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The first week back to school after winter break is usually a tough one. Take for instance, my homeroom. One would have thought they had walked into a busy 20-something bar (minus the alcohol), with all the varying conversations, yelling over each other, and water bottles flipping so hard that they resembled hard-core bass being spun by a stocking-hat wearing D.J.
I was never a fan clubs in my 20s. In my mid-thirties, I have less patience for noise, especially at 7:55 a.m. on a Tuesday. But, I get it. Students needed to hug their friends, gossip about all that had happened in the 10 days since they last saw each other, and generally, be a kid. So, for 25 minutes, Club322 was open for business, that is until breakfast was over and we reverted back to Room 322, Literacy Class.
Engaging students after a break can, flip or flop (HGTV fans, get it?!). My goal – flip students from their vacation brains back to their engaged, critical-thinking school brains. Easy, right?!
Of course, nothing is easy when it comes to middle school students! I knew I had to “hook” them and I had just the tool – Kwame Alexander‘s fantastic novel, The Crossover. Seriously, if you have not read this one, I
encourage beg you to do so.
Reasons why I love The Crossover (and why your students will too!)
- It’s written in poems. Most students (and some teachers, including myself) struggle with writing poetry. Thus, teaching it usually makes me utter things like, “Ughhhhhhhh” – let me just say, the struggle has always been real. Until now. The Crossover allows students the opportunity to read various types of poems, which obviously lends itself to teaching poetry – it’s a win-win for teachers! My students are so engaged in this book and I’m even learning that my spoken word is pretty on point (a student told me this, so it’s clearly true). I mean, just look at this poem and tell me you’re not dying to read more…
- Sports. If you’re a middle schooler, chances are, you’re hype about some kind of sport. If you’re a middle school boy, that sport is probably basketball. The Crossover is about basketball, which will already appeal to many students. But of course, there are those who sit at their desks and glare at me, thinking, I hate sports, therefore I will hate this book. This is where I say, “Not so fast, because aside from basketball, this book also has…”
- Drama!!!! Lots of drama. Back-stabbing friend/family drama. Girl/boy drama. Sports drama. Rivalry. Okay, now most (if not all) of my students are engaged.
- Creative opportunities. I assigned a Poetry Book as an ongoing assignment while we read the novel. Alexander does a great job incorporating a variety of poems in this book, so why not use it as a teaching tool?!
- Annotating text. My students have annotated and close read text this year, so poetry is a great way for them to practice utilizing those skills. I’m sure they’ll come in handy on some state-wide assessment later this spring, so this is my way of “teaching to the test” without “teaching to the test.”
I’m using Socratic Seminars with this novel – more about that in another blog post. So far, I’m pleased with how engaged my students are and I’m even more excited that my school got me a class set of Alexander’s novel, Booked! Some of my students spied this in the back of my room and can’t wait to get their hands on it. Now that’s what I call motivation!
How do you engage students after a long break?
Perhaps the most important aspect of teaching is reflecting. There is no “perfect” teacher, which is probably why I spend most of my sleepless nights thinking of ways to improve my craft. It’s not surprising that I am unable to catch a few zzz’s because my brain is forever on teacher mode. Thankfully, I’ve discovered melatonin works wonders when I actually do want to get some sleep!
Even though I’ve been teaching middle school for over a decade, I still lament on what I can change to make the educational experience my students receive the best one I can give them. I knew this school year would be special, in that my sixth graders will be the first ones to graduate eighth grade from my school. Also, I could potentially be their teacher for three years. Looping with students is a great way for teachers to see just how much impact they have made with individuals and while I’m excited to see my students grow, I’m also proud of the growing I have done as an educator.
Some things that worked in 2016:
- Classroom Library Fixer-Upper: As a literacy teacher, a library is perhaps the most important space in the classroom. However, for years, my library lacked books, character, seating and was what the kids would call a “Hot Mess.” So, I began the task of sprucing up and organizing my library and I hoped it would cultivate a classroom full of readers. And…it worked! I even made it look appealing, which makes all the difference to a classroom of pre-teens. My students are book-crazy, which makes me enjoy purchasing books for them. Over the break, I bought all the Twilight books because many of them read the Twilight graphic novel I bought and requested the print books 🙂
- Tracking Reading Progress: I began using this reading log as a way for students to track their progress with books. Not only were students excited about creating (and achieving) their reading goals, they were reflecting on their reading. With a hearty curriculum that doesn’t always lend itself to specific writing instruction, the reading logs ensure that my students are writing every day.
