Sunday, July 30, 2017

Gearing up for a New School Year

I am getting excited about planning for the new school year. I have had my baby (she's 10 days old and absolutely perfect!), and now I'm ready to get back to work. The way my maternity leave is going to work, I am taking off just six weeks from my daughter's DOB. This means that I am missing most of teacher work week, but I'll still be there for the first day of school. I am thankful about not losing any time with my "work kids" because this will help us build relationships and momentum. This also means that I am looking to take advantage of my evenings through August when both kids happen to be sleeping at the same time (like right now!).

The first thing that I want to plan out is week one. I love some of the things that I did last year, so I want to start getting those things organized and edited.  Here's one of the things I did--

Since one of the main areas of English class is writing, I decided to do a writing activity to begin the year and get to know my students. This activity had multiple purposes: to show me their writing skills, to help me learn their names, to help them value each other and be culturally sensitive to unique names, and to teach them a little bit about me. I printed a front/back worksheet for a name tag. This worksheet also doubled as a name tag tent. When it was folded, there was a front and a back of the name tag tent. The front had a spot for the student to write his or her name and draw three visual representations of his or her interests. The back (the part facing the student), allowed for students to write three things about themselves, two questions about the class, and one academic goal or concern.

The back of the worksheet was a space to write about their names.

 On day one, they did the name tag part of the worksheet (front and back of the name tag tent). Then I read them a children’s book about a student who had a unique name and felt it made it difficult to fit in (Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes).

 We used this to discuss the need to value one another. On day two, I modeled for students by writing my own “name” story. This helped them get to know me a little bit better. Then students wrote about their names. They got to choose to write about one of three things: 1) share why your parents picked your name 2) share history about your name or what it means or 3) write a fictional tale inspired by your name (like Chrysanthemum). This name tag tent activity, both the day one and day two parts, helped me to get to know student interests, writing capabilities, and cultural backgrounds. It opened up dialogue between students and with me and helped to build a positive class culture from the very beginning of the year.

Here's the PPT that I used on day one to introduce this to students.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Reading in the Middle Grades

As much as I love blogging, I have found over and over again that life happens and blogging is the first thing to go.  I like to use blogging as a way to reflect on my teaching and make my teaching practices better.  This is why I really should make blogging one of my priorities.

Since my last blog post, my life has changed dramatically.  I got a new job at a public school, and I'm also expecting my second baby in July.  It has been an unforgettable school-year, and with just over six weeks to go, I think I should get back to blogging!

So let's talk today about reading in the middle grades.  My current position is as a sixth grade English teacher.  This seems to be one of the hardest grades to find books for.  The problem is that the students are still interested in the books that were popular in elementary school, but they are actually ready for some more advanced reading material, if they would just take a risk.  When we take trips to the library, my students often gravitate towards graphic novels and books in the Wimpy Kid or Dork Diaries Series.  I encourage them to (or force them to) pick chapter books, and most of the time these end of being forgotten in the classroom.  When the students aren't invested, they just don't seem to read the books.  For all these reasons, and more, if you can find a GREAT book for students in the middle grades, you take note.  I want to have a long list of recommendations that students can draw from so that when they pick up a "chapter book," they keep on reading it.  With that being said, check out a book review for a middle grades book that I recently read.

I recently read The Kingdom of Oceana by Mitchell Charles.  From the first pages it was clear that this book would be full of action and adventure.  There is a strong theme of sibling rivalry which is evident through quests that the brothers take in the historic Hawaiian setting.  With such a setting, it is no surprise that the reader is drawn into the story with magic, spirit animals, and a mysterious (and cursed) tiki.   For lovers of Disney’s Moana, there are many similarities in Charles’s adventure tale.  Thankfully, his tale is more developed, with a wider range of conflicts and characters than the Disney movie that shares a similar setting.  Charles also has a writing style that I appreciate as an English teacher.  It is fluid and descriptive and ultimately enjoyable.  However, I did feel that the book was a bit of a slow read.  The book felt very authentic, which translated to a lot of unfamiliar vocabulary that personally slowed me down.  I think this would also be true for a reader who is in the middle grades. Due to the wide range of characters, you should also be wary about putting the book down for any extended period of time.  Even over a week or two, you may easily forget significant people that will come back in the end of the story.  This is a plus for the Kindle version, because you can easily search for a character’s name and find out when and where you met that person.  I feel that this book is well suited to a school-age reader, but due to the complexities that I mentioned above, they may find it a frustrating read.  If they stick with it, I think your students will find that it is well worth the time and effort.  It is an unforgettable story!  And stay tuned because it appears that Charles is also writing a sequel!  Want more information about The Kingdom of Oceana?  Check out Charles’s website-  

*Disclaimer- I received a complementary copy of the book for my honest review. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The First Day is Coming---- more on procedures

It is time to make some serious decisions regarding your classroom management plan.  Start the year strong with tips from Michael Linsin.

