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End of the Year Survival - Choose Your Battles

discipline, end-of-year

As the school year comes closer to an end, teachers and students are tired. The end of the year is in sight but there are still things to accomplish- a unit, a test, a graduation ceremony…and on and on. Unfortunately, when people are tired, they may not be on their best behavior. If we acknowledge this fact, it makes getting through the last months and weeks a little easier.

When I was a younger teacher, I wish I had considered this reality more. I was idealistic, enthusiastic, and wanted perfection. Well-meaning family, friends, and colleagues suggested to me that not all battles were worth fighting (or at least, not all battles were worth fighting all of the time). Although they shared their wisdom with me, I didn’t hear it until I became a more experienced teacher. I’m passing this advice along to others in case they can do a better job at listening than me.

Don’t argue about a missing pencil or pen.

Yes, it’s annoying that one of the only tasks your students may have is to bring their supplies to class. You may think: Why can’t they just do this one little thing? It may make you feel offended, even, that they don’t care enough to come to your class prepared.

But it’s not worth the battle. Too many of the students are going to forget pencils and pens, and most of the time they haven’t done it on purpose. Maybe they left them in their last class, or maybe they couldn’t afford to buy new ones…who knows? Save your energy for more important problems and give them a pencil or pen.

At the end of most classes, I usually have a couple of pens and pencils that have been left behind. Often, I pick them up and put them in a cup, and students can grab one when they need one. Not only does it help students, but it also helps the environment by reusing them.

Sometimes, I ask my stepfather to bring me pencils from the

golf-pencils
golf course where he works. It’s funny how students will suddenly remember their pencils when they have to use mini-golf pencils in class. Ultimately, it’s better that they can get their work and learning accomplished (and they’re less of a disruption in my class).

Let them make up their missing assignments.

If students haven’t completed assignments but demonstrate a willingness to get them completed, I let them do the work and just don’t give them full credit. The point is that they will hopefully learn the concepts and pass my class, moving on to the next grade level.

There may be reasons that I’m unaware of which are impacting the student. I try to find out why they lack motivation.

  • Is there something going on at home? 
  • Do they need to work at night to help support the family?  
Frequently, I seek out the guidance counselor or other staff to provide assistance if a student is overwhelmed.

And if it’s just a matter of laziness, it’s probably better for them to pass my class. Frankly, if a student receives the lowest passing grade, how much better is that than a failing grade? Colleges know the difference between a well-earned “A” or a low “D”. By requiring lethargic students to continually retake classes, they take up the time and resources that I could use to help other students who may need my time more.

Don’t punish every tardy.

Have you ever been late to a meeting or appointment? Is it always because you’re a rude and selfish person? Most likely not, and that’s the same for many of our students.

Lateness to class is a battle that I fight diligently earlier in the

choose-your-battles
school year because I don’t want to send the message that it’s okay for them to be tardy to class. If a student has more than two tardies, I expect them to make up the missed time after school with me. That’s a logical consequence, and I can help them with material they missed when they were tardy.

However, by the end of the school year, I often allow a student a couple more tardies before I ask them for detention. Truthfully, I’ve talked with former students and found out that sometimes it’s their parents’ fault for bringing their them late to school anyway. Is that really the student’s fault?

Give them a couple of minutes on their cell phones at the end of class.

I hate cell phones in class. Now that our students have computers, I don’t see any reason for them to be on cell phones. They’re a major distraction and often lead to cyber bullying. Consequently, I have a hanging shoe organizer in my classroom, and I ask students to put their phones in an assigned pocket at the beginning of every class.

To make my policy less confrontational, I tell them that if they

cell-phones
agree to do this and don’t argue with me about putting their phones away, I’ll give them two – three minutes at the end of class to check their phones.

Do I lose instructional time? Yes, but to me it’s worth minimizing the battles with cell phones, which also end up disrupting instruction. By creating this policy, students are more engaged throughout most of class when they could have been sneaking looks on their phones instead.

Let them go to the bathroom.

No matter how much time students have in between classes, there are always students who tell me that they can’t get to the bathroom in the minutes between our class bells. Do I believe them? Sometimes, but most often not. They’re likely chatting with friends instead of using that time for the restroom.

But if a student really can’t get to the bathroom, I’d hate to be the one teacher to prevent them from using it. It’s the truth that sometimes there are long lines to the bathroom in between classes. And sometimes students have personal health reasons to use the bathroom frequently.

I know that I would be frustrated if I was told that I couldn’t’ use the restroom during a professional meeting. This being said, I do try to limit students’ use of the bathroom.

