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Setting the Tone: Engaging Lesson Ideas for the First Class of the Year

For many high school students, the first day of school is - all too often - a monotonous time loop. They move from room to room, listen to numerous teacher introductions, collect a pile of course curricula, hear rules and expectations, and have to answer that predictable how-was-your-summer question (again, and again, and again). Not a great way to generate enthusiasm and excitement for the year.

So here are five more engaging ways to start the year right in the high school ELA classroom; they work for all grades from 8-12. If you really have to hand out course descriptions or go over rules and expectations, why not leave it for a couple of days into the course?

IDEA ONE: Guided Creative Writing

One of my all-time favourite first-lessons: jump right in and get students writing, writing, writing! By the end of class, students will have a whole page of writing generated, which works to eliminate the pre-writing anxiety, provide you with a sample of their written proficiency, and set the tone for creativity and productivity in your room!  

1. Arrange the room so that students are sitting individually. As students enter, hand them each a blank piece of paper, and tell them that there should be nothing else on their desks except a pen or pencil. 
2. Jump straight into the exercise without any introduction. Simply instruct students to divide the page into 6 squares. 
3. Tell students to pick an object (any one!) and write it in the top left corner of the first square (write small). Allow about 20 seconds for this. 
4. Now, work through the rest of the squares the same way, with the following guided prompts: in the second square, write an action (a verb); in the third, write an adjective; the fourth, an onomatopoeic word (sound); the fifth, an animal; the sixth, a number.
5. Next, instruct students to turn their attention to box one, and use that word in a sentence: write it small at the top of the box (allow about a minute for this).
6. Now instruct students to move on to box two, to use that word in a sentence; even if they were mid-sentence in box one, it doesn’t matter, they must move on. Again give them a minute for this. 
7. Repeat with all six boxes. 
8. Now, guide students through each box again, telling them to carry on where they left off, writing as much as they possibly can. This time, give about 3 minutes a box. 
Break here as students’ hands may be cramping! 
9. Now, hand out lined paper and explain to students that they have to take those boxes and weave them all into one coherent story! *For differentiation, you may want to give the option of only picking 3 or 4 boxes. 
10. Students may be shocked or exclaim that they can’t! Take the opportunity to emphasise a growth mindset, to encourage them that it doesn’t matter; it is not graded; it is just for fun, and that you expect their story to be completely bizarre! 
11. In the last 10 minutes of class, allow time for editing, or for perhaps reading stories out loud! 

For more ways to get to know your English classes, check out this blog by Secondary Sara.

IDEA TWO: Behaviors and Expectations for Learning

Student buy-in is key at the high-school level. They should be developing their own voices, and we should be encouraging them to use them! Therefore, flip the script and have them make their own goals for learning, and define their own expectations for the learning environment. After all, it is their education; encourage students to take ownership of it. Download these free printable cards for students to write their own mission statements and goals for the year, or use the following lesson:

1. Print out a set of these posters, and place them around the room: stuck on whiteboards or chart paper. 
2. Instruct students to walk around and write examples around the posters, or on sticky-notes attached to the posters. 
3. Then when they are done, put students into four focus groups: one per poster. 
4. These groups have to read all the contributions and then come up with 2 or 3 of the most common points or ideas (or combine different ones into these points). 
5. Then review and discuss. Take down the 2 or 3 main points from each group and write these up in a list of positive "Class Norms" on the wall.
6. Throughout the year, keep coming back to these to make sure all students are adhering to the expectations they agreed on.

IDEA THREE: Literature Close Annotation

As an English teacher, one of my key goals is to have students fall in love with words! I want them to engage with language around them in a meaningful way: whether that is the metaphors used in sports commentary, the subtle rhetorical techniques in political speeches, or the poetry increasingly popular on Instagram. Therefore, I often start the year (or course) by having students spend a whole lesson reading a range of extracts: annotating, finding connections, and making observations.

