Ah, the first day of school. In the case of my school, and many high schools around the nation, there are actually 2 first days, since it takes two days of block classes to get through one entire cycle of classes. At our school, we've been back four days, two full rotations. Things have gone wonderfully so far! It's always exciting to get back to work and to meet new students. Still, I often struggle with what to do on the first day. No one wants to spend ninety minutes on the syllabus, but some things have to be covered right away. Additionally, you want to set the right tone for the year. You want your students to understand right away that you will all work hard, but that you will also do that work together, and that you will look out for one another. You want to set clear guidelines but simultaneously let them know that you are there to support them, and that you will never give up on them. The list of things that you need to accomplish in that first day can seem astronomically long, especially to new teachers who are told things like "don't smile until after Thanksgiving." Here are a few rules I always follow on the first day:
Okay, so that was a long explanation about some of the factors that I consider that first day. Still, even after establishing those things as part of my first day procedures, I have continued to struggle with what to do for the rest of that day. Last year, we started the year with Veronica Roth's Divergent in English 9, so I jumped right into predictions and inferences, and we analyzed the front cover and read Chapter 1 together. (For more information on teaching Divergent, check out this post.) However, this year, I am beginning the year with Romeo and Juliet, and I couldn't quite bring myself to begin the year with "Two households, both alike in dignity," so I continued debating what to do instead.
The words of the freshmen from last year kept echoing in my head. They were proud of the letters that they wrote at the end of the year, and they had thought long and hard about what things they wish they had known about high school. (For information about the original assignment, see this post. The entire assignment was inspired by the awesome book The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door by Karen Finnyfrock, which addresses how difficult ninth grade can be for students.) Students asked, "Are you going to show them our letters? Are they going to read what I wrote?" (Some of the freshmen said more demanding things like, "You should MAKE them read EVERY ONE of these letters because we spent A LOT OF TIME writing them." Ah, the irony of those kinds of statements...). I wanted a way to share that advice with the new students.
I finally settled on a four part plan for the advice/goal setting part of the first day. First, I had students write three questions and/or concerns that they had about the upcoming year. (I'm glad I did this because I've had a chance to respond to their questions and concerns after they turned in their work.) Then I passed out enough letters for each student to have one to read. They read the letter and selected at least one piece of advice from it to record and reflect on. Once they were finished with the letter, they switched with someone else. They switched until they had read at least four letters. They pulled advice from each one of them, using both paraphrasing and direct quotes from the letters to record the advice.
After they had reviewed the letters and found advice, they shared out some of the things that they read with the class. We then transitioned into goal setting. The students reflected on their strengths and weaknesses in English class. Then, they set three specific goals for English class this year, and they established the steps that they would take to reach those goals.
Finally, as their exit slip, students wrote a paragraph about the connections between the goals that they set and the advice that they were given. They wrote about how following the advice could help them have a more successful freshman year. Many of them said that the advice letters gave them more confidence and made them feel that they were not alone. They also said that the advice impacted them and made them reconsider what was important (such as studying and doing homework, which some of them didn't do much of in middle school).
I wasn't sure how that assignment would go--I was especially worried that because I didn't know them yet, they would be dismissive or see it as a waste of time. Despite my initial uncertainty, I was quite pleased with the results and wound up being glad that I took the risk. What they wrote has given me insight into their worries and their perspective, and the activity made them feel more connected to the school community. The goals that they set were targeted and clear, and they give each student a particular focus as s/he moves forward into the first unit. They also gave me some insight into where the students are coming from and how I can help them.
Overall, I'm always amazed at how much students have to offer and at how much they can teach one another. Many of the things that the freshmen read were bits of advice I would never think to tell them, nor would it be as powerful coming from me. I'm glad that they started off the year learning from their older peers, and I look forward to seeing the ways that they grow this year and what advice they have to share by the end of it. Best wishes to all of my fellow educators who are currently settling into a new school year. May this be the best one yet!
