Crossing over

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…img_6593
  • 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?! img_6592
  • 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.”img_6594

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?

 

 

 

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Reflecting

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 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.

2017

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!

 

Lumping it together with Humanities

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.

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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!

 

Critical thinking with a character analysis

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.

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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?

Spruce up your classroom library

Last year, my classroom library was anything but a library. It consisted of one bookshelf and lots of leveled book bins. The bookshelf was always in disarray and the leveled book bins were never accurate. Students did not respect the books because, why would anyone respect a trashy space?!

As I’ve stated in a previous post, this year, I sought out to make my library an inviting place for students. A place they would never dream tossing books onto shelves hap-hazardly. Just the other day, a student noticed dust on top of my bookshelves and asked if she could clean it. I thought to myself, students are taking pride in books!

This year, my library is an organized, cozy haven for tweens. Each day, I allow three students to sit on fancy chairs during silent reading. I rotate through every student before starting over. All students should have a chance to read comfortably, so I do not use the flexible seating as a reward or incentive. Keeping track of who goes on what day has been difficult for me, so in the future, I intend to put that in the hands of students (who always remind me whose turn it is anyway!)

Book bins by genre
Book bins by genre
Cozy seating
Cozy seating

What does your classroom library look like?

 

 

 

The Power of Peer Editing

“Yessssss!!! OMG, I’ve been waiting for this!”

Comments like the ones above are what I heard when I announced that we were at the peer editing station where students check for conventions. Red pens in hand, they could not wait to tear apart edit their peer’s paper.

It’s natural to get some (tiny) enjoyment out of correcting others’ mistakes, and if you’re a tweenager, the high is likely 100x greater than if you’re a teacher who corrects grammar for a living.

While students generally enjoy the act of peer editing, I have yet to find a flawless way to go about the process. Although this year, I think I am very close.

I had been thinking about using peer station activities and purchased this one from TpT. However, after looking it over, I realized that it may need to be scaffolded for my students. Luckily, my co-teacher shared a peer editing station she used in the past. With a few tweaks, it ended up being a great introduction to peer editing!

 

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Peer editing in action!

Of course, being the first time I used stations for peer editing, there were some kinks that need to be ironed out for next time.

  • Rotating. I had students (not papers) rotate and we all did the same station at the same time. In the future, I hope to have different tables be different stations, but for the sake of going over criteria and setting norms, it worked quite well, although it appeared messy.
  • Skill/Knowledge Level: Some students were confused about thesis statements. They didn’t know what to look for. This let me know that in our next piece of writing, I need to make thesis statements a focus.

What worked well?

  • Green/Red pens. I had students use green pens to fix errors in capitalization, since that was a skill we had just studied. Red pens were used for other grammar errors. Next time, I will provide a list of editing symbols because even though we do a Daily Edit using the symbols each day, some students were a bit fuzzy on the symbols.
  • Reading different papers. In the past, students read one paper. With stations, they were able to read five different papers, which allowed them to see many writing styles, which will (hopefully) help them in the future!

How does peer editing work in your classroom? Let me know in the comments!

To (Exit) Ticket or Not to (Exit) Ticket

Exit tickets. In some ways, this method of checking for understanding is a no-brainer. As teachers, we obviously want to know if our students have mastered the skills in the day’s lesson. A short informal assessment, or exit ticket, at the end of class often lets teachers know who mastered the objective and who needs further instruction.

HOWEVER…

I’ve struggled (for years) to fit exit tickets into my ELA lesson plan. Sure, some days it works, especially if we are focused on one skill (main idea, for instance). However, in literature, we are often discussing many skills at once. Sometimes we are engaged in literature circle and class discussions where many inquiries are taking place. Still, I’m supposed to choose one skill for my students to “master?!”

In my opinion, the discussion of literature cannot be “mastered.” Discussions about text, characters, motivations, and the like should be organic, especially when the students are middle-school age and older and discussing novels. While there is often a great deal of scaffolding during these discussions, oftentimes, the outcomes are not what I anticipated, as students will often bring up points that are not necessarily connected to the day’s objective. Instead of discouraging their discussion and swaying it in the direction of the day’s objective, I let it flow organically. Wouldn’t you dislike it if someone tried to moderate your discussion of books?!

Despite my love/hate relationship with exit tickets, I have found some unique, open-ended ways to incorporate them into my ELA class. One such way is through the use of Twitter posts. I found this gem in one of my weekend Pinterest binges and the students love it. There are sentence starters about the day’s lesson, such as:

  • Something I learned today…
  • I didn’t know…
  • A question I have is…

I display these “tweets” on a bulletin board for all students to see. It also gives me easy access to answer student questions about the lessons!

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Do I do this every day with every class? Nope! Honestly, it takes a good portion of time to do, so doing it every day is not feasible. However, I try to do it a couple of times a week with different classes. Already, one student asked when his class was going to “tweet” after seeing the board of tweets!

Other versions of this could be to have all students write responses to a question or finish a sentence starter on a post-it, then have them post their notes to a designated space.

How do exit tickets work in your classroom?