca/2011/05/goldilocks-rule.html)

But how about when you're wondering if you or someone else will like the content of the book itself?  These are the questions that I ask to help make a successful choice:

  • What genre(s) do you like/not like?  For example, I am not a fan of fantasy or science-fiction novels.  It doesn't matter how good you tel me they are, I just can't get into them.  

  • Do you have a favourite author?  Go see if he or she has any other books.  I did this after reading The Fault in Our Stars and Gone Girl - I immediately devoured all of John Green and Gillian Flynn's novels.  I also used this trick with my son.  He loves Robert Munsch, so I told him to tell this to his school librarian.  She has helped him to find Robert Munsch in the library, and she has also been able to introduce him to new, similar authors.

  • Ask someone you trust for a good recommendation.  Most of my friends and family are non-readers, so I don't have many people to go to when I need something new to read.  I like to talk to book store employees.  I ask them what people are buying and what they themselves are loving.  I have had a ton of great recommendations that I would never have picked up this way.  If I need to help guide their recommendation, I might tell them my thoughts about different genres or popular authors so that they can guide me well.  Book store employees tend to be voracious readers who take advantage of their staff discounts.  They want to lead you toward your new favourite book.  

  • Check out Amazon reviews, GoodReads suggestions, or book blogs.  I often check the best sellers on Amazon to see what people are purchasing.  If something really piques my interest, I'll head over to GoodReads or Google to find a few book reviews.  I find that this will give me the honest thoughts of people who have actually read the book.  If you cared enough to post a review, I want to read what you have to say.  I absolutely love when Amazon and GoodReads release their annual "best of" lists.  It's fun to see if I agree with their decisions, and I always find a few gems that were missed along the way.
Food for thought... how have you found some of your favourites?  Is there an amazing book that you almost missed out on?

Friday, 11 September 2015

Using Advertisements in the Classroom

One of the skills that students need to learn is how to be media literate.  That means understanding who, how, and why media messages are created.  With the prevalence of personal devices and cell phones, kids are always just a click away from a new media message.  If they can't learn to think critically about those messages, they are not going to be able to fully operate in or contribute to the society that they are being prepared for.

So how can teachers address this need?  Many teachers bring advertisements into the classroom.  Here are some ideas on how you might use advertisements to support teaching and learning:
  • apply understanding of persuasive techniques (pathos, logos, ethos)
  • learn and apply new vocabulary
  • practice inference skills... pause the commercial and predict what will happen next
  • apply understanding of figurative language (hyperbole is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING in advertisements... see what I did there?)
  • analyze advertisements to understand technique and effectiveness
  • understand demographics and target audience
  • learn techniques to engage an audience - ads aim to engage an audience, and teachers aim to engage their students.  What techniques can we take away from advertisements?
  • create advertisements to display your own powers of persuasion
If you really want to delve deep into a study of advertisements, some different aspects that you might want to explore could be:

Colour theory:

(Image credit: http://visual.ly/color-psychology-logo-design)


(Image credit: http://visual.ly/branding-process-infographic)

The psychology of advertising:

(Image credit: http://blog.buysellads.com/2011/the-sneaky-psychology-of-advertising/?view=infographic)

Logical fallacies:

(Image credit: http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/rhetological-fallacies/)


(Image credit: http://gizmodiva.com/other_stuff/super_mario_wwii_propaganda_postersworth_buying.php)

Food for thought... how have you used advertisements or other media forms in your classroom instruction?

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Writing Newspaper Articles

I came across this cool newspaper clipping generator on Pinterest, and it really got me thinking about the forms of writing that we expose students to in our classes.

I know that I have had students write newspaper articles in my English classes.  One assignment that comes to mind is one after completing To Kill a Mockingbird - students had to work together to create a Maycomb County paper that would be full of articles that were relevant to the townsfolk.  Looking back, I wonder how relevant and engaging that assignment really is.  I remember having students look at sample newspapers and analyze text features such as page layout, photos and other visuals, and captions.  We talked about bias in journalism, and used samples of current articles to understand how to be informative, yet concise.  Students had to collaborate to work out issues of space, location of different articles, content to be included, and to eventually "put the paper to bed".  It was fun and interactive, but is this how students get their news?

