Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Stephen King's Teaching Advice


Since I spent over 20 years as a writer before I started teaching full time, I've read my share of how-to and advice books, most of which I found useless. Imagine my surprise when I found myself  highlighting passage after passage from Stephen King's On Writing. I am not a fan of his novels (although when I was a kid I was home sick one day from school and absolutely devoured Firestarter), but he had the most practical and solid writing advice I'd ever read.

So, when I saw this article in The Atlantic on Stephen King's teaching advice from his years as a high school teacher, I was ready with my highlighter. The article does not disappoint, although I wish it would have been much longer. You can read it here.

My favorite part was when he said:

"It went best for me when I could communicate my own enthusiasm. I can remember teaching Dracula to sophomores and practically screaming, “Look at all the different voices in this book! Stoker’s a ventriloquist! I love that!” I don’t have much use for teachers who “perform,” like they’re onstage, but kids respond to enthusiasm. You can’t command a kid to have fun, but you can make the classroom a place that feels safe, where interesting things happen. I wanted every 50-minute class to feel like half an hour."

I am naturally a reserved person and am not inclined to be a circus clown in front of the class, but I do always try to convey as much enthusiasm as possible, because this is key in keeping students' attention. I once had a student tell me that she had no interest in poetry when she started my class, but that my excitement and enthusiasm for it made her want to come to class, and that she had thoroughly enjoyed the poems we studied. This was a coup, because poetry is not my thing, but I was aware that if I didn't care, I had no chance of getting them interested.

It made me sad when I commented that surely all of her teachers were excited about their topics, and she and other students who were listening chimed in and said no, most of their teachers seemed bored.

There's nothing better than an engaged class. I can see it in their faces, and I can feel the connection. Those are the golden moments, and those are the moments that I'm happy I left writing full time and have a chance every day to share my enthusiasm for writing, literature, and art.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Tips for Effective Peer Reviews

Peer reviews of rough drafts can be a valuable tool in the classroom, but they can also be a disaster. Some students are resistant to others reading their work, while other students lack confidence in their critiquing skills. Early in my teaching career, I simply gave students a pep talk and let them critique each others' papers with little direction. This was a mistake, because it fed into both of these problems, and the results were not helpful to the students. What we ended up with was hit-or-miss proofreading rather than big picture critiques. Here are some tips that have led to effective peer reviews in my classroom:

1. Write specific items to look for on the whiteboard, or pass out a handout. These will vary depending on the type of writing, but some sample items from an argumentative research paper might be:
  •    Highlight or underline the thesis statement. Does it contain a clear argument?
  •    Does the author address the counter argument?
  •    Is the introduction engaging? Does it make you want to read the rest of the paper?
  •    Read the introduction and the conclusion together. Do they work together?
  •    Are all the author's points supported by sufficient research
Remind students that they are not proofreading. I encourage students to mark on the drafts, but also to have a conversation with the author, because sometimes they can't fully express their comments on the paper.

2. Require the students to point out the positive aspects of the paper along with what needs to be improved.

3. Encourage writers not to get defensive when receiving the critique. I tell the students that their job is to listen carefully to the critique, then decide whether to make a given change or not. Some students feel obligated to act on every piece of advice they get, but I caution them to retain ownership of their papers, and make judicious decisions.

4. If you have students who are sensitive about sharing their drafts, you can instruct students to bring anonymous drafts, or allow them to choose their own critique groups.

5. Three to four critiques of a draft is a good number. This will allow the writer to see if readers agree on points of improvement, or if there is a difference of opinion.

5. I end the critique with a "Next Step" assignment, where I ask students to list the three most important things they learned about their paper in the critique groups, and what they are going to revise. This allows them to synthesize the information and make better revision decisions.

Regardless of whether the author gets useful advice from the reviewer, the reviewer always benefits by becoming more aware of how to read like a writer, and hopefully picks up some revision ideas for his or her own essay.