Before Class
1. Lay out the desks of the classroom in groups of 4 or 5. 
2. Collect and print sets of random pieces of text: poems, speeches, fiction, etc. You could print this set, or curate your own (one set per group). 
3. Place these sets in the center of each group, along with colored markers/pens. 
During Class
1. When students enter, assign them to a group, and tell them to keep their desks free from distraction: all they need is pens!
2. Now, instruct students to turn to the pile of extracts on their desk; they are to spend time passing them around, reading, and annotating.
3. Instruct students that they should annotate for content (questions they have, thoughts, links to other texts, etc.), for structure (line structure, punctuation, repetition, etc.), and language (figurative techniques, word choice, etc.) - You might want to write these prompts on the board.
4. Allow plenty of time for students to share the extracts around, each annotating multiple ones.
5. Now instruct students to discuss the extracts at their tables: Which did they like? Why? Can they make connections between any of them? Which were the most different? Which did they not like? Why not? Any notably interesting phrasing or word choice?
6. Project a few on the board, and annotate with the class: discuss and demonstrate things to look for; talk about why you like them; what’s beautiful about them; what’s clever or interesting.    

Get these LEARNING GOAL cards HERE

I hope your school year gets off to a great start; definitely check out our best Teacher Hacks for Back-To-School, and if you are looking for more ideas, make sure you read our list of nine of the Best Resources for Back to School.

If you are still hungry for inspiration, you may be interested in these resources:

Encourage Reading With Student Book Reviews

I love nothing more than hearing that a student loved the book they just read.  It is music to my ears when a student asks me if I know any other books like the one they just finished, because they are excited to keep reading.   As an ELA teacher and librarian, I work hard to help students find the right book... my only concern when I am helping a student, is to find a book that they will enjoy and hopefully read all the way through.  I do not worry about the level, how many pages it is, whether it is non-fiction or fiction - I only worry about whether I think I have matched a great book with the right student.

One of the best ways to encourage reading with my students is to have students chat with each other about what they are reading.  Nothing can inspire a student to read a book more, than when a friend or classmate tells them enthusiastically about a fantastic book.  If we are doing an independent novel study I give my class time to chat with each other about what they are reading - nothing formal, just a few minutes to share with someone new what they are reading.  When we are doing Lit Circles, where I have groups reading different novels, I create a quick jigsaw rotation so that students get to hear about the books that others have read.

My students have really enjoyed the books that they have read this year and so I created a template for a BOOK REVIEW POSTER.  It is short and sweet and does not take the students long to complete. I display the posters around my classroom and library as a way to encourage others to sign out the books.  Grab a FREE DIGITAL VERSION or a FREE PRINT VERSION!

Remarkably these little posters work! Students love seeing what other students have read and are encouraged to read the books that I have reviews for.  Next year I am planning to create a more permanent way of displaying student book reviews - I'll be sure to keep you posted!.

Another way I promote books and reading, is that I always share what I am reading with my students.  I give a quick book talk when I read something new and often encourage specific students to read if I think it will appeal to them.  This has been a great way to connect with students over the years.

Tips and Tricks
- Always read when the students are reading.  I know you could be grading, cleaning up or doing one of the million other things you have going on, but nothing is more powerful than modeling reading.

- Do a quick display of what the teachers at your school are reading! Give the staff a copy of the Book Review Template and have a teacher display!

- Have a wide range of books - diversity matters!  A wide range of fiction and non-fiction, magazines, newspapers, even old textbooks may appeal!  The more you have available, the more likely someone is to find something they like.

-In order to keep some of the momentum for reading going over the summer, I'm going to allow students to sign out three books over the summer. I have never tried this before and I am optimistic that some kids will take me up on the offer and very optimistic that the books will be returned at the start of the school year.

