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Our Most Embarrassing Teaching Moments

Teacher mornings are hectic. Wake up, brush teeth, frantically run to the dryer to find clean pants, throw on a top, do some grading that you fell behind on, and head out the door to change lives. That’s exactly how my morning went a couple of years ago... until my first period block showed up. I was lecturing about some super fascinating transcendentalism stuff when suddenly I looked down only to find one of my black, lacy THONGS in the middle of the row. Apparently, static electricity from the dryer was not my friend that day. It had been attached to my pant leg the entire morning/first half of the block until finally it fell off. Did my students see it? OF COURSE THEY DID. I quickly picked it up and sprinted to my desk. We all had a good laugh. Although teachers are superheroes, they are not immune to static electricity and occasional humiliation!

The 2016/2017 school year began like any other. It was not until ‘Meet the Teacher’ night that things would change. That evening, I greeted students and parents. I mingled with new colleagues and administration, as our family had recently relocated for a business opportunity. I was feeling pretty confident about the whole night. When the evening was over and after I got out of the vehicle after arriving home, I walked towards my front door and took a quick look down. And this my friends, is how the remainder of my school year went!!

I was tasked with teaching the sexual education class to a group of grade 9s early on in my career. Students were permitted to submit questions anonymously that they didn’t feel comfortable asking in class, and on Fridays I would answer the questions. Unfortunately, the teaching assistant in my class, who was about 20 years my senior, also felt it a good time for me to answer her sex-ed questions. She raised her hand and asked, “What is manscaping? My friends tell me that their husbands are manscaping now, and I don’t know what that means. Is it something my husband should do too?” I almost died. I told her I would explain it later, but now the students wanted to know what it meant too, so I answered it very quickly and moved to the next question in the box. Needless to say, I explained to her that Friday question period was for students only and that she could ask me her questions privately.

I’ve had a number of embarrassing moments in front of my class, but the day my boobs exploded would have to top the list. We get up to a year's maternity leave in my province but, with my third child, I decided to go back to work in September when he was only three months old. My husband & I were tag-teaming parenting duties, with me working in the mornings and him in the afternoons, so I figured I'd go back to work a little early. I was still nursing my son, but I gave him a feeding every day before I left and then when I got home for lunch. Everything was working splendidly until one day I was in front of my twelfth grade class, in the middle of a heated discussion, and I got that familiar tingly feeling. Knowing what was about to happen, I turned toward the door, hoping I could somehow escape before I exploded. However, I didn't get to take a single step before there were two lovely streams of breast milk flowing down my shirt. I saw looks of horror and sympathy, but the funniest faces were from those who had no idea what was actually going on. I calmly explained what was happening and that I was going to have to slip out for a few minutes. Thank goodness there was a neighboring teacher who could cover me – she watched my class AND gave me her cardigan.

My most embarrassing moment happened the first month of my first year teaching, and it was mortifying. To save time in the morning, I used to eat a granola bar for breakfast every morning once I got to school. On this particular day, I wore my khaki pants to school. I taught my first-period class, and throughout the class, I noticed that my students were a bit more chatty and giggly than usual. Then I taught my second-period class, and I remember my second-period class being especially distracted and chatty. Then finally, after I had taught all first period and second period, one girl from my second-period class stayed after class to tell me something. I could tell she was a bit embarrassed and hesitant to tell me, but she leaned in and quietly whispered in my ear, “you have something on your, your bum.” I turned around, mortified, and discovered that I had sat in a chocolate chip from my breakfast granola bar. I taught two entire class periods with a brown chocolate chip visibly stuck to my rear end.

It had been a hectic day and I was already a bit frazzled. Knocking my large teacher bag off my desk and watching it tumble to the floor seemed like a perfect end to my day. However, I was horrified when I realized that a few feminine hygiene products were mixed into the jumble on the floor... and they had rolled some distance along the floor. I don't think I've ever moved so fast! I launched myself and managed to grab a few and luckily a few of the girls in my class realized what had happened and sprang into action. I wanted the floor to open and up and swallow me whole! One of my students said to me on the way out "Don't worry Ms. Williams, I don't think the boys had any idea what any of it was."