- Assigning Homework: I used to assign homework every night. Then, I would spend my entire planning period the next day checking homework and writing homework notices for students who did not do the homework. I would then spend a good portion of class reviewing the homework. Sound exhausting? It was. So I stopped. I now only assign homework a few nights a week. I’m still trying to step away from worksheet-type homework and only use it when it reinforces a skill from class. My goal for 2017 is to have students write more for homework and do so on Google classroom, where it’s easy for me to give the instant feedback they crave.
Some things I’m excited to try in 2017:
- Mentor Sentences: I read this blog post and realized that mentor sentences could definitely fit into my practice, especially since my students do not have a designated writing class or grammar curriculum. I have always struggled with teaching grammar because grammar is rarely in anyone’s curriculum anymore. Some teachers graze over it, some teach it in-depth, and some avoid it. Thus, by the time students get to me in middle school, their grammar knowledge is all over the place.
- Reading Workshop: I have typically taught whole-class books (although every section does not necessarily read the same book). However, while whole-class novels can be a great way to engage readers at the beginning of the year, the whole-class novels are difficult to sustain. I always have students who finish the book early, those who never finish it and those who actually follow the assigned reading. With reading workshop, I could do more literature circle activities with small groups of students and still do a whole-class read-aloud. While I have implemented literature circles in the past, reading workshop also allows space for guided reading groups. This semester, I will have a student teacher, a special education support teacher (and her student teacher) and possibly a reading specialist. With all of these adults in the room, I’m more confident that reading workshop will be a success!
Overall, the longer I teach, the more I learn that it’s okay not to be perfect. I’ve learned to slow down and not rush through materials just because the state or school says I have to. I take time to reflect and I give that same consideration and time to my students. Because in the end, I learn just as much from them as they do from me. Here’s to 2017 and all of the learning and reflecting that will come along the way!
One thing I’m super proud about this year is my classroom library and the fact that I allow students to read whatever they want from my library. Student choice is super important, especially for pre-teens.
I recently ordered some more books for my library and during book talks one day, I mentioned this to my students. They immediately began calling “dibs” on specific books. Each morning, they came in asking if the books had arrived. When the books finally did arrive one day after school, I walked into a colleague’s classroom (which is also used to house homework detention), Amazon box in hand. “Are those the books?!” a student shouted excitedly. I opened the box more quickly than a kid unwrapping Christmas presents. My students looked on with suspense and amazement and launched themselves at the box’s contents. Usually, I do not allow books to leave my classroom. However, I made an exception for these few detention-goers who wanted to read during detention. I didn’t think the detention monitor would mind (and I was over-the-moon thinking to myself, This is the reading culture I have created!)
So what are my students so excited about reading these days?
1.) The Baby-Sitters Club Graphics I recently bought numbers 3&4 to complete my Baby-Sitters Club graphic collection (they only make 1-4 in graphics). My students are now begging me to get the “original” books because after reading the graphic novels, they want to know what happens next! While many teachers have qualms about graphic novels, I see them as a gateway to more difficult texts.
2.) Dork Diaries I only have books 1-3 (just ordered 4), and my students (especially girls) LOVE these books. I think the content really speaks students about life as a pre-teen.
3.) Mike Lupica My boys especially enjoy Lupica’s books, which have themes centered around sports, friendships and difficult decisions teens face.
Recently, I made a “Book Wish List” on my whiteboard. Students add books they want me to get for the classroom. Aside from the ones listed above, a student wrote “More LGBT books.” At the beginning of the school year, many students did not know what LGBT was. Now, they want to read more stories with protagonists who are LGBT.
This year, my students are curious and excited about reading. No matter what state test data says, this is a win in my book.
When I obtained my first job as a ninth grade teacher, I signed on to teach a class called “Humanities,” which weaves together literature, social studies and writing. In theory, this seems like a great idea. After all, most history lends itself to literature. And writing? Well, you can infuse writing into anything!
I wish I could tell you that my year teaching Humanities was a success. The harsh reality was that it was a hot mess. I felt overwhelmed with content. I was the jack of all trades and the master of none.
Luckily, the school scratched Humanities the following year and replaced it with separate writing, literature and history classes. From that point forward, I was able to focus solely on my literature and writing sections. Students were gaining more meaning from texts and learning the principles of writing.
Recently, I learned that my current school is moving to a Humanities model for middle school students. I tried thinking of this is a positive light and came up with the following:
- Modules that lend themselves to project-based learning are readily available for use. I’ve used these modules before and they are jam-packed with great lessons, handouts, texts, etc. This saves a lot of planning time creating lessons. However, they obviously need to be tweaked depending on each class, which can add to planning time.
- The history portion lends itself to a lot of place-based writing opportunities. I facilitate a summer writing program where place-based writing is the focal point. I strongly believe that students take away more from experiences if they are immersed in them.