After seeing this tweet from Brynn Allison @literarymaven, I went back to a great website that I discovered at the beginning of the summer: Smart Classroom Management.  I have spent hours reading Michael Linsin's ideas on this site.  He has very clear ways to help you learn classroom management.

My discipline system for the past couple years has been to give one warning and then to give a consequence.  Yet, through Linsin, I have gotten concrete tips for making that even better.  Here are some key take aways---

1.  Your classroom should be a fun, inviting place where students enjoy learning (and this is by far the most important point!).

2.  Your rules should be clear and to the point.  He suggests--
    I am not yet sure that these are going to be my rules, but this gives you an idea.  Previously my rules were--

In choosing my rules this year, I want to make sure that I can clearly see if the rule has been broken.  With that being said, rule number one may be the one that needs adjusting.  If a student is blatantly not trying their best, that could fall under not respecting themselves.  In many ways, I like Michael's rules better for that reason.  They are very clear.  Where I am not sure I agree is with the "Raise your hand before speaking."  I see my classroom as one where a lot of collaboration occurs, so I don't know that I want to tell them they can't talk.  Of course, the reality is that in teaching procedures to your class, you can teach them when talking is permitted (and even encouraged).  Then at "all other times" they are expected to raise their hands to speak.   

3.  Your consequences should be clear and to the point, too.  He suggests--
His site also goes into detail about how to do each of these steps, including samples.  

4.  You should be following your management plan like a referee refs a game.  No lecturing, no negativity or anger.  You are just delivering the facts.  This may be the hardest one, but it is also a VERY important point.  Students need to be given the space to self-reflect, and it will be harder for them to do that if they are harboring resentment over something that you did or said.  

5. Teach every procedure in a very detailed way.  This is another important one.  Teach your students how to come into your classroom and begin their bell-ringer.  Teach them how to get into groups or get supplies.  Teach them what it will look like when they get a warning or a time-out.  Nothing should be surprising when it comes to how your classroom runs.  Then when you follow your classroom management plan, the students will be thankful that you are consistent and stuck to the procedures that you taught them at the beginning of the year.  

All of this and so much more can be found on Michael Linsin's website.  If you are a new teacher (or any teacher, really), you should also spend hours on his site.  I have only skimmed the surface of what he has to offer.  

Happy Planning!

Monday, August 1, 2016

Writing and Rubrics

Today I want to talk more about how I teach and assess writing.  This past year, I worked on increasing the amount of writing by using a modified writers' workshop and having my students write in a writer's notebook.  Basically, this just meant that we wrote more often and we did a lot more writing activities to prepare for major pieces.  I found a lot of great ideas from this blog post by Jenna at Musings in the Middle-

This is an image from her blog that shows one page of a writer's notebook.  It is also TOTALLY worth it to watch her video, which I inserted below.  Please be clear that both of these resources, the image and video, are Jenna Smith's...not my own.

So, now that you have spent a little time with Jenna, let's get back to my classroom.  This year with my sixth graders, I made a lot of the brainstorming pages for narrative writing, including the one shown above.  This falls into the category of "list making" in the writer's notebook, and it is so helpful for the students.  I then would say something like, "Turn to your heart map and pick one topic to write about today."  We might write three different "quick-writes" from our heart maps, which we could later pull inspiration from for a longer narrative.  In this way, students get practice developing a number of ideas for the different types of writing- narrative, expository, and argumentative.

Once it is time to develop one topic for a full length essay, I have students refer to their quick writes, but I also have them do more traditional planning.  One example of this is to create an outline.  Again, I teach this step by step with an example from my own writing.  I go through the steps and then I have the students go through the steps.  I do.   I model for each step of the writing process.  Just like Jenna recommends, I write in front of the students.  It is worth it to be vulnerable and show them the process.  I also share rubrics with the students throughout the process.  I teach and grade based on the six traits of writing.  I often focus on a few of the traits in the rubric.

One of my favorite essays to teach is the literary analysis.  I do this essay with my 8th graders after their summer reading book, Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry by Mildred Taylor.  I have them compare literary elements between Roll of Thunder and a supplementary text (like "Sympathy" by Paul Laurence Dunbar or "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" by Richard Wright).  Here is the rubric from that essay-
As you can see, this example of a rubric focuses more on the structure of the essay and lays out exactly what students should have in each paragraph.  