As I made coffee this morning, I watched the Keurig flash "NOT READY" across its bright blue screen, and I thought me, either. I'm not quite ready to get back to it yet; I'm not quite ready for the summer to be over. Didn't it only just begin? I have one more glorious week of vacation left, and I intend to pack it full of fun. During that time, I will NOT berate myself for all of the things that I didn't accomplish this summer (if I say that, does it make it true?) and I WILL enjoy the time I have left (I kept trying to think of a less bleak way to say that--it's not as if the world is ending--but that pretty well sums up how it feels for most teachers as summer draws to a close). (NOTE: the wordle above comes from this wordpress blog post by Jeremy Butterfield, who has an excellent piece for National Grammar Day.)
Anyway, as I contemplate the coming school year, I'm considering what I will keep and what I will change. One thing that I will keep for the freshmen is the use of Everyday Edits. Provided by Education World, these grammar exercises are single paragraphs (2 copies per page, provided electronically and as a PDF) that contain 10 grammar mistakes. The mistakes generally address comma rules, capitalization, spelling, end punctuation, apostrophe usage, and occasionally run-on sentences.
The truth is that when I reflect on my units, grammar and vocabulary development are two areas in which I need work. I've read lots of research demonstrating that teaching either one in isolation is ineffective, which makes sense to me. However, incorporating them (especially grammatical concepts) in meaningful, authentic ways can be such a challenge that it results in doing nothing. Everyday Edits are not a fool-proof system and they certainly are not all-encompassing, but I find that they are a way to remind me (and the students) on a routine basis of the relevance and importance of understanding and utilizing good grammar. They also help students learn to become better editors, and help them learn how to look for grammatical and mechanical issues within their own writing. (Although I believe improving content is far more important in the revision process and that many students are too preoccupied with grammatical/mechanical errors, but that is a post for another day.)
This is the way that I use Everyday Edits in class:
I do use other bell ringers at the beginning of class (see poetry incorporation for another one that I use frequently), but this is one of my favorites because students love it (though I'm not entirely sure why) and they can do a large part of it prior to the beginning of class. It gives students who dread the time in between bells something constructive to do, while it doesn't penalize students who want to socialize until the bell rings. They can work at their own pace. I also like that it gives me a chance to quickly call on 10 different students for answers. We focus on making progress and we celebrate improvement. It can also transfer into the same kind of exercise with revising their own writing.
What do you do to incorporate grammar into your lessons? What kinds of activities do you do at the beginning of class? I hope this helps, and I'd love to know what kinds of activities you use.
IMPORTANT UPDATE: Thank you so much for all of the emails and comments regarding this post and the materials I created. As of 9/4/14, the materials are now available on TeachersPayTeachers at my (newly created) store, Teaching the Apocalypse. Please check it out and download the materials from there (you'll have to create an account to download the materials). If they are useful to you, please RATE THEM on this page, and leave comments. You can FOLLOW ME on TpT, where I will soon post more materials and activities.
"We believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another."
As you are likely aware, Divergent by Veronica Roth is a young adult dystopian novel that was first released in April of 2011. The second in the series, Insurgent, was released in May of 2012. According to my students, the next book, Allegiant, will be released in October of this year. The first novel, which is what I will focus on in this post, revolves around the choices that a teenage girl must make as she moves toward adulthood. It is set in a dystopian futuristic Chicago where the society is divided into factions based on which attribute they most value (bravery, truth, peace, knowledge, or selflessness). At the beginning of the book, the main character must choose her faction, and once she makes that choice, she must learn to live with the impact of that decision. Meanwhile, the world around her is rapidly changing and deteriorating in ways she only begins to discover. For more information about the book series, you can see Veronica Roth's page. Here's the trailer for the movie to be released in March 2014.
Above all else, I judge teen lit by how much excitement it generates in my students. We read Divergent in August, and I still had students talking about the movie and showing me images of the new book cover as late as May. I had three copies of Insurgent for the classroom, and they were constantly in demand and read (voluntarily) by almost half of my students. This book series resonates with the students and generates a tremendous amount of interest and excitement in reading. It is exciting and dares students to consider their own bravery, but it is also the story of a teenage girl discovering love and romance, which the students enjoy as much as they do the intensity of the action.
Last year, I began the year for English 9 with Divergent. The unit revolved around active engagement and how to make choices in the classroom and in the community. One of the things I loved about beginning the year that way was that students used Divergent during our SSR (sustained silent reading) time. That made it easier for them to adjust to SSR, and it was also nice because it allowed students who flew through the reading to move on to other books while giving students who took longer to read the support and time that they needed to get through the novel.