Popular Titles With My Students
Some of the books that have really taken off this year in the library and in my classroom are listed below.  They are not necessarily the newest books, but they are the books that have resonated with my students.
Bear Town - Fredrik Backman
Boy 21 - Mathew Quick 
Dear Martin - Nic Stone
The Declaration - Gemma Malley
Eleanor & Park - Rainbow Rowell
The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas
Invincible - Vince Papale
Juice - Eric Walters
Long Way Down - Jason Reynolds
Moon At Nine - Deborah Ellis
The Smell of Other People's Houses - Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
Son of the Mob - Gordon Korman
A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaled Hosseini
We Are All Made of Molecules - Susin Nielsen

Happy Reading!

For more book suggestions or to read how I run Lit Circles in my classroom check out this blog post!

Also check out this fun Book Shelfie Activity from Tracee Orman - it's another great way to promote reading among your students.

Nouvelle ELA also has a great (FREE!) activity for Book Talks!

End-of-the-Year Activities & Keepsakes

It's that time of year when we are all feeling run down and ready for summer break. At the same time, we've been with our students all year (or semester) and have seen their incredible growth. It's bittersweet when we finally reach our last week or day of class.

At the high school level, I always hate to end my final class period with an exam, even though it's required. I usually give students time leading up to the test day for review (obviously) but also for a no-strings-attached fun activity to end the year on a positive note. I do this because: 
• Ending with a test is definitely not the most positive way to send my students off AND
• I think secondary students deserve to have some fun at the end of a long year, too, AND 
• I don't want anything I have to grade. 😏 

The activities have varied from year-to-year (depending on the time I have left by the end of the semester). One thing is certain: they must be activities that the students WANT to complete even though they most likely are not going to get any grade for doing them (some years I have given a simple completion grade, but most of the time they do the activity because they want to). 

Here are some of my favorites for our final day(s) together:

Live & Learn Life Lessons: This activity is so simple but always generates the most amazing results. First, I share some "life lessons" with my students: one-sentence proclamations that summarize a (sometimes hard) lesson learned. The writers of the lessons are known only by their age. 
Examples include: 
"I have learned that if you have gum, everyone will ask for a piece. -Age 14"
"I have learned that grades don't reflect knowledge, but effort. -Age 15"
"I have learned the build-up to getting your driver's license is actually more exciting than getting it. -Age 16"
"I have learned that dog poop freezes in the winter and when you step on it, it doesn't mush or smell. It's like a rock. -Age 16"
"I have learned senior year goes by faster than any other. -Age 18"

After I share examples, I pass out a slip that just has "I have learned..." and "Age: ___" printed on it. (You can download the template FREE here.) Students respond in writing, then after everyone is finished, we read them aloud. Students have the choice of whether they want to reveal themselves or not. Some even ask for theirs not to be read. In the end, I collect them in a binder and make copies of them for their graduation. 

It's also a wonderful retirement keepsake to give a teacher. Instead of just "I have learned...," type "I learned from Mr./Mrs./Ms. ______..." You can also use it as a nice send-off for a student teacher; it's guaranteed to be something they will reread and treasure for years.

Advice Memes: Oh, how I love using memes in class! The images can convey so much in such a short, simple way. I love to allow my students to create their own and the end of the year is the perfect time for them to create memes for future classes. They not only help future students, but they give me feedback on things I may need to tweak or adjust for future classes.

Yes, I am guilty of taking way too long to grade essays (and pass them back), as shown in one of the example memes above. Even though it can be humbling, I still find using them extremely helpful for improving my own instruction. Plus, you will have your first day partially planned out when you share the memes with your new classes in the fall! You can find ready-to-go handouts and instructions for this activity here.

Word Cloud Posters: I love using sites such as WordArt.com, WordClouds.com, or Tagxedo.com to create fun and meaningful art for my students. They are also great for having students create their own art using original poems (such as an "I Am..." poem) or a short story they have written. At the end of the year, though, I love importing a class list of my students' names and having the website generate a word cloud with them using their graduation year as the shape template. Then I just print them and pass them out before students leave for the year. 

