Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Free Holiday Tags

My daughter, Brennyn, came up with these cute critters for a product for use with a Secret Santa game for younger grades, but I'm using them to attach to the bags of candied popcorn I give to my students. Below is a link where you can get them for free (the cover page is the Secret Santa game, but the second page of the freebie is a page of the tags). Print them out on card stock, cut them out in squares and punch a hole in one corner. Easy. Here's the link:

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Free Holiday Lesson Plans and Tips

Rachel Lynette has put together this holiday book with free lesson plans and tips from 50 teachers from all grade levels, including yours truly. Click on the picture to get to the download link. Share it with all your teacher friends because there is a plethora of great activities. Happy holidays to all!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Narrative Essays - Getting Too Personal?

Narrative essays are my favorite kind of essays to read, and most students find it easier and/or more enjoyable to write about themselves than other topics, but they can be problematic on a few levels. I've learned some things from my mistakes.

First, the essays can become too personal. It's amazing what students will write about. Many do not write regularly, and when they think of a personal story, they often choose the most traumatic or dramatic incident in their lives. It's important to warn students up front that they shouldn't write about anything that they wouldn't want someone else in the class to read. I used to forget to mention this at the beginning, and then when group work day came, I'd have students who would quietly come to my desk and ask not to participate because they wrote about something too personal to share. Oops. My bad. Of course I didn't make them share, but then they lost out on the benefit of the group work.

After my first quarter of teaching narrative essays, and five student meltdowns in the girls' restroom, I make sure that my students understand that although writing about a difficult subject can be cathartic, it might not be appropriate for a school essay. When I ask students to OK their subjects with me first, I invariably get a few who want to write about their brother's recent suicide or their mother's drug addiction, or some other emotional subject. Often, the act of writing brings up unexpected emotion, and I find myself in the role of grief counselor, which is not my field of expertise. Now, I counsel these students that it is extremely difficult to write about these kinds of subjects. I ask them to make sure they have enough emotional distance to focus on the craft of writing and not just the subject.

If they insist they want to stick with their subject, I counsel them to go home and write it all out in a personal journal first, to get it all out, and see what emotions it brings up, and whether they are manageable, and then focus on creating an essay. Most decide to change the subject, but some stick with it, and some have written the most incredible essays with the most difficult subjects. This is why I don't discourage it entirely. I've seen true genius.

The last problem is in grading a narrative essay. Although the elements of the craft must be graded, the students should never feel that their experience is being graded. If a student pours out his heart about his beloved grandmother and receives a D on the essay, he might feel not only discouraged about his writing ability, but he might feel as if his experience is being discounted. This is why it is of the utmost importance to remind students that writing is a skill like any other. I often use the analogy that if I was a math teacher and showed them a different equation to plug into a problem to make it easier to solve, they wouldn't be offended, and the same goes for writing - perhaps if you said it this way instead of that way, the meaning would be clearer to your readers. With narrative essays in particular, it is very important to separate the content from the presentation. I also give a lecture on how to criticize constructively and give lots of guidelines in group work to make sure any criticism focuses on the writing and not the writer, or their experience.

Narrative essays will always be a part of the composition experience, but they can also be fraught with delicate emotions that must be taken into consideration in the critiquing and grading process. I'd love to hear from other teachers on your experiences with this.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Compare and Contrast

When you're teaching a class that some students see as hoop-jumping, it's important to keep it relevant. The compare/contrast unit in my composition class is a good opportunity for the students to become engaged in the topic. The final assignment is an essay that compares and contrasts two career choices. For example, if they are going into criminal justice, they can compare and contrast being a prison guard as opposed to a parole officer. If they are going into medicine, they can choose becoming a surgeon vs. a family practitioner. If they are unsure, they can compare and contrast getting a job right out of school or continuing their education.

Half the fun, though, is getting ready to write the essay. I use Venn diagrams on the whiteboard with funny objects such action figures or strange stuffed animals, or even just my pencil and my whiteboard pen. Then I explain two formats, point-by-point and block format, and how to write an effective compare/contrast thesis. When they have a good grasp on these concepts, I pull out the secret weapon-snack foods.

