Thursday, May 18, 2017

Five Ways to Keep High School English Engaging

You're done. Mentally over it. The next student who calls your name is getting his lips stapled shut. Lesson plans? Phfft. They're lucky if they get an agenda on the board. Your testing may have already happened, so you have these lame duck class periods to fill. Your testing may be coming up soon, and your students are stressed and may need to think about something else for a class period or two. Maybe you can't risk the brain break and need to incorporate music or games in your review.

One of my mentors my first few years of teaching lived the philosophy that students had enough steam at the end of the school year to give her 20 good minutes of attention, and she demanded all 20. That's when her direct instruction took place. She changed up her strategies every 15 or 20 minutes and was able to hold on to her classes without discipline issues. I, on the other hand, caught one of my AP students playing Frisbee on the front lawn of the school during my class period. Did I mention that my classroom overlooked the front lawn? Engagement fail.

There are so many painless ways to hang on to them. Take them outside for silent sustained reading. Let them sit in pairs in the hallway to cut down on the noise in the room. Keep cheap ear buds on hand so they can listen to music while they are working on projects.

Planning for engagement is HARD, so I quiz teachers all the time about their strategies for keeping class lively and interesting. Last year, I asked some AP teachers what they do after the exam and wrote about their responses. Take a look at this post from April 2016 and dig through the ideas.

This year, I hopped on Facebook and asked my teacher blogger/author friends to point me to some stand-alone high school English lesson plans that my followers could grab and teach tomorrow---low prep, high engagement. Substance with stealth.

Melissa Kruse's blog is a must see; I fell in love today with her approach to engaging secondary writers with a play list of their school year. Selena Smith has her students use music to review poetry devices. She loves to teach the lesson, and they aren't bored. Winner, winner, chicken dinner.

Much like Melissa Kruse's playlist activity. a succinctly written memoir is a great go-to activity and can teach students to trim the fat in their writing. Memoir haiku, six-word memoirs, and OC Beach Teacher's 100-word memoirs are a great way to scratch the teenager's itch to talk about herself and still get in some sound instruction on eliminating redundancy.

I'm not a fan of showing a full movie as a reward or break from instruction. They can watch movies at home. There are, however, exceptions to that rule. If a film can be used to review skills assessed on an end-of-course exam, I'm all about it. English Bulldog uses "Hidden Figures" for just that purpose. I'm especially all about it (redundant, I know) if students are working while they watch. Doc Cop's lessons on "Life is Beautiful" are compatible with Google apps, a win for those of us old dogs who are trying our best to integrate technology.

Landlocked teacher Julie Faulkner has developed a thematic group of activities to get her students thinking about the beach, and teacher-author Addie Williams uses this collection to keep her students engaged (Read the reviews on this one---amazing!). Play bingo with Juggling ELA's literary terms review; you get 30 cards with this set, and students get a chance to compete and get ready for the end-of-year test.


Times are crazy, people, and students need to learn how to sift through all the coverage. My own five-lesson mini unit on fake news is print-ready and Google compatible.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Why Teachers Should Watch "13 Reasons Why"

I need to give a few details in order to convince you to watch “13 Reasons Why” on NETFLIX, so be prepared. Or just trust me. Watch it. Then come back and read this post.

I taught Hannah Baker, the main character in “13 Reasons Why.” She sat by the heater on a side aisle and always smiled when I tried to make jokes with my second period English class. It was 1991, and I was 23, a first-year teacher at an urban high school. She was 14, and in October of that year, a boy raped her in the wrestling team’s mat room after school one day. That evening, she didn’t tell her parents or her sister or the police. The next morning, she told me.

She told me. I never knew why. Maybe I was approachable. Maybe she didn’t think I would judge her for going into the mat room with that boy in the first place. Maybe I was just young enough for her to think of me. Maybe it was because she had just told me the week before that she had a new boyfriend. Whatever the reason, she gave me a great gift: early experience in dealing with a rape victim. 

If, by some outside chance you don’t know about this NETFLIX series, it is the story of a high school junior, Hannah Baker, who commits suicide and leaves behind a number of cassette tapes explaining why she did it. Everyone who played a part in her decision to die must listen to the tapes and live with the consequences of everyone else hearing the stories.

Because I binge watched “13 Reasons Why” until the wee hours, I processed Hannah’s death while I slept. I dreamed of her, noticed her, counseled her, and beat up a couple of the other characters. Over the three nights that I watched, I saw the faces of so many students I had taught in 22 years of working with teenagers. Untouchable athlete. Irresponsible journalism student. Repressed honor student. I talked out loud to them on occasion.
Oh yeah, I got your number.
Yep. Taught you too, you little turd.