The novel focuses on choice--the fact that above all else, the choices that we make determine what happens in our lives. It also highlights the interrelationship between choices and the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Because it was the beginning of the year and the beginning of my students' high school careers, we focused on parallels between choices in the novel and choices that they were making in their own lives and as citizens within the school community. I used nonfiction and poetry supplements to enhance the novel and highlight the skills that we were developing.
The unit revolved around three essential questions:
As far as skills are concerned, I focused on point-of-view, characterization, tone, inference and close reading skills (including annotation). As we moved toward the end of the novel, we focused on theme and finding textual support to prove theme statements. The students completed plot questions and double entry journals for homework (I've attached a sample of that assignment below). For assessment, I used quick reading quizzes and daily formative skills checks. We had discussions and practiced the skills with supplemental readings. As far as major assessments, I used two skills assessments. The first was an excerpt from a major scene in the novel and the second was a cold reading passage. We also had a Socratic discussion at the end of the novel for which the students prepared, and the students wrote responses to some guided questions on Schoology prior to the discussion. For more information about Socratic discussions, see my previous post.
The document below includes the way that I broke up the reading, a description of their homework and a model of the double-entry journal. It also includes the homework for chapters 1-4. In the journals, the students moved from practicing inferences to tone and finally to theme statements. If you like this activity and are interested in having more of the packet, please feel free to contact me directly. These journal entries could certainly be modified to use in class as a way to reflect on and respond to the reading.
The final project required students to create their own factions. It was a research project and it included a group presentation. The students had to come up with the faction characteristics and create a name with a complex meaning. They had to find a possible representative from real life of that faction and research the person's life as an illustration of how that person demonstrated the traits of the faction, and they had to make connections to the novel with passages from the book. Here is a PDF of the assignment sheet, the rubric for the projects, the audience participation guide, and the peer and self-evaluation that I created last year.
Phew! That just about sums it up, I guess. I do have more materials and activities that went with the unit (in case you're interested), but I tried to include the major assignments and the general approach. As far as changes for this coming year, I will likely NOT teach tone as one of the main skills with this novel. I discovered that because the novel has so much dialogue, many students became confused between characterization and tone. They would focus on a character's specific tone in his/her words instead of finding the tone of the passage, and it was challenging to explain the nuances of the difference. They found clarity as we looked at descriptive passages, but it was perhaps an unnecessary confusion. I might also drop the double entry journal entries down from two entries to one (or have them do one at home and one in class). The length of the novel was overwhelming for some students, so I will do more next year to help them with modifications as needed. We have a couple of copies of the audio of the novel, and one of our ELL teachers created chapter summaries of the novel that we'll use for struggling students. I'm also considering teaching Romeo and Juliet first this coming year so that students can take a field trip to see the play at the amazing Staunton replica of the Blackfriar Playhouse before it leaves in November, so I will likely introduce some of the concepts such as inference and close reading skills at an earlier time.
As a final thought, I'd like to encourage teachers considering teaching YA lit in the classroom to take the plunge. At my school, many people are very supportive--in fact, this last year, we purchased Divergent and the whole school read it at some point during the year. I know that may not be the case everywhere, but I find that we as educators can continue discovering the balance between classical, canonical texts and contemporary texts written for teens. Many students (both boys and girls) told me that Divergent was the first book that they had honestly read from cover to cover, and that paved the way to a much more prosperous year as far as silent reading and setting individual reading goals. What I love most about YA lit is the way that the stories address complex issues (such as why wars happen and how to make difficult choices and face your fears) in ways that are accessible and appealing to teens. I've read SO MANY amazing YA books that would work well in the classroom. The Infernal Devices series by Cassandra Clare is amazing, as is the Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion (how do I not have a post on that novel yet? Coming soon...) would be an awesome novel to teach, and it would work nicely as an exploration of text-to-text comparisons with a focus on audience since the film and novel are quite different. I also love the idea of teaching the first book in a series because that gives students a great jumping off point for their own reading. As far as realistic fiction, I just read Hold Still by Nina LaCour, which addresses the impact of suicide on a community, and our department discussed teaching John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, which includes teen romance, the role of fate, and illness.
