Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The 5 Essays You Must Master To Be College Ready

My new book is finally available! After many years of teaching college students who are not quite ready for the demands of college-level writing, I identified the information and practice that they needed in five different rhetorical strategies to be ready. This book incorporates my most successful classroom curriculum, modified for secondary students who are homeschooled or working with a tutor or parent to enhance their skills. 

This is a full program, with exercises, step-by-step processes for each essay type, samples, and clear essay assignments for each essay type. Writing teachers will also find valuable information and projects for their classes. I'll be using it as a textbook for my future classes. 

This baby has been years in the making, and I'm proud it's finally here! Click here to purchase. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Glass Castle Movie and Book Comparison

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is a favorite of my students, so I was excited about the movie that was released in August. I'm hoping it will bring more attention to this book that has so fully engaged my students. You can read about my experience with it in the classroom in my blog post here.

Usually, I'm disappointed with the movie version of any book, and I was worried when I went to see it, because The Glass Castle is dear to my heart. In fact, I was prepared to be disappointed, and even angry if they messed with it too much.

They did mess with it, but I was pleasantly surprised. Better yet, I immediately saw how this movie would work perfectly with the book for a compare/contrast assignment.

Some of the changes they made from the book to the movie are evident right away. The main change is that the book opens with Jeannette as an adult, and then tells a linear story from when she was three years old to her adulthood. The movie alternates between her adult self coming to grips with her childhood, shown through a series of flashbacks. It works. There is certainly a different dynamic, but I found it interesting and the integrity of the story held. My first thought after the movie was how this structural differences would be excellent fodder for a comparison discussion with the book. Why did the director make this choice? How did it change the perception of the viewer/reader? Which version was more effective?

The other changes seemed like necessities of the format, such as skipping over locations and storylines to fit the time constraints. The movie also makes a main character out of Jeannette's fiancé, who is a minor player in the book. These are also good discussion points about how these choices affected the story.

The Glass Castle is not an easy story. It dredges up powerful emotions in many, and has mature themes and storylines, but it is not easily forgotten. Jeannette's ability to forgive and to craft a bright future for herself are uplifting and inspiring in the end, and the movie brings this into clear focus once again.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Discouraging Plagiarism

The bane of my existence in teaching is plagiarism. I do everything I can to explain to students why they should not plagiarize, and I spend a significant amount of time on making sure they know what it is. I even have them take a quiz on it before their first big paper. Despite all that, there are always the cheaters.

The luxury of being a writing teacher, however, is that I can usually discourage most of the cheating by requiring a process that would make it difficult to turn in a copied paper. Here is the process that I use (which is also just a good process for writing in general):

1.  I ask a specific question, perhaps comparing and contrasting two different articles, or limiting their choice of topic. This makes it harder to find something to copy that fits the prompt. I never assign an open-ended paper.

2. I require students to turn in sources ahead of time for approval. They are free to change their minds about the sources, but they must email me links to their new sources any time before the paper is due. Sometimes, if the topic is narrow enough, I supply one of the sources as a starting point and require that they include it.

3. I assign in-class, graded assignments for the paper. Perhaps students will write two or three introductions and then do group work to determine the best introduction for their papers. Maybe I will have them free write a body paragraph, or turn in a finished paragraph for feedback.

4. I always require a rough draft and rewrites. If they do not turn one in by the deadline, they still have to include one with their final paper, or they don't get any credit.

None of these alone will deter all plagiarism, but taken together, it would be more work to plagiarize the whole process than just writing a new paper.

Most important, however, is early intervention for someone who seems overwhelmed. If a student has been absent a lot and not turning in preliminary assignments or in-class work, I take them aside and ask how I can help, and gently work into the conversation that they must be careful not to panic and do something that they would regret later. In my experience, the students who plagiarize are those who have procrastinated or tried to do a last-minute paper and gave into the temptation to try the easy way out. I tell my classes frequently that anything they can accomplish is far better than anything they can copy.

Here are some resources to help your students understand plagiarism.  The first is a free checklist you can use in your classroom and the second is a complete teaching plan with explanations, examples, exercises and a quiz.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Every day vs. Everyday

The most common mistake I see in commercial signage, besides apostrophes, is using "everyday" instead of "every day." It drives me crazy because the difference is simple, and they mean different things. You would think that before a company would spend thousands of dollars printing their ads, they would have a proofreader look it over. Does this grate on anyone else's nerves as much as mine? Below are two of the latest offenders. Props to Firehouse Subs, though, for using an apostrophe appropriately in Kids' Combo.

It's also not unusual to find "everyday" and "every day" in student writing. No wonder, since the misuse is everywhere. Here's the simple rule, and a few examples to help ground them in their memories:

Everyday is an adjective that means "routine, usual, or mundane."  Examples: You don't want to wear your everyday clothes to the wedding.  Snow is an everyday event in the winter here.  Paper plates are our everyday dishes.

Every day means "each day."  Examples: I eat oatmeal for breakfast every day. Every day is a new start. Someone has to walk the dog every day.

