Tuesday, May 31, 2011

My Name Is...

Here's something for you to try in place of stale, awkward meet-and-greet activities.   If you don't want to wait until the beginning of the school year to try this activity, it will also work now.  

It's inspired from Susan G. Woolridge's book Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life With Words.   (http://amzn.com/0609800981)   You will need magazines, scissors and glue.   This activity always seems to take longer than I think it should, but it's another example of tricking students into reading.

Ask the students to cut out 20 words that appeal to them from the magazines provided.   Their goal is to focus on adjectives on nouns.   Don't tell them what the activity is ahead of time as it will cut down on the fun.

Come closer, and I will tell you where all of this is going.

Once most of their words are found, they will copy the following incomplete lines of poetry into their journals.   Depending on the size of the words they have found, they may want to orient their paper sideways, or landscape.

Yesterday my name was...

In my dreams my name is...

My friends think my name is...

My mom/dad/brother/sister thinks my name is...

My teacher thinks my name is...

I know my name is...

Tomorrow my name will be...

You get the idea.   You can change up the prompts to fit your purposes.   Take the number of lines that you want students to use, double it and add six.   That's about how many words the students should cut from magazines in order to have enough choices to work from.  

Students will choose two words, usually an adjective and a noun, to paste at the end of each line.   And I don't let students trade or share words.   It's more fun trying to make their own words fit.   This is a little like Magnetic Poetry.   Students who thrive on worksheets and the comfort of one correct answer will tense up and try to make sense for a while.   They want to know that they are "doing it right."  

Once everyone relaxes and enjoys the silliness of the exercise, you will get some great poetry.   Also, writers will want to share it with their peers, in front of the whole class, even though it's the beginning of the year.   That's magic.

Please note: You will need to warn your students to keep their cut words tucked away under something heavy-ish until the glue comes out.   Kids will be breezing all over the classroom sharing supplies and magazines, and someone...at least one person...will sneeze their words all over the floor.  

Thank you to Christopher Newport University's Teacher Preparation Program for donating a copy of Poemcrazy to my new classroom!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Teaching The Blues

I decided to put together a short lesson on writing blues songs.   Silly me--I thought most 8th graders had something to complain about.   I was wrong.   Many of them are pretty content and often happy.   The kids are alright...which is great news.   But, I still wanted to make this lesson work.  

I added a variation that has seemed to work better for eighth graders-- writing a blues song from the point of view of a character in the book they are reading.   It's a fresh way to identify the main conflict of a book as well.   If we are reading a class novel, I try to encourage them to use characters from another book that they've finished recently.   (Now, if you want to read 100+ papers worth of "Old Major's Blues" from Animal Farm, be my guest.   That book is full of working for the Man.   Two legs bad!)

For a model, we use Jimi Hendrix's "Red House."   We look at the format of the lyrics on a handout before we listen to the song.   We talk about the line breaks, rhyme scheme and repetition.   And, yes, you will need to point out that a blues song contains some sort of complaint.   I know.  

You will then need to play the song for them at least once and enjoy the beauty of Hendrix together.   If you play the guitar, bring it!   If you are like me, you will have to be content with helping the kids figure out the rhythm of the bass line by tapping it out the desk and hoping for the best.   I usually let the song play through once without any teacher talk; I play it a second time through, so I can pick it apart a little for the kids to see inside. 

Some writers get it right away.   It's like they've been waiting their whole short lives to rock a juke joint with the band.   Others just can't seem to hammer out the rhyme scheme.   Ask permission to share some of the successful student samples with the class to help other songwriters craft their work.

There are lots of great blues songs out there; "Red House" just works for me.   It is short and easy to pattern...and most kids have some knowledge of Hendrix.   When you are teaching something new, it always helps for kids to have any trace of background knowledge on what's being taught.

If you want an intricate and lovely lesson plan regarding this topic, please see this PBS website.

If you want to relax on Sunday with a blues radio show, Johnny Horn starts broadcasting live at 9 A.M. in Seattle.   That's noon here on my front porch.   You can also listen to archived shows using the links on the website.   I subscribe to some of the play lists via e-mail, so I don't have to run to the computer every time I hear a song I love.   Go to kexp.org ,"Shows" and "Preaching The Blues."

Monday, May 23, 2011

What do good readers do?

If we are good readers and always were, we may not even know what makes us different from those who struggle.   This poster is a good reminder of ways a good reader approaches text.   I keep mine near the front of my room where it's in full view of the entire class.   It reminds me to model these types of interactions with the text when I am teaching students who need more support.


I don't think that we can ever emphasize previewing the text enough.   As teachers, we are usually the ones who set a purpose for reading.   When we are looking at a selection in the literature book, we scan the before you read section for the big ideas. We look at the title and author of the piece. We look at the questions at the end of the reading and note which ones rely on basic comprehension.   Have we read anything by this author before?   When will we find out how the title connects to the story?   Do we understand what is going on before we turn the page?   Better re-read now than later.   Can we answer the basic comprehension questions at the end of the story when we're done?   No?   Well, don't even try the other questions since they get progressively harder.   It's time to re-read and look for the major plot points we missed.  

And I always caution them about the art in their literature books.   Ug.   The art.   I'm assuming that it's all in the name of cultural literacy that we drop gorgeous artwork down in the middle of stories that lead struggling readers astray.   I love art...passionately, but some readers have a difficult time visualizing what takes place in the text.   They are convinced that the art is there to help them and attempt to reconcile the image that they are trying to create from the author's words with the sometimes completely unrelated masterpiece.   So, you could preface just about every story by telling them to look at the artwork after they read and explain which parts of the image fit the text and which aspects do not.

When they are taking standardized tests like the Virginia SOLs, we have to let them read solo.   How can we help them set a purpose for reading then?   I encourage readers to look at the questions for a selection beforehand, just like we do in class.   I don't mind if they take the test out of order.   They should preview all of the pieces and see what they will be reading about for the next chunk of their lives.   Let's say that they have always wanted to read a story about a go-go boot wearing ferret that leads a town full of curious prairie dogs on a cross-country karaoke odyssey by hitching rides from truckers with wicked senses of humor.   What if that story is on the test?   Well, go for it!   Read that story first.

