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3 Subtle Ways to Engage Your Students

We are thrilled to have Tracee Orman join us as a guest blogger at the Secondary English Coffee Shop. Read on to see how she creates classes that students don't want to miss!

“Do your students look forward to your class? Are they excited to be there? How can you tell?”

I remember early in my career sitting in a professional development (PD) session one day when the guest speaker asked these questions to an auditorium filled with teachers. The elementary teachers in the room were shouting out and clapping, while most of the secondary crowd nodded or shrugged. Are my students excited to be in my class? Sure they are…I think. How can I tell? I mean, if my first hour seniors stay awake the entire time, that has to mean something, right? 

The speaker went on to show us all the dynamic ways we can make learning fun. His tips included a lot of singing, a lot of acting, and a lot of dancing. He kept telling us that teachers are performers and we must keep them engaged in order for learning to take place. For an introverted English teacher like myself, these were the most terrifying words spoken. I just don’t have the personality to be one of those educators who jumps around the room, acting out various concepts in elaborate ways. So now what? I thought. Was I doomed to be the boring English teacher every student dreads?

Let’s face it: being a teacher means having to entertain your students. Students will lose interest if they aren’t engaged. But who says the entertainment has to be performed by YOU?

You can still spark excitement in your students in subtle--even silent--ways. 


The first way you can captivate your students is to create mystery. I like to use props in my classroom when we are reading a story or novel. For example, before we read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee I have my students select random shoes and create a profile for the owner of the shoe as an exercise in stereotyping. I always have the shoes covered up with a sheet the day we begin that lesson so when students walk into my room, they are a little confused, but definitely intrigued. I’ve even arranged them before on a table that made them look like a body underneath the sheet (and had a student run out of the room and down the hallway yelling, “Hey Everyone! Mrs. Orman has a dead body in her room!” It definitely caught some teacher’s and even our principal’s attention).

I also cover up the following props before we use them in class (and it never gets old):

  • Two manual typewriters before we read the short story “The Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” by Jack Finney.
  • Various rocks before we read the short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. (I promise I don’t use these with my third tip.)
  • Two “Indian head” pennies, a pocket watch with knife, a ball of twine, sticks of Double Mint gum, soap dolls, and a fishing pole while we are reading To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • Books that have been banned during Banned Books Week (toward the end of September each year).
If you really want to make them go bonkers, add a “DO NOT TOUCH!” sign.


Another way you can engage your students is by asking creative questions. A question like “What do you think Katniss has hidden underneath her bed?” while reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins can elicit a lively group discussion, especially when you tell your students it doesn’t have to be something tangible she’s hiding.

Other creative questions I’ve asked include:
  • “What would [Character’s Name]’s horoscope be today?”
  • “If [Character’s Name] were to break open a fortune cookie right now, what would be the funniest or most awkward or most ironic message they could receive?”
  • “If [Character’s Name] could go anywhere in the world, where would he/she go? Why? Who would he/she take with? Why?”
  • “You just inherited the Back to the Future time-travelling DeLorean that allows you to go back to the beginning of the story and change one of the events. Which event would you choose and why? How would it impact other events and characters in the story?”
Questions like these are basically asking students to provide evidence of character traits or analyze the plot structure in more appealing and unique ways.


A final way to generate excitement in your class is to allow your students to perform the material. Sometimes they just need to move around; give them the option to act out a scene from the story—preferably with props. Let them be the entertainers for the class while you and the introverted students sit back and enjoy the show.

Don’t let not having a script stop you from this activity. This is where student collaboration and writing combine beautifully: have students work in small groups to create the dialogue and actions themselves. It forces students to re-read the text for comprehension and analyze it for the author’s tone. (Don’t tell the students that’s what they’re doing. Just tell them that they need to figure out what kind of attitude the characters in the scene have. It sounds much better than asking them to analyze the author’s tone.)

If you already have a script, allow students to re-write it. After my students act out Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, they create satires of the play. This assignment is always a favorite. Small groups choose one (or more) of the scenes to rewrite. They have to interpret the text then create a parody based on it. After writing out their satires, they record their performances on video, then create short 4-10 minute movies. This activity combines writing/editing, collaborating, acting/speaking, cinematography, and video editing skills. (Not to mention time management skills.)

Just remember: you don’t have to be a performer to create enthusiasm in your class. Try out one of more of these ideas and see what happens.