In contrast, here is a rubric for a narrative essay.  This one has three of the six traits highlighted- Ideas, Organization, and Word Choice.  I also almost always grade for conventions.  

I hope that this post helps to clarify how I teach and assess writing.  I'm also continuing to dig into Lucy Calkins's Writing Pathways which I got last year.  The rubrics are very specific and show multiple grade level expectations.  Here is a glimpse of the rubric for a sixth grade information writing assignment from that book.

Keep the conversation going by commenting below.  How do you use rubrics?  What methods do you prefer for teaching writing?  As always, happy planning!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Letters to New English Teachers Post #3-- Beginning of the Year-- Assessment

Today we will be discussing how to assess your students at the beginning of the year.  Letter number three, Beginning the Year, was split up into three sections.  Please click the following links if you missed either of the previous two posts on procedures or building relationships.

3. Assessing Students' Skills
When you think about the first week(s) of school, much of what you plan is going to fall into the first two categories above.  You will find that without spending time teaching the procedures and building relationships, more time later will be spent "putting out unnecessary fires."  However, as an English teacher, I also feel the need to bring in literature and writing during the beginning of the year.  This comes back to having balance within your class.  Most teachers will have at least 45 minutes a day with their students.  You should be able to infuse literature and writing into the previous two categories (procedures and building relationships) as a way of getting to know where your students are academically, without sacrificing anything.

One method of bringing in literature at the beginning of the year is to do read alouds.  There is something special about bringing in children's books and reading them to your middle school students.  If you have a document camera, you can easily show them the pages as you read.  You can even fashion a document camera out of an iPhone, tripod, and the AirScanner app (which I did last year).  One of my favorite read alouds is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.  I use this as a jumping off point for discussing literary devices and elements.  It is also important to have vulnerable moments discussing the plot of stories, and The Giving Tree has a great plot for that, too.  Talking about the characters and the choices that they make allows the students to connect their lives to the story and to each other.  This helps them to feel more comfortable with the other students in the class, thus you are building relationships at the same time.

Another way to bring in literature during the beginning of the year is to have the students do a project with their summer reading book.  Each school has different summer reading requirements, but hopefully your students have read at least one book for fun over the summer.  The project that I did last year involved students working in groups to find similarities between the literary elements within their books.  The end result was four sheets of construction paper put together with string.  I wish I had taken a picture of the finished product because they turned out really great.  Here is a link to the project description and a view of the project from the assignment document.

It is also important to set the precedent for free choice reading at the beginning of the year.  One way to do this is through reading time at the beginning of class.  Students should be encouraged to bring the book they are reading for fun and then the first 10 minutes of class is designated for silent reading.  If students don't have a book they are reading, you should have articles/short stories ready to provide to them.  Then, conference with those students individually to help them find a meaningful book to start reading.  I usually had one day a week set aside for bell ringer reading, but you could increase that.  In fact, some teaching models designate as much as 15 minutes a day.  I would definitely recommend reading The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller.  She has great ideas for how to infuse a love of reading within your students through independent reading.

I also ensure that there is writing in my classroom on a daily basis.  This could be something simple such as a paragraph reflection or exit ticket; however, the beginning of the year is also the time to see your students' skills on "meatier" writing assignments.  One teacher author that has inspired me is Lucy Calkins.  In her Units of Study program, I learned about the on-demand writing assignment.  At the beginning of the year, have students write a multi-paragraph piece for each type of writing: informational, argumentative, and narrative.  This will show you (and them) what they remember from past years.  It is recommended that you do all three on-demands at the beginning of the year, but you might prefer to do each type directly prior to teaching that type of writing during the year.  This year, I invested in the book Writing Pathways by Calkins, and it provided me with a wealth of rubrics and checklists to help students on their writing journeys.  The day before the on-demand assessment, you should inform your students that they will be writing with a speech like this one-

"Think of a topic that you've studied or that you know a lot about.  Tomorrow, you will have all of class to write an informational (or all-about) text that teaches others interesting and important information and ideas about that topic.  Please keep in mind that you'll have only 40 minutes to complete this, so you'll need to plan, draft, revise, and edit in one sitting.  Write in a way that shows all that you know about information writing."

Here is a glimpse of one of the checklists from Writing Pathways.  When you purchase the book, you get the checklists within the book and you get them on a disk for your computer as well.  This is ideal for convenience.
After students write the piece, they can start looking at the checklists to see where they think they fall on the spectrum-- not yet, starting to, or yes.  Of course, you should also assess the pieces using the checklists.  Then when teaching your writing units, you can refer back to the original on-demand piece to gauge progress.  At the end of the writing units, students should do another on-demand piece to show their growth on that type of writing.