What about when the kids are living it up with their free choice independent reading?   How can you check for understanding then?   Remember those Probst questions I mentioned earlier?    Pull those back out again.   You can also use them in place of canned questions that don't appeal to your readers.

Do what good readers do!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Notes Home

Something that I have found helpful when a parent does not use e-mail, or I don't have the time or telephone to call home is a notepad that keeps a carbon copy for me.   This is not the exact type that I have found at my local teacher supply store, but it's similar.


It's nice to have a copy for your records, of course.   But it's also helpful to let students know that if they "lose" the note, you will have them hand write another copy from the carbon version.   I give students a couple of days to bring the note back signed before having them complete a second copy.  

Now, you may also write letters of praise for your students.   A note home does not have to be negative, and I would caution you from writing one that is 100% downright rotten news.   You should lead in with a sincere compliment.   If you don't have even a small praise for the child, I recommend holding off on that note until you can think of one.   (A compliment also increases the chance that the child will show the note to the parent in a timely manner.)   Also, what are you asking for the child's parents to do for you and their child?   Be specific and realistic.

Here's a sample:

Dear Smith Family,

Tracy is such a bright child; I always look forward to reading her papers and getting her point of view after we read a story in class.   Lately I've had trouble with her speaking out of turn during class discussions.   I've spoken with her about the importance of giving others time to voice their opinions and waiting for me to call on her join in the conversation.   Will you please talk with her about respecting her classmates' contributions to our group discussions?   I sincerely appreciate your support at home.

Similar advice goes for e-mails sent home with regards to content.   Something kind + the issue at hand + what the parent can do to help + thanks for your support = a reasonable request.

Even if the child is doing handstands on your last nerve all day long, you'll get better results when you let parents know that you are all on the same team whether you contact them in person, over the phone, or in writing.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Game On!

It's Friday!   Let me share a little fun.   Apples to Apples comes to you recommended by Mensa.

Here are the basics of the game.   There are two decks of cards.    Each player keeps seven red cards in his/ her hand a secret from everyone else.   The player whose turn it is to judge flips a green card face up in the middle of the table.   It will have an adjective listed.   For instance, "vile."   The other players choose a card from their hands to place face down in a pile to ensure anonymity.   It could be a person, place, thing, or idea.   It's whatever you think that the judge will consider most vile.   Al Capone?   Poison ivy?   Family vacations?   The Joker?   Who knows?   The judge flips the cards over, reads them to the group and chooses what he/ she considers the best match to the adjective.   That player is awarded the green adjective card as a point.   The first player to be awarded 7 green cards wins.  

This is the basic version of the game.   To play Sour Apples, use antonyms instead of synonyms.   For more variations to get a lot of mileage from the same game, check out this entry on Wikipedia-- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apples_to_Apples

The adult version works well for your students who seem plugged into the world at large.   There are a lot of pop culture references in this game that will go over some heads.   The cards do offer short descriptions of the nouns; they also provide synonyms for the adjectives.

The junior version relies less on a child's knowledge of pop culture, and it's in no way insulting to an 8th grader.

Even if you don't have a classroom, it's a flexible game to bring to any gathering of friends or family.  

Jennifer Upson, a relative of one of my own middle school classmates, generously donated both versions of Apples to Apples to my students.   Hooray for the kindness of strangers! 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

It's tricky to rock a rhyme that's right on time.

That's why I like free verse.   I leave the meter to the high school teachers.   Our state standards do require knowledge of sound devices by 8th grade though.   Consonance, assonance, alliteration, repetition...all those little tricks to appeal to the Dr. Seuss "in a box with a fox" part of your brain.

Now, before you start thinking that I am a rap superstar masquerading as a middle school teacher, let me assure you that I am not.   My knowledge of rap is old school and the Legendary Roots Crew.   My Adidas spend most of their time on a closet shelf.   But my English teacher ears intuitively know the difference between someone with flow and a suckah M.C.   I think.

Let rap help you teach sound devices.   Please make sure that you check out the lyrics first.   If you don't have time for that, may I recommend "Run's House"?   Try it for free here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xMJZHrG_94  

Many teens are familiar with at least Rev. Run of rap pioneers Run-DMC as he recently had a successful MTV reality series that showcased his family life.   You can check that out here: http://www.mtv.com/shows/runs_house/season_6/series.jhtml

I have created a worksheet that includes the lyrics of "Run's House" as well as definitions of the sound devices and instructions for identifying them on the handout.   It can get a little messy, and fascinating.   Whatever your feelings about rap, it gets the job done when you need to teach sound devices, and the poems in your literature book leave you hanging.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Can all of your students find themselves in your library?

A middle school student is always hard at work, even when you can't tell from the outside.   If anything, they are spending a lot of their brain power considering who they are and who they aren't.   As I've mentioned before, this search for identity is aided by the books in your library.  

So, do you have what they need?   That's a big question, isn't it?   Let's make the question smaller in scope, so it's easier to manage.   You can then transfer the big ideas to the rest of your collection.

Let's imagine that a "teen" alien landed in the middle of your library and had only your fiction book collection to use to gather information on teenagers from the human race.   Would there be a good, healthy range of people and experiences?  

For this exercise, focus in on how African Americans are represented within your bookshelves.   Think about a pie chart and start slicing it into percentages of character types.   The Bluford Series of books I mentioned earlier are a hit with many students, and it does provide a bit of a variety of characters and plots, but it can't be the only representation of African American teen life in your library.

