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Mini-essays: Go Small to Get Big Results

25 Jan

450450 words are usually enough to communicate effectively, even in a blog post.

Of course, bigger is not always better…or easier. Thinking back on my schooling, however, I always encountered a direct relationship between size and rigor. In order to make writing more challenging, my teachers made papers longer. The fifteen-page term paper is a mainstay of undergraduate and graduate years. While longer writing pieces have clear merit, they are not necessarily the most effective tools when helping apprentice writers.

Students can develop the critical writing skills they need by writing “smaller.” I have been using mini-essays to great success. The concept is simple.

Students respond to a prompt with a literary analysis essay that does not exceed 450 words. I still want original, critical analysis of the text, so students must get straight to the point.

My students still write longer essays, but I have found I can teach many of the same skills by limiting the word count. The students, too, often find the mini-essays more challenging than those without word limits.

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Teaching Theme: The Red Tree

15 Dec
click the image to read more about this book

click the image to read more about this book

My very first department chair regularly read favorite books to his classes. He wasn’t a snob, either. He reveled in good writing, regardless of genre or target audience.

He was the first person to tell me about Harry Potter. He said something like, “The kids in England are reading this. It’s wonderful, and I think it’s going to be big over here.” Yes, he was a prescient guy. He was also brave. He often read picture books to seniors in high school…and they loved it. One of his favorite children’s books is now one of mine: The Red Tree by Shaun Tan. I use it to teach theme.

I begin my introductory lesson on theme by asking students to formulate a working definition (SEE THIS HANDOUT). As a class, they always come up with a decent one. I might have to do a bit of prodding, but this stuff is usually “in there.”

After collecting definitions, we refine our conception of theme. Depending on what was compiled in class (I usually use a common Google Doc to have students shape collective definitions), I emphasize certain aspects. My key points are always:

  • Multiple themes exist in any piece of art. Art is nuanced, so any painting, story, photograph, play, sculpture, or song will have multiple lessons within.
  • The author really means it. I tell my students, “I don’t think authors intend every message English teachers squeeze out of the work, but I’ve been around enough writers and written enough on my own to understand that writers are very intentional, even neurotic…so critical readers honor the craftsmanship of artists.” Or, I might just say, “They mean most of this stuff. Trust me.”
  • A theme is never one word. There’s a difference between topics and themes. Family, love, and betrayal are all topics. The specific comment the author wants to make about families is the theme.

No surprise. The students breeze through the definition process but STRUGGLE to write coherent, original theme statements that go beyond the obvious and avoid simple summary. In other words, they can define concepts but need help applying them. No matter… I keep my job because they need such help.

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T.V. as Text: Secret Millionaire Essay

8 Dec

Livro ou TV?I will not shock fellow English teachers when I write that most of my students watch television more often than they read. I’m not complaining. I actually think the current generation of teenagers reads more often than the previous one…thank you, Ms. Rowling.

I have, however, been thinking about how I can use my students’ love of T.V. to make them more critical, artistic writers. If I can help them become more empathetic human beings in the process, then maybe I will finally get into Gryffindor.

In recent years I have asked my students to write about ABC’s show Secret Millionaire. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, a millionaire goes undercover for the week, posing as a regular person who happens to be making a documentary about volunteerism. The millionaire visits an impoverished neighborhood and volunteers at charitable organizations within the community. At the end of the week, the millionaire returns to the organizations, reveals his or her identity, and leaves a fat check.

As a way to help students develop skills of persuasion, organization, and communication, I assign this essay. They write to their fellow students, and I ask the most successful writers to submit their pieces to our school newspaper and other online sources like teenink.com.

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My Mustache Was Made in China

28 Nov

This most excellent fake mustache was made were most everything seems to be made…China. I, like you, buy things without ever really thinking about their origins. In this case, I just thought it might be useful to have a stash of fake ‘staches in the classroom. Of course, they’ve proven to be invaluable in so many ways.

In this case, the mustache was just another item I used to illustrate our global supply chain. Allow me to explain.