On another day, I will go into more depth about writing and rubrics to help Jamie out, as per a previous request.  Any other questions or comments regarding beginning the school year, let me know with a comment.  Happy planning!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Letters to New English Teachers Post #3-- Beginning of the Year Relationships

Today we will be focusing on building relationships with your students.  If you missed section one of letter 3 "PROCEDURES," you can find that post here.  

2.  Building Relationships
In addition to setting strong limits, teaching procedures, and having rules and consequences (see section one), you need to build rapport with your students.  Your classroom should be one that they are excited to come to, both because you have high standards for what they will be learning AND because you care about them.  The beginning of the year is your first opportunity to get to know the students, and by investing some effort from the start, they will know that you care about them.

My first recommendation is to start by writing an introduction letter to your new students.  This can be a little bit more challenging depending on how many students you have, but ideally, you will mail this letter home to the student before the start of the school year.  In this letter, tell the students a little bit about yourself and your plans for the school year.  It doesn't hurt to show the students how excited you are to start the school year with them.  Your excitement will start to build their excitement.

When the students arrive on the first day of school, you have a few important jobs.  First, make sure that you are on hall duty.  Every time there are students in the halls, you should be too.  Say hello to the students, introduce yourself, shake hands or high five the students.  You can already be getting to know your students during these informal times.  Ask about their interests or what they did over the summer.  Show them that you care!  When students begin to enter your classroom, remember from post number one that you should have clear work expectations.  They need to be put to work immediately with "bell work."  This is the trickiest part because you are juggling between getting the students who are in your room off to a productive start (while showing them that how they behave matters), and continuing to "work the hallway and build those relationships."  [I would just like to note that being over planned for the first day will help you to have the confidence necessary to be in the hall and not in your classroom.  And you can also straddle the doorway to help you "be" in both places.]

In considering first day (and week) activities, I personally put priority on teaching procedures and routines.  With that being said, I think there are always opportunities for getting to know your students.  This past year, the bell ringer on the first day of school was a drawing activity.  It included the choice for the students to draw whatever they wanted and then they were tasked with writing a little blurb explaining what they drew.  When the timer rang, we spent a little more time on the bell ringer by sharing our drawings.  This showed the students that I cared about hearing from them.   Plus, many of the drawings related to who the students are, so it was multifunctional.  Here's what it looked like.

As the first week continues, I would recommend that you continue to do little activities that have multiple functions.  Get to know the students (and help them to get to know one another) while also getting to know their skill levels and letting them have fun and express themselves.  Another quick activity that I enjoy doing in the first week of school is the signature scavenger hunt.  There are many versions of this online, but here is a small clip of my version.  

In the next section of this letter I will be talking more specifically about getting to know your students academically and setting the stage for your high work expectations.  However, if you work to get to know your students in the first days and weeks of the school year, your life (and theirs) will be much more enjoyable.  I would also recommend that you continue to get to know the students and show them that you care about them all throughout the year.  This could involve bringing movement into the classroom with a scavenger hunt or a four corners multiple choice activity.  In the four corners activity you put up signs in the four corners of the room, one for A, B, C, and D.  During this activity I like to have the students answer the questions on paper first, that way they don't just follow their friends around the room.  Then during review of the questions, you read each question and students physically go to the corner that stands for the letter choice of their answer.  It gets them moving and having fun while still doing review.  Or you could play the online game Kahoot.  This game requires students to have a device (either one per person or one per team).  There are many, many on the website that other teachers have already created.  You can easily find and edit one of those OR you can make your own (which is super easy).  This online game basically becomes an every student response system, and in my experience, works best with multiple choice questions as well.  A final tip is to incorporate music into your classroom.  This could be using music to help you teach lessons or playing classical music in the background.  MSKCPotter talks about both of those things.  She has great references in her TPT store for using video and music clips in the classroom.  Check that out here.  She also recently wrote a blog post about playing classical versions of pop songs that you can read here.  I have also had great success with this technique of background music, and I usually use the Pandora station "Classical Music Medley" for my tunes.  A final thought is that if you have a few extra minutes of class, you can play a fun song for the students.  I like to take requests (clean songs only, of course).  This is like a reward if they have worked really hard during the lesson, and we end up with a little bit of extra time, and it is a nice way to send them out.  One note of warning, though, is to make sure that you have wrapped up your lesson.  This should never replace part of your lesson.  The learning objective most definitely comes first.  

