Literary Criticism for the Student’s Soul

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One of the biggest challenges of the high school English teacher is teaching literary criticism. It can be such a subjective mystery for so many students, even the brightest. I have found over the past few years that having students take ownership and responsibility for not only their learning but the learning of their classmates pushes them to a level of understanding and communication that is far more engaging and often easier to grasp than my method of presentation. … KEEP READING

Amplifying Our Conversations–Transforming Our Understanding

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There is nothing more rewarding than hearing the collective groan from my students as the end-of-class bell interrupts an engaging, authentic conversation about a text. What is even more thrilling is when students have become so involved in a discussion that they (with little interruption from me), begin to construct a powerful understanding of a text. … KEEP READING

The Silent Discussion: An Effective Strategy to Engage All Students

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At the start of a new semester or new school year it can sometimes be difficult to get students to jump in and participate in a class discussion. I’ve found that the silent discussion can be an effective technique to use to get all students to participate. There is a low risk for the students because names are not attached to the discussion, and it allows them time to think before they respond. They are not competing with other students to have their voice heard. This discussion style works especially well when paired with a short story or a novel. The example I’m using is from The Good Earth, a novel taught in junior level English.

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Planning and Preparation: Before students can discuss, I choose quotations from the text that are impacting or provocative. These quotes are then typed out and centered on a single sheet of paper. I try to leave plenty of room for students to write. I’ve also found it helpful to have more quotations than students, that way when it comes time to move desks, the students aren’t waiting for someone to finish.

The process: When students walk into the room, I ask them to take a seat at a desk or table with a quotation. First, they read the quotation to themselves. They are then asked to underline important, powerful words, or words that have a strong connotative meaning. After they have done several questions: Why this passage is important? What does the quote contribute to the meaning of the work? Why is it significant? The students will then write a statement somewhere on the page to share why they think the quotation is significant. The next step is for students to generate a question pertaining to the quotation that will get their peers thinking. This question is written somewhere on the paper.

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After students finish writing their question it is time to move to another quotation. They will begin the process a second time with me walking them through the steps. You will notice that students may double or triple underline the same words, or they may select new words all together. An additional step I add is that students will now comment or answer the question/s provided by their peers. After a second time of reading, commenting, and questioning, with my direct instruction, students then go through the process on their own.

There is no set number of times for students to rotate through the quotations – it depends on time and number of students in the class. I usually allow a minimum of 10-15 minutes for them to complete this part of the discussion. After students have looked at the last quote, they will then return to their original seat. I allow them time to look at the responses and to see how their discussion grew as their peers responded. The discussion can end there if you choose.

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Next Steps: I will often take the discussion further with the students by placing them into small groups. Once in small groups, they read the quotation out loud and share an intriguing question or comment that was written by a classmate.

If you wanted to take the discussion one more step, I often ask the smaller groups to choose one of their quotations and create a discussion question from their small group conversation to get their classmates thinking.

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The Art of Classroom Questioning

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If we want our students to think critically in our classrooms, we need to help them discover their innate abilities to use their brains as active tools and not passive receptacles of information to be spewed forth on test day. In other words, we need to ask students thoughtful, appropriate questions that lead them to the discovery of critical content knowledge. We want our students to think for themselves; we want our students to assess and synthesize information in critically appropriate manners; and, we want our students to be successful citizens in a complicated, ever-changing world. Let’s ask questions. Let’s stimulate their curiosity and help them start thinking for themselves. What follows is a simple, bare-bones model for starting, or improving, the questioning strategies we use with our students every day.           … KEEP READING

Get Dialectical!

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For fifteen years I’ve been trying to make my students active readers. I’ve used study questions; I’ve used critical thinking questions; I’ve used annotation rubrics. While all of these were successful on some level or another, and while I still employ guided questions, especially with struggling readers, annotations have been my “go to” for the past five years. The problem I was finding with my students’ annotations is that many of them were flat: they would underline or highlight, and they would write a word or two in the margin sometimes to clarify why they underlined or highlighted, but true analysis was missing. It would peep up during our class discussions, but we spent precious minutes trying to remember exactly why they chose a particular quotation. I knew there had to be a better way.

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Start the New Year with a Mid-Year Evaluation

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Take a deep breath. This may be the last time you have to do this until May because we all know that once school starts back after break, the pace only accelerates until graduation. The new year is the perfect time for personal reflection and goal setting and the new year offers teachers a late Christmas gift – a chance to make mid-year classroom adjustments. This only happens with intentionality and reflection.KEEP READING

Annotation for Smarties – 5 Tips for Teaching Students Active Reading and Critical Thinking

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“How many of you have ever gotten to the end of a page of assigned reading, and realized you have no idea what you just read?”

Every year, I pose this question to my English classes, and every year, just about every hand goes up, including mine. I share with my students that there have been several times, even recently, that I’ve realized I have absorbed absolutely nothing of what I thought I just read, this, despite 16 years of teaching and a lifetime of being an avid reader. It’s the discovery of why this happens that led me to one of the most successful strategies I use to help my students become close readers: annotation.

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Film in the Classroom: A Means to Develop Analysis

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Why use precious class time to watch clips when we are supposed to be reading? Doesn’t film dumb students down when teachers should be raising rigor? These are common objections to using film in the classroom; however, there’s a huge difference between popping a movie in to catch up on grading and skillfully using film to instruct. Film can be a great lead-in for complex texts providing a common shared experience in the classroom. With film being a student-friendly medium, barriers to teaching critical thinking skills are often removed building student confidence in analysis. … KEEP READING

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