A “Made in China” Scavenger Hunt has been one of the most successful “go to” lessons I’ve created in recent years. The idea is fairly simple:

  1. Divide the class into teams of 2-4.
  2. Give the teams five minutes to search anywhere in the room for a “Made in China” label.
  3. Bribe them with a wonderful and mysterious prize for the team who finds the most items. (I keep a “Bag ‘O Mystery” on hand filled with odd flea market and garage sale finds. I gave away a Chewbacca bobble-head the other day that was particularly coveted.)
  4. Step back and watch them go.

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Do Your Students’ Work

10 Nov

When teaching AP or IB English, one of the most useful things I did each year was to write at least one of the essays I assigned my students. I would select a textual response prompt I had never seen before and, within the same time constraints set on the students, I would read, analyze, and respond. I would then slip my anonymous response in with the model essays we used during review. It was always humorous and enlightening to hear my students praise and criticize my work, and once I revealed my response, they were always appreciative that I had put myself “out there.”

As teachers we can easily fall into the trap of forgetting the messy, recursive and challenging process of learning. As we repeat lessons throughout the day or re-read books each year, we remove ourselves further from the inevitable struggles inherent in any learning process. To heighten my empathy for my students’ challenges and to model good learning in action, I often do my students’ work. I try, at least once a term, to complete one of my own assignments.

I gave an Ignite speech right along with my students. An Ignite speech is five minutes long, and the speaker creates 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds. I have never given such a speech, so I knew I needed to do it as well. I’m glad I did. Had I simply assigned it, I never would have understood how difficult this format really is.

I easily invested six hours into my five minute speech, and I even had to take a “mulligan” when delivering the speech to the class. In the end, however, I am happy with the results.

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Paper Airplanes for Freedom: Who Cares?

3 Nov

Most teachers would probably naturally intuit this, but carting 20 students to downtown Boston so they may throw paper airplanes at strangers is probably not a good idea. Too many things could go wrong, and why, exactly, would they want to do this in the first place?

I was cautious, but I really care about putting students’ ideas at the forefront of learning, so we executed this harebrain idea anyway. It did not go so well. And, it was a huge success.

How can it be both? First some background….We used CNN’s Freedom Project throughout the term as one source for our research on modern slavery. One posted assignment, Paper Airplanes for Freedom, intrigued us. It is pretty simple: make a paper plane, write messages of solidarity on it, launch it, and encourage those that pick it up to do the same. It’s a novel way of spreading awareness. More slaves exist in the world today than at any point in human history….27 million by some counts. 

As we brainstormed our own ideas for raising awareness, the students had an overwhelming urge to create a public action. During the idea generating and iteration phases, “Paper Airplane Flash Mob” rose to the top. The students and I thought it represented a chance to grab people’s attention and make a lasting impression.  We also thought we could execute it relatively easily.

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27 Million Dots (or Why Design Thinking Is Worth the Extra Effort)

27 Oct

As I sat in line waiting to buy some blue paint and Goo-b-gone, the time creeping past 8:00 p.m., I thought, “Does any of this really have anything to do with English class?” This year I began my sophomore English classes with a project on modern slavery, and even though we moved on to topics like Gatsby’s impossible dream and the nuances of parallel structure, the Modern Slavery Project is still going, taking more and more of my time.

This re-occurring unit is one of which I am very proud. I have written about our work in the past, and every year I attempt to reboot this project, I start by showing past work and asking, “Now…what do YOU want to do?”

For the past two years this has meant tweaking the basic pattern from previous years: students research an aspect of modern slavery, create a video PSA, and write letters to various organizations and individuals, all the while making connections to Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. This work is always engaging, interesting, and original, but this year I pushed my students to think about ways to amplify their voices and increase their impact.