My all-time favorite author who produces a spectrum of people to populate the fictional landscape in our library is Jacqueline Woodson.   She writes books for children and teens, so investing some time in getting to know her work is worth the effort.   And she is amazing.   If you ever get the chance to hear her speak, go.   Most of her work appeals to girls more than boys.   I think that you should buy everything, but make sure you get the Maizon books, I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This, If You come Softly, Behind You and Show Way.   She may seem familiar to you because last year After Tupac and D Foster was a 2010-11 Virginia Readers' Choice (VRC) selection.

You probably already know Walter Dean Myers.   He writes mainly for young men, but does have some books that appeal to ladies.   Also, there's probably a piece in your literature book that he wrote, so if students show an interest in his style, you can point his books out to him on your next library visit.   I think that his masterpiece is Monster, but its style demands a sophisticated reader, so think about the text before you recommend it to a student.   Save this one for your above-average readers that love books that demand 100% focus from their audience.

Sharon M. Draper's Romiette and Julio is a big hit with teen girls.   It's also a sneaky way to prep them for 9th grade's Romeo and Juliet.   The story centers around an interracial relationship between a Hispanic and African American high school student.   Tears of a Tiger, Forged By Fire and Darkness Before Dawn are hits with both sexes.

Lori Aurelia Williams, Sharon Flake, Angela Johnson...the list of current amazing African American writers goes on and on.   The best way to get started is to follow books that made the list of American Library Association's Coretta Scott King Book Awards.   The awards include a category for illustrated books; you know I love that.   Try this link: http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/rts/emiert/cskbookawards/recipients.cfm

Right now, I'm looking forward to reading Kekla Magoon's The Rock and the River.   It made the cut for the 2011-12 Virginia Readers' Choice nominations.  

Before I go, let me close with this.   It's important for a middle school library to be able to hold up a mirror to all of the faces of its readers.   I also know that great writing appeals to everyone, and the overwhelming majority of teen readers do not reject a book because it's about someone from another background or race.   And I certainly don't make my book recommendations by matching an author's skin tone to the readers'.  Students own our schools' libraries; we merely tend it.   Let's make sure that everyone feels that ownership by honoring who they are and may become by stocking our shelves with every possibility.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Found Poetry

In "found poetry" the writer takes words from a source that was not quite poetry to begin with...in regards to form.   Recipes, news stories, discarded love letters...almost anything at all.   (I'm going to try a variation soon by having students fish out an old writing assignment from their archival book bags.   We'll cut it apart to make not-so-magnetic poetry.)

For example, Hart Seely has created an entire book called Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld.   Mr. R. falls under the category of "I'm a poet, but I didn't know it."   Seely took Mr. R's words and arranged them to look like poems.   If you don't believe me, look it up on Amazon.

Here's an exercise that William and Mary's amazing Emily Pease introduced to the 2009 Eastern Virginia Writing Project fellows:  found poetry using the Yellow Pages.   This is another inexpensive teaching tool.

Clip out ads from the Yellow Pages.   Have them laminated, if you plan to use them with children/teens.   If you have a document camera, project one on the screen for some whole-class practice before turning the writers loose on their own.

What do they do?   I'm wide open when it comes to this exercise.   They may write a poem inspired by the topic.   They may rearrange the words of the ad to make a poem with or without adding other words.   Poets may try to write a limerick, a haiku, a rhyming couplet, an acrostic, an ode, etc. based on the ad's subject.

This is also another assignment that necessitates a little whine time from the class.   Of course, it ends up being one of their favorite activities.   The phone book is an endless supply of writing ideas...and it's free!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Character + x= Action. Solve for x.

I've been going on and on about reading lately; let's talk about writing, fiction writing.   This is an activity I found in What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers (Bernays & Painter).   You may search the entire text of this book on books.google.com.  

To prepare for The Story Machine, you will need note cards and 2 Sharpies of different colors.   You also need your imagination to create situation cards.   One deck will contain professions.   One deck will contain seemingly quirky actions.   Use different color Sharpies for the decks to make sorting easier.

For example, one card might say "game show host(ess)," the other "filled in all of the holes at Jungle Golf with concrete."   This breaks writing a story into a simple equation.   Character + x= Action.   Solve for x.   What is x?   X is motivation.   You give students the who and the what; they provide the why.   The action on the card should be in the final scene of their story.   This is called retrograde plotting.

So here's how it's going to go with 8th graders.   You are going to explain the concept to the kids.   They are going to look puzzled.   You are going to go around the room and have the kids pick from both stacks without looking, no trades.   They will complain.   They will be certain that had they chosen their neighbor's pairing, they would be able to write the best story of all time.   They will complain some more.   Let this go on for about five minutes.   (More about why I allow a little talk time whenever we write later.)   Then you will announce that it is quiet writing time.   They will enjoy it.   They will want to share their stories.   They will want to write another one.   They will think that it was one of their favorite writing activities ever.

Sounds fun, right?   But, do writers ever right this way?   Remember Bobbie Gentry's hit "Ode to Billie Joe"?   Back in college I remember reading somewhere in the reference section of Grissom Library that the first line that came to Gentry was "Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge."   She then worked backwards to create those eerie, mysterious lyrics.   We can't be sure exactly why Billy Joe jumped; Gentry doesn't reveal that to her audience.   Listeners worldwide were so fascinated by the song that people made all kinds of presumptions about the storyline, and even a movie was born from the passionate interest in getting to the bottom of the lyrics.   And Billy Joe's story was all fiction in the first place.   Pass the biscuits, please.

Thank you to Christopher Newport University's Teacher Preparation Program for donating a copy of What If? to my new classroom!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

I love Chuck Close. And I'd like all of you to love him too.

"I filled the bathtub to the brim with hot water.   A board across the bathtub held my book.   I would shine a spotlight on it.   The rest of the bathroom was dark.   Sitting in the hot water, I would read each page of the book five times out loud so I could hear it.   It I stayed up half the night in the tub till my skin was wrinkles as a raisin, I could learn it.   The next morning I could spit back just enough information to get by on the test."

