Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Work of Harper Lee

With the announcement that Harper Lee's new novel Go Set a Watchman will be released later this year, the classic To Kill a Mockingbird has been on the forefront of many teachers' minds.  We all know that it is on the top of every English teacher's list.  It is a brilliant, complex novel that explores so many themes. My favourite part to teach is always the courtroom scene- I love seeing kids get invested in the case and getting angry at the verdict.

With Mockingbird on the brain, I looked to see if I had any pins on the novel.  I found a link to Tracee Orman's blog, which has some free Mockingbird resources.

The first resource included is a KWL introductory activity.  A KWL helps kids to set a purpose for reading- they will be looking for answers to their questions, keeping them focused on a reading task.

The second resource is an organizer and inference activity for the trial scene.  The organizer helps students to organize the testimonies of Heck Tate, Mayella Ewell, Tom Ewell, and Tom Robinson.  The inference activity has students look at Atticus' methods of questioning and what these lead the reader to infer about the events at the Ewell house.

When you teach a classic novel like To Kill a Mockingbird, it can be easy to get repetitive and teach the novel the same way every time.  It's great for educators to shake up their approach to literature so that it doesn't get dull.

Food for thought... What are your favourite classic novels to teach?  Is there a unique teaching method that you have used to spice it up?

Monday, 30 March 2015

I Read... When Everything Feels Like the Movies

With all the buzz around Raziel Reid's When Everything Feels Like the Movies, I had to read it.  It won the Governor General's Literary Award for best Children's fiction, which led to a lot of anger from some people.  These people said that it was not suitable for children and that they would not want a parent who was unfamiliar with the book to see the award and pick up Everything for their young child.  It was also the runner up in CBC's Canada Reads 2015, with Lainey Lui passionately defending Reid's novel as important for allowing LGBT youth to see themselves in literature.

I found the novel a quick read.  I was prepared to be uncomfortable as I was warned of the frank descriptions of teen sex, drug use, and violence.  Perhaps because these elements had been built up, I didn't think that they were that bad or shocking.  There is certainly frank conversation around these subjects, and I found the the main character Jude's best friend Angela particularly problematic, but I didn't find anything shocking.  That said, I wouldn't hand this novel over to a teenager without making sure that their parents were okay with the subject matter.

I had read an interview where Raziel Reid said that he was inspired to write When Everything Feels Like the Movies after watching an episode of The Ellen Degeneres Show.  He was moved when Ellen spoke about a young boy who had been killed for being gay.  Knowing this, I found some parts of the novel to be too literal of a translation of the events that Ellen referred to for my liking.  I was expecting a more creative interpretation of the problems faced by LGBT youth.

There are other YA LGBT novels that I have read that I preferred to When Everything Feels Like the Movies.  Will Grayson Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan comes to mind.  I found the characters and the storyline between them to be more complex, where I wasn't surprised by anything that I read in Everything.

Food for thought... is there a book that you read because of the controversy surrounding it?  Tell me about it! 

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

March Madness in the English Language Arts Classroom

Do you have a March Madness bracket going at work?  We do, and with all of the upsets this year it is anyone's guess who the big winners will be.  I have always wanted to have a March Madness for books, but I have never been able to get enough people on board.  Next year I will make it happen!

That's why I loved the post from edutopia on March Madness Meets AP Lit.  The teacher, Brian Sztabnik, wants to create hype and excitement around reading.  In order to determine the best piece of writing that the class has read, he holds AP Lit March Madness.  Students make brackets, determine seeds, and begin the competition.  When your favourite book is on the block, you have to defend your choice and make your plea to the class.  Students vote between two texts at a time until a final winner is named.

(Image credit: http://www.edutopia.org/blog/march-madness-meets-ap-lit-brian-sztabnik)

The article ends with some suggestions for other content area teachers who want to use the March Madness idea in their own classrooms.  Social Studies teachers might choose the most ruthless dictator or the best leader.   Math students might look at the statistics for the teams in the NCAA and choose winners based on those.  Biology teachers might look at traits of mammals and choose the true "king of the jungle."  ELA teachers might choose to talk about the best protagonist or antagonist instead of looking at an entire novel.

Why not harness the excitement surrounding March Madness and use it in your class?

Food for thought... how might you use the idea of voting in brackets in your classroom?  Do you have any other suggestions for a classroom March Madness competition?

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Pre - Reading Strategy Using Significant Quotations

This activity is from Upcycled Education: The Personal & Professional Blog of Jen Lara.  The activity uses quotes from a text that students will be reading.  For this simple but effective pre-reading activity, the teacher chose a variety of quotes from a chapter that students would soon be reading.  She tried to keep the quotes interesting and open-ended.  Students simply had to look through the available quotes, choose one that interested them, and share their quote with a partner.

(Image credit: http://www.upcyclededucation.com/2012/03/textbook-quote-activity-guest.html)

The beauty in this activity is its simplicity.  It would be easy to adapt to any kind of text that you will be reading, from a short informational text to a Shakespearean play.  Students are setting a purpose for reading, making connections to the text, and making predictions.  I imagine this being a great way to get kids up and moving- you could easily ask them to get up and share their quote/the reason they chose the quote with, say, five classmates.  This could also be done using the first word last word method.  The adaptability of this activity means that you can use the idea over and over again without the kids getting bored.

Food for Thought... what are your favourite pre-reading activities?  

Monday, 16 March 2015

I Read... Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemtion

You know how they say that you should never watch the movie without reading the book first?  Let's just say that I was way behind when it came to Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.

