Ah, summer -- those lovely eight weeks or so of freedom from a bell schedule, from assessing student work, from an alarm that goes off way too early some days. I sleep late, throw my hair into a messy bun, wear flip flops, and soak in the lack of structure. Sounds like a teacher taking the summer off, right?
Except I don't. Here's why:
1) Summer = Premium Professional Learning Time
I'm not saying I don't learn during the school year. I do. Only during the summer, I don't have other classroom duties. I can select a handful of great PD books to work through. I can read articles from my Twitter PLN every day. Think about it -- if I'm reading one article a day, six days a week, for eight weeks, that's forty-eight new ideas or perspectives to take back to the classroom in the fall (okay, in August . . . you know, when it will still be a hundred degrees here). I read all sorts of professional literature during the school year, but somehow, my summer professional learning sticks a little better. Might have something to do with not looking at over a hundred pieces of student work every day.
2) Summer = Optimum Planning for Improvement
I realize my plans will change during the school year as I meet my students, start assessing their needs, and make alterations accordingly. At the same time, I also realize that without a plan, I'm not as focused as I can be in the classroom. It's like the house my husband and I are building. We have made changes along the way, but we are adhering to the original plan, which maintains structural integrity.
My plans work the same way. I have a year-long plan and unit plans, and in May, I have a year's worth of reflection on what worked and what didn't. So I spend an hour or so every day during the summer tweaking lesson plans and creating new materials. It's all about maintaining the structural integrity of my instruction.
3) Summer = Modeling the Way
I want my students to keep learning each summer, yes? Well, if I ask them to read or listen or write, I need to be doing the same thing. I didn't assign summer homework this year, but I did ask kids to read. I'm a big believer in doing what I ask my students to do. So if they're reading, I'm reading. If they're listening, I'm listening. And if they're writing, I'm writing.
What about you? Taking the summer off or still working at teaching? What are your reasons?
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?
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!
Like many teachers, I use informal formative assessment daily to gauge student learning. These mini-checks may take the form of exit slips, quick mini-conferences with students, or observations. With an increased emphasis on individual growth, though, one of my goals for this year was to make my use of formative assessments more intentional.
Cue the formative assessment plan.
I’m a huge believer in backward design (my Understanding Backward Design workbook is very dog-eared at this point). My method – start with standards and understandings, plan assessments and end goals, design instruction. As I crafted units with daily plans for this year, I simply incorporated a new step: designating which activities and products would serve as formative assignments and how those pieces would inform the learning activities that took place next.
Here’s an example of how this would work:
One of the standards my eighth graders will return to this nine weeks is ELACC8RL5, which asks them analyze how the structure of two or more pieces of literature contributes to meaning and style. I have two formative pieces planned with two different Civil War poems. In the first, students are guided by a graphic organizer through analyzing the structure, meaning and style of one poem. I can spot check that organizer and know what kids need to practice with the second poem (hello, flexible grouping!). For the second poem, students again analyze structure, meaning and style. Some may have a graphic organizer. Others may be more independent. Some may be a small group with my support. All of those instructional decisions are guided by the first formative activity. After this activity, students receive a new set of poems and are asked to work through the analysis independently (no small groups this time). Again, I can provide the scaffold of a graphic organizer or guided questions as indicated by the second activity. The entire process is intentional and embedded in the daily plan breakdown of my overall unit.
So far, I’ve been very pleased with how this works. My students are growing, and my instruction is very targeted.
How do you plan for formative assessment?