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Five Secret Strategies for Back to School Success

No matter whether you’re a brand-new teacher or 30-year veteran, every teacher hopes to begin the school year on track to have success. In teacher education programs and schools around the country, there is no shortage of advice for back to school because having a positive start sets the tone for a favorable school year.

However, advice varies and can be confusing. Some educators recommend that teachers refrain from smiling for months while others suggest letting your students sit wherever they want on the first day. In fact, it’s taken me 20 years of teaching to feel confident about my return to school, and I’ve acquired a few strategies to share with you. 

1. Empower yourself by learning student names.

Being called by one’s name immediately develops a positive rapport; students feel recognized and respected as individuals. It’s also an excellent management tool because when students realize you know their names, they’re often less likely to misbehave. If you know a student’s name, it’s easier for you to call his or her parent or identify the student for an administrator.

When learning names, ask the students if they use nicknames and how to pronounce their names correctly. And to make remembering their names easier, make a commitment to learning the students’ names within 2- 3 days. Greet them at the door by their names. Repeat their names throughout class and admit when you make a mistake. Teachers are only human, after all!

2. Minimize chaos by making a seating chart.

Earlier in my teaching career, I took another teacher’s advice and let my students choose their own seats for the first week of school. The philosophy behind this was sound. I’d see who gravitated to whom and know who to separate or allow to be seated together.

However, I found that it didn’t work for me because students immediately sat with their friends and formed cliques. I didn’t want this for my classroom atmosphere. Rather, I try to develop a strong community of learners who can all work together. In addition to the formation of cliques, I also imagine that it was intimidating for any students new to the school or who didn’t have friends in the class.

Furthermore, it let the kids who wanted to pay less attention sit in the back of the classroom when they really should have been up front. Now I organize my seating chart in alphabetical order for the first week of school. This helps me learn their names quickly (see #1) and makes it clear that I’m the class authority. After about a week, I have a better sense of the students’ personalities, group dynamics, and learning needs so that I can rearrange my seating chart in order for students to have academic success.

3. Don’t do all of the talking.

Remember the economics teacher played by Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? In one classic scene, he calls out “Anyone? Anyone?” as he drones on to comatose students. Besides boring your students, it will exhaust you, and likely lead you to getting laryngitis.

It may seem hard not to talk at your students during the first days of school (there are so many things to explain, right?) but save everyone’s sanity by encouraging your students to do the talking. In fact, I do an activity called “chunking”  where students explain the syllabus to me!

If you’re still not sure about who should do the talking, think about a recent professional development meeting when the presenter talked for hours on end (maybe with a Power Point) and reflect on how unengaged you and your colleagues felt. Do you want to be that person?

4. Create a calm and peaceful classroom with routines.

Imagine all of the questions your students will have on the first days of school:
  • Will there be homework? 
  • Where will they turn in their papers? 
  • What should they do if they have to go to the bathroom or nurse? 
  • What should they do if they’re absent? 
Some mystery in life may be exciting but not when it comes to attentive students who achieve good grades. Many students are nervous (especially freshman in high school) and they need you to give them tools to accomplish the learning goals. If you don’t already have some of these procedures mapped out, take time before school starts to plan your responses to the innumerable questions your students will have. Once you know the answers, you may want to implement activities that will help them understand your expectations and procedures.

5. Use a flexible teaching approach.

Of course, prepared teachers have plans for their lessons, units, and on-going curriculum, but effective teachers also know that it’s imperative to be able to change and adapt quickly. Life (and people) are unpredictable, and we can’t always foresee the events and discussions that may occur on any given day. For instance, I’ve often found that impromptu class meetings, assemblies, and fire drills will interrupt the sequencing of my lessons, and I’ve learned to not only accept these interruptions, but even relish them at times. (Who doesn’t enjoy a fire drill on a beautifully sunny day?)

I even keep this philosophy in mind throughout my daily teaching. Now that I have many years of teaching experience, I’m likely to change my lessons as the school day proceeds. If something doesn’t work in an earlier class, I may tweak it to work better for the following class. I also consider the different needs and dynamics of each class as I teach throughout the day.

Of course, I still get butterflies in my stomach the night before the school year begins, but they’re not nearly as bad as they were in the past. Implementing these strategies makes the transition from summer to school year go smoother. What helps you at the beginning of the year? I’m always interested in getting new ides and insights. Add yours in the comments below.

Flipgrid Book Club

Getting Students to Read Books

Teens Aren’t Reading Books

Most secondary English Language Arts teachers know that it’s very challenging to get teens to read entire novels these days. In fact, watch this video from Penny Kittle to see what they say. (Do they remind you of your students?)