If you haven't read Chuck Close Up Close yet, make a plan.   He's an amazing artist with a singular style, a style which blossomed out of his learning disabilities.   Isn't the voice of an artist grounded in how he or she processes the world around them?   Do you ever wish that you could step inside the mysterious minds of your students to get a glimpse of how they see the world?   The super-talented Chuck Close will let you inside his!

I was always pulled towards his aesthetic, even more so when I learned about his process.   Most of his work comes right down to a grid.   Remember sitting eyeball to screen with the television as a child and marvelling that those little dots of primary colors created an image that seemed to contain an infinite spectrum when you backed up a few feet?   It's a little like that, but far more soulful.

Mr. Close works from a photograph.   Live models would not be useful as he has difficulties processing faces seen in 3-D; he has a photographic memory for flat objects.   He then constructs a grid on the canvas and decides which color(s) go where, box by box.   "By breaking the image down into small units, I make every decision into a bite-size decision...And eventually I have a painting."

It wasn't until I read Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan's book that I knew that although he was not diagnosed as a child, he would have been considered dyslexic and LD.   As the authors state, not much was known about these topics in the 1940s.

I like to show some of Mr. Close's art using my document camera before I read passages from the book to my students.   It allows me to zoom in and zoom out, something that really highlights the artist's technique and genius.   Recently, the amazing Virginia Museum of Fine Arts showcased some of his work.   The teacher me really felt like she was floating inside the vibrant mind of a twice-exceptional genius.  

Norfolk's Chrysler Museum also has one of his original portraits on display.  Don't ever miss out on seeing great art eyeball to canvas.   And, yes, Chuck is going with me to my new classroom...the book is anyway.  

This is a detail of one of Close's portraits of Phillip Glass.
This is a portion of his mouth.   (Chrysler Museum)

Here's a shot of one of Close's portraits from a distance.
(Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)

If you are also fascinated by the art and mind of Chuck Close, don't miss out on
"The Life and Work of Chuck Close," by Elizabeth Germain Pongratz.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Library for Struggling Readers/ Pt. 1

This way to the Bedford Public Library.

Although my classroom was considered a total loss, our library rode out the storm with all of our collection in tact.   If I had ever to choose between the survival of the two, the library would win every time.  

If you have not yet created an alliance with your librarian, now is the time to rethink your relationship.   If you are a language arts teacher, your librarian can make your job a whole lot easier for you.   I know that sounds tantalizing.

The middle school has a big case of middle child syndrome.   And being in the middle means that some kids are really more "high school" or more "elementary school" when it comes to literacy, so the library has to be all-inclusive and downright spectacular.   There needs to be something in your library for every one of your students to read independently and successfully.

There's something called the ZPD in the educational world...the Zone of Proximal Development.   Stay with me; it's simple to grasp.   There's a range in which each reader can function independently and grow.   Additionally, there's a higher range in which each reader can function with support and grow.   In math terms, you would not hand a child who had conquered pre-algebra a math analysis text and expect mastery without providing support.  

It's also good to remember that your struggling readers are hungry for success, even if they don't show it.   How would you feel about getting on the school bus every day to go to a place that pushed you past your frustration level hour by hour, a place where you never felt like you knew anything, a place where it looked like no one was having the difficulties you were having and a place that gave yearly standardized tests that you consistently failed in spite of your best efforts?   That sure could eat away at my soul.

I'm not saying that schools should lower our standards, but as teachers, we need to meet struggling kids where they are when it comes to independent reading.   Leave whole-class instruction for stretching them...at least until they get their sea-legs.   Give them some pre-reading strategies to help them tackle the stories in the literature book.   Model the skills that a good reader possesses.   Eighth grade is year that we need to zoom below-level readers as close to being on-level readers a.s.a.p.   The high school literature book waits for no one.   You know that for sure!

By eighth grade, most teens have entered the developmental stage during which they want to start focusing on who they are and what they think about their world.   This is why the teen problem novels fly off of the shelves.   It doesn't matter that the problem is not the reader's current problem; they want to see realistic portrayals of teens negotiating the world independently.   You'll notice that young adult novels are often devoid of adult main characters.   This would be too easy.   In reality, most children do have some adult role models to turn to for help, but in literature, readers want to see characters solve problems on their own.

If you have limited library funds, I would start with the teen problem novel to beef up your collection for 8th graders.   You would also need to investigate high-interest/ low-level books.   Now, teen problem novels aren't always great literature, but sometimes they are.   So, don't turn your nose up at them too soon...at least, not in front of the students.   The Hi/Lo Bluford Series of books is well-loved by many students who are not quite ready for reading a longer novel on their own.   Girls love Sarah Dessen, Lurlene McDaniel, Beatrice Sparks and Jacqueline Woodson.   Boys love Gordon Korman, R.L. Stein, Neal Shusterman, Dav Pilkey and Todd Strasser.   And vampires...anything short with vampires, since Twilight is probably too big for them right now.   Besides, they already saw the movie.

If you are really low on library funds, then focus on Gordon Korman.   His writing covers a lot of ground, and girls will read his books.   If you are choosing a title for a novel study, No More Dead Dogs will appeal to a variety of readers.    Here's his official website: http://www.gordonkorman.com/

In closing, everyone loves to be able to decide how they would like to spend their days.   For the most part, school is not designed that way, nor would it be able to function successfully that way.   Creating a time for free-choice self-selected reading (within reason, of course) helps teens on their journey to self-discovery.   It gives them practice in decision-making and a voice in their course of study.   By meeting them where they are, we honor who they are today.  

Note: If your school is looking for an assessment to identify students' reading levels, I recommend the Gates-MacGinitie.   It gives you a vocabulary and comprehension level separately.   Ignore the composite score because it can muddy the issue.   It's a great tool to measure growth from year to year.  
Find more information here:  http://www.riversidepublishing.com/products/gmrt/index.html

What's on the coffee tables of most middle school boys?

Okay, okay.   Please don't give middle school boys coffee, or encourage them to move out of the house.   I was writing figuratively.   But, if middle school boys did have coffee tables...behold...the latest copy of the Guinness Book of Worlds Records would sit proudly atop it.   AND it would be worn out.

