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How to Improve Your Students Essays: Six Strategies for Revision

Six Easy Steps for Revision

No doubt, teaching writing is difficult. Many students don’t like to write, are insecure about their writing abilities, or may not see the purpose for writing, This is especially true in a society that seems to value expediency (such as tweets and posts on social media) over deep, critical thought.

But effective English teachers know that students must learn to write well. Not only does it prepare students for standardized assessments, college courses, and the work world, but it helps to improve their thinking.


In our instruction, it’s important to teach writing as a recursive process. The process involves multiple steps including brainstorming, planning, drafting, revising, redrafting, editing, polishing, and finally, publication. But in our rush to get through mandated curriculum, some don’t feel they have the time to encourage students to use the writing process.

It’s not easy, but I make sure to include time for revision activities with any formal writing. I always tell them that no one writes a perfect first draft- not me, not even the best writers in the world! In fact, here are some quotes from famous writers about revision:


"I probably spend 90% of my time revising what I’ve written."
Joyce Carol Oates





"The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time, unlike, say a brain surgeon. You can always do it better, find the exact word, the apt phrase, the leaping simile." 

Robert Cormier

Revision is not intuitive for most student writers, however, and needs to be taught. Whether students will revise their own papers, complete peer review, or revise essays in groups, teachers need to give them opportunities to learn how to revise effectively.

So how can teachers help students revise their writing? Here are six strategies that may help you:


Effective Feedback

Teach students how to provide effective feedback when they comment on one another’s papers. I’ve often done this with a short concept attainment lesson. In this activity, students are given sample feedback statements and must put the ones that are “effective” in one column and the comments that are “not helpful” in another column. This leads to a discussion of what makes feedback helpful to writers.

This lesson helps my students understand that providing explanations, using questions, and giving constructive criticism are as important as giving praise. I also tell students that if their peer review partners aren’t able to provide some suggestions or constructive criticism, they should have an additional student (or me) give feedback, too.

Bless/Press/Address


Only have limited time for peer review? Then use one of these quick strategies: “Bless/Press/Address” or “Glow/Grow/Question.” I learned about “Bless/Press/Address” from my work with the National Writing Project.

Bless: The writer is seeking positive feedback and increasing your confidence. You want only to hear about what’s working so far.
Address: The writer identifies one problem or concern they want the reader address. Be as specific as possible.
Press: The writer wants constructive criticism. Of course, the reader can also include “Bless” and “Address” with their suggestions.

The Glow/Grow/Question strategy is from Susan Barber in my Twitter Professional Learning Network on #aplitchat. With this system, Barber gives one comment that tells what the writer did well (Glow), one comment on what the writer could improve (Grow) and responds to one of the writer’s questions. I’ve actually modified this so that I ask one question for the student asking them to reflect on an idea, their word choice, or other writing trait. Besides using this for peer and teacher feedback, I’ve found this system also helps speed up my grading.

Model Revision



This can be done with an exemplar essay from a former student (of course you should remove the student’s name) or if you have a co-teacher, you can work with that person to model revision in front of the class. Use a think aloud or project a draft and annotate it for the class.

In fact, I have a memoir lesson in which I give students a copy of a one of my first drafts. This 100-word memoir is modeled after a former Washington Post feature called, “Autobiography as Haiku.”

It teaches students to “show” themselves in vivid details and carefully chosen words. In the lesson, students work with partners to eliminate redundancy in the draft. Then the class reviews the draft together, and I show them the changes that I made for my final draft.

Guided Peer Review  


I do this with handouts that pose questions for students to answer as they read their peers’ papers. For instance, in the memoir lesson, the student giving feedback answers questions such as the following:

· What insight about his or her life is your partner writing about?
· What ideas and details to you find interesting or surprising?
· How is the memoir organized? Are there any parts that are confusing to you?
· Which words are powerful and specific? Which ones are vague (nice, thing, cool, fun, etc.)?


Task Cards for Revision

Recently, I’ve used begun using task cards to make peer review interactive, collaborative, differentiated, and reflective. These task cards ask students to respond to questions and focus on writing traits such as ideas, organization, word choice, voice, fluency, conventions, presentation, and academic integrity. The task cards can be used for modeling with exemplars, working with partners, working in small groups, or rotating through learning stations. 

Read Aloud


Have students read their drafts aloud to themselves or with a partner. Often, when a writer reads his work aloud, he or she realizes there are parts that need to be changed or corrected. They can “hear” what they need to do. Recently, I’ve learned about a web-app called Text to Speech lets someone listen to their own writing so they will be able to catch mistakes.

Furthermore, there is an extension called Google Draftback that let’s someone play back the revision history of any Google Doc. Many teachers use it for grading purposes, but I also see it as a tool for writers who want to review the changes that they make which get “erased” as they revise their writing. I’m looking forward to giving this a try as my school system moves towards digital classrooms.

