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Use Narrative Writing for Understanding Literature

Narrative writing
Telling stories help us understand the world around us and helps us understand ourselves. Why, then, not use them to understand literature?

The writing we assign based on a novel or a play is often a literary analysis essay and, as much as that form of writing has its place, I've never seen it create much engagement from the majority of students.  Yes, there are a handful of future English teachers in our classes who think literary analysis is fun, but the reality is that it will not inspire most kids to get excited about what they are reading and writing.

I'm not suggesting that we forget the literary essay, only that we should consider other forms of writing sometimes, especially ones that allow students to make real connections to the stories we ask them to read.

Narrative writing lessons and activities
I love this quotation from Graves because it gets to the heart of what I'm trying to say here. Our traditional method of assessing literature may lead to "well informed" students but not to passion. Narrative writing can, however, because it allows students to explore their own truths and to develop skills that are effective for all types of writing: organizing, sequencing, using transitions, choosing the best words, showing, etc. 

So how does it work?

Begin with some discussion and pre-writing that allows students to explore ways in which the events, characters and/or themes of the story relate to their own lives. Encourage them to choose a meaningful event from their lives so they can write about something that matters to them. That is the key. Once they are engaged in the subject, they are far more likely to dig into the writing and work on honing their skills. And, because they need to link to something from the text, they will be exploring important elements of the text at the same time.

With this kind of assignment, I always ask my kids to use an allusion to the text in their narratives. This does two things: it illustrates a connection to the text and allows them to use this literary device in an authentic way.

If you want a more literary focus, you can ask students to pass in an explanation with their narrative. I'd strongly suggest that this not become a mini-literary essay, however. You can ask for a brief paragraph that explains the connections, as well as quotations that illustrate this.

If you'd like to try this with your students, I've just created an assignment to use with Macbeth and To Kill a Mockingbird. You can check them out HERE and HERE. You can also give your students a more focused look at narrative writing with my stations.

Narrative writing for Macbeth


Activities for the Week Before Christmas

It's not just the elementary kids that are climbing the walls before the holiday break; secondary students have a hard time focusing too. And who are we fooling? The teachers would rather be home nestled by the fire, sipping cocoa, as well.  

It's going to be a long week because exams are shortly after we return from the break, and there's curriculum to be covered. However, we can keep teaching and learning and still embrace the festivities. All week I'm going to be sharing the tricks I've got up my sleeve. I can't promise they'll keep my kids on track, but at least I'm trying! 

DAY ONE: Today, my students are starting Act IV of Macbeth, which I plan to finish before we leave on Friday. However, when they do their independent reading at the first of class, and while they're doing their work, I'm going to create a cozy atmosphere by projecting a crackling fire on the board.  I plan to tell them that it's the "launch" for the week and that I'll build in a little holiday fun each day -- as long as they keep doing their work.

DAY TWO: We're still finishing up Macbeth, so I'm going to put students in groups and assign each one a major and minor character. They will be instructed to write a Christmas wish list for one and New Year's resolutions for the other (you can just use resolutions if you want to avoid Christmas references). Students will be instructed to demonstrate their knowledge of both the play and the assigned characters in their lists. After, each group will present to the class and we'll have a discussion, if need be, about what we might add or take away to make it a more accurate representation. It's a great way to add a little festive flavour to the review of the play!

DAY THREE: If like me, you're sliding into the holidays with a test, or will have exams in January, you can let your students review by adding a textual twist to some holiday songs. Distrubute copies of lyrics to groups and let them change the words so the song matches a character or theme in the work you are studying. Students could do this on their own as well, if you're doing Reader's Workshop. If you want to avoid references to Christmas, you can try "Winter Wonderland", "Jingle Bells" or "Frosty the Snowman".

My kids used "Winter Wonderland" to make some connections to Macbeth. Here are some examples: The witches sing/Are you listening?/On your blade/Blood is glistening/A horrible sight/You're guilty tonight/Walking through the heather stained with blood. 

It's the fourth day of the week before Christmas and we are going to look ahead to the new year. After the break, my kids are going to start debating, and I want to start honing their skills. Kelly Gallagher's latest article of the week looks at which type of tree is better for the environment. I know that this activity is more directly related to Christmas, but the environmental spin can make it more relatable to everyone.

DAY FIVE: We made it!! It's the final day of school before the holidays. We've done our reviews and it's time to relax a bit, reflect on successes during the semester, and set some goals for our return in the new year. I'll turn on the fireplace and play some holiday tunes while my students write a letter to themselves. I'll ask them to acknowledge their victories as well as their struggles this semester. Then, I want them to set goals for a successful end of the course when they return after the holidays. I don't have time to use it today, but I'll be using The Superhero Teacher's New Year's Workbook in January to get them more focused on visualizing an amazing 2018 for themselves. It's chock full of activities to get kids to inspire kids to set goals!

