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!  

Monday, July 4, 2016

Letters to New English Teachers Post #2- How to Teach

Hello New English Teachers,
Welcome to letter #2.  Today I want to talk about the how of teaching.  When you plan your lessons, it is very important to think about your lesson objective and how you are going to assess if the students met the objective.  There are many methods of teaching.  The classic "lecture" usually doesn't work in middle school.  Generally students need more direct instruction to, say, write an effective paragraph about literature.  The reality is that your daily lessons will usually include numerous methods of teaching.  To keep the students engaged, you want to have some discussion, collaboration, inquiry, but you also need to make sure that they can meet the objective independently.
So in this post, I'd like to talk primarily about direct instruction.  This past year I taught 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, and I realized very quickly that if I did not follow the "I do, we do, you do" lesson format (especially with the sixth graders), the students did not produce quality work.  This lesson format is pretty much exactly how it sounds.

1.  "I do"-------Model for the students-
Typically this will involve a think aloud showing the students how you arrived at the end point (the objective).  When you are modeling for the students, I would recommend going through the steps before hand, and even making a script to ensure you are well prepared.  It seems that with most objectives, I want the students to write paragraphs to show they have mastered the skill.  This works for so many English skills: making inferences, identifying and analyzing conflicts, determining theme or irony, etc.  Students need to write out their ideas to show they understand the literature and the concept as it relates to the literature.  So when I do a think aloud, I often have what I want to write in my paragraph already typed.   Then, even though I will re-type or hand write it in front of the students, I have literally done the work already and there are no surprises.

2. "We do"-------Provide the students with guided practice- 
During this step, you can either work through the lesson steps as a class or have the students work in small groups to reach the end goal.  They should be practicing what they just saw you, the teacher, do.  They are either being guided by you or their peers.  If you choose to do small groups, then the students are helping each other grow in the lesson objective.  In this step it is okay that they are still continuing to figure out how to determine conflict, theme, irony, etc.  That is why they have support, and of course they are also able to look back at the exemplary example from the "I do" step of the lesson.

3. "You do"------Provide the students with independent practice-
This time, students should be able to show they can meet the objective alone.  They have now watched the teacher do the lesson, practiced the same steps with their peers or as a class, and now they are responsible for the learning.  They are still able to look back on the earlier steps of the lesson for support, but they should be coming up with something new to meet the objective.

Let's look at an example...
With my sixth graders this year we read The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan.  One of my lessons was for the students to show how Percy Jackson was on a hero's journey.  I did a lot of scaffolding with the lesson, and it was a multi-day lesson as well.  I started with quotations that would connect to Percy being on a hero's journey.  I wrote a paragraph for them which included a topic sentence, proof from the text, and my own explanations to show how the quotes prove that Percy is on a hero's journey.  Then students worked with a different chapter of the book and wrote a partner paragraph.  The students had a rubric and step-by-step directions that would help them.  They could look at my example from the previous day and use the support of their partner to write one paragraph together.  After I graded the paragraph and provided feedback to the partnerships, they needed to do the process one more time independently.  That was the one that would be a writing grade and would assess if they understood the main character in the novel and if they understood how to write a paragraph with text details and their own explanations.  After all three steps, if students did not meet the objective effectively, then I went back to re-teach according to need.

Final Thoughts
1.  When deciding how you are going to teach your lesson, include a lot of variety.  You want to meet the needs of all of your learners.  In the beginning of the year, I like to do a learning styles inventory quiz with my students.  It is very informative for them and for me.  Yet, even knowing where my learners fall on the inventory, I still usually choose to use audio, visual, and tactile methods in many of my lessons.

2.  Make sure to use the data from "you do" lesson step and re-teach if necessary.  It is easy to fall into this pattern of "I do, we do, you do," and assume that the students are "getting it."  Sometimes these three steps aren't enough.  Maybe some students will need the "we do" step of the lesson multiple times before being able to meet the objective independently.  Remember to stay flexible for your students.