I utilized some design thinking training that is part of Beaver’s in-house professional development. I built in more time to INSPIRE (a research stage of the design process), and we took our ideas through a longer process of iteration. My students were particularly keen to take our work beyond the classroom walls, and they devised some novel ideas to do so:

27 Million Dots: Make Your Mark

One section transformed a three story hallway in the building by painting 27 million dots to represent the total number of slaves in the world today. This idea is inspired by Paper Clips, the documentary about children at a Whitwell, TN middle school collecting six million paper clips to represent the six million lives lost in the Holocaust.  The students generated many ideas about how to best create a physical representation of such a large number, but the plan that emerged as most “doable” and having the most impact was the dots.

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Low Prep #Reading Quizzes that Are Quick to Grade

20 Oct

As an English teacher I must sometimes act as a gatekeeper. I care deeply about engendering a love of reading in my students, and I work diligently toward that end…but I also create situations where I just try to determine a very basic answer to a very basic question, “Did you read it or not?”

This step seems obvious, but many teachers leave this fundamental question to chance. They believe their students will read because they were told to read, but I argue that this kind of trust is actually a disservice to the learners in our classrooms. I am a very optimistic man who believes in second chances and basic human decency, but as an English teacher I am also a crusty, pragmatic troll guarding a bridge. If you didn’t read the book, you’re not getting by me. Let me explain…

I always give a reading quiz the day before I want to discuss the book. This simple step allows me time to determine who has read, and it gives unprepared students a bit of time to catch up. With these quizzes I check for basic reading completion one of three ways:

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Building Effective Classroom Discussions #1st5days

12 Sep

I will admit it. I steal many of the great ideas I use in the classroom. If you want to be a better teacher, you probably find inspiration from others, too.

Steal, of course, is a harsh word. I always give credit. But,  while I know I am a creative teacher in my own right, I have no problem using someone else’s great idea.

Early in my teaching career I attended a Building Success workshop sponsored by the College Board, and the facilitator gave this suggestion. (I would give his name if I knew it; I have tried to find it). Early in the school year, he posts the following list somewhere in the classroom:

  •      – The correct answer
  •      – An educated guess
  •      – A wild guess
  •      – A blank stare

He then begins class by asking students to consider the list and answer the following question: “Which response do you learn the most by giving?” I have stolen his idea every year.

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Grading Essays How-To: Use Macros to Save Time

3 Sep

Here is the skeleton in every writing teacher’s closet: grading essays is soul sucking, mind-breaking work. After fifteen years of dedicating obscene chunks of personal time to the task, I wish I could reveal some cure-all that makes grading fast and euphoric. I can’t. Of course, I find many moments of joy, but the bone-weary reality of the life of an English teacher is that it takes considerable time and significant effort to create meaningful feedback. No matter how I try, I can’t seem to write comments on an essay in less than fifteen minutes. Realistically, it often takes more time. I have experimented with many methods of feedback, but when I need to leave a healthy dose of ink, I use a hybrid approach of handwritten feedback and computer editing tools known as macros. This method doesn’t help me grade more quickly, but it does ensure that I maximize my time. Here’s my basic structure for working through a stack of essays: 

  • Students turn in two copies of an essay, one printed and one electronic copy via Google Docs.
  • I write more quickly on a piece of paper than I can highlight on a computer screen (I have timed each activity), so I go “old school” and leave marks on the page. The two to five minutes I save on each essay quickly add up. I also use a set of symbols to speed this marking process along.
  • I type longer comments that I later print and attach to the essay. I use macros (more on this step below) for common comments, but I also individualize feedback. I always limit myself to one page of typed comments per essay.
  • When finished, I photocopy the completed scoring rubric (which I will use during the revision process), print the one page of typed comments, and then staple the typed comments, the marked essay, and the scoring guide into one packet.
  • I give students at least one week to revise based on my feedback. I require a revision of every major essay, and I use the electronic copy in Google Docs to track the changes. The revision history in Google Docs feature shows me when and where changes were made. Because I made a photocopy of the scoring guide before handing back the essays, I simply look through the revision history on the computer and make changes to the photocopied scoring guide (another time-saver). I do NOT write any additional comments, as the students will not revise this draft, and I am not a glutton for punishment (even though this post may make you think that!)

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