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Teach Essay Writing Skills Without Grading Any Papers


Writing literary essays is hard. Students need lots of practice to develop the skills they need to write ones that are cohesive, well developed and organized. But does that mean we English teachers have to be chained to our desks every weekend?  I try to avoid that situation, because, you know what? I need a life too. And, after years of trial and error, I've come up with some exercises that help me avoid getting buried in papers.

Let me share one of my favourites that you could use with any novel:

We just finished Pride and Prejudice and my students needed more work on writing analytical arguments, rather than plot summaries that danced around a thesis. Instead of writing another essay, we spent two days doing this group activity:


1. Each student picked a strip that stated the name of a character and asked a question: how does Austen use this character to critique a convention of her society? Note that the question focuses on how the character is used in the story, and pushes the kids beyond a basic character sketch. I also gave them a sample paragraph that I had written, using another character in the book who wasn't one featured on the strips. We spent a few minutes discussing what made it a good piece of writing, and then they got to work.

2. I instructed them to spend five minutes on their own, brain-storming ideas and details that could answer the question. Then they found the other class members with the same strip, and began to discuss the ways that their character is used by Austen to critique a convention of her society.


3. While they discussed their ideas, I left them alone (I'll explain why later).  Once they were confident of their argument, I gave them chart paper and markers. On the paper, they recorded a topic sentence, followed by the details they would use to support it, including quote references.

4. Each group took turns presenting their argument to the class. Before they began, I told the class that they were to listen closely so they could give the group effective feedback: did they create a clear topic sentence? Does the evidence they chose support the topic sentence? Was it focused and organized? Then, after the group presented, we discussed how well they did. For the most part, all of the topic sentences were well done, but most groups were giving us character sketches. I kept asking, how do we know that Austen is using this character to critique the convention, rather than just illustrate it? It was for this reason that I left the kids alone as they worked; I wanted to have these discussions in front of the whole class, so everyone could think about the errors and discuss how to fix them.

5. The final step of this process garnered the best discussion. A representative from each group came to the front of the classroom, holding the chart paper. I pointed out that each one was a paragraph in an essay on how Austen uses character to critique convention. Then, I asked them to decide what order we would present the para-graphs. We talked about grouping the characters by the convention and then we had a chat about whether we should be discussing multiple conventions in the essay or just one. If we chose just one, who would we have to remove? As we spoke, we moved the students around, so the kids had a visual of what this "essay" would look like. 

When we were finished, I asked the kids if the process had helped. They nodded in unison. They had a chance to collaborate so they could develop their ideas and got to hear lots of descriptive feedback about how to create and organize the argument.

And I didn't have to read a single paper.

If you'd like to try this exercise, you can grab some editable character strips HERE.






Get Student Self-Evaluations for Parent-Teacher Conferences


















Do parent-teacher conferences cause you stress? Have you ever faced a parent and drew a blank on what to say? I have and it's a scenario I never want to live through again. It happened, not because I didn't know the student, but because it can be hard to know just what to say about each of my ninety students after a very long night, exhausting night of talking with parents. 

The reality is that as much as I wish I knew everything about my students, I don't. Most of the teachers in our school see over ninety students in their rooms each day. We do our best to know exactly where they are academically by parent-teacher conference time, but it's not possible for us to know everything. We can't always tell how hard they've been working at home or if they are really satisfied with their progress or not. We only know what we see from the outside looking in, and that's not the whole picture.

Self-Evaluation is such an important part of the learning process. When students take time to reflect on their goals - and their progress with reaching them - they need be accountable for their work and you get a rich resource to use with parents.



Tomorrow, in preparation for our parent-teacher conference, I'll be giving my students these forms to fill in (grab them for free by clicking on the link). The editable forms ask them to reflect on: 

-Their strengths as English students

-The areas that they need to work on

-The amount of effort they have been putting into the course

-Their thoughts about their progress and suggestions for improvement.

