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6 Ways to Keep Students Focused After the Test

Whether it’s a couple of days or a few weeks, many teachers dread the class time remaining “after the test.” They think there’s no reason to teach anymore, nor kids who care about learning. But I relish the opportunity to teach with freedom that may not have been available before the test. In fact, I think the topics that can be taught during this time can be even more important than those from earlier in the school year.

The students and I are also more relaxed as we don’t have pressure to learn specific skills that are just mandated for success on standardized assessments. So, what do I do? I’ve included ideas below:

1. Teach a short play.  

Plays are fun to read aloud and can be acted out, too. To make reading aloud more comfortable for students, ask them to first read scenes silently so they’re familiar with the text.

If you don’t have time to act out entire scenes, use the 2016 mannequin challenge to inspire a “tableau vivant” activity.  Assign students to groups and have them “freeze” in postures which depict scenes. Each group takes turns presenting while the rest of the class guesses which characters and events are being portrayed. Two of my favorite plays to use in American Literature are A Raisin in the Sun and Brighton Beach Memoirs.

2. Show TED Talks or other short videos.

Between TED talks, commencement addresses, and videos from authors such as John Green, the internet has an abundance of media to help students practice their listening skills. Use a quick and easy organizer or ask students to take informal notes. Afterwards, discuss their insights and reactions.

3. Take students outside.

With warmer temperatures, students and teachers are often craving time outdoors. Look for a park, sports field, or other outdoor space (we have a courtyard) for a short “field trip.” Take students on sensory writing walks (here’s a freebie with instructions) or for reflective journaling. During our transcendentalism unit, my students write about how nature inspires them.

You can also work with another teacher to create interdisciplinary learning. For instance, when I taught middle school students, the science teacher and taught a unit about the food chain with a predator and prey game. After playing the tag game, students wrote from the perspectives of the animals they simulated.

4. Use real-world connections.

Engage students in a mini-unit in which they write letters to local officials about issues that are important to them and their communities. Or, instead of complaining about school rules and classes, have them write to advocate for policies that they think would improve their school.

Last year my students wrote letters asking for an accelerated English program since there are no honors English classes available to them. After researching the issue, they wrote letters to the superintendent, English supervisor, principal, guidance counselor, and other officials. To help your students write effective argumentative letters and editorials, you can find free resources and lessons from the College, Career, and Community Writers Program (C3WP), affiliated with the National Writing Project.

5. Collaborate with teachers from other schools.

Arrange a day for your students to read to elementary school students. They can either read books recommended by the elementary teacher or you can ask students to write their own fairy tales and other appropriate short stories to read to the younger students. This creates an authentic audience for your students and makes them role models for children.

Want to discuss a topic with students at another school?
Arrange a Twitter chat. My Advanced Placement English Literature students chatted about the novel The Awakening with a class from New York City. I recommend telling students to create specific accounts for this activity and only sharing first names or pseudonyms to protect their privacy.

6. Reflect and set goals.

The end of the year is a perfect time for students to reflect on their performance and experiences from the past school year. By recalling the year’s successes and challenges, they gain self-awareness and can set goals to help them succeed with next year.

There are many ways this can be accomplished. Go low prep and ask students to write letters to their future selves, which you can deliver the following school year. Or, if time permits, have students write formal goals with these tips in mind:
make goals specific and relevant, make them measurable, make them attainable, and set deadlines for achievement.
Lastly, use task cards or these free coloring bookmarks to make the activity fun!

Well, it's time for the test, but I hope you found something you can use afterwards. I’d love to hear what you do, too. Please share your favorite activities below.

Make Writing Magical With Poetry

Helping Students Enjoy Writing Again

Sometimes students are afraid to write.

They may have had negative experiences with writing in previous classes. Maybe they’ve only been required to write for standardized tests which has turned them off to writing. Perhaps, they just lack confidence in their writing abilities.

Well, one way to help them enjoy writing again is with poetry since it can give writers both freedom and an emotional outlet. Here are ways you can use creative activities and poetry to make writing pleasurable for them. 

Have students “play” with words.

Paint Strips
Use sensory writing to let students experiment with language. Give students paint strips that help them “find” new words such as heartthrob red, radish, goldfinch, or oceanside. Bring in interesting objects like dolls, figurines, toys, feathers, etc. for them to describe.

Give students dictionaries and tell them to randomly turn to several pages, finding at least five words. Ask them to use the words in several sentences or a poem. They’ll learn new vocabulary in a non-threatening way.

Assign students letters from the alphabet and ask them to write meaningful sentences using assonance or consonance. Let them read them aloud with a partner. Watch them giggle as their sentences turn into silly tongue twisters.