3. This final thought dawned on me when I started this post, although it really fits better in the first letter of "what you're teaching."  As I have mentioned, I am coming from a position with a lot of flexibility.   Despite this freedom, I found it very helpful to refer to the Common Core Standards.  These standards were created with the purpose of students becoming college and career ready.  It might be worth looking these objectives, even if your school also offers you a lot of flexibility.  I think they are GREAT!

That's all for today.  Seasoned teachers, what do you do to ensure how you're teaching is on point?  New teachers, what questions do you have?  Join the conversation by commenting below.

And...Happy July 4th!

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Letters to New English Teachers Post #1- What you're going to teach.

Hello New English Teachers,
First let me offer my congratulations.  This job is going to change your life.  There are so many things about it that you are going to love.  I am coming from a middle school background, so much of what I am going to be talking about lives in the middle school sector; however, I am confident that if you teach high school, you will find something of value, too.

In thinking about these letters, the first thing that I want to address is knowing what you are going to be teaching.  Does your new school have a daily curriculum guide or a general list of exit learning objectives that all students need to meet by the end of the year?  There is no way for me to know exactly what you will find for your curriculum, but whatever it is, now is the time to dig in and determine exactly what you will be teaching.

In my school, we have curriculum maps, which are broken down into what will be covered each month, and exit learning objectives, which are the general objectives for the whole year.

Maybe you will be blessed with having a lot of choice in your position.  With the choice and flexibility I was given, I also had a lot of responsibility.

I was expected (and you probably will be to) to cover-

One of the trickiest aspects of being an English teacher is finding the right balance of all of these elements.  I am going to talk briefly about each one now.

When it comes time to teach literature, I like to start with the novels.  I have taught many novels over my 8 years as a teacher.  Some of my favorites include The Giver by Lois Lowry, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frankand Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry by Mildred Taylor.  One way to enrich your novel units is to include short stories, poems, songs, non-fiction primary sources, etc.  This helps the students to see varied perspectives on the subject that you are studying.  It helps them to compare themes across different texts, and it helps them to stay ENGAGED in the unit of study.

Another aspect of teaching literature involves independent reading.  Students should be reading a variety of texts independently throughout the year.  I usually have them do book reports and journal entries to hold them accountable for this reading.  There are many benefits to ensuring the students read, including improving their reading comprehension skills.  I would definitely encourage you to include some type of independent reading in your curriculum.

Now for a brief example from my Roll of Thunder unit.  In order to infuse a variety of texts, I like to teach the poem "Sympathy" by Paul Laurence Dunbar and the short story "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" by Richard Wright.  Then I have the students do a literary analysis essay where they compare themes across Roll of Thunder and one of the supplementary texts.  I have been teaching this unit at the beginning of the year, and this assignment gives me a great view of my students' current writing skill.  This leads so nicely to the next skill on my list.

When I teach writing, I often teach it in conjunction with literature.  I find that is the best way to balance these two major parts of English.  When the students write about what they are reading, they are also preparing for literature classes in high school and college.  Middle school is the time to learn how to read and analyze a text and then write a coherent essay proving a point about it.  They need to be taught how to make a claim and then support it with proof from the text.  It just makes sense to do essays that stem from books and stories.

The one area that sometimes strays from this general rule of thumb is creative writing and journal entry writing.  Sometimes we do creative writing that is not related to literature "just for fun."  Of course, the students are still learning important skills with this writing [like using figurative language and descriptive detail and how to write dialogue], but since they get to choose to write about "whatever they want," they have a lot of fun with it.  Similarly, there is a lot of value in having the kids journal or blog about their lives.  From writing about what inspires them to what they are reading for fun, students benefit from getting to write about their lives.

Whether you love grammar or tolerate it, it can't be denied that students need grammar instruction in middle school.  It is expected that they understand the basics of the English language when they get to high school, therefore it falls to us to teach it.  This is one of the areas that I have grappled with every year, and I always end up going back to notes, drilling the concept with online interactives or worksheets, review games, and then tests.  I don't know if this is the best way, but this has been the most reliable way to get results in my opinion.  That and correcting students' writing for grammar errors diligently.