I've done this in the past and have always been very impressed with how honest students were, especially as they knew I would be showing the evaluations to their parents. Most were bang on. It was a great exercise because the kids had to reflect on their progress, and it gave me a powerful tool to have when I met with their folks. I was able to discuss my observations of their children and then I gave them the forms their children had filled in. Make sure you grab them here!



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Three Ways to Beat Grading Stress














Do you love teaching English, but the grading is dragging you down? Me too--if I let it.

I had a bad week last week, but I learned (re-learned, really) something that I thought I'd share with you. 

In my "wisdom", I had two different classes pass in major essays, and I needed to get them graded for report cards in less than a week -- and I was feeling sick.  Each day, I approached the pile of papers with dread. I ploughed through them angrily, cursing my job. "I HATE grading papers!" I complained to my husband--and anyone else in earshot.

By Wednesday, I knew that something had to give. I wasn't making much progress and I was feeling miserable. But suddenly, I realized I was holding my breath. That realization snapped me out of it, and made me remember three important things I've learned along the way. And you know what? They are very simple things that make a  big difference. 

Here they are:







It gets me every time. I know that I hold my breath when I'm tense. When I do that, my stomach clenches, as do the muscles in my neck and shoulders. Basically, I become a ball of stress. And all it takes to loosen up that whole mess is a few deep breaths and attention to my breathing as I complete the task. It works every time, and yet, it's amazing how often I forget to just breathe.  Now before you say, "Thanks, Captain Obvious," think about it, and notice if you do the same when you're doing a job you don't like to do. Then, take deep, slow breaths and see if you notice the change.

I did, so after some more cleansing breaths, I went back to my digital pile of essays, and started to apply the next two tips:



Over my two decades of teaching, I've used up gallons of ink writing on student papers.  This is something I changed a few years ago when I realized how many students didn't read my painstakingly made comments.  I've come to believe that it was a very ineffective way to feed my students forward and changed my grading habits.  So why was I spending so much time commenting on my students' essays -- especially after I'd given them a lot of formative feedback already?

Old habits die hard, especially when you're already stressed. As I said above, I was feeling sick and the report card deadline was looming large in my head. Instead of thinking about what I was doing, I just started mindlessly diving into the work, pointing out every missing comma and run-on sentence. It was taking forever and I was deviating so far from what I know to be true. No wonder I was miserable!







Another cause of my misery was the task I was setting for myself each day. I knew to make my deadline I had to get ten papers done each day. So, each time I sat down, I was telling myself I couldn't get up until those ten papers were done.  It wasn't working; each day I was coming up short, unable to read one more.

I know fellow English teachers who put a chocolate or candy after every fifth essay as a little reward for making it to the next goal. I do love my chocolate, but I find a better, more effective goal is to take a break. Like the candy-buriers, I divide my papers into piles, but when I finish each pile I get up and do something else, even if it's to wash the dishes or pack my lunch. One thing that works well for me is to take a quick walk around the block or do some stretching - something that gets the blood flowing and helps to clear my head. Then, I come back to the next pile somewhat refreshed.

Once I started doing these three things, the rest of my week was so much better. My pile reduced at a much quicker pace because I commenting less, and feeling so much better about the process. 

Sometimes all it takes is a little attitude adjustment and a deep breath. 

Do you have any tried and true techniques for making grading less torturous? If you do, please share!






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Author's Purpose Jigsaw Puzzle Activity

When we discuss theme in my classroom, I often compare it to doing a jigsaw puzzle: when you do one, you shake out all of the pieces, then look for the corners and edges to make a start. Next, you use the picture on the box to guide you as you fill in the rest. When you try to figure out the author's overall purpose or message in a text, you are doing the same thing -- without the picture on the box. So, when we look at texts in my room, we think of the different parts of a story as the pieces that we need to put together to get the whole picture.