Why?   Have you opened that book lately?   It has some cool pictures in there!   You don't have to read the book from cover to cover.   Hey, you don't even have to read it.   You could just look at the pictures.   You could.   But, don't you want to know more about that lady with those wickedly long, curly fingernails?   Gag.   YES!    I dare you not to read the captions and mini-articles.

Even the Surgeon General knows that teenage boys cannot live on Guinness alone.   Here are a few other resources that capitalize on a similar appeal.

Other "coffee table books" for teens include Pick Me Up, Take Me Back, Open Me Up and Do Not Open.   Oh, they are soooooooo cool!   Please, please, please promise me that you will at least investigate them on line.   Amazon will allow you to see sample pages before you buy.   If one student opens this book in your class, a knot of readers will appear around him or her.   It's one of those, "You've got to see this!" books, so be prepared for that to happen.   Good luck keeping them quiet.   They're finally talking about books.   Be excited.

Owl magazine is also popular with students.   They also provide a balance of great visuals, weird news, fun contests, reader input and interactive material.   One of my favorite ways to use this magazine is by reading the "Would You Rather..." lists, letting the kids voice their opinions by a show of hands and then call on volunteers to explain their choices.   For example, would you rather have the neck of a giraffe or the legs of a flamingo?   Harmless stuff from a Canadian publisher.   I've gathered up all of our back issues and allowed students to have a sustained not-so-silent reading time in pairs.   It was fun to listen to for sure.

But what about the measurable stuff?   Jamestown Publishers has a non-fiction series that I love: The Wild Side.   Every high interest story comes with the standard questions that are near and dear to an English teacher's heart.   Main idea, supporting details, drawing conclusions, making inferences, fact. vs. opinion, author's purpose, etc.   Check it out here...http://www.glencoe.com/gln/jamestown/reading_nonfiction.html

In the real world, a variety of reading material sparks dialogue within a community.   Let it happen in your classroom as well.

Note: Some of my strongest readers are young men.   I am not, in any way, implying that all boys struggle with reading longer texts.   That's not true.   But, think about it.   Like me, you are probably an avid and able reader.   Don't you enjoy thumbing through a stack of magazines at the beach?   Or, do you always bring your college Shakespeare textbook with you everywhere you go?   Is there still a little bit of middle schooler in every adult that makes them marvel at the Guinness Book of World Records?   Yep.   Me too.   And I'm a girl.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Hey...is this thing on?

The first time I remember struggling as a reader was in college.   The textbook on the history of the English language was probably a good one, but I just could not get my brain to turn on as I read.   This became obvious when I attempted to take the quizzes that went with each lesson.   In short, I didn't do well.   I decided that I needed to trick my eyes into staying focused on the words by slowing down my pace.   I took a blank, white note card and moved it down the page as I read.   Honestly, this is the only change I made...suddenly, I was understanding everything and doing well on the assigned work.

This cheap trick may work for some of your students.   For readers who need even more of a line-by-line focus because the words tend to move on the page as with dyslexia, the E.Z.C. reader strips may be the ticket for you.   They are sold in sets of 30 at http://www.reallygoodstuff.com/product/ezc+reader+strips.do

Another good skill for all readers is active reading.   Remember how you wrote in some of your textbooks in college?   That's all active reading is.  

You may need to help your students develop a shorthand code for some of the common reader-text interactions.   Put a ? to identify confusing bits or new vocabulary.   Put a :) next to your favorite part, or a passage that made you laugh.   Put a :( next to sad moments.   Underline figurative language.   If it's a simile, circle like/ as to distinguish it from the metaphors.   Box personification and draw a stick figure in the margin.   Box hyperboles and draw a fish in the margin.   Put a ! next to something that surprised you.   In my teacher dreams, I imagine coming up with a bookmark on bright card stock, so they can find it in their book bags.

You can develop any system that works.   When I copy short fiction for them to read on their own, sometimes I add in my own questions in the margins, so they can check for comprehension as they read.   My advanced students appreciate this when we tackle something stylistically difficult like Washington Irving's classic "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."   Here's an article about the same big ideas from someone else's experience:

Robert E. Probst's questions from "Dialogue with a Text" easily build choice into student work and are an quick route to interacting with the words on the page.   A link to his English Journal article is here and includes questions for readers to consider.   I typed the categories and questions up using a landscape layout (giving credit to Probst, of course) and asked students to staple the sheet to the inside cover of their reading journals.   You may need to model using all of the questions with a story that the whole class reads together.   I use Gary Paulsen's "Stop the Sun" because it's a great story, it fits easily into all of the question categories, and it's in the literature book. 

I feel that the strongest part of my reading program is self-selected independent reading, and I'm always looking for ways for students to respond to the text that they are reading on their own.   This activity fits easily.   I don't have them do all of the questions every time I give them a sustained silent reading period.   I usually have them choose three or four topics to address.   Building in choice is a great way to get good, thoughtful, meaningful work from 8th graders.   It helps students if you write a stop time on the board for when they should get to their questions.   Some students like to work on the questions as they read, but most prefer to get lost in their books for a while.   That means that they are becoming readers!

In 8th grade, it's important to "give up" some of your class time to independent reading.   It will be difficult at first, but you will see the payoff.   If you don't, then students who are working towards earning that Oscar for pretending to read, just may stay on that path all year.   It's best to start this in September, so you can find these students early and solve the mystery of why this child is not on task.   More on possible interventions later...

Monday, May 9, 2011

Laura Robb: Your Fairy Godmother

Having studied to teach high school English, my first year at the helm in 8th grade was a real eye-opener for me.   It was the year I discovered that some 8th graders have never read a chapter book/ novel on their own-- ever.   Seriously.