I’m not a person who gets easily embarrassed, but I recognize that certain situations are just SO FUNNY to middle schoolers. I’ve accidentally paired two mismatching black flats like The Classroom Sparrow and I’ve sat on my fair share of chocolate (seriously... how does it keep happening??). A situation that legit caused my cheeks to redden, however, was in my first year of teaching when a student wrote “chode” on the board. I didn’t know what it was, but I could tell from my students’ reactions that it shouldn’t be on the chalkboard. I erased it and went to The Oracle of Google. I *very stupidly* did not disconnect my screen from the projector, and so all of the students learned the meaning of the word at the same time I did. *facepalm*

5 Perspective-Taking Activities to Encourage Critical Thinking

Today, special guest Jenna Copper of Doc Cop Teaching talks about critical thinking and perspective-taking in the Secondary ELA Classroom.

Has anyone ever told you to “get some perspective”? Though it might seem like a biting comment, there actually might be wisdom behind it. When you “ get some perspective,” you learn to see things from a new point of view. While it certainly is challenging, learning perspective-taking skills can reap important social and cognitive rewards. First, this activity requires higher-order thinking skills, like the ability to create and imagine an alternative reality. Not only does this activity engage those higher-order thinking skills, but it also can result in important social skills, like the ability to empathize leading to a kinder, more tolerant population. I’ve been researching perspective-taking activities my entire career, and I’ve found that teaching it doesn’t have to be as challenging as it seems. Today, I’m sharing five tried and true perspective-taking activities that you can use in your ELA classroom to engage your students’ critical thinking skills and encourage empathetic understanding and feeling.

  1. Analyze With Literary Lenses

Literary lenses are an adaptation of literary theory that introduces students to multiple lenses for which to read, interpret, and analyze literature. A formal analysis is a traditional mode for analyzing literature by close reading a text focusing on the text itself to arrive at an understanding of the meaning, such as vocabulary and literary devices. While there is certainly a place for this type of formal analysis in an ELA classroom, literary lenses introduce new (and interesting) ways to interpret a text that might be more accessible and engaging to students versus the traditional mode. For example, in addition to a vocabulary study and formal literary analysis discussion questions, when we read Beowulf, we complete a psychological analysis of Grendel, and we deconstruct the good versus evil conflict by reading excerpts from John Gardner’s Grendel. My students love acting out the psychologist-Grendel conversation, which leads to some deep conversations about the nature of good versus evil. Some lenses you might consider are historical, social, gender, biographical, psychological, cultural, and reader lenses. Here are some of my favorite multiple-perspective activities:
  • Facilitate a Socratic Seminar on gender roles to explore the way the gender roles impact the story.
  • Role play as a psychologist and a character from the story to analyze the emotional conflict and turmoil for a character.
  • Assign a journal assignment for students to record their own thoughts and feelings as they read the text.
  • Ask students to research the historical period of the work and present about the ramifications of it.
  • Assign an invented interview between the author and another character.
If you want to learn more about using literary lenses in study literature, you can check out my guide to literary theory.

  1. Give Students Choice

I am a firm believer in choice reading, and so are my students! Since I added a choice reading unit to my curriculum, I have been blown away by my students enthusiasm and creativity. Giving students choice has so many benefits, and when paired with activities that encourage sharing, students learn about so many new perspectives. I created a project-based assessment to go along with my choice reading unit that encourages students to evaluate their choice book based on new perspectives. Each year, I think they won’t be able to top the last, and yet, they still do!

  1. Take a Virtual Trip

One of the best methods to learn about new perspectives is to travel to new places and meet new people. Wouldn’t it be great if we could take our students all over the world to learn new perspectives? Obviously, there are so many barriers in our way that this dream isn’t a reality, but with technology, there are some pretty cool alternatives:
  • Use Skype for a virtual mystery meet up with a classroom from a different state or country. You can use social media to meet educators who are more than excited to do this. Your students can ask each other questions via a video chat to learn about their culture and guess where they are located.
  • Explore the world with Google Earth. Take students on a virtual field trip to gain new perspectives on the world.
  • Speaking of Google Earth, take a Google Lit Trip. Using Google Earth, your students will go on a journey through a book following the path of their favorite characters.