I divide the class into groups of four or five, then play a game to determine the order they get to choose their snack foods. Each choice comes in a pair--Oreo cookies and the store-brand copy; Ruffles barbeque chips and Lays; almond M&Ms and peanut M&Ms...Each group gets a poster board and they get to work with a Venn diagram, a thesis statement and a determination of point-by-point or block format. After we're done, they share their results with the whole group.

It's amazing what they come up with. It's rare that I get a simplistic thesis based just on taste. The students get creative, looking at nutrition information, packaging and value. Once, a group even based their thesis on the fact that one type of chips were manufactured in Mexico, and one in the United States. Of course there are great debates as to which is superior in taste. Needless to say, the whole class is engaged on many levels.

The point of this exercise is that it provides a clear template for the actual essay. I have them start on their topics immediately, following the same steps. These are almost always the best essays of the year because they know exactly how to proceed and they are interested, after all, in their own future careers.

The whole lesson plan with the handouts, etc... is here:

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Simple Activity with Spectacular Results

I came up with one of my most effective classroom activities out of frustration. I was teaching a remedial English class and we couldn't move on to more sophisticated grammar until my students learned the parts of speech. They were struggling and nothing I seemed to do worked. On a break, I put aside the workbook and hand-wrote a bunch of words on strips of paper. I chose some from each category: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns and prepositions. Then I wrote the categories at the top of the whiteboard. Here goes nothing, I thought.

When the students came back in from break, I randomly passed out the word strips. I said that if they could get them all in the correct category in three tries, I would bring them a treat the next week. They all had to work together, and after each round, I would only say how many were wrong.

I wasn't sure how the whole thing would play out, or if it would even work, but it was one of those serendipitous moments when I watched my class, sans teacher, work through the exercise, discussing, debating, rehearsing rules and working together. Best of all, every student was engaged because each had a stake in the results.

The result was that they succeeded, and they learned it better than any worksheet or lecture or demonstration could have done. By working it out with each other, they had to think and engage. Since then, I've used this exercise for not only parts of speech but other things such as fragments and run-on sentences and figurative language.

These activities take a lot of time to think of examples and ke your own, or you can get the lesson plan and word strips pre-made by yours truly here:

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

High Stakes Rough Drafts

Most of my students could get an A on their essays. Are they exceptional students? Gifted writers? Not necessarily. It's all in getting them to turn in a rough draft. A good number of my students used to skip this step, for any number of reasons, but most often nothing more than procrastination. I tried to convince them that the days of banging out an essay the night before it was due were over.

It wasn't until I raised the stakes and assigned a signficant amount of points to the rough draft that I started to see an improvement. I also devoted a day to group work with the rough drafts, meaning they missed out on participation points if they didn't have a draft. I still wasn't satisfied, though, because I had basically bullied them into turning in complete rough drafts rather than getting them to see the point and wanting to participate.

Finally, I remembered an exercise that I used to do when I traveled around as an author, visiting schools and talking about the writing process. When I pull the pipe cleaners out of my bag and start passing them out, my students wonder if they're back in first grade, but they also have big grins on their faces. Who can resist a bendable, fuzzy stick? The basic idea is they make whatever they want out of one set of pipe cleaners, and write instructions (words only!). Then they swap with a partner and try to make the other person's creations. (Download the complete instructions here). The writer is not allowed to say a word, just watch. Inevitably, it is impossible to stay silent. The writer always wants to clarify something.

And there's the think you've been clear on something so simple, and yet you can instantly see that you could have explained it just a little better here or there, or that you left out something entirely and your reader is confused. Here's a fairly typical result. The original is on the left.

This exercise is valuable in a couple of ways: Students instantly understand the value of re-writing, and they are open to listening to me tell them about how important it is, especially when we're dealing with more complex ideas and themes than making a silly project. It also gets them interacting and laughing and it's nice break to do something hands-on in a writing class.
The complete FREE instructions for this activity are here:

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!