I love teaching The Merchant of Venice because there are so many pieces to the puzzle--and many of these pieces are seemingly contradictory: the play has all the elements of a comedy, but there's also evidence that it's a tragedy. Shakespeare relies on the some of the Jewish stereotypes of his time, but he also explores Shylock's humanity while emphasizing the negative character-istics of several of the Christians. It leaves one wondering: what is Shakespeare really saying with this play? So, as we discuss the scenes, I point out to my students that a certain aspect is one of the puzzle pieces we are collecting (Yes, Portia is a wise woman, but she's a hypocrite as well. What is Shakespeare doing with her? Where does that piece fit?) 

When we finished the whole play, I grouped students and told them to brainstorm a list of the puzzle pieces that we had discussed. After their list was complete, they had to decide which of the pieces were the corners and edges; in other words, which elements of the play were the most important ones in understanding Shakespeare's overall purpose? Then, I gave them a pile of these ledger sized sheets, each with a blank puzzle piece on it.

Each student chose one element of the play to focus on. For example, one girl was looking at the intertwining plots in Merchant. Her task, for homework, was to record information about these plots on her puzzle piece, then to make a conclusion about how they might contribute to the overall purpose of the play.

The next day, the groups were given more paper. This time, each group got two copies of a smaller page with linked puzzle pieces. They wrote the conclusion of each student on one of the pieces on the yellow sheet, and then had to discuss what they saw when everything was put together, and come up with an overall conclusion. This was the hardest part for them, because it required a great deal of critical thinking. But as I circulated, I heard some amazing discussions and debates. If I felt they were stuck, or going off in a bad direction, I'd stop and join the conversation. We'd discuss whether or not an element they chose was a piece of the puzzle --did they need to discard it? Use another one? At any point, they could make that decision.

Next, they started the whole process again on the green sheet. This time, I told them to look at it from a different angle and try to come up with a different conclusion. For example, had they been looking at the evidence and seeing Shakespeare as presenting Christians as superior, what would the puzzle look like if they were to argue that they were all very flawed? 


Finally, each group was given chart paper, scissors, markers and glue sticks so they could create their final puzzle. They decided on an overall conclusion, wrote it on the top of the paper, then arranged their puzzle pieces underneath. They hung their sheets on the walls of the classroom and did a quick presentation to the class about how and why they had reached their conclusion. Students walked around the room to look more closely at what other groups had concluded with their own copy of the sheet with the multiple puzzle pieces. That night, they were to create an outline for an essay that discusses Shakespeare's purpose in the play, so I wanted them to have their own sheet to refer to as they worked on it.

This whole process took three classes, but it was time very well spent. The kids are going into this essay with a much better understanding of the play than I think any class has before.  I'll find out for sure when I get that pile of essays in next week!

If you'd like a summary of the process, plus the puzzle pieces and handouts, click here. This was a process I did with an advanced group of high school students. If you'd like something similar, but a little simpler, check out my Discovering Theme Learning Stations.  I've also just posted some collaborative placemats for discussing theme, character and significant passages in The Merchant of Venice.

Don't miss other freebies, lessons and ideas--sign up below for my newsletter and get my updates :)




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Teaching the Speaking Process

middle and high school public speaking lessons

It's something I've been guilty of for many years. I'd assign a speech or seminar and teach students about how to create content only. I would remind the kids that they needed good pace, volume and eye contact, but I didn't devote any time to allowing them to practice their delivery. 

The irony of this is that I've always put so much emphasis on the learning process in my classroom. I'd devote hours to showing kids how to think and read critically, and the steps of the writing process were always a given with any assignment. But public speaking? Nadda.


middle and high school public speaking lessons
So, last week, I decided to really focus on the process a student should follow when writing and delivering a speech. I decided to start with a rant, a satirical look at something in human nature that is silly, inconsiderate or rude. I chose this genre because most students get the shakes when we mention public speaking, so I wanted something that they would engage with -- and what teenager doesn't have something they can rant about?