Encourage your students to see the “art” in poetry writing.

Ask students to choose a page from a favorite novel to bring to class (or give them magazines and newspapers) so they can turn the page into Blackout Poetry. They use prose and

Blackout Poetry
circle words to create shapes on the page. Finally, they use black marker to block out the rest of the text. When they’re finished, they’re always impressed by what they’ve created!

Illustrate a line from a poem. Inspired by the free verse project, this lesson gets students to look closely at one line in a poem. They can do a close reading of the line and then illustrate it using photography, digital manipulation, and other creative techniques. They could even do this with a poem of their own.

Tell students to bring a favorite photo from home to use for writing a poem. First, they describe the literal picture with details and imagery. Then, students write about the story “behind” the photo. Ask them to tell the who, what, when, and where from the image. Also, challenge them to include the how and why. This is an effective way to teach students that a poem (and all of their writing) has multiple meanings.

Use Shape Poems to help students understand the relationship between form and meaning. Start with examples, such as the poem, “Seal” by William Jay Smith  or poems from Guillaume Apollinaire. Then brainstorm simple illustrations that they can draw; they use those shapes to inspire their writing.

Allow students to express emotions through poetry.

Teens are emotional! They need outlets for all of the feelings bubbling up inside of them. Dialogue poems get them to consider the complex emotions of two people or characters who have different points of view. These poems help students see the connections between people who may seem different but often have many similarities. There are innumerable relationships they can brainstorm: parent and child, boyfriend and girlfriend, cop and criminal…or, have them use characters from a work of fiction for the poem.

Write metaphor and simile poems that describe feelings. In these poems, students use figurative language to describe emotions. For instance, what does love look like or sound like? Is love the sight of tender kiss between a mother and her baby or the sound of a sobbing girl whose heart has been broken? These poems are also a great way for students to better understand figurative language.

Expand on this idea with a Four Metaphor Poem. I found this lesson through my work with the National Writing Project and it comes from WritingFix, Students use metaphors to describe abstract ideas.

Really, there is so much you can do with poetry to make writing accessible to teens. And if you need more ideas for teaching poetry, check out these online resources to engage students in poetry. 

What do you to get your students engaged with writing poetry and other forms of writing? Please share in the comments below.

Slam Dunk! Time for a Giveaway

Are you ready to make learning a special experience in your classroom? Subscribe to my newsletter right here from my blog, and you’ll be entered into my Championship Game Giveaway! In addition to getting a chance to win a Spalding® Hoopster® Wastepaper Basket, Mini Swish Foam Ball, AND $20 TpT gift card, you’ll get a free Trashketball game and other helpful tips for implementing the games successfully in your classroom.

When you use Trashketball to review grammar and other ELA concepts in your classes, you’ll join with these educators who have made learning magical for their students. Here’s feedback from them:

๐Ÿ’—So fun and creative! It is great to find different ways to reinforce these concepts besides the dull exercises in the grammar text :) Amy

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Don’t delay. Subscribe to my email now. 

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Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST 4/2//18. One winner will be announced on Tuesday, 4/3/18. 

                          Good luck!


Getting Teens to Read

Did you know that humans have a need to read? Some of my students don’t always agree with this sentiment, so every semester I begin with choice reading. By giving students choices in their reading, I hope to help them find the one book that will turn them into life-long readers. Over the years, I’ve learned which authors and books are most popular with my students.

Students gravitate toward young adult literature. I remember authors Judy Blume, S.E. Hinton, and Beverly Clearly, who made me feel normal and helped me feel deal with the turbulence of adolescence. Here are popular authors and books with my current students.

John Green
If you’ve seen the movie, The Fault in Our Stars, then you’re already familiar with this award-winner author’s books. Besides writing books that appeal to teens, he hosts the Vlogbrothers channel on YouTube. Here are a few of his books:
An Abundance of Katherines
Looking for Alaska
Paper Towns
Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Sarah Dessen
Labelled "something of a rock star in young adult fiction" by the Los Angeles Times, if you mention her name to a student, he/she will no doubt ooze admiration for her realistic-fiction stories. Teens relate to topics in her books such as getting along with family, dating, and friendship.
Keeping the Moon
This Lullaby
The Truth about Forever

Walter Dean Myers
Winner of the Coretta Scott King award, Myers books grapple with issues of race, gender, and war, and have at times been challenged for their realistic language. With over 100 books, students can find books on just about any topic or genre from this prolific writer. 
Fallen Angels
The Greatest: Muhammad Ali

