The last day of Thanksgiving break is here . . . and there are only fifteen school days until Winter Break. The first semester is almost gone, teachers are tired, students are holiday-hyped, and falling into the between-holidays slump can be all too easy. It's only fifteen days, right? So what if we show the film version of The Christmas Carol?
Because we know every single day counts. We know there will be factors we can't control (you know, like the fire alarm going off multiple times a day, three or four days in a row. No, I"m not kidding. I now know all three of my groups of 8th graders can evacuate the building in less than two minutes -- and that they can work through the alarm if we are told to shelter in place!). With those factors in mind, we know we can't give up any instructional days. So how does one avoid the temptation to fall into the "hey, it's one day" slump?
1) Plan, plan, plan.
I am notorious for planning way ahead, but I can be flexible when need be. That two-day plan is going to take three? I can roll with that. But not having a plan is a recipe for non-maximized instructional time. I have an overall plan of what I want to accomplish with my kids over the next three weeks. Will we get everything done? Probably not -- but I have my priority standards, my strategies aligned to those standards, and my acceleration and differentiation planned. I can adjust as kids need me to, but because I know where we're going, we won't fall into what-am-I-going-to-do-today fluff.
2) Make sure the kids know the game plan.
I don't know about yours, but my middle school students need structure. They need to know what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what they will get out of it. I post a calendar on the door, we review what we're doing, and we connect all the dots. Do they want to do all the work? No, they're middle schoolers. I have found, though, that if the kids know the plan, they are less likely to try to pull me into that holiday slump with them. Besides, they want to learn and do well, even when they say they don't want to.
Those are my two big tips. What works for you to keep you and your students out of the slump?
I wished I loved Evernote as much as I love the idea of Evernote. The idea is awesome, right? Multiple notebooks, being able to type and clip and organize, all at my fingertips . . .having my students use multiple notebooks, being able to type and clip and organizer, all at their fingertips, and being able to share everything with me . . .
In theory, it sounded incredible.
In reality, it left a lot to be desired, although I will chalk that up to two factors: a) it was early in the year and eighth graders have a hard time transitioning to eighth grade and b) I wasn't as consistent with using the app as I should have been.
What Didn't Work
Overall, using Evernote in my classroom was a B-/C+ experience. Have you used Evernote with your students? If so, please share your experiences in the comments!
Over the past few months, a central initiative in our school has been improving writing, with a special focus on helping students learn to develop their ideas. We’ve discussed countless strategies, from teaching them to incorporate specific material, such as a statistic, to examining model paragraphs. Here are a few strategies that have helped my students:
Practice, Practice, and More Practice
Often, I find that students don’t develop ideas in their writing because they lack fluency of ideas. What does that mean? Just as we want students to become fluent readers, we want them to be able to adeptly formulate ideas and get them into written form. And just as reading fluency takes daily practice, building writing fluency requires frequent practice. Students need to write about their learning and their ideas, in some way, every day. This does not have to be fancy, difficult, or hard to grade. Three sentences on a concept. A short paragraph on a reading. A directed prompt – What is the central idea of this text? How do you know? It’s all practice, and it all builds fluency.
Formula, Formula, Formula
As an English teacher, I’ve read my share of poorly written, formulaic writings. So why suggest teaching kids a formula for writing? The same reason I give when a student finds a fragment in a novel and asks why he can’t use them. Because in order to break the rules as a writer, you have to understand the rules so you can break them effectively. Plus, using a formula to teach development presents my expectations for their writing up front. If I want students to state an idea, follow it up with evidence, explain that evidence, and perhaps elaborate on the explanation . . . I need to tell them that. I need to teach them that formula – Idea, Evidence, Explain, Elaborate – then provide them with plenty of opportunities to practice. Once they’ve mastered the basic formula, we can begin to explore creative ways to combine those elements in well-developed, well-written pieces.