Teachers, you’ve seen the images float by on NETFLIX, but you haven’t watched yet.
I get enough teenage drama at work.
For teens. Produced by Selena Gomez? No, thanks.
I don’t want to watch something so depressing.
There’s a good bit of criticism of the series, including statements from organizations committed to suicide prevention. One psychologist blogged about her daughter's desire to watch it and her decision not to let her. Some wonder if the show just opens a wound without offering a way to heal it.

Festering in that wound are violence, sex, profanity, bullying, depression, misogyny, denial, rape, drug abuse, apathy—all the ingredients for a life that’s too hard to live. Who wants to watch all that, right? 

Here’s why you should: ALL OF YOUR STUDENTS ALREADY HAVE. Your emotionally unstable adolescents whose brains have not fully developed have watched all the episodes. Together. During Spring break. It’s Spring break in my district, and I’m at Panera Bread about ten feet from two sophomores—they still flip their hair and are obviously waiting for a ride—and I’m wondering which characters they are. Are they the bullies or the bullied or both? They are most certainly two girls who have watched a thirteen-hour primer on how to commit revenge suicide. I hope an adult watched it with them and talked through it all.

I am Hannah Baker. When I was 12, I was bullied by three other students at school. Person by person, they convinced most of my seventh-grade classmates to ignore me, to stop talking to me. By that winter, I was having panic attacks, chest pains that prompted my parents to run heart tests. At 12, I had an EKG and a stress test to determine what was going on. At school, two girls saw what was happening and befriended me. Both of them were on the fringe too. Lisa and Tibby, you saved me. 

My teachers had no idea all this was happening. One saw me crying a lot and told my parents I was “too sensitive” for a seventh grader. No one should be that lonely or misunderstood, particularly a child who is surrounded by adults. 

Go watch the show.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

How to Make Multiple Choice Test Prep Less Like Torture

 We're sliding into testing season (except it's that long, slow, shallow kind of slide with spikes, barbs, and razor blades along the way). You dread it. They dread it. Even your #2 pencils dread it; they were made for writing, after all, not bubbling.

Students need exposure to the types of questions they'll face, but there are ways to practice that are--dare I say it--engaging. Heaven forbid they actually learn while practicing.

Here's my favorite, and I can attest to its efficacy: Four or Five Corners

1. Post large letters around the room corresponding to the number of answer choices on the multiple choice practice. So, there will be ABCD or ABCDE taped to the walls and file cabinets.

2. Give students a short set of multiple choice questions that are written in the style of the actual  test. These might come from a benchmark, a released exam, or materials created by teacher authors.  WARNING: If you choose to purchase multiple choice practice, find out the question-writing experience of the authors. A good question writer understands design, answer order, stem quality, and most importantly--how to write a FOIL answer. In a five-answer format, there is typically one answer that can be eliminated fairly easily, two answers that a good reader can eliminate, and a foil, that almost-correct choice that trips up our students.

2. Once students have completed the questions, have them all stand in the center of the room.

3. For the first question, each student quickly moves to the letter corresponding with his or her answer choice.

4. At each station, students with that answer confer about their reasoning for choosing that letter. Tell students that you will call on one random person to explain the answer, so everyone needs to be ready.

5. Go around the room and call on students to explain the answers. You can make this step interactive by having students from other groups question the student who is presenting.

6. Explain that students may change groups whenever they wish. If they find that they are unable to defend a choice, they may even stand in the middle of the room until they hear a well-defended choice. Students LOVE this option. The movement will become competitive, and students will start trying to win converts.

7. Once all four (or five) groups have presented, most students will be in two groups, the correct answer and the foil. Let those two groups choose spokespeople and duke it out in a debate.

Why do I love this strategy so much??  
Strong readers are modeling their thinking for weaker readers. As a weak reader, I need to hear the think aloud of someone's reasoning. I need to hear the text used to defend an answer choice. I need to hear someone else's process of elimination.

Do I grade these exercises?
I actually do. Students need a little skin in the game to take their presentations seriously. For a low-stakes daily grade, I offer points for each one the student got correct even if he or she switched groups after hearing others' defense.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Why English Teachers Should be Selfish

It ain't Sunday, but I feel a sermon comin' on.

Think about your first teaching interview. Why did you sit through it? What did you want?

I KNEW that I wanted to spend my day with teenagers. I happened to be a good writer, so being an English teacher made sense. If I could hang out with them and help them to love writing too, that seemed like a pretty good deal.

But my ONE THING (think "City Slickers") kept me from my ONE THING. My desire to do my very, very best for those children wore me down to a nub. Poor diet. Lack of exercise. Early mornings. Lunch periods. Late nights. Saturdays. Sundays. Phone calls from students. They knew where I lived, where I worshiped, and where I ate out.