If you need more inspiration, you can find over 90 creative ideas to use with any story, novel, or play (and even nonfiction) in my pack: Creative Activities for Any Book

Thank you to the all the members of the Secondary English Coffee Shop for allowing me to share my ideas on your site! You can check out their lessons for engaging secondary students here:

The Superhero Teacher: Literary Jenga
Presto Plans: Joke of the Week
The Daring English Teacher: To Kill a Mockingbird Bell Ringers

Tracee Orman
Mrs. Orman’s Classroom


5 Tips for Teaching Narrative Writing

I love to teach students how to write… I love to share ideas and stories with them… and I love to inspire them and give them the confidence to write their own stories. Here are five easy ways to help your students write a personal narrative. 
Yes… it’s true! I love to tell a good story, and I’m guessing your students love to share their stories about their lives with their friends. Narrative writing is just turning the stories of their lives into a written format. Convincing students that they have a story to tell can be tough… I often hear them say “nothing exciting ever happens to me” or “I have nothing interesting to write about”. Spend some time sharing some story ideas with them… share your own personal experiences. Some of my favorite life moments are small events, but they stuck with me because of the way those experiences made me feel. I will never forget getting my first piece of “grown-up jewelry” - a ring my mum gave me for Christmas when I was 12. Over 30 years later, I wear the ring every day and it’s a reminder of the first time I felt like I was growing up. Or the first time I drove a car all by myself the day I got my license. Wow… it was my first taste of true freedom. Sharing your own life moments with students shows your own vulnerability and may inspire them to do the same.  Writing their own story can be a powerful experience and I remind them it is their opportunity to share their experiences, their perspectives and their take on the world.
Too often we assign a piece of writing and assume that students can easily come up with a topic, however this can be the most challenging aspect. Without a topic that motivates them, the rest of their writing will be a struggle. Ask students to think about a time when… they were challenged, felt grown up, felt freedom, were scared, were proud, felt like they overcame something, experienced a life changing event, were delirious with excitement, were profoundly sad… Not all students have had huge dramatic life moments, so I encourage them to think of something small and simple that they will remember forever. 

Writing a personal narrative is just like telling a story—there is an introduction, rising action, climax, falling action and a conclusion. If there is no problem to solve, no climax to their writing it is probably going to be a really boring narrative. A story about going to Hawaii for a vacation is boring, but a story about getting caught in a riptide at the beach is going to pique my interest. In order to help students with this aspect of their writing I ask them to fill out a plot diagram before they begin writing. I want them to think of their writing as a story with a purpose. Grab a FREE copy HERE.
Students love to think that they can sit down and write their narrative in one sitting.  That a few checks of their spelling and grammar and they are "good to go".  I take as many opportunities as I can to work on editing and revising their work.  There is so much power in peer editing and in using mentor texts as examples.  If we don't show students examples of good narrative writing it can be challenging for them to understand where and how they need to improve.  You can find many examples of narrative writing online, use examples from previous classes, write your own or ask other teachers at your school if they have examples.  Once we review the elements of a good narrative, it is easier to work on peer editing.  A key with peer editing that I have found is to only focus on one thing at a time.  For example I will have students ONLY look for spelling errors, look for a climax, look for grammar errors, look for vivid verbs, look for varied sentence lengths...  This makes it easier for students to provide feedback, and it means that students get to read many different pieces of writing from their classmates.  

As I teach I find myself throwing out tips and tricks to the students as they are working.  My tips and tricks can be hard to keep track of so I developed a Narrative Writing Reference Sheet for students to use as they are working on their writing.  Easy reminders to use to improve their narrative and other writing that we work on throughout the year.  Grab a FREE copy HERE!

Grab my FULL Narrative Writing Resource HERE!  Includes everything you need to lead students through the Narrative Writing process and it is something I use every year with my students.  It includes brainstorming worksheets, mentor texts, editing practice, rubrics and more! 
For more Narrative Writing Resources check out these activities from my amazing 
Secondary English Coffee Shop colleagues. 

Five Minute Fairytales - from The SuperHero Teacher
Snowball Writing Activity - from Presto Plans
Narrative Writing Stations - from Teaching in Room 213
Narrative Essay (CCSS Aligned) - The Daring English Teacher
Memoir Unit - Secondary Sara

Building a Diverse Classroom Library in Middle & High School

Hello again-- The SuperHERO Teacher here to discuss the importance of DIVERSITY!!!
The quote, "books are companions, teachers, magicians, and bankers of the treasures of the mind.  Books are humanity in print" by Barbara Tuchman comes to mind when I think of building a diverse classroom library.  If books are humanity in print, then we, as teachers, need to represent EACH of out students from all walks of life! All of our students are experiencing something different, whether we know about it or not.  Whether it's sexual harassment, racism, bullying, abuse, suicidal thoughts, or a learning disability, everyone is experiencing their own grief, and building a diverse classroom library gives us the opportunity to help these students through challenging times with the art of literature.