Memory Books: Have your students record their memories, information, major events, and favorite things from the past school year. 

Memory books are a great addition to a school yearbook and a nice keepsake, especially for those students who may not have purchased a yearbook. 

I offer different spins on the traditional memory book. I have a range of memory flip books, a simple memory page (great if you are short on time!), and an editable memory book where students can insert their own pictures and text using Google Slides or Microsoft PowerPoint or Word (perfect for 1:1 schools).   

Social Media Exit Slips: You can use these social media handouts as exit slips (or bell ringers) with your students for a fast, fun activity. 

Have your students summarize the year either in hashtags, through emojis, or with a playlist of songs. You can display them on a bulletin board after they have all turned them in or have students share them aloud with the class. 

Download them FREE by clicking here or on the image. 

Time Capsule: Using any of the activities above, have your students create a time capsule that won't be opened until a specific date (like their graduation). In addition to any of the aforementioned activities, have your students write a note to their future self. They can summarize their school year and write about what they hope to be doing when the capsule is opened. Use either regular-sized or large manila envelopes to store the contents (students may include anything else, such as an essay or poem they've written or an assignment they are particularly proud of. They can either store the envelopes themselves or, if you have the means, you could put them all in a box and store them, then distribute. Another option is asking your school librarian if he/she could store them for the students. 

What are your favorite end-of-the-year activities? 

My friends here on the blog have shared some of theirs, too. 
Check them out here:
End of the Year Growth Mindset Activities by The Daring English Teacher

Group Poster Projects for the Secondary ELA Classroom

One of my favorite ways to actively engage my students and encourage student collaboration is by incorporating collaborative poster projects in my classroom. These projects are great for analysis and critical thinking, and they are relatively simple to facilitate and assign because they are low-prep, student-centered activities.

Essentially, for a collaborative poster project, I instruct my students to work together in small groups to discover or analyze and present a specific topic.

To make sure that I am prepared to throw together a collaborative poster project at the drop of a hat, there are several supplies that I always keep stocked in my room: a roll of white butcher paper, ledger-sized (11x17) copy paper, and plenty of markers. You can use either type of paper. I usually prefer butcher paper because it is much larger, and so it is easier for multiple students to work on the poster simultaneously.

There are a few reasons why I love assigning these types of activities in my classroom, and since I've had so much success with them, I am always trying to think up new ways to incorporate the collaborative poster project into my curriculum. I love how these projects foster critical thinking and collaboration. I also love that these are student-centered projects. Additionally, I love using collaborative poster projects as a formative assessment tool. As my students are working on the assignment in groups, I can walk around the classroom and not only monitor student progress, but I can also assess my students' understanding of the content we are studying based on their group conversations and analysis. One of the best things about these projects is that I can use them at various points throughout my unit.

Assigning a group poster project to introduce a new unit or concept is a great way to have students work together and discover important information about a particular subject or concept. When I do this to introduce a new novel unit, I first think about various big ideas or thematic ideas relating to the novel. I assign each group a different concept and give them almost the entire class period to find out information about that particular concept. Usually, students briefly present the information the next day.

When assigning an introductory collaborative poster project, here is a list of items I typically have my students include on their posters:

  • A dictionary definition of the word
  • The word defined in their own words
  • Synonyms of the word
  • Antonyms of the word
  • A quote about the concept from a philosopher, historian, author, or politician
  • An illustration of the concept

After this initial assignment (which usually takes about one and a half 55-minute long class periods), I display the posters around the classroom, and my students refer to them throughout the novel study as we discuss and analyze essential passages. I like to have my students complete an activity like this for their dialectical journal entries they complete as we read a novel.

Another great use of collaborative poster projects is as a formative assessment for analysis. As I mentioned earlier, these projects are perfect for monitoring your students' progress in learning and mastering a specific skill. Plus, you can include these posters in any fiction, nonfiction, or poetry unit.

