Thursday, October 27, 2011

Controversial Cupcakes

I want my students to write about subjects that make them think. I never assign essays about vacations or anything where they could slip into autopilot. At the beginning of every class period, I give them something that I think they will have a strong reaction to--a video, an article, or something a little more creative. Today, I recreated the racist bake sale that happened at Berkeley a few weeks ago to protest California Senate Bill 105 that would allow California universities to again consider race and gender in admissions. Basically, they put out the baked goods and posted a sign with different prices for different races: Caucasians $2.00, Asians, $1.50, Latinos $1.00 and so on, with a 25% discount for females. Needless to say, it caused quite a stir in Berkeley and quite a stir in my classroom!

When the students walked in, their faces said, "Cupcakes!" and then they saw the sign and they got real quiet. They did a double-take, and then and started looking around at each other, wondering who was going to say something first. When I explained what was going on, the look of relief was priceless. They thought I'd gone loco. A Native American girl, who, according to the sign would get a free cupcake with her discounts, broke up the class when she said, "Does this mean I don't get a free cupcake?"

After a discussion about the senate bill and affirmative action, they wrote their response papers. They were passionate, varied in viewpoints and did some outstanding writing because they were engaged. The best part was handing out the cupcakes on break, listening to them still talking and debating. Engaged and well-fed students are happy students!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Taco's on Friday's

What's wrong with this title? Tacos are delicious, and Friday is as good a day as any to eat some. It's the misuse of apostrophes, of course. When you have a plural word, such as tacos or Fridays, no apostrophe is required. It's a simple rule, but students often add errant apostrophes. Then there is that pesky its/it's exception and what to do with a plural possessive.

To add to the problem, apostrophes are often misused in public communications and advertising. How many times have you seen signs like "Strawberry's $2.00" or "15-minute massage's." At my own college, there is a student-run electronic billboard that someone programmed to say "Hot dogs on Monday's in the cafeteria!" When I saw it, my heart rate went up and I felt a little dizzy. This is something that might be unique to English teachers, but everyone's got their quirks. It's like bamboo under the fingernails. I put in a help request with our IT department and didn't feel right until they fixed it.
Part of the problem is that when we teach the rules of apostrophes, students tune out. Another boring lecture about rules...I can just see their eyeballs rolling back in their heads. So I try and make it fun. We play a game where we first briefly review the rules, then divide the class into two teams. I give everyone paper to crumple up and set out two boxes on a table, and I stand between them. A few people from each team come up to a line on the floor. I hold up two choices of apostrophe use, one right, one wrong, above each box. On three, they throw the paper into the box with the correct choice

If they pick the right one and make a basket, their team gets a point. To add to the excitement, I take off points if they hit me. Click here for the whole game, review, quizzes and worksheets.

Having a few paper balls bounce off my head is a small price to pay for Tacos on Fridays.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Power of Being Positive

I just ended another quarter, the best and worst part of the teaching experience. The best part is seeing students succeed, and surpass their own expectations of what they thought they could do. One student, who could barely put a complete sentence together at the beginning of the quarter last year, was so happy with her "A" on the final research paper that she jumped up and down like she'd just won the showcase on the Price is Rice and zoomed out of the room to call her grandma to tell her the news.

She shouldn't have been so surprised, because she worked her butt off. In general, I have trouble getting students to see the value in multiple rough drafts. She took it to heart, though, and started hunting me down in the hallways daily with a fresh draft in hand. Her determination was impressive.

Like I said, she shouldn't have been surprised at her A, but frankly, if someone had told me I had an A student on my hands, I wouldn't have believed it. I've never seen a student start at such a low level of competency and end up with one of the best papers of the quarter. Now like I said, she worked hard and the credit is all hers, but I did something different with her. I sensed that she'd been beaten down in life more than the average student. She lacked self confidence and had a bevy of personal problems that often interfered with her schoolwork. Most of my students seem to be in this situation, but there was something a little different about her. I decided to only make positive comments about her writing (not an easy task) and offer constructive criticism only when we spoke in person so I could make sure she did not misunderstand the tone or the purpose, and so I would be there to help with a solution. I also decided I needed to take a personal interest in her and let her know I saw great things.

Long story short, I knew something positive was happening when she began looking me in the eye instead of at the floor, and she would wave at me from across the crowded hall. It was also my privilege to be the first to see her new tattoo, which was, er, normally hidden from view.