Last year I did an action research project about grammar instruction, and I had some interesting results.  Basically, if students are exposed to relevant grammar in conjunction with writing instruction, they are sometimes able to apply that knowledge to their writing.  In order for this to be more successful, I need to do more research and planning.  There are great books out there if you're interested in this method of grammar instruction.  Personally, I would start with The Power of Grammar by Mary Ehrenworth and Vicki Vinton.  Despite my best efforts, this year I still found that the most reliable way of getting results was through direct instruction, yet I still hope to do more grammar in conjunction with writing in the future.

Many schools have vocabulary programs that they use.  My school uses the Wordly Wise 3000 system.  I was very consistent with doing 3-4 Wordly Wise units a month in order to finish the 20 units within the school year.  Students typically go through the exercises in the book for homework, and we check them in class the next day.  We take multiple choice and spelling assessments for each unit, and after ten units, I do a cumulative assessment.  In order to really get the words in the students' heads, I usually include some sentence writing during the week.  When doing Wordly Wise sentences, I use the grammar punk program (don't you love how everything is interconnected?!).   In grammar punk, you roll dice and come up with stipulations for the sentences.  You end up with a vowel, a consonant, a number, and a part of speech.  Sometimes instead of rolling the part of speech die, I just have students write sentences with the grammar skill that we are currently working on.  Then I always have the students include a Wordly Wise word in their sentence.  This way students are practicing multiple skills.

Let's look at an example.  Here are the stipulations for one set of sentences:
Write a fantastic sentence using 2 C,I words, a conjunction, a collective noun, and an abstract noun….and don’t forget a Wordly Wise unit 2 word.  

The first step is usually to brainstorm a list of words with the vowel and consonant.  Students love going around the room and sharing these.  Having each student share their favorite word with the required vowel and consonant only takes a few minutes of class time and the pay off is great.  Students get to share their unique idea and then everyone benefits from having a longer list of words with the vowel and consonant requirement.  After that, students start writing and creativity continues to flow.  I am always so impressed with what the students come up with.

Another method of vocabulary acquisition is through context vocabulary in the books and stories that you read.  This is something that I always do in conjunction with any formal vocabulary program.  The reason that I feel this is so important is because it is a skill to be able to define words in context, and students need to understand the words they read in order to understand what they read.  Plus, it doesn't hurt that this is often a tested skill on standardized tests.

Poetry can be taught in a couple of different ways.

One way is to do a stand alone poetry unit.  This would allow you to teach famous poets, poetic devices, rhyme schemes, etc.  Then you could have the students write poems featuring the things that they have learned and mimicking the style of the poets that they have learned about.  This has not been my preference when teaching poetry.

Another way is to infuse poetry throughout your novel units.  This happens to be my preference.  I try to find relevant poems for all of my novels.  As you can see, I like to keep everything connected.  I bring in famous poets and relevant themes which will connect to the literature.  Then I can still teach poetic devices, but the purpose of the poem extends beyond that.  I also like to use the acronym TPCASTT to help the students analyze poems.  I have a free worksheet that you're welcome to use, too.

At my school, we also value poetry recitation.  We have students memorize poems throughout the year, and then students are chosen from each class to present these poems at monthly assemblies.  By the time students leave 8th grade, they are very adept at public speaking and presentation skills, and they usually recognize that these skills have come from their many Declamation Days!

If you are in the position of not yet being hired, you can still get some planning done while you are waiting for "the call."  Think about general objectives such as making inferences, summarizing, conflict, characterization, etc.  One thought would be to plan a short story.  Even if you end up not using what you plan right now, it will keep your creative juices flowing and help you to feel productive during the wait.  Some other lessons would be beginning of the year writing activities.  Even though you don't know the specifics of your class at the moment, you know that you will want to get to know the kids and their writing at the beginning of the year.  While you might not be writing your syllabus until you have your final placement, you can create assignments that would help you get to know a group of students better.  Another thing you could easily plan is grammar lessons.  Let's assume that you're going to have a middle school position.  You know that middle schoolers are going to need to work on grammar skills, so you could create lessons to teach then drill the comma rules, for example.  I could go on and on, but you get the point.

