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:

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:

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The psychology of advertising:

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Logical fallacies:

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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?