Buying loads of books can be EXPENSIVE! It can be frustrating at times, because we want what's best for our students, but often times don't have the resources to get them.  Here are a few ideas for finding books for your library:

  1. THRIFT STORES are your best friend.  Seriously, hit up 5 or 6 in a day and you'll have to call your teacher friends to help you carry all of your books inside.  A lot of thrift stores even organize their books by age level, so you can head directly to the Young Adult Literature section and pick out all of the discounted books you need! 
  2. DISCOUNT BOOKS WEBSITES are your other best friend! Challenge: Go to www.thriftbooks.com and type in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  You can find new and used versions for as little as $3!!! 
  3. FRIENDS & FAMILY love to help.  Set up an Amazon Wish List or a DonorsChoose account and reach out to friends and family to help build your diverse classroom library.  Explain to them what you're trying to achieve and HOW it will help your students grow!  You'll be surprised how many people wish their teachers did the same for them and will generously donate toward the cause.  

Now that you have a few ways to fund your classroom library, it's time to start thinking about your students and how you can represent them through literature.  That can be tricky! I've already done the research, though, and I'm happy to share 60 young adult books that represent a variety of students!  Download the free poster to put in your library and the list of books here.  You'll find that each of these books focuses on a different topic that might have a direct impact on your students.  From The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime that features an incredible story about a mathematically gifted boy with Asperger's Syndrome to Luna, a story that follows the life of sixteen-year-old Regan as she keeps the secret of her older sister Luna's transgender identity-- this list of books is sure to include a taste of all different topics.  

Now that you have all of these incredible books to spoil your students with, independent reading is a must!  I'm a huge fan of independent reading and the positive impact it can have on students' love for literature.  I love using my "Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover" activity because it encourages students to look past the cover and truly see what's inside before judging-- just like we should encourage people to do when meeting others.  Simply wrap the books in paper, write a brief description on the outside of the paper about the overall concept of the book, and encourage students to select a book based on the description! My students LOVED it so much.  

Here are more diverse reading options for your students! 
I hope this blog post gives you a starting point for diversifying your classroom library more than you already have! All the best, The SuperHERO Teacher

5 Ideas and Resources for Using Interactive Notebooks in English Language Arts

Things are changing in today's classrooms. There seem to be fewer textbooks and more interactive-type learning going on. If you're new to the interactive notebook idea, have no fear! Below, you will find several ideas on how you can start using interactive notebook resources (sometimes referred to as INBs) in your English Language Arts classes TODAY! If you're tired of teaching grammar, punctuation or even novel studies the same old way, I have some ideas and suggestions on how you can change things up.
Interactive notebooks are both a continuous lesson and learning tool that can be referred to throughout a term or semester. Every time an interactive lesson is completed, students can keep it within their interactive notebook, which they can refer to any point when writing or reading throughout a semester. This resource is also a great study guide. It would probably be helpful to keep their interactive notebooks in a section of your classroom inside a bin or folder, so as to ensure none go missing or end up damaged! Once the term is over, students can take their interactive notebook with them, in hopes that they may refer to it in future English classes.
I will admit, I still regularly use pen and paper-type tasks in my classroom. (I haven't really delved into the online digital learning market, as much as I could have). While I may do a separate grammar lessons via handouts and worksheets that I have created at the start of a semester, for example, I will continue to review grammar skills using interactive resources, as another point of practice, as well as to differentiate how the skill is being taught. A fun way to incorporate everyday ELA skills into the classroom is through interactive games. As middle and high school students tend to enjoy competition, I knew this would be a real hit amongst my students!
Grammar Races: Interactive Notebook Game
This interactive notebook learning game is both exciting and educational, while your students learn how to properly use grammar in their writing. This activity can be completed individually, in small groups or even as a team. Students can use this interactive notebook resource to reinforce and improve their grammar skills, while enjoying a little friendly classroom competition. They won't even realize they're learning. :)

If you think your students might enjoy this activity, you can check out this Grammar Races Interactive Notebook Activity by clicking HERE!