As a teacher, I know that I get many ideas, for what to do and what not to do, from how I was taught.  Education is a strange career to get into - everyone went through schooling in one form or another, so everyone feels as though they are an expert in the field.  I remember doing newspaper analysis and writing newspaper articles, and I remember enjoying it.  I took the activity, adapted it for my content, curricular outcomes, and students, and did something similar.  One of my students might eventually become a teacher and do the same thing.  But will his students know what a newspaper is?  Will they be creating something that is a relic of the past?

Since communication is such a huge part of English Language Arts, we often look for authentic forms of reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing, and representing that we can bring into our classrooms.  Are newspaper articles still a part of this list?  Or have they been replaced by blogs and comment sections?

Food for Thought... what do you think about students analyzing and writing mock newspapers in class?  Engaging or passe?  What alternative forms of writing do you use to engage your students? 

Wednesday, 2 September 2015


Assessment is a big focus for professional development in our district, so I'm always looking for good ideas that I can share with teachers.  I came across this simple handout for reassessment requests on the blog Math = Love.

I like that this is simple and can be easily adapted and applied to any type of assessment in any content area.  My belief is that students should be able to reassess.  There are many factors at play in any kind of assignment, and student performance may not accurately demonstrate the student's ability.  In addition, if we want students to show us that they are learning and growing, why would we deny them the opportunity to re-do an assignment if it will allow them to do just that?  I believe that school should be a safe place where students learn to take risks, think creatively, and know that it is okay to fail.  

This worksheet gives students more responsibility in the reassessment process.  Students are asked to reflect on why they want to be able to reassess- what is it that kept them from doing their best on their first attempt?  What have they done to ensure that they will do better this time?  There is a great balance between making students accountable for their own learning and still allowing them to reassess until they feel that they have demonstrated mastery.

Food for thought... what are your thoughts on reassessment?  Do you have any processes in place for students who wish to reassess?  

Friday, 21 August 2015

I Read... Orange is the New Black

So I realize that people are absolutely obsessed with the Netflix TV series Orange is the New Black.  I am not one of those people.  I watched the first episode with my husband and we both wondered what the heck had just happened.  Neither of us were drawn in.  I haven't given up, but there are several shows ahead of OITHB on my TV list.

The novel Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman's Prison by Piper Kerman, however, took absolutely no time for me to get into.  It drew me in right away and I read it in no time flat.  I think that it is a combination of two factors that made the story so interesting to me: 1- this is a world so far removed from my own life that I was interested in learning more.  Piper describes her life as a young woman and how she became involved in a drug smuggling ring.  Years later, she describes her time serving a one year sentence in a woman's prison in great detail.  The two worlds that she describes in these scenarios is so opposed to my day to day life as a mom and teacher that I couldn't help but get sucked in.  I found it fascinating to read about the life choices that the author made along her journey and how she reacted to the consequences of her actions. 2- The piece of Piper's life that is described in between her life of crime and her time in prison is so normal that it makes her easy to relate to.  You start to imagine that you could find yourself in Piper's shoes.  After putting a life of crime behind her, Piper starts to live a normal life.  She gets a normal job, finds a normal man to fall in love with and completely moves on from the days that she spent involved in the drug trade.  While other members of the drug ring are being put on trial years later, Piper's name comes up and she is surprised to find herself arrested for crimes that she had all but forgotten.  The process of telling her family and friends about her past and the combination of fear and stoicism that she displays as she prepares to enter the women's prison make it easy to put yourself in Piper's shoes.  While I have not committed any crimes in my past, I still found myself wondering what my life would be like if some piece of my past suddenly reared its ugly head and took over.

This juxtaposition between this could never happen to me and wait, maybe something like this could happen to me is what makes this memoir so easy to read.  It turns Orange is the New Black from a prison story to a coming of age story, one where the protagonist has to overcome hardships in order to better understand who she is.  The fact that the author was able to create this sense in a book about going to prison is pretty remarkable, and it makes me understand why Netflix would choose to develop a TV series based on the novel.

I do intend to watch the TV series at some point because I'm curious about several things- how closely does the show follow the book?  Do we get the sense that Piper is caught between her wild past and her "good girl" future?  How much of a role does her support system outside of prison (boyfriend, parents, etc.) play?  And, most pressing to me, how does the series continue on when Piper spent a year in prison and was then released?  Doesn't the show have to come to an end at some point?

