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:

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?