Have you taught (or are you considering teaching) any YA lit novels in your class? Please share your comments and ideas! I look forward to learning what others are doing with this amazing genre.
Warning: If you are squeamish or like swimming in lakes blissfully unaware of the dangers that lurk below the water, you may want to skip the details included in the first Google search that I mention below.
Disclaimer: The brain sucking and flesh-eating amoeba that I mention below are discussed solely for the purpose of addressing what happens when you use keywords. The scientific facts are not studied and serve to illustrate a point about research, not to comment on the state of amoeba in southern lakes.
As you other educators have doubtlessly discovered, many students struggle with research. There are many reasons for this, but one that continually surprises me is the fact that they often do not know how to enter search terms. They will be researching an author, for example, and they will type the author’s name, but they will never consider the possibility of adding other words to the search or using a title or other descriptor in place of the name. They also struggle with scanning information and selecting the best hits, but that’s a struggle for another post. This post will focus on using search terms (and the horrifying amount of information that is available on the internet).
So, here’s the story. Yesterday I embarked on a water skiing adventure for the first time in about 20 years. Consequently, my first couple of attempts, I was slow to get out of the water. As you know if you’ve been dragged along by a boat without actually making it up to standing, the excruciating time from the initial motor rev of the boat until you pathetically let go of the tow rope involves mouthfuls and mouthfuls (and, in my case, nosefuls and nosefuls) of water.
The second time that I wiped out prior to standing up, I felt a full liter of water go down my left nostril. As a result, I could feel my left nostril begin to clog up (once I paused long enough to quit choking on the water that remained in my mouth and gushed down my throat).
By dinnertime, I felt congested enough to be mildly concerned. Still, I showered and went to bed without much worry. I fell asleep dreaming of skiing.
As often happens, I woke up around 2:00 AM. After I woke up, I found myself more concerned about the building congestion in my nose. It was then, after about thirty minutes of failed attempts to blow my nose and fall back to sleep, I did what all desperate people in the age of the internet and smart phones do: I reached over, opened up Safari on the phone, and then clicked on the search button. I typed in the following search on Google: getting lake water up nostrils.
This is the point where I encountered the brain-eating amoeba (Naegleria Fowleri). I know it sounds like some sort of horror movie absurdity, but at 2 AM when the internet tells you that it is a real problem, it seems nothing short of terrifying. Essentially, what I learned is that the amoeba attacks are extremely rare. (Did you get that, people who read the disclaimer, but are both squeamish and curious? They are EXTREMELY rare--you should keep swimming in lakes.) Additionally, the ideal water conditions are around 115 degrees Fahrenheit. However, they happen when the host (in this case, me) gets warm water (from southern lakes or thermal springs) up the nostrils. The amoebas settle in your nostril cavity and then pave their way from the nostrils up into the brain, where they feast on your brain matter until you die. Of all of the people that have had this happen since it was first recorded in the 1960s, only 1 person ever has survived. The time from initial contact to death is generally somewhere between 7 and 14 days, and in the meantime, the host experiences nausea, vomiting, headaches, neck stiffness, and loss of memory.
(As a point of reference in the category of research/ scanning/ paraphrasing, I paraphrased all of the above information from a quick scan of several sources. The information is an amalgamation of what I gleaned from my quick 2 AM perusal.)
As you can imagine, I instantly found myself worrying less about my nasal congestion and more about whether I had other symptoms of the amoeba invasion. For the record, anyone who has ever attempted water skiing knows that a stiff neck, potential headache, and pain in all other muscles seems to be pretty standard.
The prospect of sleep dissipated into oblivion.
Part of the problem with this particular search was that ALL of the top hits were about the brain-eating amoeba. I did what good researchers do (though somehow this post is becoming more about brain eating amoeba and less about research) and tried another keyword search.
This time I tried lake water causing sickness. Big mistake. That one looked even scarier, so I went back to my original search. I scanned the relevant information before selecting hits to actually read. I also managed to ignore all of the articles about the amoeba (I feel the need to reiterate that they are brain-eating each time I mention them) for quite a while. I even exited the search, realizing that it was not relevant and would not help with the real problem I was having.