I hope some of these strategies give you ideas for teaching revision in your classroom. What tips and tricks do you have for teaching students how to revise well?


Trashketball Madness

trashketball

Connect Learning to Student Interests

When teachers capitalize on a popular trend or activity, it makes learning energizing and fun. Many of my students love sports, so I've found ways to tap into their interest for basketball to make learning "boring" concepts like grammar more engaging.  Although trashketball can be used all school year, the upcoming NBA season makes it more relevant than ever.  It's also popular during the NCAA tournaments in the spring.  Furthermore, brain research supports the connection between movement and learning, which improves academic success.

I actually learned how to play trashketball from my students.  They told me they played it in their other classes to review for tests. I followed their directions for playing but over the years, my trashketball games have evolved into a motivating learning tool that uses Power Point to guide them through the game rounds. I've also advanced to a "hoop" trash can and foam ball for our games instead of a regular trash can and crumpled paper.


In fact, here is feedback from a teacher who has used the games in her classroom.

trashketball

How to Play Trashketball

Do you want to know how to play trashketball? Here are some tips to help you use it into your classroom also:

Getting Ready

Before playing, I prepare my classroom by placing three strips of brightly colored painter’s tape on my classroom floor at increasingly farther distances. 
motivating students
The students stand behind each of these lines when it’s time for them to shoot baskets into my trash can. If students make the shot from the line closest to the trash can, they earn one point. From behind the middle line, they earn three points, and from the farthest line, they earn five points.

I put my trash can in front of my cabinets so it doesn’t topple over. Trashkeball has been so popular that when I found this trashcan at Modell’s Sporting Goods for $25, I immediately purchased it.
literature review games

Starting the Game

At the beginning of the game, I arrange students into groups where they are sitting in my classroom. Because I’ve already carefully arranged my seating chart to reflect student abilities and personalities, these groups are heterogeneous, but teachers can use any grouping method that works for them.  Sometimes it's even fun to encourage the groups to brainstorm names for their teams.

Next, I project the Power Point Slides and show several review slides for the game concept.  There is also a slide for reviewing the rules with the students. These rules include requiring one student to be the captain of each team. Students also choose someone with legible handwriting to record their answers. They are instructed that the captains of each team will bring the answers for the team to me after each round.  Generally, my games include four - five rounds.

During the Game

Even though I know the answers, I print a copy of the answer key ahead of time to make reviewing their answers a quicker process. If a group's answers are incorrect, I send the captain back to the group, and the students continue to work on the problems until they are ready to try again. This encourages them to keep trying even when they make mistakes.  This process continues until I have a first, second, and third place winner for each round. Sometimes I increase individual accountability and require each student to write his own answers.  They submit their answers to me for a classwork grade at the end of the game.

After each round, I required one of the groups to share the correct answers orally before they can shoot their baskets. Each group decides if one student will shoot the baskets or if they

trashketball
will take turns. I also encourage them to decide on a strategy for which lines they want to shoot from. Since they shoot baskets in-between each round, I encourage them to think about the current score as they make their decisions.  

Formative Assessment

It’s important to note that I use trashketball to supplement my instruction. When I teach grammar, I introduce each concept in a lecture and then provide guided practice with the entire class.  These activities usually involve identifying the examples in the books they're reading or using the concept to practice writing sentences. Then my students complete independent practice with a a worksheet that gets graded.  Trashketball is used as formative assessment after these activities to review for quizzes.

At times, students can get boisterous because they are so excited to play trashketball. With certain classes, it’s important for me to set some ground rules for the volume of the voices, paying attention to directions, and remaining seated until it’s time for them to shoot the baskets.  I remind them that if they can’t follow the rules, they aren't allowed to play the game.

Individualize the Games

I know that teachers occasionally will want to change the questions in these games to meet their students’ abilities and needs. For that reason, teachers may edit the questions in these games.  To save time from making the games yourself, you can find numerous games for grammar instruction, poetry terms, rhetorical appeals, and literature review in my TpT store.

Have you played trashketball in your classroom? How have you varied it? I’d love to hear about your games or see photos of your students in action. Please share in the comments below.


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Pique Student Interest with Banned Books

banned books week

It’s true that many teens are notoriously rebellious and can be difficult to teach at times. However, a strategic teacher can tap into their desire to question authority and pique their interest in reading by using challenged books. These books capitalize on their desire to learn about controversial topics. This is especially true when motivating students to read classics and books from the cannon.

For instance, when I use literature circles in my classroom, I often tease students to read the novel, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I tell them that it has often been banned in schools for vulgar language and mature topics. I also tell them that the protagonist, Holden Caufield, has a defiant attitude and immediately gets expelled from school at the start of the novel. This usually grabs their attention, and they often choose Salinger’s book for their group's reading.