While Humanities classes offer some valuable learning opportunities, I still have concerns:
- Where does formal writing instruction fit in? Writing is an area where my students need explicit instruction on the basics (how to write a sentence, sentence structure/variety, etc.) In a humanities curriculum, it is very difficult to teach the basics alongside everything else that comes along with “Humanities.”
- Book choices are limited. I love choosing class novels based on student interest. However, now all of my novels have to contain a history component. This leaves little room for high-interest novels.
- I’m not SuperTeacher. I can’t do it all – rolling three subjects into one and giving me a module with all the materials you think I need is not only demeaning my expertise, but it’s a disservice to my students.
As it stands, my cry for a separate writing course will likely not come to fruition for my current students in years to come thanks to budget woes. I have considered scrapping reading instruction for the rest of this year and only focusing on writing. I want them to be prepared for whatever next year brings and I’m willing to make difficult sacrifices.
My students struggle with writing. I can’t do it all, but I can give them what I know they need.
Do you teach a Humanities course? If so, I’d love your input!
Part of my job is to get students to think critically. This involves students diving deeper into texts we read instead of just answering basic recall and surface questions. I want students asking questions of the text.
This sounds easy. However, in a test-taking culture, where students are trained to locate the correct answer, asking them to justify their responses is harder than it looks. I have found that students are wary of being wrong. They struggle to express they “why” of their answers. They are scared of being incorrect. They think there is only one correct answer.
My job is to get them to view literature and writing as a way of proving themselves. I relate justifying answers to being a detective on Law & Order – you have to find evidence in a case in order to prove a person’s guilt or innocence. My students really relate to this comparison (clearly, Law & Order marathons are not just for adults!).
I start by taking a concept they are familiar with (character traits) and have them justify character traits by locating a quote in the text as support. Once students are able to locate evidence, I walk them through the process of analyzing the trait. This is the critical thinking aspect and it usually requires lots of modeling and re-teaching. I find that students often give surface information as their analysis.
After reviewing student work, such as the example above, I had to re-teach how to analyze a character’s actions. With this particular example, I would put it under my document camera and walk students through the process. I might say, “Max is yelling for help because Kevin can’t breathe – what does this tell you about who Max is as a person?”
After a few teacher-led examples, I hand brainstorm sheets back to students and have them re-work their analysis. Students who still struggle work with me in small groups.
My hope is that the more I allow students to justify and explain themselves, the better equip they will be for life. Also, most of the math on state assessments these days asks students to explain their answer, so essentially I am preparing them for “the test.” They don’t need to know that though 😉
What are some strategies you use to help your students think critically?
In my first year of teaching, some 13 years ago, a colleague gave me a great piece of advice. He told me to leave work at work. He must have seen me schlepping my over-stuffed teacher satchel to my car each day.
At first, I thought this advice was obvious – why would I take work home? At the time, my 22-year-old self took his advice to heart. I left work at school and enjoyed my newfound free time. I threw away more student work than I graded. My lessons weren’t very effective or engaging. Even though I enjoyed life more, my students and work were suffering. Something had to give.
Teaching is perhaps one of the few jobs where you do not go to work to actually do work. The grading, lesson plans, planning, parent contact, endless paperwork can’t be completed during the school day because we’re teaching! More often than not, I arrive home from work and open my lap-top to complete tasks I did not have time to get to between my on-the-clock hours of 7:15-4:00. Still, there is never enough time.
As a more seasoned teacher, I’d like to ask that former colleague of mine how he did it – how did he manage to leave work at work? I can’t seem to completely do it. I think most teachers take work home, because really, it’s difficult not to do so. However, I have devised some stipulations for working at home, which give me some work/life balance without making me hyperventilate.
- No work Saturdays –Give yourself one weekend day where you do nothing for school. Not even answer emails (I’m still working on this one).
- Complete lesson plans during the week – My lesson plans are due Sunday evening, but I make sure I do them during the work-week so they aren’t hanging over my head all weekend.
- Work Hour Sunday – I carve out an hour (or two) on Sunday to grade papers and get materials ready for the week. I usually do this while drinking a glass of wine before dinner. It makes me feel prepared for the week instead of frazzled come Monday morning.
- No work on weeknights – I’m still working on this one, but I typically do not do work on weeknights, unless it’s preparing a handout or lesson for the next day.
- Use planning time wisely – This is one that I struggle with. I often get absorbed with meetings, conversations with teachers or student issues that arise. I also spend way too much time checking in homework and completing paperwork, which actually takes up most of my planning time. (Look for a blog about homework soon!)
What are some ways you keep your work/life balance in check?