The lesson began with a quick-write: what grinds your gears? What are some things that humans do that drive you crazy? Why does it? Students wrote for five minutes and then I asked them to find a partner to share their ideas with. However, this went beyond the usual turn and talk. Students were given a rubric and, as they listened to their partners share their pet peeve, they had to give them feedback on their ability to explain their ideas, their eye contact, pace and volume. I kept it pretty simple so they could concentrate on the basics. Several of them wanted to form small groups rather than partners, which worked just as well. In fact, the groups ended up having some heated discussions about their pet peeves.


middle and high school public speaking lessons

Next, we discussed the concept of a rant and learned about verbal irony and sarcasm -- and how to use it constructively rather than critically. We watched a few, then students were guided through a pre-writing process that had them think about how they could use their pet peeve to write a rant. Once they had a draft, they submitted it to me on Google Classroom. They had to highlight two places where they used verbal irony, two uses of strong verbs and one area where they felt they needed help.  I looked at the highlighted areas only and gave them feedback -- a process that didn't take very long.

middle and high school public speaking lessons
The next step in the process was where most of the learning happened. Students paired up and had to listen to each other deliver their rant. The student who was listening used their partners phone to film the rant, and also used another, more detailed rubric, to assess their content and delivery. Then, after the rant was finished, they watched it together and discussed the feedback. I let them spread out through the classroom. Some went in the hallway, while others went to the various stairwells in the school. All of them got a chance to practice their speech in a low risk situation.

Yesterday, I began to assess the rants. Because it's their first speaking assignment, they delivered them in groups of five. While each group was with me, the other groups were discussing themes in their independent novels. After each group finished their rants, they rotated back into the novel discussion groups.  

The end result? I was very impressed. The students wrote very effective and entertaining rants and their delivery was quite good for their first attempt. I noted that they did a much better job of using their voices and body language for emphasis, but the majority need to improve their eye contact. That's clearly the skill we will need to focus on the next time we do a speaking assignment.

If you'd like to try this assignment in your own classroom, I've got it posted and ready to go for you in my TpT store.



Teaching Teens to Read and Respond Critically

Teach secondary English students to read critically

The longer I teacher, the more I come to believe that the slower we take things, the more our students learn. Because of this, my students now create fewer "good copies" than they have in the past, so we can spend more time on the process of learning. One process I've been spending more time on is critical reading before a written response, and I thought I'd share something that worked well:

In the past week, my students have been working on responding to non-fiction texts, and using quotations from them to back up their opinions.  They had passed in a response on the topic of failure and growth mindset, and their work was less than stellar. There was little evidence that they had reflected on the articles they were given to read, and many of their responses were shallow and lacking detail. I realized that I hadn't spent enough time teaching them the process I wanted them to use before they actually write the response.



Last week, we started a short unit on the pervasiveness of social media. We did some personal writing in our writer's notebooks and looked at several mentor texts during writing workshop. Students then had to read two more articles from a choice of five, and write a response to the question: how has social media changed our lives? Their response had to use at least two quotations from the texts they read.

This was the same assignment they did the previous week, but this time, I talked to them about the process of critical reading and required them to show me their process as part of the assignment. They had to choose four quotes from each of the articles they chose to read.  I instructed them to cut and paste quotes that made them think as they read-- something they agreed/disagreed with or that they could relate to. Then, they had to record their initial reaction to the quote. They didn't have to worry about their writing at all, just their ideas.  I wanted them to show me their thinking process as they read.  Then, they had to spend time reflecting on the ideas they collected in their notes and write their response. (The photo above shows one of my student's notes).


I knew that just telling them that they had to show me their thinking process as they read was not enough, especially when many of them do superficial readings of the texts we give them. So, I went through the same process I was asking my students to follow, and created my own Google Doc as an exemplar. Before class, I selected the quotes that I wanted to use and projected the doc on my screen. Then, I did my reflection on these quotes in real time so the kids could see my thought process in action.  I wrote the rambly kind of notes that come when you're thinking something through. I wanted them to see that the response to the quote as I read is very different than the focused, well-developed one I wanted at the end of the process. In short, I was teaching them to think as they read, and not just whip up a response after a quick read through the articles.