However, as often happens, once I saw the terrifying lines and the abundance of similar hits, I was intrigued and had to read everything. I tore into the graphic details of several of the hits—I had plenty of time since sleep was impossible. I finally read a PBS article in which the author kindly tried to minimize the fear, ending with the statement, “know your risks, make sure water isn’t jammed up your nose [easy for you to say when you aren’t the one getting pummeled by a ski wipeout!], and enjoy the warm weather.”
When I found myself unable to feel assured enough to drift back to sleep, I finally wandered into the living room. Fortunately, insomnia runs in my family and this was a family visit, so my father was still up. I eventually admitted my tragic discovery and he assured me that the water was not in fact warm enough to end my life through a brain-eating smorgasbord. However, he then went on to say, “I don’t mean to scare you, but…” (I should pause here to explain that one of the first lessons I learned in life was that when my father says that statement, whatever comes next will undoubtedly terrify me.) “There have been several reports of flesh-eating amoeba in the lakes.” He went on to describe in vivid detail an incident with one particular victim, which I will spare you here as I attempt to return focus to the merits of keywords when doing research (though I’m sure you could find the account, and lots of others, with a quick Google search).
Charming, Dad. As you can imagine, my terror moved from terror about my brain to terror about the flesh that houses my brain.
Anyway, I assured him that I was feeling better and that I’d go back to sleep.
After another twenty minutes of staring at the ceiling, I finally reached over for my phone once again. (I can sense you groaning as you read this statement, for by now we all know how these kinds of searches, especially the ones in the middle of the night, turn out.)
This time, after careful reflection, I considered what I truly wanted to know and typed stuffy nose after skiing.
Ta-da! After that search, I found tons of information about people who had experienced similar aftereffects post-skiing and lake swimming. These articles and chat forums focused on using saline solutions to clean out the nasal cavity, and many people discussed the pros and cons of nose plugs.
While I know that this seems far removed from student research, it led me to an important realization about the importance of search terms in the research process. Although my first search accurately described what happened, my later search focused on the effects of the incident, and therefore provided the information that I most needed to know.
Overall research lesson? Modify your search terms and keep looking until you find the information most relevant and useful to you. And above all, DON’T PANIC.
(Image above comes from AnimalShak)
This week, for the first time ever, I have the privilege of hosting a guest blogger. This post comes from Jen Moyers, a phenomenal teacher (and, even more importantly, an awesome person) I've had the pleasure of meeting and working with here in Virginia. This has been Jen's twelfth year teaching, and during this past school year, she taught Dual-Enrollment to seniors, Honors English 11, and English 11. She is innovative and creative in everything that she does, and she constantly tries new approaches and new technology. She inspires her colleagues as well as her students, and it is an honor to share her ideas about student blogging here on this site.
Here's Jen Moyers' Post:
Ironically, I suppose, this is my first blog post. Well, sort of. It’s my first “public” blog post that’s going on a for-real, accessible-to-everyone blog.
I have posted before, though, on a private blog that I maintain for my English 12 Dual Enrollment class. I have used this blog for the past five years to great effect with my DE seniors, for whom the blog becomes the repository for some of their best writing. I think it’s because I let them write in any way about any thing.
Normally, you see, I’m a bit of a control freak. I try to plan every moment of every class, every outcome of every assignment. With blogs, I finally started to let go . . . and it really worked. (I kind of hate exclamation points, or I’d use one here.)
Now, those student blogs have become something I look forward to reading, the way I truly get to know my students, the way that they develop their voices, the way they build confidence as writers. Often, I find myself teary-eyed, awed at the beauty with which a boy describes his first broken heart or the vulnerability with which a girl confesses her fears about graduating and leaving her friends. Oh, I suppose these topics sound hackneyed, clichéd, but for these kids, they’re reality . . . and they’re beautiful.
