Tuesday, 29 March 2016

I Read... Pop Sonnets

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Argue Like a Lawyer

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Grammar Journals

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Making a Counterclaim

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Writing a Thesis Statement

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

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

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

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

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

What character(s) will I discuss?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 10 March 2016

How to Write an Awesome Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Good Readers Annotate

I have been exploring reading skills that struggling readers lack.  I have already discussed making predictions and making connections.  A skill that I find students really lack is annotation.  If you were to pick up one of my novels off of my bookshelf, you would see notes scribbled all over the page.  Students, however, may have not have been taught what they should be writing in those margins, so they don't see the value of taking the time to jot down notes.  They may also be borrowing a copy of a text from the school, and therefore they can't write directly on the book that they are reading.  This is where A) a letter home suggesting that students may want to purchase their own copy of the novel and/or B) post it notes will come in very handy.

Things that are valuable to write in the margins as you read might include:

  • Questions- What does this mean?  Why did he do that? What do I think will happen next?
  • Connections- What does this remind me of?  What real world connections can I make?
  • Interpretations- What do I think the author means here?  What is she trying to make me think or feel?
  • Summaries- How can I put this into my own words?  What is the main idea or the most important thing that I should take away from this part of the text?
  • Vocabulary- What does this word mean?  Why did the author make this diction choice?
  • Preferences- Did I like or dislike this part or this character?  Why?
  • Surprises- I expected something else- why am I surprised by this?
  • Major Moments- Something big just happened.  What do I think it might mean?
  • Characterization- The character just had a turning point. How do I know?  How do I think the character will be changed?
  • Literary Devices- I noticed that the author used a literary device or figurative language. Why would the author choose to do this? 

Once you model annotation with your students, ensure that they understand when to annotate, and allow them to practice this skill, I believe that they will see improvement in their reading comprehension skills.  Not only is annotation something that helps readers in the real world, but annotation is a skill that will help kids to do better on their reading comprehension standardized exams.  While teachers don't want to feel that they are "teaching to the text," we also want our students to feel confident and prepared when those exams come around.

Food for Thought... Have you taught your students how to annotate text?  How did it go?

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Good Readers Make Connections

In a previous post, I discussed the importance of making predictions when we read.  Another skill that struggling readers need to learn and practice is making connections.  If a student is not making connections as they read, they are not activating their prior knowledge and therefore they are not getting the richness out of the text that they could be.  

There are different kinds of connections that students should be aware of:

  • Text to self- does something in the text remind me of something from my own life?
  • Text to text- does something remind me of something that I read in another text?
  • Text to world- does something remind me of something that has happened in the world?  For example, maybe something that I saw on the news or something that I learned about in Social Studies or History class?   
  • Text to media- does something remind me of something that I watched (in a movie or on TV), read (online) or heard (in a song, on a radio show, etc.)
Here are some basic questions/sentence starters for students who need support in making connections:
  • This reminds me of...
  • An experience that I have had that is similar to that is...
  • This reminds me of the book _______ because...
  • How might this book lead me to live my life in a different way?
  • This part is like...
  • This character is like __________ because...
  • This is similar to...
  • The differences between _______ and ________ are....
  • I also...
  • I never...
  • This setting reminds me of...
  • How does this character compare to my all time favourite character?
  • What is something that you have learned this year that comes up in the text?
  • I can relate to this character because...
Making connections is important because it can add to the imagery - if you can make a connection of some kind, it is easier to visualize what is happening in the text.  It also helps us to better understand the characters.  Connections can help us to build empathy and to understand motivation.  Making connections can also help the reader to be more engaged in the text because they can place themselves in the text and think more deeply about what is happening.

I would encourage my students to make connections by adding post-it notes to the text to annotate as they read.  After the reading is complete, I might have them pull out one of their post it notes and expand on it.  They can take the original post-it note and place it in their notebook.  From here, they can expand their thinking about this connection by using some of the above questions and sentence starters.

We can also frame a text with a question that helps students to make connections to a text that they are going to read.  If a text seems to complex and daunting, a student might feel as though they have no connection to it.  We need to share the relationship that we have to the text so that they can understand why we read literature.  For example, instead of telling students that you will be studying Romeo and Juliet, tell them that you will be thinking about if we should be loyal to our families, even if it means giving up something that you really want.  Romeo and Juliet is merely a text that you are using to help you to explore that framing question.

Food for Thought... how do you help your students to make connections?

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Blackout Poetry

I often struggle when it comes to teaching Poetry.  I want to find a balance between appreciation for Poetry as an art form and skills that students will need - analysis of Poetry is a skill that is assessed on their standardized exams.  I'm often looking for ways to teach Poetry that are A) fun B) allow students to analyze use of language and C) connect to a larger text or unit that I teach (this means that I don't need to teach a stand alone "Poetry" unit, and can instead weave Poetry throughout the year).

I first saw an example of blackout poetry at a session at an NCTE conference.  Students were studying Les Miserables, and they created blackout poetry on some of the pages.  I have not been able to have an extra paperback for kids to write directly in, so I decided to photocopy a few pages from a variety of novels instead.  I have also had students do blackout poetry with pages in the newspaper.

Once students have a page that they will engage with, I tell them to scan the page.  They are not reading for comprehension.  Rather, they are looking for key words and phrases that jump out at them.  Students are trying to find a key word or phrase to create their poem around.

Once students have a "main idea" for their poem, they can scan the text to find words to build their poem.  Blackout poems are often very short- as in one or two sentences.  That is okay.  Students are practicing working with language (every word of a poem is deliberate) and working with main idea (they are building a poem around an idea and looking for language to help them to express that idea).

I have found that this is a great way to introduce a larger text, like a novel.  I can choose a few pages that are rich in language and photocopy these.  Students can work with the language on those pages to create poetry.  Not only are they working with the words of the author that we are about to study, but they are also getting a sneak peek into the novel - which allows them to engage in the text, make predictions, and make connections.

Food for Thought... what are your favourite Poetry activities to do with your students?