As the quarter progressed it became easier and easier for me to see the positive traits in this student, when normally, I'm sorry to say, she would have frustrated me with her excuses and absences. Keeping it real, I am often frustrated with students and have to keep my red pen and my comments in check.

She graduated last quarter and she asked me to write her a letter of recommendation. Sometimes I am hesitant to say yes because what I remember about the student was that he or she had to be dragged kicking and screaming through my class. But it was easy with her, because I had been focusing on her positive qualities all along, and was able to make a big deal about her determination and willingness to learn and overcome challenges.

I think of this girl at the beginning of each quarter and try to see the potential in each student. It's impossible to give this much attention to each student, but I'm re-dedicated to the underlying philosophy of students rising to expectations.

Next week is the beginning of the new quarter for me. I have two sections of Humanities, one section of Composition and Critical Reading and one section of Composition and Research. I will stand up in front of the class, I will smile, and I will tell the students that they all have the potential to succeed, and I will remind myself that one part of the equation is me and my own attitude. How easy is it to compliment a student, when the reward can be so big.

I also said the end of the quarter was the worst part. I'll save that for another post, because I'm only thinking positive!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Halloween Clip Art

My daughter Brennyn is making some fantastic clip art for my school handouts. I thought I'd share her talent for your Halloween projects. These can be used for personal and educational products, and for use on print products sold on the teacherspayteachers website. If you're not a member of teacherspayteachers, it's free to sign up and just takes a minute. Click here to get Brennyn's Halloween clip art!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Concrete Details

Read any student essay, and you're likely to get abstract descriptions: The vacation was "wonderful" the food tasted "great," and the dog was "cute." When we ask students to add more detail, or be more descriptive, we often get lists of adjectives. What we really ought to be asking for is concrete detail, or sensory detail.

I use this example for the class: "If I went on a roller coaster and told you it was 'thrilling' or 'terrifying,' what does that tell you?" The students won't see what I'm getting at here. They usually think it's a fine explanation. Then I say, "What if I told you that I was holding on to the handle so tight my knuckles were turning white and my fingers went numb? I could feel sweat forming on my neck and hairline. I could taste the pink cotton candy I'd eaten earlier in the back of my throat when I opened my mouth to scream." Now they begin to get it. I pause for a minute to let them think about it, then say, "In the first explanation, I TOLD you what it was like, the second explanation let you EXPERIENCE what happened because I used sensory details. Which is more powerful?"

When talking about the difference between abstract details and concrete details, I usually explain it by asking if I can see it, feel it, hear it, taste it or smell it. If the answer is no, then it's probably not concrete detail. It's effective to make a list of overused abstractions such as wonderful, exciting, and awesome, then list how we might show this instead. During revisions, I have students identify at least three places where they could add sensory details.

Another method to help students think beyond the obvious and overused for their details is teaching them figurative language. When writing a narrative essay in the first few weeks of the quarter, I require them to use at least one of the following: metaphor, simile, hyperbole, personification or allusion. To practice this, we go over each one, and then I have students work in groups to come up with one of each for a piece of artwork to share with the class. My students are usually a little unsure of themselves in writing figurative language, but doing it with a group first makes it fun and often leads to some profitable discussions.

I knew I'd gotten through when a student started with "the singer was wearing a long yellow jacket and sang to the large crowd" and ended up with "the singer looked like a giant, sweating banana rocking out in front of a horde of hungry ants." It's not exactly Proust, but the image made me smile, and it was concrete.

A full lesson plan for the figurative language group activity is in my store here.  Here are two descriptive writing freebies to use with your class:

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A+ Attitude

When I saw this character that my daughter drew, I immediately chose it as my icon for my teacherspayteachers store where I sell my best lesson plans. It doesn't particularly look like me (I'm in my forties and would never wear my hair in a ponytail...), but I love the attitude. I'm a natural introvert, but when I'm in front of a class, I don't try and hide my enthusiasm for whatever I'm teaching (to the point of being a dork) but it works, and it's also real. If I'm not passionate about it, how can I expect my students to have any interest? If I don't think what I'm teaching is fun and interesting, then I shouldn't be teaching it.

Composition, in particular, is a hard sell. Most of my students are on their way to becoming something that they think has nothing to do with writing essays. My job is to get them to see the relevance of critical thinking skills and communication in whatever they choose to do, and show them that writing can be fun, or at least satisfying.

Part of the attitude is assuring each student that he or she is capable. I find that most students don't really hate English class, but instead lack the confidence that they can be successful. Sometimes I feel like I'm less of a teacher and more of a cheerleader, but that's all right. Go class!