Remember that one of the strategies we tossed around as a faculty was modeling well-developed paragraphs. Color-coding takes that idea one step further. With a model paragraph, the class assigns colors to the different pieces of the paragraph – topic, idea, evidence, explanation, elaboration, conclusion. This allows them to see the construction of the development. Then, they color-code their own writing. I can check this formatively to see who understands the parts, and the students can easily see where their paragraphs lack development as well as what type of development is needed – evidence, explanation, etc. As one of my eighth graders said, “Color-coding helped me to see what I was doing wrong.”
As a result of these strategies, I can see my students growing as writers, and their writing is more developed than back in August.
What strategies do you use to teach writing development?
This 8th grade ELA teacher is in love with Document Based Questions, formerly the territory of AP History and AP Language teachers. (Okay, I’m a recovering high school teacher who is certified to teach AP Language, so maybe it’s not a total surprise that I love the DBQ). I do know, however, that using the DBQ in a middle school classroom can be fraught with challenges and intimidating for teachers unfamiliar with the process, so here are my suggestions for taming the DBQ.
Do the Process Before Your Students Do
I actually begin the planning process for the DBQ weeks before my kids ever see it, whether I’m writing a new DBQ or using a pre-written one. I complete a close reading of all documents and annotate them. Then I use these annotations to create center cards to guide my students in their own close reading and document analysis. Following this step, I take the center cards and go through the documents again, following the student directions. This lets me see where students may bog down, where I may not have been totally clear in my instructions, etc.
My students and I are in the midst of our third DBQ this year. The first was an absolute nightmare, and we didn’t even make it to the essay. The second was better, with most students completing the essay portion. This time around, I am discovering that my students do not need the level of support I expected, so I have been able to turn them loose a little sooner. All three scenarios require flexibility on my part. I could have pushed them through the essay on the first DBQ, but why? They weren’t ready. On the second, I tried an electronic thrash-out of the essay, which did not go well. I quickly switched us back to the tried-and-true verbal thrash out. On this go-round, I could have insisted the kids follow my plan, which would have caused major student frustration. Have a plan, but be ready to deviate as needed.
Realize There’s More than One Way
All teachers who use the DBQ will develop their own habits and routines. Trial and error will lead you to the set of routines that work best for you and your students. Talk with other teachers about how they are implementing the DBQ, then incorporate the ideas that fit your teaching and your student needs.
Are you using the DBQ in your classroom? What are your thoughts on the process?
I am in love with Today’s Meet, and even better, my students love it as well. Our Instructional Support Specialist suggested it to me when I was looking for a way to introduce technology into the traditional Socratic Seminar.
If you’re not familiar with Today’s Meet, it’s very similar to Twitter or Tumblr, except it’s set up in “rooms.” I open a room, post a link to Edmodo, my kids join the room. I post a question or prompt, and they respond in up to 140 characters. The conversation updates in real time, and for a BYOT room where not every kid has a device, it works well because kids love to pair up and formulate answers together. We can gather evidence, brainstorm outlines, discuss what we read . . . the possibilities are endless.
Usually, I give students a few moments to post, then we discuss the conversation whole-group and curate the answers, deleting repetitive or irrelevant items. Once we’ve done that, I can save the transcript as a PDF and make it available via Edmodo.
Another way I’ve used Today’s Meet is to have two discussions going on simultaneously – a traditional Socratic Seminar in the middle of the room, while students outside the circle post to the same questions via Today’s Meet. After a few minutes, the groups swap places. This works well because students who may be reticent to speak in a group discussion often post great insights to Today’s Meet. Again, we can debrief the conversation as a whole and save the transcript.
The only downside I have had is having the occasional student who will join with a false name and post off topic comments, trying to be funny. This can be avoided by having students create a user profile and setting your room so that only registered users can join. In my case, all it took was a stern warning that misusing technology could mean we used less of it and voila! no more off topic funniness.
Overall, I adore Today’s Meet and the opportunities it brings to my classroom. Have you used this website? If so, please share. If you know of a similar site you’d love to share, tell us about that also!
The eighth grade standard involving characterization is pretty specific:
ELACC8RL3: Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or
drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.