First, I ask if it’s it an emergency. Usually they will say “no.” Or, I might ask them to finish part of their classwork before they go to the restroom. I also require a signed pass so that I can keep track of their departures. If it’s continually an issue with a student, it may even be worth talking to a school nurse.

It’s not a free-for-all.

Of course, choosing your battles doesn’t mean letting your classroom become chaotic and unmanaged. It doesn’t mean lowering expectations. I still expect students to bring their silent sustained reading books every day, and they’re required to make up assignments when they’re absent. They are also expected to be attentive during class. Furthermore, I keep lessons academically focused through the last day of school.

I know some of you won’t agree with my advice. In fact, my younger self may not have agreed with my older self, but now I know better. I hope my wisdom helps you, too!

Of course, I’m always interested in new ideas and strategies. Feel free to add your tips in the comments below to help make the end of the school year go smoothly.

6 Ways to Keep Students Focused After the Test

after standardized assessment

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.

end-of-the-school year

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?

reflection, set goals, games, active learning
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:

middle school ela, high school english
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.







Twitter: A Tool for School




Is your school one of the many that is pushing the use of technology?

Do you know how to use it effectively for student learning? 

While the use of technology can be engaging and entertaining, it’s also important for teachers to ensure that it supports student learning and achievement.

One way I’ve recently incorporated digital learning is with Twitter. By using social media productively, I’ve made Twitter an instructional tool and engaged my high school students in Twitter chats about their reading. These chats are modeled on my own participation in #aplitchat and #2ndaryela chats, which I use for professional development.

There are multiple reasons why this benefits my students:

Timed Writing

One of the most formidable challenges of standardized assessments such as the SAT and Advanced Placement (AP) English Literature exam is the need for students to communicate their ideas quickly. On the AP English Literature test, students are required to write three essays in two hours, averaging 40 minutes for each two - three page essay.

At first, two hours may seem like adequate time, but two of the essays require students to read and analyze text before they write their essays which must communicate the complex ideas in the readings. By requiring students to respond to fast-paced reading and questioning during a Twitter chat, they practice reading, thinking, and writing quickly. 


Most Twitter chats post questions every five to ten minutes. No doubt, whether it’s an exam for an AP course, the SAT, or other standardized assessment, students will likely face a timed-writing situation and Twitter chats provide helpful practice.

Social Learning and Collaboration

Learning requires interaction and sharing of ideas with others. I have two sections of AP English Literature and do weekly roundtable discussions of our novels. Students take ownership of their discussion and lead these roundtables. Since I listen to the discussion in both classes, I hear the valuable, yet sometimes differing, ideas that my students express.

By hosting a Twitter chat in the evening, I can get students

from both classes to share their thoughts with each other and add more voices to the discussion. This semester, my students discussed two poems, “We Are Many” by Pablo Neruda and “The Writer” by Richard Wilbur as practice Twitter chats.

Besides hosting chats between classes, I’ve also teamed up with a teacher Shari Marks from World Journalism Preparatory School in New York to host chats between both of our classes. She and I met during teacher Twitter chats and decided to try it with our students. Last year, our classes chatted about their reading of the The Awakening by Kate Chopin. This year, we had students discuss the poem, “Mansplaining.” Although our classes are different – I teach AP English Literature and she teachers AP English Language- our students benefit from the shared conversation and critical thinking that occurs during the chats. 

Worldwide Audience

Students need exposure to different writing purposes and audiences beyond the traditional classroom. Digital communication provides exposure to new audiences and opportunities to build relationships. It also creates a space for the “publication” of student writing, an important step in the writing process that may get neglected in the standard classroom.

During our most recent Twitter chat, the audience included the author of the poem that was being discussed. At the end of our discussion, I tagged author Jennifer Militello and asked her to weigh-in on the contradictory interpretations that students had for the end of her poem. She responded to their discussion (see one of her responses below) and her tweets made a lasting impression on them. By communicating with the author of the poem, student ideas were validated and her response helped build their confidence in themselves. It also made the chat more personal; we likely would not have been able to gain her insights without the benefit of technology and social media.

While the benefits of Twitter chats are clear, it can take practice to figure out the logistics of a chat. I’ve got some steps to help you navigate your own chats.

How to Host a Twitter Chat

1. Choose the text that you want your students to discuss. You can decide if you want to let them read it before the chat or just make it available at the beginning of the chat, depending on how much time you want them to have with the text. I try to choose a text that’s available on the internet and always provide a link to the text.

2. Create a unique hashtag for the chat so it will be easy to find and follow the discussion thread. You may want to check if the hashtag has been used in the past before you share it with your students. It’s best to keep the hashtag concise.

