Setting Fire to NealEnglish

14 May

Flame_of_fireCompletely by accident, I just set fire to four years of work. My classroom YouTube account (NealEnglish) no longer exists. Vanishing with this account are all the tutorials and examples of student work I have collected. My old work email was deleted, and with the removal of that Gmail account, the YouTube account went with it.

This accident was completely my own fault. When switching jobs, I knew I needed to transfer necessary information, and I thought I had taken care of all the necessary steps. Yet, in the chaos and daily grind of a big move, I did not notice that my NealEnglish YouTube channel was linked to my work email…so poof.

I doubt I can do anything to recover this work. I’m exploring all options (so share an idea if you have one), but I am not hopeful. Of course, I am sick about the loss, but I am also trying to take a more enlightened, objective view.

I am happy that I had work to lose in the first place. For many years I have been methodical about carving out time from a busy schedule to write and curate and capture. I have developed work habits that help me share classroom work that really matters, so I now just need to put in the time, little by little, to rebuild.

If you navigate this blog, you are will hit many dead video links (for a while). I apologize. It will take me some time to restore the important videos, but I will. And, as I do this I will try to improve each one (and ensure I safely store them in such a way that I don’t lose such a massive amount of work again). I am going to treat this re-doing of work as a meditation of sorts, and hopefully something more meaningful will rise from the ashes.

Visualizing One Million

10 May

one million bonesTo help my students care about one, I try to get them to picture one million. Big numbers are really big…too vast to properly understand without help. This activity can be used in any situation where students would benefit from grasping big numbers, but I use it as an opening exercise in our study of The Diary of Anne Frank.

In this situation, understanding the expanse of one million helps students begin to comprehend the vastness of six to 12 million, the estimated number of people killed during the Holocaust. When students have a nascent, sobering understanding of the horrific scale of this genocide, they approach our study of Anne’s diary with more care, solemnity, and empathy. I emphasize the privilege and duty we have to explore one small part of one life. In doing so we begin to understand the immeasurable loss and, hopefully, do what we can to ensure something like this never happens again.

 

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Robo Grader Review: ProWritingAid Google Add-on

23 Mar

4:59A computer can give more effective and timely feedback than I can…sometimes. The potential of “robo grading” excites me. In the case of redundancies, clichés, passive voice, sentence variety, and other writing concepts, a focused report generated by an algorithm can do more than I can. I have used Writer’s Workbench in the past, my colleagues have used ETS Criterion, and I want to try White Smoke. Of course, a free option via Google Add-ons has enormous appeal.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I wanted to let my students experiment with ProWritingAid, one of the new Add-ons offered in Google Drive. This week students submitted novel analysis essays on The Catcher in the Rye, so I imagined online editing reports could get them started on revision while I mark the essays.

Unfortunately, my students and I are underwhelmed. Now, we need to give ProWritingAid a better chance. These opinions are based on just one test of about 30 minutes. We will try it again very soon, but based on this week’s toe-in-the-water trial the feedback was too clunky and abstract to be of much use:

Our feedback on ProWritingAid’s feedback:

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Looking Good: Better Visual Aids

16 Mar

Visual AidsI prefer Goldilocks-sized conferences—not too big, not too small. I always meet energized, creative teachers and leave with ready-to-use ideas, as well as broader pedagogical questions to ponder. Earlier this year I attended the ELMLE 2014 conference in Berlin. One of the highlights was a session with Joyce Valenza, librarian extraordinaire whose human-centered, practical use of technology was very inspirational. The wiki she created for the session is filled with so many wonderful tools and ideas, I find myself needing to curate her curation in order to focus in on what really matters to me. I’ll write several posts condensing this session, but in this post I want to focus on some sites and tools Joyce shared that can improve the visual aids we use in our teaching and learning. Continue reading

Battle of the Gods: Introduction to Mythology Lesson

9 Feb

Deus-RaFor the past few weeks, my grade 6 students and I have been sailing the Nile in a felucca, learning about powerful Egyptian pharaohs by exploring monuments of the ancient world. I cannot take credit for these excellent lessons, though. They come from the History Alive! curriculum we have adopted this year, and I am over-the-moon impressed with these engaging resources.

I teach the same students in humanities and English, so I wanted to develop lessons on Egyptian mythology that connected to our humanities work. I came up with a simple idea that worked out beautifully.

The students spent a portion of two class periods researching a couple Egyptian gods, filled out a “playing card” for each god to synthesize their learning, and then mercilessly tried to destroy their classmates with their newfound knowledge, reducing their peers to whimpering sycophants in awe of an obviously superior, juicy brain.

O.K. I may be getting a tad melodramatic there.

But, the lesson proved to be very entertaining and effective, while putting the majority of the heavy mental lifting on the students. Also, I can easily adapt this lesson for Greek and Roman mythology, which we will begin in another week or so.

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Favorite Life Lessons for the Classroom

29 Jan

spring is a time for growthIn a way, this past week has been a prolific one. I’ve written over 25,000 words. But, these weren’t words for my own nourishment. I was finishing my feedback on a stack of persuasive essays about The Giver and writing end-of-semester comments. I was productive, but I struggled to make time for my own writing. I am hopping on a plane to Berlin this afternoon, attending the ELMLE 2014 conference, so I will make this a quick post.