Banned Books Week, from September 23 - 29, is an

banned books week
excellent time to introduce some commonly challenged books.  There are myriad resources to help you excite teens in their reading of these books.  There are also tools to help you if a book that you are teaching is challenged, such as when I have taught To Kill a Mockingbird.

Do you want to get your students engaged in Banned Book Week? Here are some activities that you may be interested in:


Virtual Read-Out Videos
In one promotion from the ALA, readers create YouTube videos and read excerpts from challenged books to declare their support for freedom of speech.

I modeled for my students last year.
teach banned books
Make a Display
Have your students create displays that educate their classmates about banned books. You can find ideas at the link above.  This year the librarians at my high school, displayed books from our media center which have been challenged.  They included reasons for the challenges with each displayed book.  

Collaborate with Your Media Center

Recently, I asked my media center specialist to introduce my students to banned books.  She created an engaging activity in which students walked around the room looking at books that had been challenged over the years.  First, they counted how many of these books they had read, and next they chose two to research.  They searched for information on why the selected books had been challenged.  Finally, they shared their results and were amazed.  All of them were shocked that the Harry Potter series was on the list!


banned books

Should This Book Be Banned?

Here is a quick and easy activity your students can do to connect argument writing to their reading of a challenged book. This argument writing prompt teaches students to brainstorm evidence, counterarguments, and refutation for a claim about a banned book. 

You can extend their learning with this book rationale activity, too.  First, students research why their banned books have
ocbeachteacher
been challenged, and then they search for text examples showing the books' educational value.  For fun, they can make bookmarks after they write their rationales.

Want more information for teaching about censorship? You may want to check out the resources below:

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

Freedom to Read Foundation
NCTE Intellectual Freedom Center

Gather more ideas from these other teacher bloggers here:

Ways to Incorporate Lessons on Banned Books

What do you do with banned books in your classroom? Please share in the comments below.


Teaching Founding Ideals in American Literature


founding ideals

Since I teach American Literature, every day in my classroom provides instruction for the founding ideals of our country and reflects the fact that we have not always lived up to those principles. United States history teaches us that the desire for American rights is also the desire for human rights and has been an on-going journey for many people in our country.

John McCain, Rhetorical AnalysisSeminal United States documents and other classic texts communicate essential American themes.  John McCain's recent "Farewell Letter to America" makes teaching about equality, freedom, and diversity especially relevant. Recently, I've created a FREE Rhetorical Analysis lesson for teaching his letter. (Make sure to check for another freebie at the end of this post, too.)

1. Start with music. 

Music reveals a lot about what is going on in the country at a particular time and also about the sentiments of the people. Song lyrics are much like poetry, so as students listen to and read lyrics, they can highlight words and lines that exemplify attitudes about America.
I use classic American songs from different genres and time periods and have often used the following: 

Star Spangled
Music, Videos, Poetry
Banner by Francis Scott Key, Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday, This Land is Your Land Woody Guthrie, The Times They Are a Changin’ by Bob Dylan, Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen, Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue by Toby Keith, and American Idiot by Green Day. 
After practicing with these songs in class, I ask students to bring their own song selections, which demonstrate themes about America. Frequently, I incorporate this lesson with others lessons for poetry and art as an introductory unit to American Literature.

This year I hope to add Childish Gambino's song and video, "This is America." I know it will create lively discussion and the lyrics will be excellent for text analysis.  
Childish Gambino

2. Connect current issues to literature.

American literature is rife with stories and texts about the struggle for equality. One of my favorite lessons uses an excerpt from Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom with an article and video of Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Malala Yousafzai. My students always admire her bravery and are amazed that she is a teen like them. We watch her addressing the United Nations in 2013. Then through analysis of Douglass’s and Yousafzai’s messages, students note the connection between education, equality, and freedom.
Novel Peace Prize

3. Use powerful speeches. 

Teach rhetorical literacy and let students learn history through the words of important American leaders. One of my favorites is Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?”. She uses biblical allusions and rhetorical appeals such as ethos, logos, and pathos to fight for women’s rights. Here’s a three-minute video performance  of the speech by Kerry Washington.
Memorial for 9/11
Students have designed memorials to honor the first responders and innocent victims of 9/11.
Another significant speech is Abraham Lincoln’s “The Gettysburg Address."  It provides an excellent example of parallelism, and I use it to inspire students to write their own speeches. After reading Lincoln’s message to honor the soldiers who fought in The Battle of Gettysburg, I encourage students to honor veterans and other heroes by designing their own memorials and dedication speeches.
The Gettysburg Address
One former student designed her memorial and wrote her speech to honor Trayvon Martin.
Last year I added Lyndon B. Johnson's Speech to Congress on the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  To help students gain a stronger understanding of the argument in the speech, I created this free rhetorical analysis graphic organizer to accompany our reading of it.
TpT freebie, rhetorical analysis

American Rhetoric.com is a website with many more resources for significant speeches.