I had an excellent English education at Menchville High School and Christopher Newport University to prepare me for the canon of literature that I would most likely teach as a high school English teacher.   But none of the classes really addressed the reluctant reader, the painfully slow reader, the special needs reader, the non-reader, the dependent reader, the ADHD reader, the dyslexic reader, the resentful reader, etc.   And I wasn't teaching high school.   You get the picture.  

For 11 years I have been storing up some tricks in my bag to share with you, but that could take a lot of Blogging.   I want to give you a jump start with the common sense advice of Laura Robb.

Who is Laura Robb?   First of all, she is a teacher who is still teaching.   That means a lot to me if I am going to spend time trying out someone else's lessons in my classroom.   Educational research is important, but I can't replicate a lesson that requires me to be in five places at once because I do not have an aide, college professor, graduate student and two parent volunteers with me to implement it.   I can be realistic and optimistic at the same time, but most days it's just me and the kiddos without a net.

What else does Mrs. Robb do?   Find out here: http://www.lrobb.com/web/guest/home

My favorite part about Mrs. Robb is that she has written several books for Scholastic on best practices for teaching reading and writing in the middle school.   Several are available from Amazon.com.

It's a strange place, middle school.   Most of the research out there focuses on catching reading issues early in elementary school and putting interventions in place.   Even if this is done well, some teenagers still struggle to read at grade level.   I have taught students before who have tested on a first, second, third grade level in eighth grade.    It's a frightening, exciting challenge.   There isn't a lot of magic on hand for any instant fixes, but let Mrs. Robb help you along the way.

I'm sure I'll mention her again later, but allow me to start you off with my two favorite activity books.

For reading: 50 Fabulous Discussion-Prompt Cards for Reading Groups: Snap-Apart Question Cards That Build Comprehension & Spark Great Discussions About Character, Plot, Setting, Theme & More

For writing: Brighten Up Boring Beginnings and Other Quick Writing Lessons: 10- to 15-Minute Mini-Lessons and Reproducible Activities That Sharpen Students' Writing Skills

Let me close with this.   A few years back, Mrs. Robb taught a lesson on "Harrison Bergeron" to one of my reading classes.   I can't remember why she was there in my small town, but I know that I truly enjoyed spending time in her classroom and so did my students.   (No one misbehaved, much to my relief.)   When I e-mailed her post-tornado about these two activity books that I could not find on Amazon, she mailed them to me with her good wishes.   She also mailed a few other resources and had Scholastic do the same.  

It was another reminder to me that none of us can do what we do alone.   You may have a really great day teaching, and you should pat yourself on the back, but a lot of amazing people helped you get you where you are today.   And they are still wishing you well from their little corners of the world.   Don't forget to plug into the energy of all of that goodness on those days that exhaust you.

Thanks to Laura Robb, Scholastic, Christopher Newport University's Dr. Scott Pollard and art teacher Rob Mercer for restocking my Robb resources.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Post-It Publishing/ AU

Pow!   In honor of Saturday's Free Comic Book Day, here is Post-It Publishing in an Alternative Universe (AU for you insiders).   Okay, I actually used this Friday in the here and now, but you'll understand the AU in a hot minute.

You've probably seen that e-mail forward that claims to contain horrific samples from high school student essays.   We writers know that some of those sentences were so bad, they just had to be composed by experts.   Here's a link to a cnn.com article that includes some of the awesomely bad selections:

If you are too impatient to click the link, enjoy the following sampler:

She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes
just before it throws up.

Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

He was as tall as a six-foot, three-inch tree.

The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.

From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you’re on vacation in another city
and Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.

Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.

The hailstones leaped from the pavement,
just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.

Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

After the 8th grade state writing assessment, we should be able try our hands at writing some of the worst short prose ever, for fun and competition.   I gave them each a copy of the 25 rotten blurbs and read them aloud.   We then broke all of the rules while writing with different genres in mind.   Romance, science fiction, fantasy, suspense, etc.   You get the idea.

Create a sentence or two that would never be published in a particular genre.   Adding genres to the assignment helps narrow students' ideas and focus their understanding on what a particular audience is expecting from the author.

In short, you have to know how to do it right before you can get it truly, deliciously wrong.   Repetitive language, inappropriate tone and diction for a genre and your audience, awkward comparisons that simply jolt your reader out of the text with a laugh...   Bad, badder, baddest-- that's what I'm talking about.

Yes, your English teacher is asking for your worst writing, but you are not in an AU.   Here's a Post-It.   Let's Battle!

Note: This Battle works best with average to advanced students, particularly those with quirky senses of humor.   You know, the kids that laugh at all of your goofy jokes.

Thanks to foreign language teacher Sandra Phillips for forwarding me an e-mail containing all of those baaaaaaaaaad examples.

Item #3 that does NOT need replacing: It was a sentimental favorite.   I found it at a yard sale.   The seller saw me setting aside all of his Willie Nelson LPs and mentioned that he had a van full of records in his back yard.   I found a sealed copy of a fly LP with this little jewel inside.   It's funny to see kids trying to pop and lock in between classes.   It's always good to know how to pass the flow.   Just don't ask me to battle with my hip hop moves.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Post-It Publishing

Yesterday's post was all about the 2-sentence journals that I tried with my students this year.   Once we got rolling with a few mini-lessons on word choice and imagery, I thought that I should create an opportunity for students to share their work.   Writers will usually sharpen their writing when their audience grows from one teacher to 25 classmates.   I introduced the idea of....The Battle.

Battles usually took place on Mondays.   Students could choose any of their journals from the previous week to use for the competition.   They could make final edits and revisions in preparation for showing their work to their classmates.

I gave students yellow Post-It notes for their final copies.   They put them in a stack on a chair in the front of the room.   My original plan was to "publish" the notes by sticking them to the huge white board at the front of the room, so they could browse through their classmates' gallery of entries.   Post-It notes do not stick to my white board for more than five seconds.      

Plan B: I fired up my document camera, and placed the entries in heats of four.   I tried to group them topically.   If four students wrote about their cats, I put them in a set together.   By popular vote, students chose one of the four to make it to the final round.  

