Tag Archives: pedagogy

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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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

Teaching Metaphors and Similes: Make a Game of It

14 Dec

For 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.

The game is a simple one. Pair students and give them two random nouns to compare. They have five minutes to list as many similarities as they can. After the five minutes, we share the results, and I award prizes for clever or copious responses.

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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

Teacher Stress: My Management Techniques

23 Nov

stressRecently, a speaker during one of my school’s professional development days stated that 95% of the stress we feel is self-inflicted. That feels right.

I am a lucky. I rarely feel much stress about anything outside of the classroom. But, I am also unlucky; I regularly wink awake in the middle of the night, mind racing with “work stuff.”

Luckily, I have made some progress with nurturing a healthy, relaxed state of mind. Of course, my success is relative. Depending on the week (or even the day) my stress level fluctuates. Honestly, the week in which I’ve written this post has been particularly jam-packed, and I felt more stress than usual.

Regardless of my daily state-of-mind, however, some things consistently help me navigate the ebb and flow of stress that comes with being a classroom teacher:

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Happy to Share this Magical World with Maggie Smith, Maya Angelou, and You

16 Nov

Maya Angelou GraffittiLike you, I wish Hogwarts was real. Magic should be a part of this world. If it were, I know in the deepest marrow of my bones, I would get sorted into Gryffindor, make the Quidditch team, and somehow—through some combination of my compassionate heart, ignitable passion, and deft mastery of transfiguration—earn a wry, approving smile from Professor Minerva McGonagall. Of course, this probably won’t ever happen. Probably.

Luckily, we do experience other forms of magic in our everyday lives, and I am thankful for the glimpses behind the veil I receive, those bright flashes of magic of a different ilk.

When I was first asked to teach grade 6, I was terrified. I had never dealt with a student under the age of 15, and I was worried that I wouldn’t know what to do with an 11 year-old. I needn’t have worried. Younger students can be quite hilarious, and they do just about anything you ask them to do. They have not yet forgotten how to play, and that mindset can lead to some very authentic, effective learning. I really love teaching this age group (and I am also happy that some of my classes are with older students, too).

As one of the opening activities in the grade 6 poetry unit, I started class by handing out textbooks-the-size-of-tombstones and saying, “OK, kiddos. You have ten minutes. Thumb through these books and find a poem that interests you.” After a brief lesson on how to use the Table of Contents to find poems quickly, the students dove in. Continue reading

Meaningful, Effective Peer Revision

28 Sep

working togetherPeer revision is a gamble. At its best, students offer rich feedback and revision becomes an incredibly rich learning experience for all involved. At its worse, peer responses can be a bit like turning over the cockpit controls to a thirteen year old who is still years away from having even a driver’s permit.

I am always, then, looking for ways to make peer revision more meaningful. Here are a few ideas that have worked for me:

Three Chip Revision: Break out some poker chips. To begin, give every student three chips (or any number of chips you decide). Then, hand them a piece of writing from one of their peers and ask them to spot the mistakes. Each error they find, however, has to be checked by the teacher. If they have found a legitimate error, they get two more chips. If they are mistaken and no error exists, take a chip. The goal is to end the revision period with the most chips.

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Students Writing for Authentic Audiences

21 Sep

audienceUgh. Just ugh. I am human, I suppose. Lately, I have not been making the time to write. I know I should just be kind to myself about this, acknowledge the craziness that is starting a new school, and put my butt in a seat and my fingers on the keyboard. I try to carve out at least ten minutes every day for my own writing, but I have fallen out of this habit. Well…back to it, then. My apologies, dear readers.

In the core of this teacher’s heart, I know this to be true. Students’ writing is better when it matters to them, and the most important step to getting students to care about their writing is helping them…guiding them…forcing them…begging them…bribing them…to write for someone other than their balding English teacher. I begin every school year dedicated to making each essay assignment one that matters, one that is written for an authentic audience. In reality, I am happy when my students produce one such piece every three months or so.

I suppose, like most things I attempt in the classroom, the “hybrid” approach works best. I use more traditional essay prompts (students responding to literature or a question I create . . . writing something that stays within the walls of our classroom) to gain a sense of how I might help individual students improve. These “practice essays,” then, lay the groundwork for the more meaningful moments where I ask the students to create their own writing for an audience they find.

For instance, in the grade 11 Rhetoric classes I taught last year, we began the term with a THIS I BELIEVE essay, followed that with a personal narrative, and ended the trimester with a student-generated descriptive essay. For this third major essay I did not create a prompt. I simply told the students they must demonstrate their skills with descriptive language by writing a piece to someone other than me.

We brainstormed possible topics and audiences over a few days (while completing other lessons) and, as homework, students read previous students’ work. We discussed what worked in the model essays, and students quickly conferred with me about their own ideas.

This set-up is fairly predictable and simple. The results, however, are anything but. Reading these self-guided pieces is never a chore. Instead, I am energized by the students’ work and excited to see them taking ownership of language and audience.

Here’s a list of the authentic audiences my students find. I begin with the audiences I find most successful, but any of these are better than something written just to me. Please share your ideas in the comments section. I am ALWAYS looking for more ideas about how we can help our students find authentic audiences:

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I Hate You, IKEA: What Moving Teaches Me

3 Aug

uploaded to Flickr by yamzombie

uploaded to Flickr by yamzombie

Only after deep reflection and with considerable guilt can I write the following confession: I hate you, IKEA. Yes, you offer accessible design at incredible prices, and without you I would never be able to decorate my apartment or organize my classroom drawers. I will even confess to an unhealthy devotion to your meatballs and Prieselbeeren sauce.

But, for purely selfish reasons, I am done with you (for a week at least). I cannot stomach another turn of your fjborking screws or another frustrated thumbing-through of the pictographs you call directions. In other words, I have grown tired of the minutia connected with moving.

I am not complaining. REALLY, I am not. The upheaval associated with an Intercontinental move is a small price to pay for the wonderful opportunity my wife and I have received. In July we moved back to a small town outside Frankfurt, Germany, where we lived and taught prior to our time in Boston. It has been a homecoming in many ways. We return to incredible friends, a lovely little apartment, a lifestyle that brings a sense of adventure to even the most mundane tasks, and, yes, the beer is not bad either. We are more than a little happy.

The First BeerI begin work at my new (old) school next week, and as I put away my physical toolbox and dust off my metaphorical one, I have been thinking about how this move will influence my life as a teacher:

Remember, be patient. I like to think of myself as a pretty chilled out man, but the ongoing “to do” list connected to a big move reminds me that I make significantly more progress when I slow down and relax. Despite my best efforts, I still struggle mightily to speak German. I have great support systems here, but I try to do as much as I can on my own. In order to connect my satellite dish, figure out which section of grass is o.k. for my dog to use, buy a new car, make chit-chat with a neighbor, or do just about anything else I need to do after stepping out the front door, I have to patiently communicate using my caveman German and highly refined Charades skills. Not actually being an idiot but sounding like one for the majority of my day is incredibly frustrating, but I know I will be more empathetic to my students’ struggles throughout the school year as a result. Patience is, indeed, a virtue, in life and in the classroom.

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