Thank you for joining me on my first very long Letter to New English Teachers.  I hope that you have found something of value.  Please comment about any tips you have for new English teachers or any additional questions that you might have surrounding "what you're going to teach."

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Another Year in the Books

I have always loved end of the year reflection activities.  They involve looking at the goals you set at the beginning of the year and thinking about your effectiveness as a teacher.  This year, my Associate Head of School had a new activity for us.  She had the teachers write report card comments for themselves.  The purpose of the activity was to observe and comment on yourself as though you were an outsider, thus using third person.  It allowed me to think about all aspects of my teaching.  It also helped me to be more honest with the things that I need to improve upon, mostly because I was also giving myself credit for the things I do well.  This activity is exactly what we want when planning meaningful lessons.  We want to plan something that is creative and fun, yet gets the students thinking and reflecting.  It was a very effective exercise, and I enjoyed creating mine very much. In fact, I think this is a worthwhile activity to do throughout the year as a means of checking your status.  We do report card comments for the students multiple times a year, so why not for ourselves as well!

In this post I also want to tell you about an upcoming series on my blog.  This year, I am leaving my job in hopes of finding one closer to home.  In the position that I have held for the past four years, I have been the upper school English teacher at my school.  And for three of those four years I have taught all the seventh and eighth graders.  Many days, it felt like I was the English program.  At times this was a lot of pressure, but it also made the victories that much sweeter.  Now that I am packing up my room and saying my goodbyes, I have realized that I'm not quite ready to relinquish my classroom.  In an effort to make my transition out more smooth, I am writing letters on my blog to new English teachers.  One part of me thinks that these are for the person who replaces me, yet in reality, she probably won't be reading my blog.  It is more of a reflective exercise, and one that I hope some new teacher somewhere will find value in.

So please stay tuned for Letters to New English Teachers coming soon.  

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Reflection-- Anne Frank Research

One of my favorite things about teaching is the ability to reflect on my lessons.  Figuring out what went wrong and implementing changes to enhance lessons brings such satisfaction.  Sometimes, those changes aren't going to be used until the following year, but still, there is growth in the process.  I also think that blogging is a fantastic way to reflect.  It gives you the opportunity to get comments from others who may have struggled with the same things.  Plus, there's the organizational factor.  I often refer back to posts I have written in the past to help me remember successful lessons.

So with all that being said, today's post is another one of reflection.  I recently did a pre-reading assignment with my eighth graders (read more about it in this previous post).  Last year, the students wrote and delivered speeches.  This year, I switched it up slightly and had the students write and present a newspaper article.  Each student researched a topic and wrote their paper, but we didn't have a lot of time.  Don't you hate the time factor?!  This is where I ran into trouble.  I really should have had each student do a visual to go along with their article.  Instead, I had the students present their article by reading it--with NO visual.  My ultimate goal was for students to learn from their peers' presentations.  I had the audience taking notes, but since there was no visual, it was very difficult for them to follow along with the presentation.  Students kept interrupting the presenter asking them to repeat things, "What was that date?  How do you spell that name?  What year again?"  By the end of two days of presentations, I wasn't sure the students in the audience got anything out of it.  Next year if I do this assignment, I will definitely require a visual that contains both pictures (to bring life to the topic) and bullet points (to help the audience follow along).  That way, the audience can focus on listening, but still learn from the research their peers did!   Lesson learned- sometimes forgoing parts of assignments "for the sake of time" actually ends up being more costly in the end.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Martin Luther King, Jr.

It is important that we share with our young people the reason for three day weekends.  So often, we get swept up in the enjoyment of having a day off, that we fail to recognize the reason for the holiday.  This blog post is primarily to share an infographic that was shared with me by Waldorf Honda.  This succinct poster helps us all remember what a special man Martin Luther King, Jr. was.  I hope that you enjoy the infographic and share it with your kiddos.  Help them learn from this great man and appreciate the real reason for this holiday!

Thank you for sharing this with us, Waldorf Honda!