The Rhetorical Analysis Collaborative Poster Project

The very first group poster project I assigned my students was a rhetorical analysis poster. I did this during our rhetorical analysis unit because I needed to get through quite a few speeches, but I still wanted a jig-saw-like activity to be meaningful.

For this project, every group had a different speech to read and analyze. After the initial analysis, students compiled their information, including their annotated speech, onto the poster.

After my students completed their posters, we used the next day to listen to each of the speeches aloud. Then, students completed a gallery walk activity where they looked at each poster and made a note of which rhetorical devices were used and why.

The Short Story Collaborative Review Poster Project

After such a successful rhetorical analysis poster project, I took the idea and used it as a short story review activity. I assigned each group a different short story that we read together in class. After spending just one class period working together on their poster, students needed to have the posters complete and ready to present the next class period. This was the perfect complement to my literary analysis unit.

Each group had to include each of these elements on their posters: title, author, summary, definitions of literary elements, examples of literary elements within the story, and quotes. For the literary elements, students included theme, motif, conflict, character type, tone, mood, symbol, and point-of-view.

Poetry Analysis Collaborative Poster Project

In addition to rhetorical analysis and literary analysis, the collaborative poster project concept also works well as a poetry analysis poster project. When I teach poetry analysis and have my students analyze poems, I have them use the SWIFT acronym: structure (or symbolism), word choice, imagery, figurative language, and theme and tone.

For the poster, each group has a different poem. They analyze the poem using the SWIFT acronym and include each element on the poster. Additionally, I like to have them illustrate some of the imagery on the poster and also include a copy of the annotated poem on the poster as well.

When I assign credit to these projects to assess student learning, I mostly grade these assignments holistically as a learning process. Read: as long as my students put forth the effort, I usually give full credit. However, I’ve created these three rubrics especially for you to use in your classroom.

Whether you utilize group poster projects to introduce a new concept or novel or as a formative assessment tool, your students will use their collaboration skills to work together to complete the final project. And what's even better is that this method naturally lends itself to quick and informal student presentations where the students present their information and ideas to their peers.


5 Ways to Use Collaboration and Critical Thinking

Hey, y’all! Danielle here, from Nouvelle ELA. Today, I want to get real honest about something that’s been on my mind over the last couple of years. You know, I used to start my lesson planning with the text in mind. When I planned out Romeo & Juliet, I created anticipation activities, scaffolding vocabulary and plot, and ways to review each act to make sure every student was on board. Sure, I felt like my students understood, but then what? Were they really getting the most out of my class?


Now, I start with collaboration and critical thinking in mind. These are the tent poles for every unit I create. How are my students going to build these skills, and what texts can I use to support them?

Here are five ways you can incorporate these skills in your classroom.

1. Build community and teamwork

We’ve talked before on the Coffee Shop blog about building community and teamwork in the classroom. When students feel safe and supported, they can do the other work we ask of them. Before a student can be secure in standing up for a persuasive speech, they need to know that their classmates are cheering for them. What a great reason to focus on collaboration!

In my classroom, I start the year with plenty of collaborative exercises to develop this sense among my students. Day one is a Back to School Escape Room or a Marshmallow STEM Challenge. In the first week, students also do a Peer Interview Project, giving me a real chance to get to know them, even as they get to know each other.

One thing I do to promote collaboration and critical thinking throughout the year is Collaborative Bellringers. These are team trivia bellringers that are ELA-themed and tie in pop culture. Students love them! Trivia is naturally competitive, and I keep the same teams for as long as I use the bellringers. I also love using these because I’ve found they encourage students to get to class on time. No one wants to miss a fun warm-up!

2. Building anticipation

I now integrate collaboration and critical thinking in my anticipation activities. For example, before teaching The Great Gatsby, I make sure students have background knowledge about WWI and the Roaring 20s. I do this through 4-Corners Brainstorming.

