Tag Archives: Neal

Missing Teeth or Shade Tree Time?

22 May

The Shadow of a TreeMissing a week of posting to this blog feels like a missing tooth. During this school year I have found sporadic moments to write, but I could not seem to produce a regular run of posts. Keeping up with life and school work just becomes too much sometimes. Yet, like you, I’m my own worst critic. No other person on this big blue marble gives me one bit of grief for this gaping absence. Oh…right…these missing weeks aren’t really significant failures.

Of course, it’s more important to write meaningful posts than to meet an arbitrary once-a-week-self-imposed deadline. It’s even more important to have a life outside of work. I know this. I know this. I know this.

 

But, I am still going to try for that once-a-week posting. I have issues.

Thankfully, there’s only one part of my personality that is so hyper critical. There’s a big part of me that revels in having  a healthy offline life filled with friends, interests, and plenty of unplugged living.

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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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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 fishDead 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.)

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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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Teaching Metaphors and Similes: Make a Game of It

14 Dec

Apples to OrangesFor students, learning about metaphors and similes can sometimes feel like doing taxes on April 14. Or taking your daily dose of cod liver oil poured over bran flakes. Or picking blueberries under a sweltering summer sun while wearing a corduroy three piece suit. Admit it. We English teachers can sometimes beat the joy right out of the most wonderful, playful topics.

I am 99.9% certain that at some point, in every English classroom around the globe, the definitions of metaphors and similes get taught in some fashion. Certainly, no reader can effectively glean understanding from texts without having at least an intuitive sense for the different functions of literal and figurative language. Learning to appreciate and evaluate language of comparison is a key part of any reader’s journey. Why, then, do so many students struggle to move beyond the most cursory understanding of these particular aspects of language? I think we must shoulder a hefty load of culpability here. Too often we teach these concepts in a basic manner, only assessing students’ ability to define and identify figurative devices.

One way I move beyond simple definitions of these terms is by playing a game that helps students understand the power of comparison and why using it well adds such style, life, and efficiency to our writing.

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Putting It Out There: Take the Time to Publish

5 Dec

commaJust a short anecdote from an English 9 class that gives me a boost and reminds me why it is worth our time to make the extra effort to publish online. I have written before about how I use macros and AutoText to save time when giving feedback on writing. In a recent essay, one of my students was making a chronic comma error, one that I dub The Most Common Comma Error in the World. My AutoText comment to her was, “Remember our quick lesson on the most common comma error in the world? You make it time and time again, but it’s easy to fix.  Hint: the comma in that last sentence is a clue as to what mistake you’re making.” One problem. I never taught her class anything about this topic. Obviously, I thought I had.

Yet, it was not really a problem. She just Googled the phrase “The Most Common Comma Error in the World” and watched the video I had posted on this same topic years earlier. She viewed the video and made her changes.

It was a microscopic moment of flipped teaching, but it was one that reminds why I take the extra effort to share my work online: Continue reading

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