After I finished that, I talked through the process I would use to write my actual response. I looked over the notes I had made, found connections and decided on a focus for my response. I did this all out loud, as they followed along on the screen. As they worked on their notes, I wrote my response and shared it with them.


When I started requiring kids to use my feedback to revise their writing I saw huge improvements in their skills. The idea of doing this used to scare me, because I envisioned myself chained to my desk, grading into the wee hours of the morning. However, it hasn't turned out that way. That's because I ask them to focus on one or two things, rather than an overall revision. I give them one or two opportunities to work on a skill with short, formative assessments before they get a summative mark. With this unit, I was focusing on idea development. When they did their first response on failure/growth mindset, I highlighted two areas on their response where they could add more detail. They resubmitted their response with their changes highlighted, and it took be about half an hour to do a quick check of all thirty-two responses. I wasn't reading the whole response again, just checking to see if they added the detail I had requested.
After I did the critical reading exercise (which I should have done the first time), they passed in their social media response for a summative mark. The results were so much better. The excerpt on the left is just part of an excellent response from a student who had passed in a very superficial one the week before. She slowed down, focused on the process, and used the feedback I had given her to write a much more thoughtful and well-developed response to the articles she had read.

We spent much more time on this than I have in the past, but I know that the students are better readers and writers as a result.  Yes, I'll have fewer assignments checked off at the end of the semester, but the ones we do will be of a much higher quality.

And that's what matters.

If you'd like to check out my social media unit, click here.



The Metaphor Challenge

Lessons and activities for middle and high school English class: teach your students how to create effective metaphors with this fun challenge.

Last week I took my twelfth graders outside for an activity. It was called a writing scavenger hunt, and they had to go to different locations around the school grounds to "find" inspiration for an assignment. For example, one task asked them to sit by the soccer field and personify its thoughts. Another asked them to write an extended metaphor to capture the feeling of having a class outdoors on a hot afternoon. They were engaged and having fun, but I got a lot of questions about how to write a metaphor. (Click here for a link to the scavenger hunt).

I was actually a little shocked. We've discussed metaphor in class. They could parrot back the definition and, for the most part, identify them in their texts. But, clearly, they weren't as confident with writing their own.  So, on my walk home I came up with a challenge for the next day. 

Here's how it works:
Lessons and activities for middle and high school English class: teach your students how to create effective metaphors with this fun challenge.
I started with a slideshow that presented them with some very common metaphors. I wanted to start easy, with something that has clear connections, to teach them the process that writers use when they create an original metaphor. The slideshow took them through a series of ones they would already have some knowledge of, and as we went through them, students had a chance to brainstorm the similarities between each word. For example, they came up with ways that a stage and life are the same, and then I showed them Shakespeare's famous quote. Next, we looked at the wise words of another sage man, Forrest Gump, and brainstormed that ways that life is like a box of chocolates. You get the idea.

Then, we moved onto the challenge.

Lessons and activities for middle and high school English class: teach your students how to create effective metaphors with this fun challenge.
I created a bunch of word strips and had each student grab one. Then, they worked in pairs to create a metaphor that compared each person's word with the other's. I gave them a sheet and each partner had to brainstorm ways that the words were similar. Then, they worked together to experiment with metaphors.

Lessons and activities for middle and high school English class: teach your students how to create effective metaphors with this fun challenge.I was very pleased with the creative connections that many of them made. I did discover, however, that quite a few were writing similes. Another quick lesson taught them that all they need to do is drop the like and they will have a metaphor. For example, one pair wrote that family is like duct tape; when things start to fall apart they use their strength to stick together.  I showed them that all they need to do is cross out "like" and they have Family is duct tape.

Lessons and activities for middle and high school English class: teach your students how to create effective metaphors with this fun challenge.I hope my lesson is duct tape too; I want it to stick, so next week, when the kids have their first big writing assignment, they will be able to use metaphor as a way to develop some of their points. We'll have to see.

If you'd like to try this lesson too, I've got it ready made in my store. Just follow this link, then print and go!




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