In groups, students consider one of the following questions. I use four groups because I have four questions, but you can adapt this strategy as needed.

  • What are some difficulties faced by soldiers returning home from war?
  • What was life like for women and families of soldiers during World War I?
  • What was life like for African Americans after World War I?
  • How did American life change when the automobile became widely available?

The goal is to generate possible answers to present to other students. There aren’t “wrong” answers—the students are sharing prior knowledge in a group setting. Students should record notes from their discussions because they’ll each be ambassadors to other groups. I give students five minutes to complete this first portion.

Next, I split up students and create new groups with at least one member from each original question group. Students share what they came up with in their original groups (practicing small group presentations!) and generate more ideas as a new group. I give students ten minutes to do this. You can use this concept for any set of anticipatory questions, too, and it’s low prep.

3. Maximize critical thinking

My favorite way to center collaboration in my teaching practice is by using Escape Rooms. Escape Rooms are a gamified introduction or review activity that you can create for any text or topic. Students work together to solve puzzles, progress through the levels, and “escape”. It’s great to see students sharing information as a team and truly thinking hard about how the clues fit together.

If you haven’t tried an Escape Room in the classroom, it’s an amazing experience! I have a template for any text here, and I’ve discussed using Escape Rooms in ELA on my blog. Let me know if you have questions.

4. Reduce pressure for them, grading for you

I’ve also integrated more collaborative essays and speeches into my curriculum. This is a great way to reduce pressure on them, decrease busy work, and reduce grading for you. I’ve also been intentional about moving beyond mere “group work.”  Many students hate group work - I was one of those students, and it seemed like I always did way more than my “fair share”. Here are ways you can be intentional when creating collaborative opportunities:

*YOU divide up the work, not them. If you assign a group essay, tell students the breakdown. Set the expectation that groups will be jointly responsible for the introduction and conclusion and individually responsible for a body paragraph. This is an easy way to avoid someone getting the toughest job (the introduction) or the easiest (the conclusion). It will also assure that you’re grading students on equitable displays of mastery.

*YOU set the schedule, not them. To avoid someone having to be a “group leader” or having a group feel adrift without one, set the schedule for what students should accomplish each day. If students are working together on a group speech, set the expectation you’ll see three slides from each student at the end of a workday.

*Value intra-group feedback. One way you can help students learn that every group member has something to contribute is to hold groups accountable for intra-group feedback. When preparing for a group presentation, each group member can give their section of the presentation for the rest of their group first as practice before presenting to the class. This is a great opportunity to incorporate Peer Feedback Activities. When group members receive feedback from the rest of their group, they’ll understand that everyone wants the group to succeed and they’ll feel more empowered for their own presentation or essay. Download these free Peer Feedback Slips to get started!

5. Foster creativity and a supportive space

I love using collaborative writing activities and the workshop model for creative endeavors. One of the first teaching activities I ever tried (way back in my first practicum!) was Round-Robin Writing. Students work together to write a creative story, building on what the group member before them wrote. The trick is that a group of five students actually has FIVE stories circulating, so things get wacky fast. This is such a fun activity for middle schoolers, but high schoolers enjoy the low-stakes chaos of this writing game, too.

Writer’s Workshops are a great place to integrate collaboration. Whereas students should work on their own creative pieces during this time, it is an opportunity to practice free feedback. When students write short stories in my class, I model giving “anytime” feedback. This is what writers do - when they get stuck, they ask critique partners specific questions to get unstuck. Writers pitch ideas to a small group of friends. Writers don’t always fill out a feedback form. Sometimes, it’s informal. Sometimes, it’s magical.

Collaboration and critical thinking - final words

When you plan your unit, add intentional moments for collaboration and critical thinking. This will increase engagement and set up students for success.

Happy teaching!

Other resources from Coffee Shop teachers:
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