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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!

Making Valentine's Day Meaningful for Secondary ELA

high school English, middle school English

How do you make Valentine’s Day meaningful in the secondary English Language Arts classroom? Secondary students don’t usually celebrate with parties or cards, but teachers can still make it a fun day by using texts with themes about love. This also ensures that students will continue to learn important content. I have my favorite texts to read, but recently I asked other English teachers and bloggers to share their favorite poems, stories, and nonfiction texts for the holiday, too. 

Whether you have a romantic, cynical, or practical view of love, you'll find something to match your interests with their wonderful recommendations:

The Chaser by John CollierThis is a perfect short story to teach around Valentine's Day. The story follows a young man named Alan who is desperate to make a woman named Diana fall in love with him. So desperate, in fact, that he is willing to use a love potion! Students always eat the story up, but what I love most about it is that it requires students to use inferential thinking to fully understand the plot. I also follow up with a fun post-reading activity called “Abby and Andrew’s Advice Column” where students give Alan romantic advice from a male and female perspective.
-Bonnie from Presto Plans

After I stood in Neruda’s home and looked out over the South Pacific as he did to write, I saw why students catch his passion for poetry, life and love. For Valentine’s Day, they listen to favorite verses that earned Neruda’s 1971 Nobel Prize. They enjoy Valentine’s Day through Neruda’s eyes in: 1). poetry published for a class collection. 2). lyrics composed from multiple intelligence strengths, and 3). interactive tasks completed from Neruda’s viewpoint. Lessons include assessment criteria, two-footed questions to tap into Valentine themes, and activities to engage students’ unique interests - more in a spirit of Valentine’s playful celebration of verse than a fear of poetic forms that hold some writers back. 

poems, myths, stories for teenagersA Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
Nothing is more appealing to many high school teens than 
illicit love. No doubt, children and their parents have disagreed about boyfriends and girlfriends since the time of the Ancient Greeks. This conflict has been the theme for innumerable texts, from classic Shakespeare plays, to young adult fiction, to an article in The New York Times. In this lesson, students read an excerpt of the play and connect their reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to an article, “Modern Love- Breaking our Parents’ Rules for Love,” about a real-world couple facing disapproval from their parents. The article makes relevant connections, and the lesson culminates in a writing activity selected from a menu of writing options.
By Kim from OCBeachTeacher

Annabel Lee by Edgar Alan Poe
In Middle School, students are fascinated by Poe as an eerie, dark and mysterious author. So imagine their shock when they realize the same author could write a poem like "Annabel Lee"! I bring this poem out during Valentine "season" because I enjoy their opinions on "true love" and whether the narrator genuinely has this love or if he just thinks he does. 
To accomplish this we study the poem as a bell-ringer activity where we focus on specific stanzas over the course of a few weeks. While we naturally study tone, reading skills like main idea, author's purpose, and inference, how to interpret the messages, and even some conventions, the best part is the discussion of open-ended questions like:

· Can envy destroy true love?
· What is true love?
· Can you love someone too much?

In many students' lives, relationships seem to be gone in a flash so watching students formulate their own definitions of true love based on thoughtful discussion is the cherry on top.

Pyramus and Thisbe from Ovid's Metamorphoses
"Pyramus and Thisbe" is the ultimate story of forbidden love. My students enjoy this one because they usually haven't heard of it. Plus, it's short, has an exciting twist, and is laden with rebellion and desire. I enjoy incorporating this poem in mythology units (it's a perfect example of how myths explain the origin of something), during a study of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night's Dream (they always think it's scandalous that Shakespeare most likely stole his plot from Ovid), within poetry units (it contains student-friendly verse that doesn't intimidate students or bore them) and around Valentine's Day! We focus on interpreting symbolism, analyzing theme, and making connections to other movies and stories.
By Melissa from The Reading and Writing Haven

While love poems are great, sometimes students—and their
teachers—can use a break from the emphasis of romance that comes with Valentine’s Day. Reading The New York Times article about the entirely-unromantic St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, perpetuated by the infamous Chicago gangster, Al Capone, is a good way to still include a timely holiday-related activity and also practice reading informational text. The text is long—about 2,000 words—so reading questions can help guide students in their task. Finish off with critical thinking questions and class discussion about the legacy of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre and of Capone!
By Ms. Dickson from High School English on a Shoestring Budget