3. Write the questions for the chat. (You may want to involve students in creating the questions ahead of time.) Keep the questions open-ended but also short enough to be answered with tweets.

4. Determine the amount of time for your chat. I’ve found that a half-hour goes too quickly, so my chats are scheduled for 45 minutes to an hour. This allows me to post questions every seven - ten minutes (set a consistent time interval). It also gives students time to read and write their Tweets.

5. Provide directions to the students ahead of time. I modeled my directions off of the directions from the teacher chats I’m involved with.

6. Instruct students to use their first name (and last initial) only to protect their privacy. Start with a welcoming tweet and short introduction. Normally, I have students share their grade level and class and something related to school (but not too personal). To make the chat easier for them to follow, I also recommend that they follow my Twitter account @ocbeachteach.


Those are the basic steps but here are more tips to make your chatting go smoothly:

  • Keep the group to a manageable size.
  • Consider a “slow” chat that extends over several hours (helpful for students who have evening obligations).
  • Practice within the context of your class period during the school day.
  • Offer “enrichment” points for students who choose to participate in the evening.
  • Encourage students to like one another’s tweets and retweet when responding to each other.
  • Model responses for students and ask individual students questions to involve them.
  • Ask students to offer new ideas instead of simply repeating what others have said already.
Of course, it's always a good idea to have a backup plan for when your technology fails or the internet won’t connect. Sometimes I just use these Twitter task cards and activities where students “tweet” with pencil and paper. I’m sure there are other social media platforms or apps that could be used if Twitter isn’t the right tool for you. The point is to get students using technology in a productive manner.

Do you do Twitter chats or similar activities? What tips would you give? Please share in the comments below.

Poetry Online

free poetry resources, national poetry month

Poetry- people seem to adore it or to abominate it

Like many of my current students, I didn’t enjoy reading poetry in high school because I often didn’t understand the poems we were reading in class. But when I studied literature to become an English teacher, I was challenged to read more poetry and develop engaging poetry lessons. The more I read, the more I appreciated the poems I studied.

As a result of my own experience, I try to make poetry accessible and pleasurable for my students. With the Internet, this is more possible than ever before. I find audio versions of class poems and many videos to accompany them. Here are resources and tips to make teaching poetry wonderful (and don’t forget to get my free lesson for introducing poetry at the bottom of this post)!

Hook students with these poems and talks


free poetry resources
Use video clips from the brilliant movie, The Dead Poets Society, to get your students excited to read poetry!  You may want to start with this video clip in which Professor Keating tells his students to rip out pages from their textbooks because it poetry is not like laying pipe.  Or use this clip with one of my favorite quotes:

"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race."


Or use this video from popular teen author John Green, who gives an entertaining talk about the classic poem “The Road Not Taken.” I also love his Crash Course video about Emily Dickinson.  It's a great way to start the study of the enigmatic poet.

Another way to hook students on poetry is to use humor. Here’s performer Taylor Mali’s funny and relatable poem, “On Girls Lending Pens.”

You can amaze your students with this reversible poem, “Lost Generation” by Jonathan Reed; it always engages them with its clever wording and format. 

And here’s an inspiring commencement poem by Harvard graduate Donovan Livingston. He encourages the audience to participate in this spoken word poem by snapping, clapping, and rejoicing. This poem also challenges its listeners to consider his compelling message about education and society.


Want a modern poem to share with your students? Juan Felipe Herrera reads his poem “You Can’t Put Muhammad Ali in a Poem” as part of Dear Poet, the Academy of American Poets' educational project for National Poetry Month 2017. In fact, you can find a playlist with numerous poets from the Dear Poet project here.

Poetry also provides an emotional outlet for students with teen angst and anxiety. Here’s a popular poem they may enjoy.

Instructional Resources for Teachers

Poetry Out Loud, a National Recitation Contest, created by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, provides $50,000 in awards and school stipends for the winders of the competition. More importantly, the Poetry Out Loud activities help students build confidence and speaking skills. At the site, you can find more information about the contest, lessons for teaching recitation, and videos of winning performances.

Go directly to the source of National Poetry Month with the Academy of American Poets. You can sign up for a free poster and find innumerable teaching resources.

Use TED Talks. There are myriad topics and speakers related to poetry including these poems about dogs  from Billy Collins, and this rationale for poetry’s importance from literary critic Stephen Burt.  
In my American Literature classes, I also like to use art and song lyrics to engage students in reading and writing poetry.

I hope you find some of these links useful. You can also download my free lesson to introduce poetry
national poetry month
It uses inquiry to make reading poetry fun and meaningful.