The start of a new course or new term is a great time to reflect on the past and to set new goals for both personal and academic achievements. Again, if you're new to the interactive foldable idea or just looking for something quick and fun to start off the first day back of the New Year, here is a FREE 2018 Goals Interactive Foldable that you could use in your classroom on your first few days back in January! I have also included a FREE (generic) GOALS Interactive Foldable, which can be used at any point throughout a semester, if reflection is needed!

You might consider writing these themes on the board to help guide their writing:
  • Educational goals
  • Personal development goals
  • Career goals
  • Financial goals
  • Relationship goals
  • Physical/health goals
While there is no "set" method on how a teacher or student will set up their interactive notebook, some teachers choose to set up their interactive notebook using a left and right side method. To put it simply, our left and right brain hemispheres are used for different functions, so will the interactive notebook pages. The left side is used for more creative, free-thinking types of functions. 

Here are a few examples of what can be included on the right side of an interactive notebook. The right side tends to be used for more organized, analytic-types of functions. 

You might also be interested in these other interactive notebook activities for ELA:

4 Ways to Teach College and Career Readiness

4 ways to teach college and career readiness in the secondary ela classroom.

As a high school English teacher, I feel that it’s important to make sure my students are ready for life outside of high school. I usually teach freshmen and sophomores, but this year is my first year teaching senior-level English, and it is eye-opening. My students are so aware, so mature, and so afraid. In several short months they will receive their high school diplomas and walk their last steps on the high school campus which they’ve called home for the last four years. While teaching literature, literary analysis, and grammar is essential for all English teachers, we also have a responsibility to prepare these kids for life outside of the academic world. Here are a few ways to teach college and career readiness to our students.

Teaching students how to write an exceptional personal statement is important because it is so versatile. Students can transfer those skills to writing college admissions essays, scholarship essays, and cover letters. When I teach this skill in my own classroom, I emphasize the use of anecdotes. My students determine which positive attributes they want to convey, and then they prove how they embody those traits with an anecdote. To practice this in the classroom, we use some of the University of California admissions prompts for practice. This way my students get to work on a meaningful prompt they will get to use when it comes time to apply for colleges.

Dedicating a day or two for a mock interview is a great way to help students gain confidence in their interviewing skills. The more students practice answering on-the-spot questions about their background, their work ethic, and their skills and abilities, the more confident they will be during an actual interview. When I conduct mock interviews in my classroom, I also teach soft skills. We discuss appropriate interview attire, we practice nice, firm handshakes and maintaining eye contact, and we talk about what it means to be a good employee.

There are a couple ways to incorporate a mock interview into your classroom. Despite which format you choose, the most important aspect of this exercise is to have students reflect on their experience immediately afterward. Students need to analyze what went well, what didn’t, and how they plan to improve for their next interview.
You can download a free reflection form here.

  • Mock Interview
If you want to provide your students the opportunity to experience a longer, more in-depth interview, host a mock interview in your classroom. Instruct students to dress the part and bring a resume to class that day. When I conduct mock interviews in class, I have my students partner up  and have them sit at the tables across from one another. One student is the interviewer, and the other is the interviewee. After 20 minutes, they switch roles. What I like about this set-up is that students get to practice their interview skills in a small, intimate setting. They also get to see how their partner responds to the same questions they have been asked.  similar questions.  

  • Speed Interviewing
If you are looking for a fun twist on the mock interview, try speed interviewing. In this scenario, you will have students placed into two groups: interviewers and interviewees. Similar to the mock interview, they will sit across from one another, but after 2-3 minutes, the interviewees will rotate and begin the entire process over again. After 20-30 minutes (and this will depend on how long your class periods are), student roles will switch so that everyone has an opportunity to practice their interviewing skills.
Free mock interview reflection form

Another way to get students thinking about life outside of school is through research. This year my seniors completed a career research project and, according to them, it was one of the most valuable assignments they’ve completed. For the project, I had students research careers they were interested in. They researched the qualifications, advancement opportunities, locations, salary range, and general responsibilities required for that particular career. As part of the assignment they also completed a self reflection where they evaluated whether they felt like their chosen career was a good fit for them. For a few students, this assignment made them realize that the career they chose wasn’t suitable or practical to their needs or wants.
To incorporate speaking and listening into your career research paper, add in a presentation requirement. Students can use a variety of digital tools including Google Slides, Adobe Spark, or Piktochart to create a visual element to present to class. This also benefits all of the students in the class because they will be exposed to a variety of professions.