Food for thought... have any of your favourite books been adapted successfully to the TV or movie screen?  What do you think made the transition work?  

Thursday, 13 August 2015

I Read... The Book With No Pictures

I have a 7 year old son, so we have a large library of picture books at home (you can imagine that having an English teacher as a mom means lots of reading from an early age).  The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak (of The Office and dating Mindy Kaling fame) doesn't exactly fall into that category... as the title suggests, there are no pictures... but it is an amazing story for kids that proves that, sometimes, words are worth a million pictures.

I read the book to my son without previewing it.  I wanted to experience it with him, and I expected it to be funny for both of us considering that the B.J. Novak's comedic work as an actor and writer.  While my expectations were fulfilled, I didn't expect Novak to speak so clearly and so well to his true audience- the children listening to the story being read.  My enjoyment of the book came from watching and hearing my son get so much enjoyment from our experience of reading together.

Note to the reader, this is a book to experience with a child.  Don't hand it to your child and let them read it alone.  You will be robbing both of you of a lot of joy.  If you are reading it to a group of kids, be aware that you will have a loud and hyper group to deal with by the time you are done!  Novak takes advantage of the fact that the reader must read whatever the author writes in the book.  He makes the adult say silly things about him or herself, much to the delight of any kids who get to listen to the ridiculousness.  I can't think of a better way to demonstrate the joy of reading and the power of language to kids.  Pictures are unnecessary- the words and the performance by the reader becomes the visual.

I also think that this book could be used as a tool with older kids.  Novak demonstrates the power of language and the art of words extremely well.  How does the use of italics, colour, and font help to tell the story?  Why is it that we all know how the phrase "Also, I am a robot monkey" should be read?  Try having your older students analyze the use of language in this children's story and apply it to their own work. 

Need another reason to check out The Book With No Pictures?  Check out this video of Novak reading his book to a group of kids.  Those giggles and screams say it all.

Food for thought... how do you use children's books in your classroom?  Any creative ideas?

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Modification vs. Accommodations

Luminous Learning has a great infographic and blog post on accommodations for students who require them.

(Image credit: http://luminouslearning.com/blogs/luminous-learning/13695277-special-education-accommodations)

The blog post does a great job of clarifying the difference between modifications and accommodations.  The infographic gives some easy to implement ideas on how to assist students without changing the content or the standards.  This can be more complicated than modifications for many teachers.  If a student requires modifications for some reason, it can be easy to modify the number of questions that they are required to answer, assess them using a simpler rubric, etc.  With accommodations, however, it is easy to feel overwhelmed.  Teachers often feel that if they have 30 different students, they are expected to teach the same thing in 30 different ways.  This is where it is easy to become overwhelmed.

Looking at these ideas can give you some ideas that allow students to demonstrate their knowledge of the same content in a way that better supports his or her learning.  For example, help a visual learner by providing a graphic organizer to help them to organize their thoughts when writing a critical essay.  Give struggling readers vocabulary definitions ahead of time.  Ensure that your disorganized students have a system in place, such as an agenda, and help them to use their system every day.

While this infographic is very simple, I found that it helped me to think about the other ways that I can support students who struggle- and really, every student will struggle with some aspect of learning.  What strategies have been most successful for you? 

Monday, 10 August 2015

I Read... Go Set a Watchman

I'm finally ready to write down my thoughts on this controversial book.

When I first heard that Harper Lee's second novel was going to be released, I was shocked and excited.  Like most other English teachers, I love teaching To Kill a Mockingbird.  As the anticipation built, there was a lot of controversy about the release of Go Set a Watchman.  Regardless, I had to read it.  I went to my local bookstore the day the novel was released, and had finished the book two days later.  I found that I needed quite a few breaks from the book to digest what I was reading, and I had a hard time picking up a new book to read for several weeks- something that is very unusual for me.  Let me try to explain my feelings on the experience of reading this novel.

I went into Go Set a Watchman with low expectations.  I had accidentally read a few spoilers, and I didn't like what I had read.  I was also leery of the intentions behind the book's release.  Finally, I knew that it was very unlikely that anything could live up to To Kill a Mockingbird.  I thought of this as an experience- reading a piece of history that wasn't necessarily meant to be seen.  It felt like a special secret that I was being let in on.