When teaching characterization, I always begin by asking how we get to know someone new. If our counselor brought us a new student, how would we figure out what kind of person she was? Students’ answers will always bring us to an author’s characterization tools:
From this quick brainstorming session, we look at a piece of literature together. For example, we might examine the passage from “The Tell-Tale Heart” in which the narrator awakens the old man. We have lots of internal dialogue on the narrator’s part, but we also have a little dialogue as well as actions and reactions on the part of both the old man and narrator. The incident is the old man’s awakening; the narrator reacts by waiting patiently for an entire hour. What does that reveal about the narrator? He’s determined; he’s committed to his plan; he’s evil . . . answers abound, all of which can be supported by the text (ELACC8RL1).
Throughout the year, we return to this concept and these characterization tools repeatedly, with short stories, with novels, with selected passages.
What strategies do you use for teaching characterization analysis?
Theme is tough. Teaching theme can be even tougher – some students grasp it immediately, while others need to repeat the concept and the practice over and over and over and over again. Throughout the years, I’ve streamlined how I approach teaching theme, as well as the strategies I teach my students for finding theme.
The language of the definition has to be consistent. A Google search for the concept of “theme” reveals almost as many definitions as it does results hits. When teaching theme, I use the definition put forth by the Georgia Department of Education when we were implementing the initial Georgia Performance Standards. The definition all kids in Dr. Winfree’s class hear:
Theme is an author’s universal statement on a topic/subject.
I love this definition because it breaks down into three components that help students understand the concept of theme:
Universal – it can be applied in more than context.
Statement – it has to be a sentence.
Topic/subject – a big idea or concept, limited to a word or a phrase.
Start at the Right Point
The beginning of a novel is not the right point to teach theme. Students, especially middle school kids, need a grasp of the whole work in order to wrestle with theme. With my eighth graders, I always tell them we will be discussing theme at the end of a work and I give them hints to help them pay attention to characters, symbols, etc., that will lead them to theme, but I am not asking them to begin figuring out the theme of a novel at chapter one.
Focus on the Formula
I always hang out with the math teachers because, well, they are just the coolest. After struggling to teach theme to ninth graders yet again, I walked into the cool math next door . . . where there was a formula and a geometry proof on the board. Total epiphany as I realized I could use that same concept to help my students consistently find a work’s theme.
Remember how I said I loved the Georgia DOE’s definition of theme from the GPS days? The components of the formula for theme are embedded in the definition. Theme is an author’s universal statement on a topic or subject. That becomes the following formula:
For a detailed breakdown of how I teach this, see the linked Theme in a Movie! handout.
Use the Familiar
When teaching, I use certain examples over and over and over again – “In Lord of the Flies, Jack is power-hungry . . . In Macbeth, there’s this guy who wants to be king and he’ll do some crazy things to make that happen . . .” I format my examples this way so students become familiar with concepts about pieces they haven’t read. Familiarity provides a gateway to new learning.
Because theme can be so tricky for kids, I've found that using the familiar – what they know – can be a great gateway to build understanding. The first time we work with theme, before students even attempt theme with the piece we've read, I have them work through Theme in a Movie! This lesson, which takes one class period, takes them through the theme formula, including providing textual evidence. The familiarity of a favorite movie (or novel or television show) eases them into the intellectual work of figuring out theme. Being successful with this task also encourages them to take risks as they approach theme with our class reading.
Help Them Find the Way
If students will be working with theme at the end of a reading, I align our work with the literary piece to help them determine that theme and analyze its development (CC8RL2). For example, during a recent unit with Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion as the anchor text, my students and I spent a lot of time working on analyzing characterization. I knew we would circle back to theme at the end of the book. I knew some of Farmer’s topics in the novel include life, death, and rebellion. As students read, they collected evidence of the characters’ interactions with life, death and rebellion. When we finished the book, they had a cornucopia of evidence to help them determine what Farmer might be saying about these topics. Further, the evidence, collected during reading, would aid in showing how the theme unfolded throughout the novel.
Trust Them . . . and Yourself
Theme is tough. Sometimes, you and your students will feel like they will never master it; however, when provided with great teaching (that’s you!), the proper tools, the right practice, and time to practice, they get there.
How do you approach teaching theme?