  1. Read Picture Books

Even though I teach upper-level English, I am an enthusiastic advocate for using picture books in high school to build perspective-taking skills. Plus, my students love when I pull out a picture book for a read aloud. Big kids like picture books too, and it’s an academically supported strategy. Picture books are short, accessible, visually stimulating, and engaging, so they give you a great opportunity to introduce new perspectives. This year, my AP Language and Composition class analyzed rhetorical strategies in Malala Youzanafi’s “I Am Malala” picture book; in AP Literature and Composition, I use “The Day the Crayons Quit” to teach tone. Check out my FREE guide to introducing picture books into your classroom to build perspective-taking skills.

  1. Write Creatively

Creative writing is an often neglected component in secondary ELA classes. At least, it was in mine until I started teaching a creative writing elective. After teaching this class, I realized just how valuable creative writing exercises can be for traditional reading and writing classes. You can check out my narrative writing unit as an example. Providing opportunities for creative writing as bellringers or as a supplemental assignment gives students a chance to put perspective-taking into practice. In fact, they have to invent a new perspective from a character’s point of view. This is a great opportunity to challenge them to see things from a new perspective. Here are some ideas:
  • Choose a controversial, school-appropriate topic. Then, write an invented dialogue between two characters arguing over this topic.
  • Imagine you are the main character in the story. Invent a daydream that this character might have. Write in first person from the character’s perspective.  Identify when this daydream would happen in the story.
  • Create a character outline for someone who has a very different personality than you. Explain his/her personality with detail. Invent two circumstances that highlight this person’s personality.
There are so many benefits to adding perspective-taking practices into your classroom, but as far as the teacher goes, one of the best parts about perspective-taking learning is that you are very likely to get some new perspectives on your students, classroom, and practice! Thank you to the Secondary English Coffee Shop for inviting me to share my ideas on their blog!

Jenna Copper (aka Doc Cop) is a full-time high school English teacher and a part-time college professor specializing in perspective-taking learning to build critical reading and writing skills. She earned her Ph.D. in Education in 2013. In addition, she is a curriculum writer and researcher, and she designs resources to inspire creative thinking. You can find her daily teaching tidbits on Instagram @doccopteaching and read more on perspective-taking research on her blog.

5 Teacher Wellness Tips

Teachers work hard.  We spend hours before and after school, on the weekends and on our breaks planning, thinking, grading, revising, collecting, brainstorming and worrying about our jobs and our students.   I know how easy it is to feel overwhelmed, overworked and exhausted.  I know how easy it  is to look at social media and think that everyone's classroom / students / lessons are more impressive/better than yours.  I know that many of you have busy lives like me and are being pulled in many different directions. I know that it's easy to put everyone else before you.  BUT I also know that taking time for yourself, makes you more available and more present for others. I know that being present for yourself and your own needs makes you a better teacher / partner / parent / friend / person.  Here are my top 5 tips for maintaining your own teacher wellness.

If I don't put time for myself into my schedule I know how quickly my time can be eaten up.  We all have a myriad of obligations to attend to and you need to make yourself your own obligation. Yup... you need to include YOURSELF on your list of things to do!

Download this blank planning calendar HERE to schedule time into your day for yourself.

Here are some suggestions for things you can do for YOURSELF:
  • go for a walk
  • watch a movie
  • book a manicure / pedicure / massage (or all 3!)
  • visit a used book store and pick out some new reads
  • spend time with a friend or relative you haven't seen in a while
  • meditate / do yoga
  • craft / sew / paint / color... engage your artsy side
  • read a book purely for pleasure
  • take a long hot bath

We're all different and we all have different ways of relaxing and unwinding.  It might be a walk after work, a yoga session, a cup of tea after the kids have gone to bed,  a nap on the couch or binge watching a series on tv.... but the important thing is to know what works for you.  As a dog-mom I have to go for a walk every day after work - regardless of the weather.  But even in the rain and cold I'm grateful for the time.  Not only is it a chance to unwind and reflect on my day... but it's a chance to be by myself and enjoy the great outdoors.  After a day of constant chatter and a thousand questions from students I crave and need the quiet of an afternoon walk.  What do you need to do to recharge and refresh?