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Older Kids Clip Art


There is a lot of cute clip art out there for classroom use for the younger grades, but it's hard to find artwork to use for older kids. I complained to my artist daughter loudly and often enough that she started producing more mature clip art for classroom and product use. Using artwork on worksheets and Power Points meant for older kids is tricky - if it's too cutesy they won't like it, but boring doesn't add anything. You also don't want to overdo it. A few well placed pieces are plenty.

I tend to buy clip art, use it once and forget about it, but I keep coming back to these images again and again.

This is her most recent freebie, which you can download here, from her Image Boutique store on TeachersPayTeachers. She has several other freebies which you might want to use for a test run in your classroom.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Punch Game

Once in a while, I like to do something a little silly to add interest to an otherwise dry lesson plan. This is a game I've used before to spice up grammar lessons and review for final tests. It takes a little time to prep, but you can re-use it for years to come.

On a piece of foam core, hot glue plastic cups in rows, leaving at least a half inch between the rims of each cup.
 When the glue is set, you can put a question, task, or review question in each cup. I like to add a different treat along with each question and a few "free passes."

Cut squares of tissue paper and use a rubber band to secure them to around the top of the cups.
Here is one I made for a church class (Primary). When you call a student up, he or she has to choose a cup and punch through the tissue to get to the question (and treat).

An alternative use it fill it with prizes and let students punch on their birthday or after certain goals are met.

The element of surprise and the carnival feel of this game will be sure to add a little extra fun to your classroom!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Free Back to School Resources for High School ELA


This amazing book of resources is full of tips, free, and paid products to help you start the year off right. I am honored to have a page in this book, put together by Tracee Orman. Download the ebook from her store here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Back To School Bingo Ice Breaker

When I have a class where the students don't know each other already, I like to break the ice with this tried-and-true activity. It opens up conversations, helps students find others with similar interests, and helps them learn names.

Use a Bingo card template and write in activities or experiences your students might have engaged in over the summer in each space. You'll want to make several different cards, then photocopy them. I use about eight original cards for a class of 25 - 30.

Give each student a card, and ask them to find fellow students who fit the description in the square. They then write that person's name in the square. I make a rule that they can only use one person for two squares so they have to circulate.

When someone gets a Bingo, give them a small treat. I usually let them play until we've had five or so winners. Afterwards, we have a discussion about what they might have learned about each other.

You can find blank templates online, or if you don't want to make your own cards, I have some available here:


Friday, August 8, 2014

Writing Prompts for Research Papers

I like to let my students choose their research paper topics, unlike some of my colleagues who assign topics. I believe if students are interested in their topics, they will be more fully engaged and get more out of the whole process. With a topic they care about, they are less likely to view the assignment as hoop jumping, and invest more energy and time into it. 

That said, it has never worked well just to say, "Choose whatever you want to write about." Most students are like deer in the headlights - they have no idea where to go or where to start. I used to write a list of previous topics that worked well on the whiteboard, but that was ineffective.

What did finally work was when I gave some topic ideas, and then posed some questions to think about, along with ideas for research.

For example, most students were not excited about the topic of genetically modified foods, until I posed a few questions for thought: "Should genetically modified foods be labeled?"  "What should the government's role be in oversight, testing, and labeling?"  "Why would voters shoot down a proposition in California requiring labeling?"  Once we talked about these, then I asked for questions about the topic to research: "What measures have other countries taken against genetically modified foods?"  "What do studies show about safety?" By the end of the discussion, I had a few enthusiastic takers.

I got the idea to make a set of cards with topic ideas, questions to consider, and research ideas. This way, students can flip through them and see what speaks to them. The best thing is that most use the cards as a starting point, and end up with a unique spin on the topic.

I recommend doing this in your own classroom if you want students to choose their own topics, or you can limit the topics to a few of the cards you have made. Either way, it gets everyone off to a great start.

If you don't want to make your own, I've compiled 40 ideas that students have used successfully and put them on half-sheet cards. I've also added a full-color Power Point so you can use the ideas one at a time for discussion or response papers. Click here to see the product.