You can also find poetry bell ringers, poetry paired passages, and poetry writing lessons in my TpT store.

There are just so many helpful resources online for poetry that I’m sure you have some suggestions which I haven’t included. Why don’t you share in the comments below?





Host a Trashketball Tournament

trashketball, march madness, games

Do your students need help with their grammar skills? Do you want a way to make grammar review fun? Take advantage of the March Madness basketball buzz to host a "Grammar Review Trashketball Tournament" and turn your students into grammar experts!

Here’s how to do it:

1. Choose the grammar concepts you want to review.

I suggest giving your students a diagnostic grammar test to see which concepts they struggle with the most. Of course, consider the appropriate standards for your students but even if the standards are from lower grade levels, remember that older students often need review for concepts they learned in the past. Unfortunately, grammar instruction often gets neglected for various reasons, so your students may have deficits in their background knowledge.



Once you’ve selected the concepts you want your students to review, scaffold the games and start with easier concepts so that in progressing rounds, the concepts become more rigorous. For instance, I’d start with a review of parts of speech, then move on to games that review sentence parts, phrases, kinds of sentences, and finally, sentence problems. Or, I might choose to do punctuation concepts, including commas, apostrophes, or common usage errors, depending on my student population.

2. Gather supplies and set up the game-playing area.

You will want a clean trash can or "hoop" trash can, a soft basketball (so no one gets hurt), space in the classroom (or other designated area) with marks on the floor to indicate where students will stand for each shot. I use painters’ tape because it’s brightly colored and easily removed when you’re finished playing the games.

Normally, I space three lines several feet apart, with the first one located at least five feet from the trash can. However, there are plenty of ways to vary this for your students' needs. You could have a line close to the trash can for students to “dunk” the ball or a twenty-foot line for those who want to show off their basketball skills. Also, I’ve learned to make sure that the trash can is secured with something heavy to weigh it down; otherwise, the ball often bounces out after the "trashket."




3. Plan your procedures and rules.

You can get trashketball games with detailed procedures that will guide you and your students through the games and rounds, but you may want to develop your own games or variations. Some questions to consider:
  • Will you have a backboard?
  • Will there be a shot clock?
  • Will students be allowed to dribble?
  • What will you do if students cheer too loudly?
  • Will there be a referee to watch if students stand behind the lines?
  • Will there be violations or fouls for other behaviors?
If you’re not sure what rules to include, involve your students in deciding them! You can also learn about basketball procedures and jargon here.

4. Choose how you will organize the tournament. 

Usually I divide my classes into four - five teams, but if you want more individual accountability you could have them play by themselves.

For each game, distribute answer sheets to every student in the class. Project the game and have students play with five exercises per round. During the rounds, have students bring their answers to you and check their work. (If a student has an incorrect answer, send him/her back to correct their work and try again.) 
The first three students to get correct answers will have a chance to shoot “trashkets” at the end of each round. Keep cumulative score, and depending on how many rounds are played for each game, identify your final winners.  Want to involve students from other classes? Invite your entire English department to play and have classes compete against one another! 

5. Distribute your brackets.

You can get a freebie here.  Decide whether you will fill them in and copy them ahead of time or if your students will fill in the blanks. For fun, make a poster of the brackets, laminate it, and display it in your classroom. Then, as students win rounds, write their names on the poster for everyone to see.

6.  Choose when you will hold your tournament. 

Numerous options abound: Will you play games throughout the entire March Madness month, or will you capitalize on a specific part of the tournament such as the Sweet 16, Elite 8, or Final 4? 

Of course, you could simply play one game a day for several weeks, depending on how many concepts you want to review. You can also play multiple games in one class period depending on the length of your class periods. I recommend allotting 30 - 45 minutes per game.

Here’s how I envision an Elite Eight competition:

-Select 15 concepts. (See an example in the picture below.)
-Choose the concept order and write a concept in each “team” space on the brackets. Each concept will be its own game. For instance, I might start with parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions). I would also include rounds for pronoun and antecedent agreementsubject and verb agreement, and other concepts.
-Everyone in the class competes (either individually or in teams) so that all students are included in the review and held accountable. Although everyone plays, only the winners of each game would be the ones who shoot “trashkets” and win prizes. (I provide a basket of prizes and students select from extra school supplies, candy, or granola bars.) 


Finally, I would keep track of the winners for each game. At the end of all of the rounds, the students who have won the most games would get to compete against one another in a “Championship” game.

If these ideas won’t work for you during March because you have other curriculum concepts to teach, don’t worry, you can play individual trashketball games  any time of the school year.


Have fun and let me know how it goes in the comments below!
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