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!