If you're anything like me you're an enthusiastic teacher and member of your school community and you're often asked (or "voluntold") to be a part of an activity or event.  I used to nod and smile and eagerly take on all that was asked of me.  I would be overwhelmed and overworked all in the name of "helping"... but I wasn't doing myself or anyone else any favours.  I had to start prioritizing what I was able to do and I had to start saying "no".  And guess what?  Other people jumped in and filled the roles I'd previously had and everything was fine!  And I was less stressed and had more time to devote to the things I really wanted to focus on - my own students, my family and myself.
We all need to have a teacher wellness buddy - the person you can turn to and share your frustrations with and someone to pull you through the tough times.  BUT... you also need to hold each other accountable for your own wellness.  Don't be afraid to hold each other accountable for your wellness goals! Help each other out and cheer each other on!  Go for walks together after school, share book suggestions, meet for coffee once a week to talk about things other than school (this can be sooo hard, but sooo refreshing!), workout at the gym together, go to a movie, share recipes for easy after school meals...

I love the online community that has been developed over the last few years - the amazing ideas I see on Instagram, the thoughtful and engaging blog posts, the articles I see shared on Facebook and the incredible resources available on TeachersPayTeachers.  There are so many unique and creative ways to save time!  We know longer have to reinvent the wheel!

If your students are all working on different novels for a Lit Circle or doing a class Novel Study check out my resource - Novel Study for ANY Novel .  It is "print and go" ~ everything you need is included.  I have had success with this resource from grades 6-10 as all activities are easy to differentiate!

Here are some of my favourite time savers from some of my favourite people - the ladies of the Secondary English Coffee Shop!  We've got your back when it comes to tips and tricks and resources to help you save time.

Editable Rubrics from Nouvelle ELA - such a great idea and an easy time-saver!
Presto Plans has an awesome Teacher Binder to keep you organized!
TheSuperHero Teacher has some incredible ideas in  Transform Your Classroom - A 20 Step Challenge for Teachers 
Stacey Lloyd has the most beautiful posters for quick and easy classroom decor.
The Classroom Sparrow's Mini-Books are print and go! Check out her punctuation book HERE.
Secondary Sara's Editing & Revising Kit is sure to be a time saver for you!

For more teacher time savers check out the following blog posts!
The Daring English Teacher - End of Year Teacher Timesavers for Secondary Teachers
Room 213 - Grade Student Responses Quickly

Happy Wellness!

Summer Bucket List for English Language Arts Teachers

The end of the school year is near and summer is calling! Teachers, as well as students, need to take time for themselves, so they can be rested and recharged when school starts up again. After ten years of teaching, I have come to understand the importance of rest during the summer months. Saying that, and if you're anything like me, it's hard to not want to start to plan for my upcoming fall classes half-way through summer vacation. So, I've come up with a few ways where you can still keep your future classes in mind, while also getting that must-needed summer rejuvenation. This list, like the popular saying goes, will help you to kill two birds with one stone!

Capture your summer memories and use those photos as a basis for a writing activity. Whether your final destination is somewhere new or places you've traveled before, take time to stop and take some photos that stand out. Capture things like beautiful scenery or items that just catch your eye, both are great ways to share memories and special moments of your summer vacation with your students. You don't need to go far to find cool things to share, they are probably right in your own backyard or community. In the past, I have used photos that I have taken on my summer break to use as visual prompts (which can be used at any time of the year). In addition, I have made a short, PowerPoint slide of images sharing my summer vacation with my students as a 'get to know your teacher' type of activity. The great thing is you can be as public or as private about these images as you'd like, I just found it a nice segway to share a little about me, before I asked them to share information about themselves. The best part? You don't need a fancy camera! Just use your phone!

What books were your students reading this year? Which of those books do you think you might like to read yourself? A great way to expand your literature circle book choices is to select books that your students are drawn to. If you are offering choice throughout a year for either independent novel studies or lit circles, selecting books that your students are already reading, is a great way to entice your non-readers, as well as your readers, as those books selections are probably on their must-read list anyway! It's hard to be able to read every book that your students come across in your classroom, but by reading books that they are interested in and being able to respond to them in a more personal way from  reading the book yourself, is a great way to build a connection with a student. In addition, the novels that your students may be reading are likely not super lengthy, so you should be able to get through a few during your time off! :)  Grab this FREE book recommendation handout HERE to get started today! As a quick end-of-the-year activity, have students recommend books to you.

