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!

 

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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?

Sharing Writing Publicly

Perhaps the most important aspect of writing is when your work is shared publicly. I’m most proud of my writing pieces that have been published in print and online, mostly because it means people besides myself have access to it. Students get the same excitement and pride when their work is shared publicly.

Making time and space for students to share their work is just as important as the work itself. Teaching students how to critique work and how to accept criticism is a life skill they will certainly utilize as they transform into adulthood. In middle school, a time when character development is critical, it is especially meaningful when teachers offer guidance and activities that allow students to become well-rounded individuals.

I’ve used Linda Christensen’s “Read-Around” activity for years (from this book, which is like my teaching bible) and it’s always proven to be a success with students. While I tailor it to my students’ needs each year, I find that with consistent implementation, students, 1.) Find more pleasure in writing; 2.) Learn how to give meaningful feedback; 3.) Learn how to accept feedback that is critical of their work.

A student reading her work during a read-around
A student reading her work during a read-around

My current class had their first read-around last week. I always have students move the desks and put chairs in a circle. This promotes positive classroom community and also ensures that the speaker and audience can see/hear everyone.

I create a rubric so that students are able to critique their peers’ work. It also holds them accountable for actively participating and listening. Since this was our first read-around, the rubric was rather basic, asking students to list one “glow” (something the author did well) and one “grow” (something the author could improve).

Students give feedback on a rubric
Students give feedback on a rubric

Prior to the read-around, we discussed examples of exemplar and non-exemplar “glows” and “grows.” For instance, saying a paper is “good” is not very helpful to the writer; saying their use of statistics helps to persuade readers is a better and more specific “glow.”

Since this was our first read-around, I had students volunteer to read their essays – no pressure! I tell students that my expectation is that everyone reads out loud in a read-around this year. I realize that for some students, public speaking is scary, so I never force them to read aloud at a given time, but I continue to enforce my expectation that they do it at least once and they always rise to meet it. What I’ve found is that with consistent implementation of read-arounds, these students will eventually become comfortable and feel that the space is safe enough for them to face their fear without pressure.

How do you allow students to share their work?

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!

How did I live without TpT?

TeachrsPayTeachers is perhaps the most brilliant idea ever. Until I discovered this gem, I constantly re-invented the wheel each year. I created all of my own handouts. I worked furiously from the time I arrived home from school until about 10:00pm getting lessons prepared for the next day.

Obviously, this cycle led to burn-out come November and the bulk of my paycheck going toward nightly purchases of wine (because lesson planning without wine is just absurd).

'I need five weekly lesson plan books. Not only do I tend to overplan, but I feel more comfortable with contingency plans.'

Because I value my work-life balance each more with every passing year, I end up spending a good amount of money on TpT. I also wonder how the teachers who create the items on TpT have time to do so…

When I first started using TpT, I felt like a cheater. Was I taking the easy way out, not making my own materials? Did this make me “less-than,” the fact that I just clicked “purchase” and had my next day’s lessons downloaded in an instant?

Clearly, I got over those feelings rather quickly. I also realized that while many of the items on TpT do not need to be modified, most do. So while I still spend a good portion of my time tweaking my purchases, it’s way less than the amount of time I used to spend. And that is everything.

Here are some of my favorite TpT purchases. What are yours?

1.) Peer Editing Stations and Rotations. I have tried a myriad of peer editing tools, most of which are confusing and mediocre at best. I love this station idea and I plan to use it this year.

2.) Writing No-Prep Printables. I use these as mini-lessons and then give quizzes over the skills. Since I teach reading, writing, vocabulary, etc., these practice and assess handouts correlate nicely with whatever writing piece students are working on. Also, I just love Lovin’ Lit’s TpT store – check it out!

3.) Back to School ToolKit. This download is filled with lots of great stuff. I use the classroom sign-out sheet all year and the textbook tracker is a great way to keep track of those class novels. Lots of great first week activities that the kids really get into!

Let me know your favorites in the comments!

 

The Grammar Files

Growing up, grammar was something that was explicitly taught. I specifically recall my ninth grade English class when it comes to grammar instruction. While we read literature (Great Expectations comes to mind), the teacher devoted a good portion of class time to grammar instruction. After ninth grade, we were apparently supposed to know everything we needed to know about grammar because it disappeared from my English courses.

I thought I had a pretty good understanding of grammar – until college where I was forced to take a class called “Grammar and Usage.” It was the only “C” I ever earned in college. But now I am able to diagram sentences! Wait – when do I ever do that?!

Never. I never diagram sentences. Nor am I ever asked to point out the gerund, preposition, or infinitive.

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Grammar is something I’m passionate about, but just how much of it do today’s students need to know in order to be avid readers and writers?

I’ve worked at four schools over the course of 12 years and none of them incorporated grammar into the curriculum. When I tried to teach the basic parts of speech, I found that student knowledge was all over the place. Some of my students’ previous teachers clearly thought grammar was important, but others did not. So half of my class knew what I meant when I said, “Add adjectives to your writing,” while others stared at me blankly.

I have always struggled with teaching grammar  – what do I teach? How do I differentiate instruction when student knowledge is so varied?

I have tried mini-lessons, but sometimes those are more than mini in that they often take longer than 10 minutes due to students having questions. For some, if it’s the first time being exposed to the material, I have to back-up and teach the basics. Before I know it, class is over and all we did was silent read and practice how to find verbs in sentences.

I’ve also assigned grammar as homework. However, the students who already know the skills end up completing it in record time while the students who are confused copy the work on the bus to school.

Is grammar important? Yes and no. I believe that students can organically learn much of what they need to know about sentence structure, parts of speech, comma placement, etc. by reading. But of course, not all students are wild about reading. (Those who are, I find, are typically the best writers in the class. But that’s another post!)

So this year, I’m trashing my mini-lessons. I’m revamping my curriculum and teaching grammar that matters. I’m asking myself questions, such as, What grammar skills will help my students become better writers? How can I infuse grammar instruction with the teaching of literature?

So while learning the parts of speech is something I likely won’t be spending time on this coming school year, you can bet my students will learn how to liven up their writing by using adjectives. You can also bet your bottom dollar that they will not be reading sentences and underlining adjectives; instead, they will create the sentences themselves. Grammar instruction should be meaningful and useful.

No one diagrams sentences these days. Perhaps that’s the most important lesson I learned from my college grammar class.

Throughout the year I’ll post “The Grammar Files,” which will discuss my triumphs (hopefully) and tribulations with grammar instruction. I welcome your feedback!

Do you teach grammar? I’d love to hear your ideas!