Here's the deal: If we pour out everything we are and have for our students, we will be dry vessels with nothing left to pour. We must have a way to keep the vessel filled.

You are neither a martyr nor a missionary.  You are a well-educated professional who went into teaching because you either love adolescents, love literature, or love writing. Perhaps your own life was changed by a teacher, and you wanted to pay it forward. Can you hold on to that motive and just do your job?

I once had a principal who, at a faculty meeting, made fun of teachers who get to work on time and leave on time. There was another who insisted that teachers come in on a Saturday for training--for no pay. A third called us back a day early from summer break, and no one questioned him. These outside pressures--shameful as they are--don't do nearly the damage that we do to ourselves. How? We might spend 30 minutes just grading one essay. We might assign full-length essays twice a month. We might tutor every afternoon. We might overwhelm our students (and therefore ourselves) in the name of rigor.

According to current research, only around 17% of teachers quit within five years. The ones who stay are likely to have been mentored. What are those mentors saying? Get sleep. Have boundaries. Take care of yourself. 

Teachers are not selfish; I'm not sure we even can be. We can, however, protect ourselves by planning differently, grading differently, and saving some of the love for ourselves.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

How to Get Teens to Read for Pleasure

I once taught a set of brothers who loved science fiction so much that the only punishment their parents ever doled out was "Book Jail," the imprisonment of the book the offender was currently reading. What a dream: A teenager who loves reading so much that confiscating the reading material is painful.

Then there's my freshman (we'll call her Kayla) who had never read an entire chapter book before I taught her. As a toddler, she had chronic ear infections that damaged her hearing and stunted her language development. By the time she got to middle school, her reading skills were so far behind that her teachers spent the bulk of the time with her in academic remediation. No one turned her on to reading for pleasure. I ordered a set of books from Townsend Press, The Bluford Series, and offered one to her. A few days later, she came to class bleary eyed because she had stayed up reading it. During my lesson, she kept sneaking her book out to read every time my back was turned. What a great classroom management problem to have! (Townsend Press has not compensated me in any way for this endorsement. I genuinely admire this publisher for making high-interest fiction affordable for low-income students.)

How do we help high school students like Kayla--over half of whom are reading below grade level--fall in love with the mind drama of fiction or the intricacies of an edgy biography?  

We make it a school-wide priority. If students have access to interesting texts in their zone of proximal development, they will read.

A whole-school reading program provides the models, the time, the materials, and the incentive to read. 

The Models
For students to buy in, everyone has to buy in--parents, administrators, and teachers. If students are going to be turned on to reading, they need to see everyone around them reading. I'm of the mind that the people around them need to be reading PAPER. When students are given class time to read, the teacher should be reading too. I sit in front of my students with my left leg tucked under me, just the way I sit down at home with a good book.

The Time
There are so many ways to squeeze in time. If students are stuck in a useless homeroom, that time can be dedicated to reading. The first fifteen minutes of English class are perfect; students know the routine and get settled immediately. The weaker the readers, the more class time should be dedicated. Give advanced students thirty minutes one day a week. I've taught in two schools that had outside reading programs, and both expected students to have their books with them at all times. A ride on the bus, a few minutes at lunch, and spare time after a test can add up to an hour of reading!

The Materials
Students in poverty rarely have full bookshelves at home; it is more than likely that their parents struggled in school and are weak readers. Requiring those students to come to school armed with novels is an issue of inequity, and schools must provide their reading material and class time to visit libraries. There is an argument to be made that this level of provision enables families not to take responsibility for a child's work outside of class. I get that, but dealing with broader social issues isn't my goal here: I just want to make it easy for a fourteen-year-old inner-city boy to get his hands on a book. The best place to get books, of course, is a massive classroom library. Here are some ideas for curating on the cheap:
  •  On the day students or custodians clean out lockers, walk through the school with a box and fill it. You'll be amazed by the books students leave behind!
  • Go to a used book store and plow through the piles of books the store has no room to shelve.
  • Drop by yard sales as they are ending. People do not want to take that stuff back in the house.
  • Search online for local religious organizations holding book sale fundraisers. Often, the last day of the sale offers a fill-a-bag for $10 deal.             
The Incentive
This part is tricky. It honestly takes about four years to grease the wheels of a school reading program. When it becomes an expectation that students will read a certain number of books or pages per quarter, the fight ends; however, it takes a while for that to happen. Accountability and consistency are key to making it work, so counting the reading as a grade in an English class is the best way to make sure it happens. It is indeed ironic that we may end up punishing students whom we are trying to motivate. 

For a manual that includes score scales and details about making the whole thing work, check out this resource.