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.