On Embracing Discourse

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When I took on the challenge of becoming a National Board Certified teacher in 2000, I videotaped myself for the “Whole Class Discussion” portfolio entry.

It was a dismal affair.  It featured a teacher pitching vague questions that went nowhere, followed by some that were enthusiastically answered by the two or three extroverts in the room. The rest of the students busied themselves picking lint off their clothing.

Luckily, board certification is primarily reflective.  My reflection indicated that this was an area where I needed help—fast.

That was 16 years ago, but correcting this one problem lead to a continual search for strategies that let students lead their own learning. It has been well worth the journey. … KEEP READING

Tone Hunt

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To switch things up and get kids out of their seats, I like to do a “tone hunt.” Too often I find myself reading their essays and seeing the same generic five words to describe tone and none of them really captures the nuance intended. Though they have lists and I push them to use them in class discussion, their lack of familiarity with the context of the word prevents them from using it in their writing. … KEEP READING

Writing the Group Essay

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About three years ago, we were coming up on the end of the semester. There was so much to do between finishing up Romeo and Juliet with my 9th graders and grading. I wanted to finish the unit with something meaningful, but I also needed to be practical in terms of evaluating and inputting grades and closing out the semester. On my drive home, it occurred to me that I could have the students work in groups to write an essay in response to Shakespeare’s play. I went home and thought very carefully about how to structure the assignment so the students would be successful and so the essays would hang together and make some kind of sense.

As I walked around the next day listening to the student conversation around the play, themes, characters, and how to put their ideas all together, I realized that I had accidentally stumbled upon something very powerful. … KEEP READING

Why Impromptu Speeches Work

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I have a confession to make.

Up until this year, I’ve avoided public speaking activities in my classroom like the plague. It’s not that I don’t think students need it – apart from playing a pivotal role in the Common Core Speaking and Listening strand — being able to express ideas in a clear and concise way is a crucial skill for success in the adult world. It’s not that I never have students speak in front of the class. We have a few projects throughout the year in which groups get up and present a PowerPoint and discussion plays an essential part of instruction in my daily lessons.

But it is a very rare occasion that I have students stand up and autonomously give a speech to the class and that is for one reason and one reason only: they fight it tooth and nail. Sure, there are one or two hams that love to get up and bask in the spotlight, but they are few and far between, and until now, this wasn’t a hill I was willing to die on.  … KEEP READING

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

Engaging Students with Editorials

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Relevancy. Rigor. Authenticity.  These are buzzwords in education.  Pundits overuse these terms, which makes teachers ignore their meanings.  We may avoid confronting these terms because we know, deep down, that these concepts are difficult to achieve in the classroom.

It’s difficult to make a curriculum relevant to the lives of 25 teenagers,  meeting all of their needs and wants.

It’s difficult to scaffold lessons, pushing students to the edge of their zones of proximal development.

It’s difficult to create a classroom  where students read and write authentically, not just “playing school” for extrinsic rewards. … KEEP READING

Why I Do Not Teach Classical Literature

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There are many reasons why I do not teach Classic literature, so why bother talking about them? There is no point in discussing the enhanced vocabulary of someone who reads Cicero and Shakespeare. Likewise, there is little purpose in pointing out the countless references that even contemporary literature and culture make to the foundational stories of the Greeks and Romans. For the same reason, I will not talk about turns of a phrase that have passed into our vernacular from the giants of British literature and the value of understanding them in their original contexts. I am certainly not going to comment on the fact that the previous three sentences form a tricolon crescens, a grouping of three ideas, each of which is expressed with greater complexity. There is also the fact that this entire paragraph is an example of praeteritio, a device by which an author draws attention to something by claiming to do no such thing, despite that both devices have their origins in the literature of Classical antiquity and continue to be powerful literary and rhetorical tools today. I do, however, teach Classic, specifically Classical, literature, and if these benefits and their like are not the reasons, then what is? … KEEP READING

Student Accessible: A Promise to My Students

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All too often, teachers get the reputation of being unavailable after they leave campus. Granted, there are many teachers who do not leave campus before 6:00 pm or later; but after that, their students are on their own. On the first day of each semester, I make a promise to my students:

If you have a question or a concern, you have two main outlets through which you can reach me (Twitter and email), and I will always respond to you within thirty minutes up to 10:30 pm. If you haven’t heard from me within thirty minutes, check the email address to be sure you typed it correctly, and email me again. Technology willing, you will get a timely response from me.

KEEP READING

The Power of Highlighting Essays

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The highlighter is a common tool in annotating. Literary texts are coded with different colors making grouping of ideas easy for students. Teachers and students, however, tend to put the highlighters down when it comes to essays and miss the opportunity to improve writing through visual learning. Taking time to mark essays slows the students down in their reading and studying of writing and gives them a visual of the construction of an essay. Highlighting or coding essays can be used in several ways. … KEEP READING

It Is OK to Doodle

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Let me start with a little secret … I cannot draw.

I tell my students this and try to show them that they don’t have to be great artists to create art that helps them think critically about texts. This is even more important now that I work at a high school where one of the four pillars of our plan is an arts-infused curriculum. One of the educators who helped to write the plan, and who is now our principal, explained to me that arts-infused means thinking through art. We’re not trying to be a Fame school, but rather we’re trying to use the arts as a way of thinking across disciplines.

The idea of an arts-infused curriculum was a huge draw for me as a teacher. I have always incorporated art into my teaching of English. I have asked kids to storyboard and create other types of artistic interpretations of text, often using symbols to represent their thinking. I know that some teachers subtly put down this type of work. They argue that it just isn’t rigorous. Despite the deep thinking I see when students use drawing or art, I had trouble articulating how it helped my students think through text.

Luckily, a couple of things have happened recently that have helped me understand why incorporating art is worth it. … KEEP READING

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