Winners were awarded something ridiculous.   I would find an old kids' meal toy or grope around in my desk for something obscure.   The stranger, the better...as far as the kids are concerned.   A checker that had been long separated from its brothers was one of the most coveted awards.

As time went on, the Battles were intensified.   Some entries did not make the initial cut.   If that week's journals were supposed to include sensory imagery, and it wasn't there, it's fair to all contenders that you do not allow that journal to compete.   I would not advise you to ever make any cuts because of spelling.   If you've been teaching for a few years, you know that some of your best writers sometimes have the worst spelling for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with laziness.

Please also remember that the idea is not to have a writer embarrass his or herself, so using the same color Post-It notes for the class helps with anonymity.   Also,if you know that a child is sensitive about spelling or handwriting issues, it's fair for you to help him/ her by doing the spelling/ writing...not the composing though.   It is a competition.
Shazam! It's Free Comic Book Day. Find out where to celebrate here http://www.freecomicbookday.com/

Friday, May 6, 2011

2-Sentence Journals

Thanks to Dr. Jim Beers and his team of mastermind educators, I had the wonderful good fortune of attending the Eastern Virginia Writing Project at the College of William and Mary a couple of summers ago.   One of the instructors, Emily Pease, was so amazing that I just had to find a way to be her student for a little while longer.   The next fall term, W & M offered a graduate level class called "Teachers as Writers," and guess who the instructor was.   Yep, the brilliant Emily Pease.   Jackpot.

This is one of her ideas, and perhaps she got it from someone else.   Now I'm passing it on to you.   It's the 2-sentence journal.

Even writers do not find it easy to make time to write.   I have always loved the idea of a diary and still do, but I don't use one...ever.   Sure I've tried, but every time that I would read over one of my entries, I would roll my eyes and tear the writing into confetti for the circular file parade.

Emily Pease brought our class tiny marbled composition books the size of a memo pad.   Two sentences for each twenty-four hour period seemed like something that I could do.   Besides, when someone nice and reasonable asks you to do something, you do it.   Right?

To make it work for me, I would draft on any scrap of paper I could find.   I would first list about 5-10 words that reminded me of what took place during the day.   Then, I would choose one topic to focus on.   Two sentences are not long.   It's like composing a haiku.   Every syllable counts, and you want to create a small image of a fragment of time.   The cornerstone of good writing, I believe, is "Show. Don't tell."   I would write, re-write, edit and revise.   It was only two sentences, so I found it easy to go through the complete writing process in one sitting.

Yes, I used this in writing class with 8th graders this year.   Here's what I was looking for when I assessed their diaries.   The first two weeks of school, I was happy to see what they thought were two sentences.   I taught vivid language.   I then looked for evidence of that lesson.   I moved on to "Show. Don't tell."   I expected them to follow.   We tried some sensory imagery and a lot of voice.   We learned about fragments and run-ons...and when you could use them for effect.   We wrote in third person omniscient for a week, so we could step outside of ourselves.   You see how flexible this assignment can be?   You can mold it to be an extension of a mini-lesson for independent practice.  

8th graders still can't drive...legally.   That's why I priced tiny journals over the summer and bought them in bulk.   I then sold them to my students at cost, 50 cents.   Of course, I took I.O.U.'s since most 8th graders are not financially independent.   Sure, they could write two sentences anywhere, but I liked the idea of the students having a "book" of their own.   Also, when I collected these notebooks, I was not asking for their main writing notebook (where I required them to write their drafts for insurance purposes as well as having enough space to go through the writing process).

Will this be a huge, unparalleled success for you?   Maybe.   But let me take a moment to remind you of one of the most insightful statements concerning writing.   It's a classic from Thomas Mann.   "A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."   Your writers will produce some stellar material.   So will those dear students who have the gift of listening to instruction and believing your advice, even if writing is not their favorite subject, yet.  

There will also be those students who slap down two lines in 10 seconds flat, and think they are ready to be published alongside Pulitzer Prize winning authors.   You'll be able to convert some of them over time.   You probably won't be able to convert all of them.   Alas.

I'm taking this idea with me to my next classroom, and I hope to iron out some of the speed bumps I found when implementing it this year.

Tomorrow I will tell you about a technique I used to jolt my 8th grade writers into more thoughtful crafters of language.

The honeysuckle is beginning to bloom, making me long for summer.    If you are local and would like some flowers of your own, there will be a fundraiser for the tornado victims of Gloucester County in Grafton tomorrow.   Follow this link for details: http://www.dailypress.com/news/york-county/dp-nws-york-tornado-fundraiser-20110505,0,6313392.story  

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Lights, Camera...Flip-O-Rama!

If I had to choose my all-time favorite teaching technology, it would be the AVerVision document camera that I used daily.   It was school property, so I'm sure that it will be replaced once the insurance dust settles.  Let me put it this way for my mathlete friends: 

Making my life easier + enriching instruction for my students = True Love

In order to operate this tool successfully, you will need some type of projection device and screen.   You will need all of the right cables.   And, if you're like me, you will need someone who's smarter and more patient than you are about disconnecting and reconnecting that dusty tangle of cords behind your teacher computer and figuring out where the new cords go.

What does a document camera do?  

The basic document camera can reproduce and image in real time.   When connected to a presenter, the image can be projected onto a screen, or a white board.  

For example, if I open a book under the camera, the image on the screen will show my hands opening the book as it happens.  

If I am modeling a writing exercise with paper and pencil, students can see my hand move across the notebook as words appear.  

Say six of your classes like to play the Jumble, and you only have one copy of the newspaper, project the Jumble onto a white board.   Allow students to use dry erase markers to solve the puzzle as a class.  

If you don't want to spend your time, money and energy making transparencies, simply place what would have been your master under the document camera.   Voila!   Instant transparency.

Play Boggle as a class for fun.  

Additionally, you may project whatever is on the attached computer's monitor.  

Say you want to show your class that great YouTube video, Julian Smith's "I'm Reading a Book."   You can do that easily!    