Is the book always better than the movie? Let your students decide, while practicing important ELA debate skills! Check out a new or existing flick during your summer vacation that you have not had the opportunity to watch yet and use this as the basis for a compare and contrast activity! It's really a win-win for all involved, you get to enjoy a film that may have been on your list for quite some time, and you don't have to worry about rushing to watch it a few days before showing it to your students, because you will already know what it's about.

Here's a list of our favorite books that have been turned into movies:
  • The Classroom Sparrow recommends: The Help
  • Addie Williams recommends: The Princess Bride
  • The SuperHERO Teacher recommends: Wonder
  • Stacey Lloyd recommends: Life of Pi
  • Secondary Sara recommends: The Giver
  • Nouvelle ELA recommends: Stardust
  • Room 213 recommends: Anne of Green Gables
  • The Daring English Teacher recommends: The DaVinci Code
  • Presto Plans recommends: Water for Elephants
This one is personally at the top of my list! I have always wanted to set up an account where students and parents of my classroom could access, Instagram in particular. I like Instagram because it's super easy to use and it seems like both students and parents use it as well. If you have several different classes, it may seem like a lot of work to manage four different accounts, so maybe try this out for one or two classes for the first semester or for those courses where having a classroom social media account would the most practical. For example, to start, I am going to set up a private class account for my grade 9 ELA class. Since high school has a tendency to be a lot different from middle school, students may need a few more reminders about due dates and upcoming assignments and parents can stay on top of it using this account. Providing parents have signed the necessary waivers for media and technology to allow images of their students, you can post pictures of students working (with or without their faces shown, depending on the parents' wishes). For the purpose of my account, I will only be posting images of upcoming due dates and reminders (for example, by taking pictures of the whiteboard), special events in the school (for example, by taking pictures of posters around the school), as well as work in progress photos and/or finished products posted in and around my classroom. If I decide to show student photos, I won't show their faces (for the sake of management). By having a private account, only parents and students of that particular class can access those images.

Here are a few images from my own classroom that I could share on my class Instagram:

Organize your own space and use things that you find as incentives for your students! Not only will this organization bring you some inner peace, but it will also bring light to your students, especially if one seems to be having a bad day! Like many teachers, I have a tendency to buy things (#TeacherProblems) and never use them. They look cool, but in reality, I just don't need them (#Target). Some of the things that I have located in my cleaning travels that I no longer have use for include: stickers, books, writing utensils, notebooks, sticky notes, markers, decor items, etc. For example, I have used these items as incentives for receiving full marks on grammar quizzes, winning a classroom spelling bee, or even for showing full participation in a classroom debate, for example. You will feel better about your own space being cleaned and organized and your students will appreciate the gift, no matter how small! Happy organizing! 😀

Click HERE to get your list started today!

Dialectical Journals in the ELA Classroom

By The Daring English Teacher

Assigning dialectical journals to your students is a sure-fire way to get them to interact with the text on a deeper level. Additionally, dialectical journals are a great addition to any novel study. When students know they will need to record and analyze meaningful quotes, they read the text more closely. Traditionally, dialectical journals are double-entry journal responses where a student writes a quote from the book on the left-hand side and then reacts and analyzes the quote on the right-hand side.

However, in today’s era of online study guides, it is all too easy for students to look up a quote and its corresponding analysis instead of authentically engaging with the text.

One of my favorite ways to have students complete dialectical journal entries while also dissuading them from looking on the Internet for answers is to require students to connect their dialectical journal entries to a predetermined concept. Usually, when I do this in my classroom, I think about my final project and goal for teaching the novel. From there, I select several big-picture concepts that thematically relate to the plot. In doing so, my students keep a detailed journal filled with meaningful quotes as they read that they will be able to use as evidence for the final essay once we finish the book.

When I use this strategy for my dialectical journal assignments, I require three distinct components for their entries: a correctly cited quote, an insightful explanation that includes literary analysis, and a connection to the concept. 