And here are more YA books my students are reading right now:

Ask Me How I Got Here by 
Christine Heppermann
Darkness Before Dawn by 
Sharon Draper
The Hate You Give by 
Angie Thomas
After Ever Happy by 
Anna Todd

I always loved fantasy and science fiction when I was a younger reader, too. Favorites included Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time series (I can't wait to see the movie), Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders of Pern series, and, of course, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles. Fantasy and dystopian novels are more popular than ever before. Almost all of my students have already read The Hunger Games and Divergent series; now they're reading these:

Wool, Shift, Dust by 
Hugh Howey  
Wither (
Chemical Garden Triology) by Lauren Destefano
Unwind Series by Neal Shusterman

I also loved classics when I was growing up. I read Little Women repeatedly and loved Lord of the Flies. These books
are still read today but there are modern books of literary merit students love now.

Invention of Wings
Sue Monk Kidd
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

And, of course, students enjoy historical fiction and nonfiction, too.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys 
Orphan Train by Cristina Baker Kline
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrel

Actually, this list could go on and on...  

I'm always looking for new books to recommend to my students.  What are your students reading?

Teaching Civil Discourse

What happened to our ability to talk civilly to one another? When did we stop “agreeing to disagree”? A look on social media or network news quickly shows that respectful communication has diminished in current times. So, I was very happy last year when I was invited to facilitate an Advanced Institute for the College, Career, and Community Writers Program (C3WP) with the National Writing Project (NWP). With this program, I have been working alongside other interested educators to improve argumentative writing in my classes.

Here are important takeaways:

Students should READ before they write.

By having students read multiple articles on myriad issues, they learn that there are many valid perspectives. They also are exposed to models for their own writing, which helps them better understand the elements of an effective argument.

The C3WP program uses a lesson that incorporates a “layering” process of writing, reading, rewriting, reading, and rewriting again. This gives students an opportunity to explore an issue and revise their thinking – something that’s usually new to them. This also provides them practice for “writing with sources” instead of simply trying to use their background knowledge (which is often limited). 

I love getting articles from The New York Times Room for Debate website, a part of The Learning Network. In fact, I have developed an entire argument essay unit where they use these articles to explore research topics before they finally select one for their essays. Here are other useful sources for articles:

Kelly Gallagher: Article of the Week 

Teach students to write a NUANCED CLAIM.

In past years, I always told my students to include only their position on an issue in their claims, even when I taught English 101 at the local community college. Of course, they did accommodate the opposition, but they always did that in their refutations near the end of their essays.

A major feature of the C3WP program is writing nuanced

claims. These claims require the writer to immediately acknowledge that there are multiple views on an issue. This is not easy to teach because students can lose focus on their own positions. I’ve found it takes a lot of practice, modeling, and revision. 

 A helpful tool advocated by the program (based on the reading of I Say/They Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein) includes the use of sentence frames. I've instructed my students to turn their claims into thesis statements.  Here's a sentence frame I used and modified for this:

Although some people think ___________________, ______________ should ____________________ because reason 1, reason 2, reason 3.

Here’s an example I gave my students for a recent assignment:

Although some people think school start times should not be changed, school should begin later in the day for teens because it would improve their learning. Additionally, a later start would promote student safety and improve their behavior. 

Engage students with RELEVANT topics.

Over the years, I’ve frequently heard students complain that nothing they learn has to do with “real life”- you’ve likely heard them grumble this, too. The texts provided on the C3WP website discuss real-world topics and are relevant to teens. For instance, this year my students read articles on the following topics:

  • Effects of social media on teens,
  • Danger of high school football
  • Abuse of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder medications
  • Participation trophies

Some topics included in lessons from C3WP follow:

  • Video Game Addiction
  • Reality Television
  • Zoos
  • Homework
  • Police Brutality
Create a "CULTURE" of argument.

Whether your students journal daily or weekly, it’s important

to make the debate and discussion of argumentative topics a classroom routine. I made it our opening activity every Monday. With weekly routines, my students learned to listen to each other and respect one another's opinions. Often, I had them read an article and respond to it through journaling; then they paired with a classmate to discuss their reading and writing before we had whole-class discussion. Through partner discussion, they had a chance to rehearse their thinking and modify their ideas. In fact, I always tell them that they can change their minds or elaborate on their ideas during the time that they share with other classmates.

I’ve often used these bell ringers to give students practice with informal argumentative writing.

Of course, there are many other topics and lessons for argumentative writing, and you may want to explore the C3WP website for more tools that you can use in your classroom today.

Do you have recommended resources for teaching argument writing?  Please share in the comments below.

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