I have taught the film The Shawshank Redemption several times.  It is clearly one of the best films out there, and I have never met a person who didn't love the movie.  I loved teaching it as a film study, not only because it is a great movie with so much complexity, but also because it hits all of my ideals when it comes to choosing a film for kids: most of them haven't seen it, it holds their interest, it gives them a ton to work with.  Of course, I knew that The Shawshank Redemption was based on Stephen King's novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, but it was never high on my list of books to read.  I spoke to a colleague recently, and she said that she had decided to teach the novella in conjunction with the film.  It was so successful that she decided that she would only teach the novella in the future, eliminating the film.  She said that her kids overwhelmingly preferred the book to the film.  This was not a group of academic students, so this really shocked me.  I knew that I had to get the novella.

Since Rita Hayworth is so short, it was easy to read in one night.  It was a great, quick read.  However, I think that my attachment to the film is too strong to choose the film over the book.  The images and voices were so strong in my mind that I couldn't stop picturing the actors as I read.  Even though Red is an Irishman in the novella, I kept picturing Morgan Freeman.  Not only that, but the film delved deeper into the storyline.  I found the resolution regarding Warden Norton far more satisfying in the film than in the novella.  I kept waiting for Red to say, "how often do you look at a man's shoes," but it never came.

Overall, if you're a fan of the film this is certainly worth a read.  It will cost you a few hours, tops, and it will give you an appreciation for what a great filmmaker can do with just a bit of good, solid source material.

Food for Thought... Can you think of any other films that were better than the book that they were based on?  The only other film that comes to mind for me is The Devil Wears Prada.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

I Read... The Interestings

The last book that I read, The Interestings, seems to be a pretty divisive book- people either love it or hate it.  I picked it up because it had a lot of good buzz.  I read the first chapter, wasn't impressed, and put the book aside for a few months.  I decided to give it another chance and just motor through the book to see what all of the fuss was about.  While I'm glad that I gave the book another chance, it was not one of my favourites.

The book starts with a group of kids at summer camp who call themselves "The Interestings."  The story follows their lives to see where these youths, who seemed to have so much potential and promise, end up as adults.

The main character, Jules, feels lucky to be chosen to join The Interestings.  She dabbles in acting, and ends up in a more stable career as a therapist, married to a very average man, and mother to a very average daughter.

Jules' best friends, Ethan and Ash, end up married.  As they always dreamed, they become very successful in creative fields.  The contrast between Ethan and Ash and Jules and her husband highlights those feelings of inadequacy that all of us feel at some point.  Why didn't I see success like he did?  If I had done something differently, would my life have turned out differently?  Am I good enough the way that I am?  Is there something better out there?

For me, the premise of the story and the themes that are explored are promising.  However, I just wasn't engrossed in the story.  I kept thinking that it was like the Seinfeld of books- nothing really happened.  None of the characters were likable enough for me to really care about, and I just wanted Jules to stop whining.

Food for thought... Has there been a book that everyone seemed to like, but just didn't do it for you?  What was it?

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Character Study

This pin comes from a blog called Young Teacher Love.  The teacher, Kristine, documents the great things that she does in her grade 5 classroom.  What I liked about the blog, however, is that I can easily adapt her strategies to any level.  I can see using her Character Study activity in high school easily, and I think that it would be a great way for kids to get an indepth understanding of a complex character- great for preparing to write an essay for the Alberta diploma exams, for example.

For this lesson, kids are randomly given a character to follow throughout the study of a novel.  Whenever the audience learns something new about the character, students take note on a post it.  At the end of class, kids add their points to an anchor chart with all of the characters' names.  This is a great way to give kids a focused task or purpose for reading- they know that when that character pops up, they are on alert.  They then have to synthesize the information that they have gathered to figure out how to best share the information with their peers via the anchor chart.

I can see myself using this as a during reading activity when we will be writing a critical/analytic essay prompt based on a character.  I find that kids often go for the obvious character.  For example, if students are asked to write about a human element in Death of a Salesman, they tend to look at Willy even if Linda would be a strong subject.  This is a great way to have students explore the complexity of all supporting characters.  I also think that it is a great way to start conversations about characters.  If I were to put kids in a literature circle with people who had focused on other characters, I need only ask why did x happen/did he do that to get them talking.

Food for thought... how do you teach characterization?  What are your favourite activities to keep kids focused and purposeful while reading?

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Main Idea and Supporting Evidence

This idea was pinned from a blog called The Lesson Plan Diva.  I'm always looking for ideas to help students with essay writing.  Almost to a student, it is the thing that they fear most about English class.  So how can we as teachers increase student confidence?  This idea for a main idea coffee table is great because it can be adapted for different levels- very basic expository essay to more complex critical/analytic essay- and it engages those visual and kinesthetic kids in the class.

(Image credit: http://www.lessonplandiva.com/2012/01/there-is-lot-of-learning-going-on.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed:+TheLessonPlanDiva+(The+Lesson+Plan+Diva))

The basic idea is to show kids that the supporting ideas are just that- support for the main idea that you are trying to get across.  All to often, kids write an essay that ends up being just plot summary.  Their "supporting ideas" are actually things that happened in the text, not points to support a main idea.  It can be difficult for kids to have that "aha" moment where they realize the difference between the two.  This coffee table activity requires kids to plan the structure of the essay in advance, and it can also act as a visual guide to see how strong the supporting evidence that they have chosen is.  Does this piece of evidence really support the main idea that I have written on the top of my coffee table?  Or is it merely something that happened in my text?  If it is the latter, I should remove the leg and see that my argument needs more support, quite literally in this case, if it is going to stand up.

Food for thought... what do your students struggle with when it comes to essay writing?  What are the best tips and tricks that you have found to address these challenges?