Do your students ever have to practice timed readings?   You can show them a free online stopwatch while they work, so they can record their own time. ( http://www.online-stopwatch.com/)

Project art and photographs for visual writing prompts.

Perhaps you already have a DVD/ VCR combo attached to your presenter.   The document camera can also be set up without having to plug/unplug any of the devices to use them.   You switch back and forth with the touch of a button.

Please note:

When you are using this technology, close out anything personal on your computer, especially e-mail.   Sometimes if a child bumps the cart and jiggles the connection, or if you start it up thinking that it is on the camera setting, but it's really on the computer setting...   Well, you get my drift.  

Also, if you are doing a read-aloud from a children's book with shiny pages, there will be glare.   It's perfect for reading Captain Underpants because the camera will also magnify the comics.   There's nothing cooler than seeing Dav Pilkey's Flip-O-Rama on the big screen.   Tra La Laaaaa!  

If you write reminders on the top of your hand because you tend to lose/launder any reminder notes you scrawl, and you firmly believe that if something separates your hand from the rest of your body, you probably won't get around to that list anytime soon-- you are one of my kind, and those reminders will also be magnified for all to see.

And, yes, if left unattended, children will put their faces under the camera so you can see up their noses.   But..I didn't need to tell you that.

There are fancier versions than the one I had, and like all technology, the prices change as models age.   You may find out that your school already has one just waiting for someone brave to use it.

Here's a link to the company's website, so you can see the cameras for yourself:

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

While You Were Out

Here's to the first responders with office supplies!   As soon as our community found out when and where students and teachers would spend the rest of our school year, boxes started magically appearing in the main office.   Every tool imaginable was there.   We had to make daily concerted efforts to "spend down" the treasures in that small space!

Hmmmm.   What to take?   What to take?   What's something that will have a difficult time moving out of here?   Ahhhh.   Tucked away behind the closet door was a stack of pink While You Were Out memo pads.   When our amazing secretaries take messages, they are logged in a spiral notebook with carbon copies, so I knew that they would not need them.  

We've done short bursts of diary writing, but I thought we could try mini-fiction this time.   Students opened up their creative minds and jotted down many truly ridiculous messages.   I gathered the messages up (the appropriate ones, anyway) and put them in a pony envelope for the teacher who is generously sharing his space with me as a classroom warming gift.

Zombies invaded. Sportscars were borrowed. Rock concerts surprised us. The apocalypse unfolded.  

A lot happened While You Were Out.

You may order your own While You Were Out megacube from Quill.


Tuesday, May 3, 2011


I'm not sure why I did it, but I'm glad I did.   A couple of weeks before the tornado showed up at school, I plugged in the USB flash drive that I keep on my key chain into the front of my teacher computer.   I've never done this before, but it seemed like a good idea.   Well, it was.  

I copied 11+ years of teacher-generated materials onto my little flash drive, and then I copied the same files to my home computer as well.   What's the + for?   A friend of mine used the same hard drive that I inherited, and she intentionally gifted me with all of her teacher-generated goodies.   So before I really get this blog off of the ground, it's only neighborly to pass this good idea on to you.  

The tech folks are doing their best to retrieve any usuable hard drives from our rooms, but it sure feels good to have all of those hours of work already at my fingertips.

For about 10 bucks, you can get your own jump drive at OfficeMax.   Ask about the Max Perks reward program for teachers when you get there.   https://www.officemaxperks.com/LearnMoreTeachers.aspx

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!

Item #2 that does NOT need to replacing: empty lp album cover for Prince's Purple Rain.   I know, I know, I know times are changing, but I love vinyl.   I used this item to demonstrate how to construct an album sleeve from posterboard for a soundtrack project.   All of students' written work fits inside the sleeve-- liner notes and lyrics.   Originally, I had it to show students what Gary Soto was talking about in "Broken Chain" when the main character wanted to look like Prince circa 1984.

Starting from Scratch

On the evening of Saturday, April 16, 2011, a tornado ripped through the middle school where I have been a teacher since 1999.   Although my classroom did not seem to suffer wind damage, the contents were unrecoverable.  
Just about 40ish feet through these doors is where we duck and cover during drills.

If you know teachers, you know that most of us like "stuff."   We save anything we think we'll have the slightest chance of needing later for a potential lesson, no matter how obscure the item.   With the exception of one possession, which I will reveal to you at a later time, bits and pieces of my classroom will most likely have a new life fertilizing soil somewhere...an idea that I quite like.

Do you want to hear the best news?   No one was in the school building at the time.

Do you want to hear the next-best news?   My amazing friends are helping me restock my classroom already!

In order to have a quick and easy way to maintain a shopping list for my classroom, I first thought of Amazon.   I would be able to keep track of my purchases and have receipts when any insurance money comes back to me.  

Because so many people have offered to help me out right now, I created a baby registry, so they could shop easily as well.   Yep, a baby registry.   And you have to name the father.   That's Mister Tornado to you.

So what's with the blog?   I thought that it might help me consider what really makes a difference for my students.   Am I replacing everything?   Nope.   I'm starting with my greatest hits, and adding some new teaching tools as well.

What's in it for you, Dear Reader?   If you're a parent, you may also find some tools to use at home.   If you are a book lover, you may enjoy it as well.   If you have ever had to start anything over from scratch, you may be my audience.   If you're a teacher, bless your heart.   Take some of my ideas that you like and make them your own.   And teachers, if I list an item that you also have success with using in your classroom, let's trade some tips!

If you just like "stuff," I'm your girl as well.   For fun, I will also post items that I do not have a need to replace now and then.

Item #1 that does NOT need replacing: Green, plastic triceratops pincher toy.   No, I never used this in class.  I bought it because it reminded me of a long-ago trip to Walt Disney World during which I spent the day goosing my good natured grandmother with a similar toy.   Is this a must-have item for you?   It's available at http://www.dinosaurcorporation.com/grabbers1.html