This Year's Valentine by Philip Appleman
In 2003 as American forces prepared to invade Iraq, poets began a resistance movement using poetry as their weapon. The Poets Against The War website was inundated with

contributions from around the world, and before long, 13,000 poems filled its pages. Philip Appleman and his poem "This Year's Valentine" supported not only the resistance movement but also neatly fit a major theme of the month of the buildup: Valentine’s Day. This poem, despite its alarming content, is a joy to teach since students find the description and stark contrasts surprising and refreshing, and, as one of my teen students put it, “Not that typical overly mushy love stuff that makes me want to gag.” Additionally, the poem allows you to show students that creative voices have the capability to produce unity among those who support a common cause and that those combined voices can, perhaps, effect change.
By Maryann from Secondary Strategies

Why Domestic Violence Victims Don't Leave
TedTalk by Leslie Morgan Steiner
In high school, our students can get obsessed with love, relationships, and dangerously close to defining their self-worth by the person they're dating. Leslie Morgan-Steiner's TedTalk "Why Domestic Violence Victims Don't Leave" is a chilling and powerful video to share with students. I've used it in my after school Women's Leadership Academy for open

discussion. It's also a great video to stimulate research into other social justice issues and writing. It was shocking to hear students discuss the ways in which they've witnessed this at home or in relationships - so be sure to give your social workers a heads up and proceed with caution. This Valentine's Day, take this opportunity to shed some light on the dangers in the dating world and empower your students to get out of bad situations and make smart choices!

Not sure if one of the ideas from above will work in your classroom?  Then you may also want to check out some of these other love-themed texts: 

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18
Love Song For Lucinda by Langston Hughes
The Scarlet Ibis by James Hurst
Edmund Spenser's Sonnet XXX

What texts would you add to the lists above?  Please share in the comments!

Do Your Students Have Meaningless Reading Discussions? Here's What to Do About It!

As many English teachers know, it can be difficult to stop being the leader of classroom discussion. We teachers worry that students will not have meaningful discussion about their reading. But how will they ever get better if we don’t let them try to take ownership for their learning?

Undoubtedly, they don’t have the experience and knowledge that we have, so it’s normal that their discussions may not be as deep as when we lead. A conscientious teacher will want students to read closely, think critically, note author’s craft, and make relevant connections. And because I want my students to do all of the above, I’ve developed a structure called roundtable discussion that provides just enough structure to get my students started with these skills. This discussion strategy (inspired by literature circles and Socratic seminar) incorporates strategies to help students have sophisticated conversations.

However, despite the many activities I’ve included to prepare for these discussions, I occasionally will run into difficulties. After my most recent roundtable unit, I developed solutions to some of the following problems.

Individual Student Accountability

Despite my best efforts, some students don’t do their share of their work in their groups. Unfortunately, that’s often the reality of any group or team activity. To counter this and make the learning more equitable, my students complete both self-evaluations and peer evaluations that I average together (one part of the assessment). Often, I add teacher evaluations, too.

The feedback handouts are simple to complete and each response asks students to circle their agreement for the


· He/she read the assigned pages on time.

· He/she came to discussions prepared.

· He/she listened to others.

· He/she participated in discussion.

· He/she stayed on topic during discussion.

They get to give feedback on their own performance as well as their peers (which can be anonymous). Peers can also add comments and often write praise to the group members who did outstanding work. For instance, they may tell a group member that they helped them understand the book more or kept the group focused or were good leaders. Sometimes they’ll provide constructive criticism, too, like saying a classmate’s absence or lack of preparation made it harder to have useful discussions.

Absent Students

This is a problem because there are always a few students with chronic attendance issues or even student athletes who miss class regularly. Regrettably, without all members in attendance, the discussions aren’t as engaging and thoughtful.

When I create my groups at the beginning of the unit, I take student attendance into consideration. I separate students who are chronically absent, and I also assign four - six students to a group. If one or two students are absent on a discussion day, this prevents the groups from being too small.

Also, I have “make up” assignments in which students are required to respond to two questions each time they miss a discussion. They submit their written responses in lieu of the response sheet that usually accompanies the discussion. And sometimes, I do have to just let a student work independently. Recently, I had a student miss two and a half weeks because of her theater performances.

Poor Questioning Skills

Occasionally, I have a group that has difficulty writing effective questions for discussion. To help prevent this, I model the difference between recall questions and questions that require more thinking; then I require students to ask at least one of each. I give them words for starting these questions: why, how, explain, evaluate, etc. 

