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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:

You might also like to see…

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

Teaching Vocabulary

We’ve all been, at least once in our lives, handed a long list of new vocabulary words and been forced to look up and write down the definitions, study them, complete a quiz, and move on.  We also all know that the process is far from an effective method of vocabulary instruction. It can be hard to know how to teach vocabulary to make it stick. Read below for some tips and activities to liven up your vocabulary instruction to allow students to not just memorize and regurgitate definitions, but actually consider, discuss, and have fun with new words.

First, vocabulary instruction is always more relevant if students select the terms whenever possible.  I usually have them peruse something we will be reading (novel, short story, poem etc.) and highlight terms and categorize them as either unclear or unknown words to create a short vocabulary list.

If you aren't reading a text to draw new words from, a fun and easy way to bring new vocabulary into your classroom is to have an interactive bulletin board that introduces a new word of the day/week.  This is a low-stress way to expose students to new vocabulary and provides a bank of terms for you to use for vocabulary instruction.

Avoid the traditional method of having students look up all the words in the dictionary.  This is usually a very dry process that doesn’t engage students.  Instead, provide a context for the term by teaching new words using images, stories, videos, or experiences.  For example, if you are teaching the word mortified you might consider the following:

- Tell students a story of when you felt mortified.
- Show them a picture of someone who is mortified
- Show a video clip from a TV or movie where a character is mortified.

After you feel you have provided students with a deep, engaging explanation of the new words, have them show their understanding to clarify any misunderstandings.  You can do this by having them share their understanding of the terms in their own words (aloud or in writing), write their own examples in sentences, or draw or find an image that represents the new words.  It’s important that students don’t simply restate your definition or ideas, but rather provide their own original examples to show that they fully understand the meaning.  Try this free vocabulary card to have students examine a word in great detail: FREE VOCABULARY CARD

You might also consider helping students deconstruct the word at this point if there are any prefixes, suffixes, or root words to examine.  

After students have learned and shown understanding of the new words, come back to the terms a few days later to have students engage with them in a fun and creative way.  Read below to see some of my favorite ways to engage students in vocabulary practice! 

Have students find or examine famous quotes that contain the words they have learned by searching for quotes that use the word online (example search: "mortified quotes").  I also use them as a way to introduce new vocabulary by having students guess the meaning of words in the context of how it is used within the quotation. Try this activity in your class by clicking here: FAMOUS VOCABULARY QUOTES

Have students interact with the new words by having them perform a short vocabulary theater skit.  Students work in groups to write and perform an original skit that includes the new vocabulary terms.

Have students play a game of “Word Sneak.”  Inspired by The Tonight Show game (click here to see an example), students will each get a unique short list of vocabulary words that they need to casually sneak into a conversation with a partner.  They check off the words they are able to incorporate for one point each.  It’s also fun to add a few silly words (ninja, guacamole, race car etc.) to each list to liven up the game.  

Have students play a game of Vocabulary Bingo.  Students write the words they learned into the bingo squares.  You read out the definition (or provide a synonym or antonym) of the word and students have to color in the appropriate word (or use paper squares or a bingo dabber).  When they get a line colored in, have them yell out, “I love vocabulary!”  A small prize is always a nice touch.  Use these free bingo card templates by clicking here: VOCABULARY BINGO

Play a game of Vocabulary Memory.  Give students small squares of paper (preferably a thicker paper to avoid cheating).  Students make matching cards, one with the vocabulary word and one with the definition.  They mix the cards up and place them face down on the table.  Each partner takes his or her turn to flip 2 cards over attempting to match the term with its proper definition.  If they make a match, they keep the card and earn one point!
If you are looking for other resources to teach vocabulary, the ladies of the coffee shop have you covered!  Click below to check out what they use to teach vocabulary. 

Vocabulary Poster Project from Nouvelle ELA
Free Vocabulary Cube Activity from The Daring English Teacher
Vocabulary Differentiation Flipbook from Secondary Sara

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