Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Thesis Statement Activity

A solid thesis statement is critical to the success of any essay, but I often find my students disengaged while I try and teach them the fundamentals. Out of desperation, I tried this activity, and it was a resounding success. I saw improvement immediately on the practice thesis statements used for the activity. That improvement then translated into their next essays. Yes, there was a bribe involved, but whatever works, right?

Here's the activity, which should be used directly after instruction on how to write a thesis statement:

1. Give the class an interesting reading or show a short video about a topic that is ripe for varied opinions. I like to show this seven-minute clip about AutoTune from Nova:


2. Facilitate a short class discussion on the topic to get them thinking about the pros and cons. For the AutoTune example, we talk about whether an artist who uses AutoTune in a live concert or on a recording is deceiving the audience. We talk about the common use, the ethics, and whether the audience should be aware of its use.

3. Ask them to write a thesis statement about the topic (as if they were going to use it for an essay). Tell them not to write their names on the paper.

4. Collect all the papers, shuffle them, and redistribute. Ask students to carefully read the thesis on the paper they have.

5. Now ask all the students to stand up.

6. One by one, go through the points of a good thesis statement. For example, say, "Does it contain a clear opinion?" Have the students consider the thesis and sit down if it does not meet the criteria.

7. When you have only a few students left standing (or have gone through all the criteria), have the class vote on the best thesis still remaining.

8. The writer of the winning thesis gets a prize! (I like to give out colorful Sharpie pens.)

I've done this for several quarters now, and the students always show improvement, I think because they are so engaged in the process, whether in writing their own thesis or evaluating others' thesis statement.

If you need a lesson for writing a thesis statements, here's the one I use. It's a Power Point presentation, along with handouts and worksheets.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Encouraging Participation in the Classroom

 “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” - Chinese Proverb

Improving class participation can be a struggle. I've noticed over the years that every class has a different personality as a whole. This quarter, I've got the zombies. They look like live students, but they stare straight ahead and don't make a peep when I ask a question. Even in group work, they are reserved with each other and prefer individual work. 

However, one of the largest factors affecting class participation is the instructor, even with the zombies. Here is a list of some tips that will encourage more involvement from students in class: 

 Learn the names of your students so they feel recognized and are less likely to fall through the cracks the first or second day of class. Ask questions directed at students by name. Not only will they feel recognized, but the fear factor of getting caught unaware my encourage them to participate sooner, when they know an answer, before you call on them.  

Respond to student answers with respect, positivity, and encouragement through your body language as well as your words. If the students hasn't hit on the point I think is the best answer, I often say something like "In addition to Ashley's answer, consider....." or "Another point you want to think about is...." That way, you are not negating the student's answer, but still making your point. 

      Allow various forms of participation from students. Some may prefer writing questions and responses on notecards before sharing a response. Others would participate more in small group or paired discussions rather than with the whole class.

          Set the chairs in a semicircle or around a large table to encourage discussion.

           From day one, let students know that participation is expected and required (possibly for a grade). Structure your lessons around discussions.

      Lastly, don't be afraid of the awkward silence. With my quiet classes, I used to fill in the gaps by answering the questions rather than lingering in the awkwardness. Now, I just wait. Sometimes I will rephrase the question or call on someone by name, but usually, someone speaks up. Don't let the students get used to you always saving the moment, or they won't feel as motivated to participate.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

How to Get Students to Ask for Help

When this student turned in this paper, the first thing I noticed was the scribbled out word "Confused." Since it was scribbled out, I thought, oh good, he figured it out. Then I graded it. You'll notice a slash through every answer.

Why didn't he ask me for help? I was available during class. I was available during office hours. I am available by email. I'd like to think I am friendly and accessible. There are plenty of tutors and resources.

The easy answer was that he started it right before it was due and didn't have time to get help. The harder idea to consider is that there was some reason he felt he couldn't ask.

I read a study that said cultural background and gender factors are considerations. Sometimes members of minority groups feel isolated and are less likely to ask for help. Males are not as likely as females to admit they need help.

Both of these factors might apply to this student and interfere with engagement with his teachers. This is his second time through this class, and when I asked him why he failed the first time, he said, "I didn't like the teacher." I hear this answer frequently, and it tells me nothing, so I pressed him. "I didn't understand what she wanted. Everything just came back with a C on it no matter how hard I tried," he said. "I guess I just checked out."

Now we were getting somewhere. I reassured him that I would give detailed feedback and we could talk whenever he needed further clarification, but then he turned in this. Now I was ready to check out because it was easier to put the burden on him, but then nobody would learn or progress. I decided to try different strategies.

For this assignment, I asked him to stay after class, and we went over the concepts together. I gave him the opportunity to re-do the assignment so he would see immediate results with getting help, and couldn't disengage from me or the material.

I brought in tutors from the writing center to meet the students in person and describe how they could help. I was hoping this student, in particular, would feel a connection with one of the tutors.

We did more group work as a precursor to homework assignments. I was hoping he would ask his peers questions or pick up on their understanding.

I arranged for, and offered, peer tutoring with a student I thought he might like.

Instead of comments on his work, I wrote "See me, please" at the top of his paper. When he came forward, I talked with him about the work so he had an opportunity to engage and connect with me.

I started talking about getting extra help to the whole class as part of the writing process and made it clear that I expected them to seek help in some form. I wanted to remove the perception that only bad students had to get help.

I noticed a shift in this student, and some of the others, by the end of the quarter. Although he still didn't ask me for help in person, he did send several emails with questions, and even an extra draft of an essay to review. He passed the class, just barely, but I consider him a success story because I feel confident that he made progress in asking for help, which will serve him well going forward.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Grammar Game for Secondary Students

This game is a hit every time I use it in class. There are few ways to teach grammar and have it really stick. This is one of them. The example here is for active and passive voice, but you can adapt it for parts of speech, sentence structure (have categories for fragments, complete sentences, and run-ons), or correct/incorrect usage of punctuation marks.

1. Divide a whiteboard, chalkboard, or bulletin board into two halves. Label one side “Active” and one side “Passive.”

2.  Pass out one or two sentences to each student. Tell the students that they have three rounds to get all the words in the correct category. (I offer a small treat, prize, or bonus points to the whole class if they can accomplish this.)

3. Have the students come up to the board and place each sentence where they think it belongs.

4. When all the sentences are in place, tell the students how many are incorrect.

5. Allow the students to study the board and discuss which are incorrect. Any student can move any of the sentences from one category to the other, as long as he or she offers an explanation. As they try to sort it out, this is where the learning comes in. It's also a learning experience for me When they are satisfied, tell them how many are incorrect, and give them one more round to work it out.  The hardest part will be for you to keep a poker face!

6. You may have to set a time limit for the rounds or give a few hints, but I find it usually works out well if the students are left to their own devices.  Go over the answers at the end, and discuss any that gave them trouble.