We also practice writing questions for whole-class reading of stories, poems, and other texts. If they’re still struggling to ask questions that will elicit high-level thinking, I may print questions that I've generated, and then I give them to the group. (This is also a good strategy for groups where some members aren’t reading.)

Sometimes, when they have difficulty writing good questions, conversing spontaneously, or going beyond basic recall, I provide specific activities for them to complete during discussion. I include these tasks on the “Discussion Guideline” that I project from my document camera. These may include some of the following:

- Create a timeline of events (helpful when students are reading a book that has a nonlinear structure). This recently helped my group reading Slaughterhouse Five.

- Draw a map (track the path of a character’s journey in a book). For a group that recently read Into the Wild, this activity was a tremendous help to them.

- Define new vocabulary. I may ask students to find words that they don’t know from the sentences in their books. This is especially helpful for books that incorporate words from an earlier era or another language. When students read A Thousand Splendid Suns, they find it helpful to use the internet to look up the meaning of the words from Farsi.

- Research the author. Students search reliable sources for information about the author. Then they use a biographical lens to make connections to their reading.

- Write a goodbye letter. For a conclusion activity, I ask them to write a “Goodbye Letter” to their books, sharing their thoughts and feelings about the book. These letters can even be displayed in my classroom.

The strategies above have immensely improved our reading discussions. Of course, every time I anticipate a potential difficulty and create a solution, a new issue arises! As all teachers know, we have to constantly be thinking quickly and be prepared to adapt our instruction to meet the needs of the individual learners in our classroom.

What are some problems you have encountered during classroom discussions? 
Do you have any solutions to share below? I’m always interested in learning from other educators!

4 Ways to Bring Joy into Your ELA Classroom

Assessment, rigor, data analysis, text complexity: These are the buzzwords in education today. All of this emphasis on accountability can unfortunately make learning dreary and tedious. But joy makes learning memorable, and students often look back fondly on creative activities. Thus, it's up to teachers to send the message that sometimes it's okay to have fun in class!

The holiday season is a perfect time to incorporate something out of the ordinary in your classes.

1. Do a literary cookie exchange with your students.

Make eating cookies a literary event! After reading a novel or story, have students make cookies that symbolically represent literary elements. For instance, a student could make a cookie in the shape of a mockingbird to represent Tom Robinson or Arthur (Boo) Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. Let students bring in their homemade cookies to exchange with one another. During the exchange, they can explain how the cookies connect with their selected literary elements.
As a modification, if some students can't make cookies, offer other ways for them to participate.  Maybe they can draw and write descriptions of their cookies.  Of course, be sure to check for food allergies so no one makes cookies that could make other students sick.  And don't forget to bring in hot chocolate or cider for students to enjoy on the cookie exchange day! 

Sign up for my email (above my profile picture) and get an exclusive freebie with handouts to guide your students through the process of brainstorming and designing their cookies!

2. Lead students on a "writing walk."

Get your students to use sensory details with this free activity.   Students not only improve their writing but also get out of their seats for place-based writing. Take them to write at various locations such as the stage, cafeteria, locker room, and media center around the school (or, weather permitting, go outside to a park or other place in walking distance).  Handouts include guiding questions to help students write words and phrases for each sense: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.  Then students write poetry, stories, or other reflections with their descriptions. While this activity can be completed any time of the year, the sights, sounds, and scents of the holidays make it a delightful experience during the winter season.

3. Design Secret Santa Stockings

Give your students an opportunity to display their artistic talents. In this activity, students illustrate stockings for characters in their reading. It requires them to analyze characterization and to provide a written rationale for their gift selections. 
Easily adaptable to the needs of your curriculum or students, this activity could be done for authors, historical figures, scientists, artists, or others being studied in secondary classes.

4. Show Gratitude

Use this YouTube video to help students see the connection between sharing their gratitude and feeling happy. Even better, have students call and thank someone who has had a positive influence on their lives. Before calling, they can write out what they want to say. Not only will this activity increase the happiness of your students, but it will likely make the days of the people whom they call a lot cheerier, too!

More Ways to Celebrate

Organize a poetry slam, read-in, or other activity that revels in appreciating the language arts. For years, I organized a “Read-a-Latte CafĂ©” celebration. For the occasion, guest speakers joined my students in reading aloud from favorite books/poems/etc. and discussing the importance of reading in their work and personal lives. We added hot chocolate, tea, and pastries to make it extra special for the holidays.

What do you do to make learning special in your classroom?  Please share your ideas in the comments below.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope that you have wonderful holiday season!

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.


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?

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