Do you have more ideas for teaching the founding ideals of our democracy?  How have you collaborated with other content area teachers to infuse these principles into your instruction?  Please share in the comments.

"Wow" Your Students with Poetry, Music, and Art in this Introduction to American Literature Unit



Back to School

In the high school English classroom, how do you get your students started for their school year? I dive straight into content. Of course, it’s important to establish routines and get to know students, too, but at the secondary level, students should be reading and writing as soon as possible.

That’s why my introductory unit for American Literature gets students thinking about class topics while also helping me get to know them. The unit, “Name Yourself, Sing Yourself, and Proclaim Yourself,” incorporates poetry, music, art, and writing. Generally, it takes two – three weeks when interspersed with other lessons such as grammar, vocabulary, and independent reading.

Exploring American Voice and Personal Identity

1. Students begin with the poem, “Naming Myself” by Barbara Kingsolver  This narrative poem tells about the speaker’s grandparents and her Native American heritage. While the speaker realizes that she could “shed her name in the middle of life/the ordinary thing,” she chooses to keep her maiden name to honor her ancestors and individuality. This poem leads to interesting discussions with students about why women change their names when they get married, the importance of names to identity, and what the students plan to do about their names if they get married in the future.  My students are stunned when I ask the boys if they are willing to taking their wives names. 
Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_worawut17'>worawut17 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
After I model how to analyze the poem, my students read a variety of other poems that introduce them to American voices. Depending on the needs and abilities of my students, I select poems to differentiate instruction. Some of these poems include “I Hear American Singing” and “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman, “I, Too,” and “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes, and “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon.This exposes students to a range of authors and time periods but focuses on a central theme, American identity. Usually, these poems are simple enough that they don’t intimidate students, and they provide scaffolding for the next activity in the unit.

2. As the unit continues, students read and listen to songs
about America. I vary the songs to reflect different genres and time periods and have often included the following: "The Star Spangled Banner" by Francis Scott Key, "Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday, "This Land is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie, "The Times They Are a Changin’" by Bob Dylan, "Born in the USA" by Bruce Springsteen, "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" by Toby Keith, and "American Idiot" by Green Day. Sometimes I consider current issues in the news, and I find additional songs online to connect with those topics.

Through a jigsaw activity, students analyze the song lyrics as poems and consider what each song tells them about America. Music reveals what is going on in the country at a particular time and also about the sentiments of the people. Song lyrics are much like poetry, so as students listen to and read lyrics, they can highlight words and lines that exemplify attitudes about America.

This year I'd love to include Childish Gambino's song and video "This is America."  However, it will likely depend on the maturity of my students whether I use it for the unit.


For enrichment, students are invited to bring in their own school appropriate songs and share the related themes with their classmates. This is always a popular lesson with them!
3. In the next part of the unit, I add art. Students “read” non-print texts, self-portraits by classic American artists including Mary Cassatt, William H. Johnson, E.E. Cummings, Andy Warhol, Helen Hardin, and Chuck Close. Once again, I try to include diverse artists to ensure that students learn about the many types of people who live in America. They learn that reading images is much like reading words, requiring them to focus on details (in this case, such elements as color, shapes, composition, facial expressions, and body language). Then they use the “text evidence” and make inferences.

4. This activity segues to them making their own self-portraits. These can be illustrations, collages, or other artistic creations. Some students find that it’s easier for them to communicate their ideas visually, and it encourages my artistic students to demonstrate their talents. Furthermore, the portraits look fabulous displayed in my classroom. 
This activity is timely for the first weeks of school as it helps us get to know one another. Even students who may have been in school together for years, learn new things about each other. Since our class is an English class, however, I require students to also write explanations for the images in their portraits. They reflect on the images that they’ve included in their artwork and explain what these details reveal about them.

5. In the culminating activity, students use the self-portraits to brainstorm more ideas about their identities as individuals and Americans. These reflections become the pre-writing for a poem (get a free lesson) that they write about themselves and which we take through the writing process.

This unit  took me several years to develop and takes 2-3 weeks with each activity connecting to the following ones. At times, I modify the lessons, adding new texts and activities. For instance, to include nonfiction, I’ve used John McCain’s essay in Time Magazine, “A Cause Greater Than Self.”  Throughout the weeks of the unit, I also use journals about the American Dream as bell ringers to help students extend their thinking.  One of my favorite journals incoporates the classic painting,

American Gothic. Furthermore, I may also teach mini-lessons on writing theme statements or how to provide effective peer feedback.

I love that this unit capitalizes on students’ multiple intelligences, introduces them to classic American literature, and helps create a positive classroom culture . Do you have texts that you would recommend for this unit? I’m always looking for new ideas. Please share in the comments below.

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