For the quote, I typically allow the kids to select any quote they like. However, I instruct them that the quote must be complete and that it must be one that they think is important. I require that my students place quotation marks around the quote and that they cite it in MLA Format. Citing the quote is especially helpful because then students know where to find the quote again. 

For the explanation, I encourage students to include a thorough explanation as well as analysis. To get students thinking, I first prompt them with some questions: What is happening in the quote and why is it important? How does this quote move the plot along or advance the conflict? Does this quote relate to another part of the test? What symbolic or figurative meaning does this quote include and what does it mean? By prompting students with these questions, I find that I am more likely to receive higher quality analysis from my students. 

For the final part of the dialectical journal entry, I require my students to connect the quote they chose to one of the class concepts we are studying. Before we even begin reading the novel, we discuss these concepts as a class. If time permits, I introduce these concepts to my students with one-day poster projects. 

I added this third component to my dialectical journal entries to combat plagiarism from online sites. It is so easy for students to look up quotes and their corresponding analysis for a dialectical journal entry; however, this connection to a class concept component helps focus students on finding their own quotes. 

Here is a list of concepts to use with some literature in your classroom.

Romeo and Juliet: Love (and the power of love), Hate, Family, Violence (and the causes of violence), Foolishness, Impulsivity, Tragedy, and Mortality.

Of Mice and Men: The American Dream, Friendship, Prejudice, Companionship, Discrimination, Dreams, Isolation, Justice, and Women in Society

Animal Farm: Parallels to the Soviet Union, Socialist ideas, Classes, Leadership, Corruption, Lies and deceit, Violence, Pride, Religion.

Lord of the Flies: Civilization, Savagery, Leadership, Order, Intelligence, Fear, Innocence, Loss of Innocence, War.

Night: Inhumanity, Losing faith in God, Tradition, Religion, Mortality, Lies and deceit, Night, Human rights, Torture, Silence, Indifference.
To help students write more analytical dialectical journals, I've created this FREE Dialectical Journal Template. This template includes both color and black-and-white versions of two different templates: one template follows a linear pattern, and the other follows a traditional double-sided journal entry pattern.

More great dialectical journal and literary analysis ideas:
Teaching the Process for Literary Analysis by Room 213
Creative Reading Task Cards by Nouvell ELA
Quote Analysis and Poster Project by Secondary Sara

Frequently Asked Questions About Holding Class Discussions

Socratic seminars. Fishbowl discussions. Harkness method. Jigsaw. There are many wonderful structures and strategies for facilitating classroom discussions which deepen student learning about a text or topic, while also developing vital communications abilities: a true life skill. 

However, I know that when I was a new teacher, I found class discussions challenging at best, and painfully awkward at worst. So, here are some questions many teachers struggle with, along with some answers I have come to through lots of trial and error, and plenty of practice.

Any time! Whether studying literature or analyzing persuasive language, having students engage with each other in small groups to share and deepen their knowledge, while also developing critical communication skills, is just solid practice. Moreover, especially when working with teenagers, student-led discussions encourage them to take responsibility for their own learning, and help them to learn how to work well with others. Personally, I step back and have students run discussions almost every 2 or 3 classes. The more they do it, the better they will become.

There is no one-way to do this; it will completely depend on your class size, dynamics, objective, and more. It could be the whole class sitting in a circleand all discussing. It could also be a fishbowl discussion, with an inner circle having the discussion while the outer circle observes (read more about Fishbowl discussions here). It could be multiple smaller groups each having their own discussions at the same time. You want to vary your types of discussions to keep students engaged, and on their toes. You know teenagers: do any one thing too often and they get bored! 

However, two key things I have learnt through practice: 
  1. Stay out of the discussion as much as possible to really let students muddle through on their own; while I may interject occasionally, I really try to do so as little as possible to force students to take responsibility for their own discussions. 
  2. Discourage students from raising their hands; while this can be a challenge at first, it does break away from teacher-led formats, and it teaches them to be assertive, mindful of others, and collaborative.

Preparation is key. While it is great to have informal, on-the-spot discussions, this really favors the engage, confident, assertive students; it can be highly challenging for the quieter, more reluctant members of the class. If you want students to engage and lead the discussions, you must let them prepare thoroughly first. 