While the logical part of my brain knew that I needed to keep my expectations low, the emotional part of me was so excited and was hoping to be surprised with a magical masterpiece.  I think that this is why I felt... empty upon finishing the novel.

I didn't love it.  I didn't hate it.  I just felt unsettled.  Empty.  Unsure of what to think.

I won't write any spoilers.  The only thing that I will say about the plot of the novel is that it follows 26 year old Scout, who now lives in New York, as she returns home to visit her aging father.

Here are some of my thoughts:

  • It felt like some of the characters were just tacked on and didn't add to the story in any way ("The readers will want to know where Dill is."  "Oh, just mention him in passing.  That will keep them happy."  "Got it.").  Rather than giving me closure on these characters, it just opened the door to me wanting more.  If they hadn't been mentioned, they simply wouldn't have been a part of this particular story.  Boy, did this book make me want to know more about Jem.  
  • I forgot that Atticus was already an "old dad" in Mockingbird.  It was uncomfortable to see him in a situation where he needed to be taken care of.
  • Hank.  Did Scout really need a man?  Did it add anything to the story?  I'm not sure that it did.
  • Jem = his mother, Scout = her father
  • The conflict with Atticus.  It's difficult to say much without writing a spoiler, but I think that the point is to put the reader in Scout's shoes.  Just as Scout idolized Atticus, so did we.  We have put him on a pedestal as this ideal man, ideal lawyer, ideal father.  I think that the point of the conflict was to make Scout, and the reader, learn how to "set her own watchman."  You can't look to this ideal, infallible figure to act as your conscience because the reality is that this person doesn't exist.
I was mentally exhausted after finishing Watchman, so I haven't read any other reviews on the novel.  I would love to hear what other people thought of the book.

Friday, 19 June 2015

I Read... Please Ignore Vera Dietz

"I'm sorry, but I don't get it. If we're supposed to ignore everything that's wrong with our lives, then I can't see how we'll ever make things right."

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King is the best YA novel that I have read in a long, long time.  I hadn't heard anything about this book before picking it up, and I honestly can't remember buying it.  I randomly picked it up off of my "books to be read" shelf (this is actually several shelves packed to the gills... the life of a reader...) and dove in.  By the next day, I was finished.  I loved the protagonist, Vera, immediately.  Her sass and vulnerability make her endearing, and I couldn't wait to find out what happened to her and her best friend Charlie, who has recently passed away.

Vera deals with real problems in a way that is easy to relate to.  Not once does it sound preachy or like an after school special.  Vera is dealing with an absent mother, a distant father, a dead best friend, alcoholism, an older love interest, a full time job that can put her in potentially dangerous situations, bullies... and she's still in high school.  Despite this heavy load, Vera never comes off as whiny.  She endures each of these issues like a normal teenage girl- imperfectly.  She is a protagonist that I would want young girls to read about and fall in love with.  Is she perfect?  Absolutely not.  But she doesn't ignore her problems and she comes to sensible conclusions because she works through her feelings.  In reality, what Vera does might be harder than all of the physical feats that dystopian heroines like Katsniss and Tris overcome.  The internal struggle the Vera quietly faces shows true strength of character.

The most gripping part of the story is the mystery involving Charlie.  As the book opens, Vera tells us that her best friend of many years has recently died.  The bigger issue for Vera, however, is that she felt like she lost her best friend months before her death.  To her, this is far worse than the death itself.  Put yourself in her shoes- someone that you love deeply dies while you are in the midst of a fight that not only separates you, but results in the two of you being mean to one another.  The lack of closure, the questions of "what if I had been there," the mixed feelings- sadness, anger, fear... Vera is dealing with all of these.  Add to this that Charlie is appearing to her, begging her to clear his name.  Clear his name from what?  The reader will find out eventually through a series of flashbacks.

I feel certain that anyone will relate to Vera for one reason or another- she has so many issues to work through, that you are bound to have something in common with her.  Her model of dealing with her problems to come to a resolution that is real, not perfect, is something that I really enjoyed reading about.

Food for thought... is there a book that you didn't expect to like but you ended up loving?  What was it?