One last reference that I want to give you is on the blog Smart Classroom Management by Michael Linsin.  He wrote a post all about building rapport on the first day of school.  His main words of advice are to greet, smile, share, laugh, and promise.  Read his original post here.  

This post has a lot of ideas for things that you can start doing right now, so happy planning, and as always shout out with any questions or comments!  

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Letters to New English Teachers Post #3-- Beginning of the Year-- Procedures

Hello New English Teachers,
Letter #3 in the series is a good one!  What types of things do we need to consider for the beginning of the year?

There are so many things to consider when the school year is about to begin.  You need to think about how you want to run your classroom.  To have well behaved students, your classroom needs to have procedures in place.  You need to think about how you are going to get to know your students and build a classroom community.  You need to think about how you are going to get to know your students' abilities as learners of English.  When I started to write this letter, I decided that it needed to be broken down into three segments.  These segments will all be "letter 3," but since there is so much to say, they will be published separately.  The segments will be: 1.  Procedures, 2.  Building Relationships, and 3. Assessing Students' Skills

1.  Procedures 
I would say that procedures fall into two categories.  Category 1 would be procedures that help the students learn to their maximum capacity and category 2 would be procedures that help teachers maintain their sanity (i.e. save you time!). There are so many experts that have helped me develop my classroom procedures (both in category 1 and 2).  Let's look at two of those experts in the body of this post.

One expert that revolutionized my classroom is Rick Morris.   In my garage, in one of many boxes, are my Rick Morris books.  If it was easier to put my finger on them, I would totally be re-reading them right this second!  That's just how good they are.  But guess what...the website is also a gold mine.   If you don't have the book, go to this link to read all about Morris's ideas.  Rick Morris has so many great ideas to explore.

One of his ideas that I use consistently is student numbers.  What I do is simply number my students in alphabetical order.  Why?  Mainly, student numbers allows for an organization of your students in order to save a lot of TIME (i.e. a category 2 procedure).  Morris has multiple books, but the book that delves into numbering your students is the New Management Handbook.  As a secondary school teacher, I generally teach multiple classes within the same grade level.  For example, from 2012-2014 I had two seventh and two eighth grade classes.  In the 2015-2016 I taught one sixth grade class, one seventh grade class, and two eighth grade classes.  In these circumstances, my choice is to make a three digit number starting with the grade-level.  All the classes within the same grade-level would be numbered consecutively.  Let's look at the numbers for my classes this past year, just so you have a better picture of what I am talking about.  

6th grade class= 21 students (two of whom were late entrants)
numbers 601-621
Since my main reason for using these numbers is to help me with alphabetizing paperwork, I really needed my students to be in alphabetical order.  This is something that Morris does not necessarily agree with, but I find that to be the best way for the system to work for me*.  The first late entrant has the last initial of K.  For trimester 1 and 2, I had her number as 620, but at the start of trimester 3, I moved her to 612.5 (for alphabetization).  The second of my late entrant's last name begins with an X and was alphabetically last...perfect.  By trimester three, my stack of papers had 612, 612.5, and 613 in the middle and was just missing number 620, and thankfully back in alphabetical order!  Yay!

The other three classes were pretty straight forward--

7th grade class= 19 students
numbers 701-719

8th grade class #1= 14 students
numbers 801-814

8th grade class #2= 11 students
numbers 815-825

*I would like to note that I can't remember how Morris numbers his students and why he does not number them alphabetically.  I plan on re-reading the specifics of his system (when I can find my books) and I recommend you do the same.  Then you can make a decision about how you would like to use the numbers.  I think that for the late entrants, my need for alphabetization is a slight annoyance.

 Along with the student numbers are Blackline Masters.   These masters continue to help your organization, and they even go one step further by helping you easily see if students have missed an assignment.  Let's take a look at those next.  This is one example of a master that Morris provides.  You cut it down so that you have three small sheets.  The one shown below is designed for a class of 20 students.
This image came from Morris's website under the tab for download files.  Basically, once your papers are organized numerically, you cross off the number of each paper in your pile.  Then you can see which number (i.e. student) doesn't have their paper turned in.  There is a key at the bottom that shows how Morris uses this master, but I generally don't get that specific.  I do cross out the number when the assignment has been turned in, and I circle the number for students that didn't turn it in.  That's it.  I also create my own masters at the beginning of the year, and for ease of use, I write my students' names next to their numbers.  Then I always have a quick reference of student numbers.  I also have student numbers next to students' names in my gradebook and on the "Read" charts in the front of the room.  I highly recommend that you look in to all of Morris's ideas, but this one in particular has been a huge time saver for me, especially in keeping track of mountains of paperwork!