  • Let them pick the topic themselves. I often put students into small groups and have them decide what might be an interesting question for discussion around a text. The mere process of deciding is valuable as they explore the text/topic being studied, and assess the validity of essential questions. To scaffold this process, you can give them a list of possible questions to select from. 
  • Have students write questions. Before the class discussion, I will assign homework for students to work together to come up with a list of about 10 essential questions they will discuss. This also teaches them how to write good open-ended questions, and I stipulate that I want a range of types: clarification, analysis, comparison, opinion-based, etc. This works beautifully in Google Docs, as students work together on the same document to write, critique, refine, and agree upon their set of questions. It also allows me to see if they all truly participated! 

Teenagers are awkward. We get that. If you are going to hold formal discussions in the classroom, you may well encounter everything from students feeling self-conscious and barely speaking, to students dominating and oversharing. That’s ok. It is all part of the learning process. However, you need to be prepared to sit back, outside of the discussion, and let them battle through: embrace the silence. The more that they practice, the more natural and easy it becomes. *In terms of balancing out participation, see my recommendation below, for the app Equity Maps. 

Check out these DISCUSSION GOAL CARDS to help give students tangible goals to focus on during the discussion! 

Just last week I put students into groups to prepare a discussion on Shakespeare’s Othello. While I busied myself in the background, they chatted about what topic they would like to pick. My teacher heart was overflowing with pride: critical thinking was on full display as they tossed around ideas, assessed the validity of topics, listened attentively to each other, backed up their opinions with textual evidence, and thoughtfully included even the quietest of members. I was thrilled, and really excited for the ‘real thing.’ 

The next day, I sat back, eagerly anticipating more of their rich dialogue and collaborative sharing. Yet, that’s not what I got. Instead, I was greeted with stilted conversation, forced interest, self-conscious interjections, and little evidence of the depth of which I knew they were capable. The difference? Grading. 

The quickest way to make a discussion inauthentic, static, and forced, is to grade students. I am not advocating that we don’t do it - it is an important process - but we need do so many ungraded discussions formatively, that it takes away the performance anxiety and fear around the ‘formal’ discussion. I only have a graded discussion perhaps twice a term, yet we hold student-led discussions almost every week. 

Often for the quieter students it is not a case of not having something valuable to say, but it is often a case of not being able to find space, feeling too shy, or not knowing how to jump in. For this, I have a couple of tips: 
  • Give all students incentives: I have students sit with 5 chocolates in front of them (my favorite: Cadbury’s Mini-Eggs) and encourage them that each time they contribute, they get to eat a treat. This not only incentives participation, but it also gives them a clear goal, and a great way to monitor their interactions. 
  • Have students write alist of possible questions beforehand, and have this in front of them. This way, even if they struggle to think on their feet, or struggle to voice their opinions, they still have something with which they can enter in. 
  • Half way through the discussion, get up and “press pause” on the discussion. For a couple of minutes let students collect their thoughts and jot down some notes, then for the following few minutes let only those who have not had a chance to speak yet, do so.
  • Use these FREE opinion signs to have students engage visibly. This way, they are forced into coming up with an opinion, indicate it to the whole group, and then other students can ask them why they agree or disagree. 
  • Remind students of all the possible ways to engage. Participation should not just be through giving opinions: it could be through asking for clarification, validating a peer’s contribution, signalling agreement or disagreement, asking for evidence to deepen someone else’s thinking etc. 
For more tips on how to encourage participation, check out Room 213’s great blog post on the topic. She has a wealth of experience with class discussions, and some simple, easy-to-implement ideas! 

Having students reflect on their growth and learning is a vital part of any educational experience (read more here). The same is true for discussions: after any class discussion, encourage students to self-reflect, and assess their own participation. Simple bell-ringers work well here. Nothing fancy: I just pick an appropriate one, write it on the board, and have students write down an answer in the last few minutes of class: 
  • In what way are you proud of your participation? 
  • Which area do you need to grow? 
  • How can you improve next time? 
  • What is one think you will focus on next time? 
  • Who do you think displayed good facilitation skills in today’s discussion, and how?