To remember the difference, just remind students that if they can substitute "each day" then "every day" is correct. So the signs above should read "Kids 12 and Under Eat Free Every Day after 4 pm" and "Eat at least 6-8 servings of fruit and veggies every day."

Easy, right? Now if I could just stop seeing these mistakes every day!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Learning Students' Names (and more!) Activity

I am a big proponent of learning students' names early on, and several studies bear out the importance of this. In a recent small study of students in a large class, 85% said it was important to them that instructors know their name, but 80% of the students said it was "unlikely" that the instructors could name them. Not only did the students say they felt more valued when instructors knew their name, but they were also more likely to ask for help. I'm on board for that!

In the past, the most effective method I've used is taking their pictures in groups with each person holding a piece of paper with their name. (See my blog post about this here.)

I recently read about another method that sounds even better that I'm going to try this Fall, where each student glues a picture of him or herself to a notecard and gives their basic information. I'll modify this by making it a class activity at the end of the first week. I'll take group pictures the first day (many students don't have access to a color printer) and have them cut out their face and glue it to a half sheet of paper with questions on it. I'll include questions to help me also get insight into how I can be the most helpful in their learning process.

Here's an example of what they will look like:

I like the idea of memorizing not only their names, but a little about each student. The extra effort will pay off for everyone.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

7 Ideas for Establishing Class Rules and Still be Nice

I had my first class with severe behavior issues this past semester. I've had individual behavior problems and small groups with attitudes and lack of motivation, but this was a classroom-wide issue, with just a few students who kept to themselves and away from the majority troublemakers.

I did a brave thing and asked a group of the troublemakers at the end of the semester what part of this was me. One student, in particular, was honest and said that I came off as "super nice" at the beginning, so they felt like they could run over me. When it turned out that I was actually strict about the rules, it was a surprise, and they pushed back. Everyone agreed. Another student piped in that most teachers come off as strict at the beginning, and then "turn nice," but I was the opposite. Although I was very glad that semester was over (it was so bad, I'd sit in the parking lot in my car beforehand and do breathing exercises), I was grateful that I got real feedback.

I've been teaching for eight years, so it's obviously not something that will happen with every class that views me as "super nice," but I never want to repeat last semester. So how do I temper "nice" with "strict" right from the beginning? Here's what I'm going to try:

1. Be consistent from day one with the rules. Always with a smile.

2. Involve the students more with class rule-making. This is something I always do, but I'll put a greater emphasis on it and even include a writing activity about it. Ownership in classroom management equals better behavior.

3. Talk personally with troublemakers right away and enlist their help.

4. Try not to joke about misbehaviors in class that are often humorous. This will be hard, but I'm committed. Sometimes the troublemakers are the cleverest humans.

5. Repeat the class policies and rules two weeks into the semester. Often students don't remember everything from the first day because of the amount of information they get from each class. I will also have students do a self-evaluation and quiz on the policies.

6. If a rule becomes an issue (cell phones, anyone?), post a countdown on the wall for motivation (5 days cell-phone free!) with a reward attached to a certain amount of days.

7. I learned long ago that students respect teachers who hold their ground. They also respect teachers who listen well. I am re-dedicated to letting students know they are heard, even if I don't deviate from policy. I will schedule more time for one-on-one instruction and conferencing.

I still want to be nice. I want to be perceived as nice. But I won't ever make the mistake of "super nice" again!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Fidget Spinners in the Classroom

Fidget spinners are everywhere, but do they belong in the classroom? Some say yes, as they are thought to help students with ADHD, anxiety, stress, or autism focus better on their lessons. The hard evidence is purely anecdotal, however, and teachers are likely to say they have the opposite effect, creating distraction instead of concentration. 

There is evidence that fidget devices can help a certain population. Studies have been done that show positive results with small, hand-held items such as putty, stress balls, or even a smooth stone. It stands to reason that fidget spinners could have the same effect, but who is to judge who truly benefits, and who is just playing? A second problem is that unlike these other objects, fidget spinners have a visual component. The spinning, whirring, colorful device is hard not to watch, and that's compounded by the fact that they are excellent tools for doing tricks.

Almost 11 percent of kids ages 4 to 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD, and many more are undiagnosed. Add to that the number of kids with anxiety, stress, or autism who could also benefit from a fidget item, it's hard to dismiss the possibilities of improved focus for this many kids. Some teachers, however, think they amount to nothing but trouble. One sixth grade teacher famously called them "helicopters of distraction" in a blog post that went viral.

Whether or not teachers allow fidget spinners or other fidget items in the classroom is becoming a school- and district-wide issue, with some banning fidget spinners outright. Other schools are leaving it up to each teacher to decide what's best for his or her classroom. 

If you want to put the question to your students, I've created two non-fiction articles, pro and con, along with reading comprehension, vocabulary, and writing assignments to help them come informed, reasoned opinions. The reading level is challenging fifth grade through standard seventh grade.