I hope you have an amazing holiday! 


Student Bookmarks for Quick Reading Conferences

Reading conferences have transformed the teaching and learning in my classroom, but they can be hard to run efficiently sometimes, especially if you have a big class. This semester, I have thirty-four students in my twelfth grade class, so I was finding it hard to get through all of them in a timely manner. Because I know how important these conferences are, I came up with a way to move through them more quickly.

One problem is that the students didn't always come to me really prepared. I gave them conference guides ahead of time, but they would still waste a lot of time fumbling through their book, looking for pages. To speed up the process, I created bookmarks that matched the topic we would be discussing in an upcoming conference. For example, if we were focusing on methods of character development, I gave them a bookmark that asked them to mark a page that illustrates a change in a character. The bookmark instructs them on the task and has space to record both a quotation and brief notes that the student can reference during a conference.

The real beauty of these bookmarks is that I can use them when I want to have quick conferences, ones where I'm circulating the room while students read or work, as opposed to a sit down one. Last week, I asked my students to find a passage in their novels where the author is using language for effect. I gave out the bookmarks on Monday and told them to have a passage marked by Wednesday. Then, on Thursday and Friday, as they were reading and doing seat work, I wandered the room and asked students to show me the passage they had recorded and to explain how/why the author used specific words for effect. Each interaction took only a minute, and I was able to get the whole class done in those two days.

The bookmarks can be used even if you don't do reading conferences. For example, you could ask students to use them to prepare for small group discussions they are having about their independent novels. They could also be used to help them prepare for Socratic Seminars or essays on their books.

My class has now switched over to reading full class texts, rather than just reader's workshop; however, they still get at least ten minutes a day to read books of their choice. At the end of the semester, they
will do a final assessment that asks them to tell me what they have learned about human nature from reading Animal Farm, Macbeth, and their independent novels. On Monday, I'll be giving them these bookmarks that ask them to look for text-text and text-self connections between their novels and the two class texts.  I will circulate at the end of the week to make sure they are making effective connections, and students will save the evidence they collect to use in their final assessment in January.

Overall, the bookmarks have been a hit. They have helped my students get more focused and organized, and we're running through the conferences much more quickly than we were earlier in the semester. 

If you own my Reader's Workshop Bundle or my Reading Conference Guides, these bookmarks have been added to those products, so they're there waiting for you ;)

Do you have any tips for improving student conferences? Please share in the comments!


Terrific Tools for Teaching Writing

A reader recently asked me which of my products I would recommend for teaching writing. Her question got me going through my store to decide which are my favourites.

After careful consideration, I chose these lessons and activities because they are the ones that not only teach important skills, but also get kids really engaged in the learning:

Each of these products will help you teach your students about effective word choice, sentence fluency and figurative language. Not only that, they target these skills in a fun and engaging way. My all-time favourite is the Word Choice Bundle, a print-and-go package of lessons and activities that help students choose the best words and strong verbs. Then the lessons illustrate how they can use imagery and figurative language to enhance their writing. After using the lessons in that pack, I'd introduce students to Writing Prompts with a Twist, short writing prompts (perfect for bell ringers) that have students reflect and revise as they write. Finally, there's my Narrative Writing Task CardsFigurative Language Challenges and Writing Activities Challenges, the perfect way to make playing with words tons of fun for your kids.

chose the next group of products because they allow students to slow down and work on the all-important process while providing them with the opportunity to move. My all time fave, and most successful with my own students, is my Essay Revision Stations. You can use the stations any time kids are revising an essay. Precede it with my Essay Planning Stations, and you'll be reading the best essays ever! I also love my  narration or description stations, because they are fun way to zero in on the skills students need to write effectively in those forms of writing. 

This next group or lessons don't fit into a tidy category, but each one will help you teach your kids to be more effective writers. One of my favourite ways to teach writing is through the use of Mentor Texts, short passages that model various skills and techniques - you just need to print them off and you're ready to go! These texts pair well with the Writer's Notebook, which contains a huge pile of pages that focus on the elements of good writing - and it has a slide show to help you teach the lessons. Finally, there's my Writing & Research Reminder Booklets. I created them when I was feeling frustrated about the number of times I had to answer the same questions from my students. They just pop these in their binder and the answers are there at their fingertips!

I'm going to be giving away a $25 TpT gift card to one of my blog followers. All you have to do is comment on this post and your name will be put in a draw. Winner will be announced on Monday morning, November 27th!

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, brainstorming 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. And, if you'd like some help with lesson planning, I'll send you five days of freebies that will help you create engaging lessons for your students. Just click 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!


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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