As mentioned earlier, I rely heavily on Google Docs for students' collaboration and preparation. However, another app which I use regularly is Equity Maps: with this app, you can record the whole discussion, visually map the conversation, and collect all kinds of data: seeing the gender dynamics; timing students’ contributions; and seeing how balanced the discussion is. There is a feature which even assesses the group on how even the participation was (green for highly balanced and fair, blue for high levels of equality, yellow for medium etc.); my students now see this almost as a goal or game to aim for, and they are so proud of themselves when they reach Green status! 

If you have anymore questions about facilitating meaningful discussions in the classroom, feel free to post them below. In the meantime, check out these incredible blog posts and resources: 

How to Show Off Student Growth at the End of the Year

By the end of the year, we don’t JUST want to measure student growth with a state test, final exam, or a report card. In fact, a lot of people are looking around for qualitative or anecdotal feedback of what went down this school year:
  • Students sometimes need reminders of where they started in order to realize how they’ve changed (and that they have, in fact, learned something in your class).
  • Parents want feedback of where their children are. (In my case, our school has end-of-year parent conferences, so we definitely have to share growth!)
  • Administrators want to show off the good things that have happened in your school (and have as much evidence as possible to back it).

Everyone benefits when students can articulate how they have grown in your class. So how do you highlight the gifts you’ve given your classes this year and celebrate what students have accomplished?

1. The Top 10 List

I’m a list kind of person (obviously), and one of my all-time favorite activities was when I asked students to list AND RANK the top 10 things they learned from my class. Their responses were surprisingly insightful, especially when I pushed them to be specific. (For example, don’t just say “theme”; tell me what you learned about themes.) Get the FREE activity here

2. Creative Final Exam Questions
Some of my all-time favorite final exam questions have looked something like this. (I usually let students know these are coming so they can reflect in advance.)
  • How have you grown as a reader of literature this year?
  • Persuade me that you have grown or changed as a writer this year. 
  • What are you now able to do as an editor that you couldn’t before?
  • In what specific ways have your public speaking skills improved?

Note that these aren’t just self-assessment questions; students are being asked to present an argument with specific evidence. 

3. Comparing Old & Recent Writing

Every year, I’ve had students compare their writing in some way - either comparing rough with final drafts or comparing their essay skills at the beginning of the year and the end. Students are usually quite surprised with the mistakes they used to make and feel better that they’ve possibly improved more than they realized. 

Download this FREE comparison sheet to help students identify their changes as writers, editors, readers, and/or speakers!

4. Make a Last-Minute Writing Portfolio

Don’t panic! Even if it’s just putting all their final drafts into a file folder, collecting their BEST and/or FINAL work into one place can suddenly become a treasure trove that they may keep. (My eighth graders often keep certain folders of writing to take with them to high school, where they will now have exemplars of essays, works cited pages, etc.) 

If you’re interested in a quick but more visually appealing portfolio, check out a writing portfolio starter kit here

5. A (Fun) Post-Test
Even if you didn’t do a diagnostic test at the beginning of the year, you can do a post-test that reminds students how much content they’ve learned and how much knowledge they’re taking away from your class. This post-test does not HAVE to be graded; in fact, it can be a review or study tool before a final exam. 

In my middle school world, I use a diagnostic/post test for grammar and for Greek & Latin roots. (The "fun" part is that the grammar test is based on song lyrics, so students can hum or tap their way through the sentences!)

6. Peer OR Teacher Recognition

Even big “kids” like teens and tweens like certificates and little forms of recognition. You can even share the work by letting students recommend peers for different ELA superlatives, like “Best Conclusion Paragraph” or “Best Use of Eye Contact”. Check out some certificates for essays, creative writing, and public speaking.

7. A Capstone-Style Presentation
Even if your students didn’t do 20% Time or Genius Hour, they can still do a presentation about what they learned, what they’re passionate about, or what they think is fascinating. You can EITHER emphasize what CONTENT they’ve learned, or release control of the topic and make the presentations all about showing off the public speaking SKILLS they now have because of you. 

If you’re interested in coaching students on a modern style of public speaking, check out my mock TED unit here.

You might also enjoy the other end-of-year blog posts in our Coffee Shop:

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How else can we show off student progress? Tell us in the comments!

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