Here are additional resources for teaching career and college readiness:
Career/Job Exploration Project - The Classroom Sparrow
Career Readiness Bundle - The SuperHERO Teacher

Creative Ways to Teach Persuasive Language

Remember that time you watched a Facebook video and gave up sugar for a whole week? Or was it gluten? It was probably wine. OK, so that didn’t stick but don’t feel bad; you did agree to donate to that charity. And the proceeds from those cookies you bought went to a really good cause. 

Speaking of cookies, how often have you picked up a lifestyle magazine and convinced yourself you could be the next Martha Stewart? Also, why do they always put the health and fitness magazines right next to the check out? That’s where I pay for my candy bars! ‘They cancel each other out, though’. That’s what I tell myself when I add them to my basket. I know I’m not the only one guilty of impulse purchases. Be honest… what about those gorgeous, super uncomfortable shoes you never wear but bought because they were on sale? Or the time you ordered that exercise equipment with complete confidence that it would transform you into a supermodel/olympian. Oh wait, maybe that was me…

My point is (and I promise you, I do have one) – whether we’re aware of it or not – our choices aren’t as free as they seem. So many of our decisions, every single day, are guided by other people. Usually marketing executives. Sometimes journalists. Occasionally politicians and activists. More frequently celebrities and social media ‘influencers’. Even friends and family have the power to persuade us to change our behavior, think like they do, or ‘call your mother once in a while’. 

The fact that persuasion is so prevalent in every aspect of our culture means there are a ton of ways you can teach it using fun, relatable, and relevant examples that your students will respond to. In fact, I’ve got eight creative ideas right here!

1. Analyze print advertisements

Even in this digital age, printed advertising isn’t slowing down. Whether it’s giant billboards, or flyers through our letterboxes, you have thousands of persuasive examples to choose from. But I’ve found that one of the best way to engage teenagers is to bring in magazines that appeal to their specific areas of interest and comb through the many (many) pages of adverts. You know your students, so pick a selection of sports, exercise, music, fashion… whatever you think they’ll connect with!

2. Pay attention to current political discourse
Youtube is a modern goldmine for recorded speeches. Search for rallies, press conferences, debates, or state addresses to link your lesson to current affairs. But don’t limit yourself to politicians; activists are among the most savvy public speakers. Check the number of views and comments each speech has received for an idea of how effective and influential they’ve been.

3. Evaluate historical speeches
Analyzing persuasive language of the past is a great opportunity for cross-curricular projects. Have a chat with the history teachers and find out what they have planned for their lessons.

  • The Civil Rights Movement? An obvious choice would be Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • The Cuban Missile Crisis? Look to John F. Kennedy.
  • The Second World War? Look to Winston Churchill. 
  • The Women’s Rights Movement? You can’t do much better than Sojourner Truth.  

4. Embrace the season
If you coincide your lessons with seasonal celebrations, your students will carry on making connections and building awareness even outside the classroom. Big events like the Super Bowl, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and the Olympics are all great opportunities to talk about the power of advertising. While your students watch seasonal commercials, get them to write down all the techniques they spot, like persuasive language bingo!

5. Look to Shakespeare
Your students might not realize that persuasive language techniques are prevalent in fiction too, but it’s a great way to interject a language lesson into a literature study. One of my favorite ‘cross-over’ lessons involves Macbeth; Lady Macbeth is the consummate manipulator. But there are so many other examples of Shakespearean characters who use persuasive language to devastating effect – like Iago in Othello, or Claudius in Hamlet, or Cassius in Julius Caesar.
6. Look to the big (and little) screen
In my experience, students love any excuse to watch TV in class! Which is lucky as TV and movies are full of fantastic examples of persuasive language. War films are always a good bet for rousing speeches, but my favorite clips to watch and deconstruct with my students are always the closing speeches in courtroom dramas.

7. Turn your students into Ad Execs
Encourage your students to learn by doing. Ask them to pick a product or an idea – something they’re passionate about – and design their own advert using persuasive language techniques. This is always a big hit in my classroom; my students jump at the chance to use their creativity in such a free and independent way. 

8. Host a debate 
No study of rhetoric would be complete without a debate. After all, Artistotle defined rhetoric as ‘the art of argument’ so it really is the cherry on top of the persuasive language cake. There’s no better way for students to practice and show off their new persuasive skills and knowledge of ethos, logos, and pathos than to craft their own arguments. And to really get them fired up, the first debate can be choosing the debate topic!

So, there you have it! Teaching rhetoric is one of my most favourite elements of teaching English because it is relevant, and all around us! What are your favourite ways for teaching persuasion?

Looking for more resources for teaching RHETORIC? 

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