No doubt, there are numerous reasons why they don’t want to read- distractions from technology, shorter attentions spans, emphasis on standardized testing- but no matter the reason, it’s essential for them to read novels for the following reasons:
  1. It builds their reading stamina.
  2. It prepares them for the reading necessary in college and careers.
  3. Reading deeply and widely increases their knowledge.
  4. It improves their critical thinking.
  5. It helps them succeed in English classes, especially my Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition!
And because I want my students to be successful, I created a Flipgrid Summer Book Club this year so that they would read several books before they even attend class.

Solving a Problem

Over the four years that I’ve taught the course, I recognized a problem. My school uses block scheduling and a semester calendar. Recently, they’ve allowed students to take AP English Literature instead of British Literature, which used to be a pre-requisite.

AP English Literature is only offered in the spring- that means I may have students who took American Literature in the fall of their junior years and won’t take English again until February of their senior years. Although I’d like to think that students who sign up for AP Literature are voracious readers, sometimes that is not the case, especially with books of literary merit.

To deal with this problem, I applied for a grant to create my summer book club and received enough money from the Worcester County Education Foundation to purchase books for all of the incoming AP English Literature students. And even though I wanted them to read rigorous books, I still wanted to give them choices in their selections so here’s what I did.

How to Use Flipgrid to Engage Students in their Reading

1. I experimented with Flipgrid. I’m no tech guru so I asked my current AP English Literature students to help me learn Flipgrid. (I’m from a generation that didn’t even have computers until I was in high school.) I asked them to make advice videos for the incoming students. This gave me a chance to troubleshoot the problems that came up.  If you want to see the advice videos, enter the code c34c4e and password Sdhs2018.

2. Then, I received a roster for the incoming AP English Literature students. (My numbers have increased significantly because of the changed course requirement policy and because I’ve recruited students into the class.)

3. I gathered lists with titles of the books most commonly

Choice in Reading
mentioned on the free response question from the AP English Literature Exam. I even consolidated older lists with newer lists so that students would have access to the most up-to-date choices such as All the Light We Cannot See and Homegoing.

4. Next, I wrote a letter to the students and their parents explaining the book club and asking the students to select two titles. With the letter, I gave them the book list and a permission form for the parents to sign, basically saying that their children agree to read the book and participate in two Flipgrid posts.

5. During the last days of school, I met with the students to give them the letter, book list, and to show them the advice videos. Additionally, I asked them to join my Remind so I could communicate with them over the summer.

6. I requested that they make videos introducing themselves so they could practice with Flipgrid before school ended. And even though I’m camera shy and didn’t really want to videotape myself, I decided that I should make one if I wanted them to make one. If you want to see my video enter the code 8b17f7 and password Sdhs2018.

6. After receiving their choices we ordered the books which arrived several days later, and once again I met with students. 
Free Response Question

7. Lastly, I gave them instructions for posting the videos this summer, including options for students who feel uncomfortable videotaping themselves (amazing to me, since they seem to be posting on social media all of the time). Here were some of the tips:

  • Cover the camera and provide an audio only response.
  • Use props such as drawings, stuffed animals, etc.
  • Flip camera to record something else while talking.

I selected two weeks in the summer for them to post about the books that they are reading. On the instructions, I provided open-ended questions so they can be used for varied titles. For the first post, I have the following questions:
  • How did the book begin? Did it pique your interest?
  • Describe your favorite character.
  • How is the setting affecting the characters or plot?
  • Describe the author’s style with an example.
  • Describe a conflict faced by a character. What does he/she do, and what would you do in his/her shoes?

Of course, I’ll model answers to some of these questions for them with the book I intend to read, The Handmaid’s Tale. For the second week, which will be close to the beginning of the school year, these are the questions I gave them. (At this point, they should be finished with the book):
  • Identify a theme from the reading and provide an example to support it.
  • What character experienced transformation? Describe and explain.
  • Were you satisfied with the ending? Why/Why not?
  • Would you recommend this book? Why/Why not?
  • What’s something you learned from reading the book?

Although I haven’t practiced with it yet, Flipgrid allows students to respond to each other’s videos. I’m hoping we can extend the conversations of their books with this feature.

Hopefully, we’ll be able to continue our book club during our first semester, and I can share this idea with other teachers in my school who may want to create their own book clubs.

So, please wish me luck! I’ll report back in the fall after we finish at the end of the summer and let you know how it went.

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

๐Ÿ’—This was great! My students really got engaged and it was fun to see them really focused on getting the correct answer, even when their answer was originally wrong. Mindee

๐Ÿ’—My students loved this! They were excited when they first saw "Trashketball" on the agenda. It was a great way to practice, easy and quick. I'm sure they will be asking for more. I do plan on buying more - definitely worth it! Elysha

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

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