As I have written about before, I start most weeks with a life lesson:

Little Things Add Up and Other Life Lessons

What Color Is Elmo? and Other Life Lessons

Below are some of the other life lessons I like to use in class. I hope you find something inspiring, and let me know if you have other such stories to share:

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Bitesize Rewrites: Paragraph Revision Assignment

19 Jan

ParagraphetzelThis year my English colleagues and I have set a common professional goal of improving the effectiveness of our feedback on written work. I am very excited by this collaboration, as I am always interested in exploring how we can make feedback more streamlined, collaborative, and manageable. Writing instructors spend so much time creating feedback, and I am always looking for ways to get better at the process (and reclaim some of my private life).

We are still exploring the research and I plan to blog much more extensively on this topic in future posts, but here are the broad ideas I took away from our most recent discussion of what research shows us about written feedback:

  • Students must be able to apply the feedback for it to have any meaning. In other words, writing feedback on an essay that the student will not revise is wasted time for everyone involved.

  • When students see their teachers as more CREDIBLE and LIKEABLE, they are more likely to value, trust, and, therefore, apply the feedback.

  • Positive comments are more effective than negative ones.

  • Written feedback can result in improvement, but feedback has no effect unless the student understands it and agrees with it.

These conversations are helping me reflect on the feedback I give. I am already crackling with ideas on how to improve my work, but I am also happy that the research clearly supports some of my current practices. In this post, I am sharing an idea that helps me address the final bullet point above.

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No Dead Fish: Teaching Students to Write Effective Introductions

12 Jan

Dead Fish Handshakes are a huge pet peeve of mine. You offer your hand in greeting and the other person returns a grip that is downright soggy, their hand flopping in yours like a lifeless cod. It’s not a huge offense in the grand scheme of things, but it also seems like such an easy thing to avoid. Just get a grip, people. Of course, pedestrian, soulless introductory paragraphs are much more difficult to avoid. Teachers of writing will instantly recognize these “dead fish” beginnings. We are all too familiar with them. I have, however, had considerable success using the following strategy to help students write more lively, effective introductory paragraphs.

I use a fairly common symbol to articulate the role of an introductory paragraph. This handout is probably something you have seen before, an inverted triangle (or funnel) that reminds students to begin broadly with a HOOK, narrow the focus of the essay with a few sentences that act as a BRIDGE, and then end the paragraph with a clear THESIS. Of course, this is not the only way to write an effective introduction, but it is an excellent model for most situations, especially for young writers.

(Yes, old writers can benefit from it too. You are a clever little monkey and have figured out that the introductory paragraph to this post follows the same format. Well done.)

I find that the portion of this model that flummoxes students the most is the BRIDGE. Beginning writers often need considerable practice to smoothly transition from one idea to the next. I try, then, to give my students more chances to work out this middle part.

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Recap: 2013

2 Jan

2013 sparklersLooking back at my blogging for 2013 I wish, as always, I had been able to write more. I try to publish one post per week, but I can’t always make that happen. Of course, that minor shortcoming isn’t so important. Far more significant is the act of carving time out each day (well…almost every day) to reflect on my teaching, scribble some words on a page, and share something with my readers. Overall, I am very proud of these posts. “Putting my stuff out there” is always an energizing act, especially when I receive feedback, so special thanks to those who took the time to respond to this work, either on the blog or in person. I hope you found at least one these posts useful, and I look forward to sharing more in 2014. In case you missed any of these, here are the five most popular posts in 2013 (and not all of them were even written this past year):

1. #Flipclass with Membean: A Vocabulary System that Works

2. Teaching Theme: The Red Tree

3. Grading Essays How-To: Use Macros to Save Time

4. Taming the Paper Beast: Time Saving Techniques for Essay Grading

5. Mini-essays: Go Small to Get Big Results

What to Read Next? Reading Recommendation Platforms

22 Dec

bless my sponge bathThe good folks at goodreads.com sent me a not-so-good year-in-review email this week. They congratulated me on reading seven books in 2013. I’m not sure why, but they have it wrong. I read 31.

I looked up my actual number in the good-old-fashioned-analog book journal I have been keeping for about four years now. And, like every year, these books have varied in topic, genre, and style…to a degree. I typically read a smattering of non-fiction and poetry; try on the most recent Pulitzer and a few other major works of fiction; and wash this down with a healthy chug of fantasy/sci-fi.

Increasingly, I am drawn to piles and piles of YA. Technically, I need to read this writing for my job. I take pride in staying up-to-date on recommendations for the young adults I teach. But, I will also admit that I love the stuff. I take no shame, ladies and gentleman, in sharing similar tastes with thirteen-year-old girls. OK. I feel some shame when writing that line. Amendment: I take no shame in sharing similar tastes with bookish thirteen-year-old girls who know Twilight is rubbish and turn away in a huff from any book with glitter on its cover.

Of course, not everyone shares my reading tastes, and isn’t that a wonderful thing? There are plenty of books for every reader out there. In the classroom, I—like you—give students recommendations, and they—like yours—regularly suggest titles to one another. However, I also use some online resources to help students find books they want to read next:

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