Tag Archives: writing

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

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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Writing Rubric Reboot: 6plus1

30 Apr

red penIn my second year of teaching, I made a grievous, but memorable, error. I was always the type of student who was motivated by tough love. My favorite teachers were the ones with the highest expectations, and a scribbled, gruff marginal note like, “You’re a better writer than this. Try again” was often enough to send me under the hood of the text. Of course, I am not every student. Wanting to motivate a student I knew could do much better, I returned her essay with this brief message scrawled across the top, “This is the worst essay I have ever read. Try again.”

Looking back, I don’t recognize the young teacher who would be so callous with a not-much-younger student. Of course, my comment only did harm. It gave my student no hope, no information about what to do next. The only saving grace about this regrettable action? I was allowing her to revise. That, and I learned to never do something like this again.

Thankfully, this student and I worked past this incident. I apologized; she forgave. A year later, she moved to another school, but during a return visit, she visited me and shared the 6plus1 Writing Traits rubric her new English teacher was using. Not surprisingly, it was helping her, and I instantly adopted the practice in my own classes.

Over the years, for whatever reason, I have drifted away from the 6plus1 terminology, but this trimester I decided to bring it back. The shift only required slight alterations to the scoring guides I already used:

Timed Essay Scoring Guide w/ 6+1

The Six Plus One traits have existed since the mid-80s, and these descriptors of good writing are an attempt to quantify what makes writing work. Using them—especially when they are used across grade levels and disciplines—can demystify writing feedback for students and help them recognize what they do well and target what they need to improve.

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A Typical Day in a 1:1 Classroom (PART ONE)

2 Feb

Of course, a typical day in any classroom does not really exist. Our routines, systems, and practices serve our students, so when dealing with the individuals in our care, each day takes its own unique shape.

Yet, there is some use in examining a “typical” day in my English classrooms. For the past four years I’ve been lucky to work in a 1:1 school. I have found the advantages of having students “wired in” far outweigh the disadvantages.

For those who have not lived in a 1:1 laptop classroom, the very idea of it can seem Orwellian—students jacked-in to ear buds, mesmerized by a glowing blue screen instead of the far more interesting human beings around them. I have found, however, the reality of a 1:1 room is quite different. Every day I am convinced instant access to customizable technology can be a crucial component in making learning more efficient and dynamic.

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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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