Even with blogs, I struggle with the details, with the control: Do I require them to post weekly? Do I give them a word count? Do I ask them to blog about something we’re discussing in class? Should they be public or password-protected? The more I use blogs, though, the more I realize that it’s the freedom of blogs that makes them empowering. Given the choice, most students will post throughout the grading period (there’s always a procrastinator or two, but—as I found out this year—even a weekly posting requirement won’t change that). I’ve found there’s something to be said for not worrying about the word count and just letting them express themselves. And, while I’m certainly open to their continuing a class discussion online, requiring them to do so doesn’t result in inspiration but in frustration (for them and for me).
So, my new school year’s resolution is this: Yes, we’re going to blog (and I’m expanding to all of my classes). Yes, the blogs will be public. Beyond that? Well, I’m going to hand over control to the students. That, after all, is what has made the blogging experience so successful thus far, so I’m trusting that it will only become better with increased ownership on their part.
* * * * *
This year, I taught 16 supremely talented students with vastly different voices, lives, and interests. I was running behind on my grading (as I have all year. Ah, the life of an English teacher), so I was reading their blogs during exam week while scrambling to come up with an idea for their end-of-year gift. Each year, I give my DE students something to commemorate our year together, to celebrate their graduation. Some years, I’ve made a movie using footage or photographs of our class; one year, for a class of seven, I made a photo album for each student with excerpts from their favorite writing for the year and with a word cloud of each of their names composed of a list of adjectives submitted by their classmates.
Anyway, this year, I had 16 students (so I couldn’t have expensive gifts) and not much time (so a film was out of the question—plus, I didn’t have footage or photos). As I read their blogs, stressing all the while about how best to say goodbye, I was blown away. They were gorgeous. I laughed, I cried, I beamed with pride. And I thought. About poetry, of all things. (And I’m definitely NOT a poet.) But their blogs—which were unique, completely disparate efforts—somehow seemed to be circling the same topics, the same accounts of their year, the same thoughts of looking back, and forward, of yearning to leave and yet recognizing what they were leaving.
So. I went through their blogs (some of them again—inspiration hit after I’d read through three or four students’ blogs). And I copied and pasted all of my favorite lines into a Word document. I ended up with six pages—about 160 separate “best lines”—of gorgeously written prose and poetry. I printed them out, sliced them up, and then started organizing, literally laying out the lines on my desk.
Disaster nearly struck with an unexpected cough (luckily, only a few lines sailed across my desk), but I finally had used MOST of the lines from students’ blogs. I typed them into yet another document, and then continued shifting, moving this idea here, that line there, until finally I had something that made sense, to me at least. I had labeled all of the lines with the students’ initials because I wanted part of their gift to be the way that they had come together unconsciously to form this (semi-)cohesive meditation on their senior years. I also wanted, however, the final poem to look “poemy,” so I re-saved, inserted some additional line breaks. And VOILA! (That exclamation point is warranted, I think.) I had a seven-page found poem written by all sixteen of my wonderful, lovely DE students.
I recorded an introduction so I could explain my process, then recorded myself reading the poem (‘cause the kids like to hear my voice—they love getting audio feedback on their essays a la Jim Burke). I then sent them (via Schoology, a site I highly recommend) the Word document versions of the final poem, the draft of the poem with the kids’ initials, and my two recordings. They loved it. It made them cry, which made me cry, which made me realize all over again how much I’ll miss them.
Anyway, this blog post is reaching epic proportions, and I haven’t even included the poem! (Sorry, Ashley.) All of this comes back to the main point: I use blogs with my classes. And I love it.
P.S. (from Ashley) Jen and I agreed to feature the poem on the writing portion of this site, and we also decided to include the audio of her reading the poem below. The text of the poem can be found here. I hope that it is inspirational for you; I know that it was for me. On the writing portion, there's another post about student blogs and Comments 4 Kids, an awesome site (and hashtag on twitter) that helps your students get more readers and comments. Jen also shared her assignment sheet with the rubric that she used this year (though, excellent teacher as she is, she plans to revise for next year). Enjoy!
K. Ashley Dickson-Ellison is a former high school English teacher (who is now an instructional technology teacher) interested in exploring the integration of trending young adult literature into the English classroom experience. Ashley is also a member of the podcast Unabridged; check out the podcast site below.
Please note: All ideas and opinions are my own and do not represent my current or past employers.
© K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All thoughts and ideas are the author's and do not represent any employer.