How to Thrive During Student Teaching (for Teacher Interns AND Mentor Teachers)

student teacher, mentor teacher

Student Teaching…it’s an essential element of every college teaching program and an important experience for both the mentor teacher and the pre-service teacher! 

For student teachers, it provides the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in the classroom and gain knowledge of the realities of the life of a classroom teacher. For mentor teachers, it provides opportunities to reflect on your teaching practice, grow professionally, and get trained assistance in your classes. 

Have you been asked to mentor a student teacher?

Mentoring a student teacher is not always popular with experienced teachers. It involves some risk and the ability to relinquish control of your classroom. Despite those facts, I enjoy having student teachers and have mentored nine, including many who have gone on to become successful teachers.

I enjoy student teachers (also called teacher interns) because they bring enthusiasm, energy, and new ideas to my classroom and teaching. As students who have recently taken secondary ELA methods courses, they also are knowledgeable about new technologies, texts, and teaching strategies which help keep me current. Of course, being a cooperating teacher and student teacher isn’t always easy, so here are some tips from my experiences and training over the years.

For Cooperating Teachers (Mentors)

1. Remember, they are still students! 
These days many of my student teachers (earning their bachelor’s degrees for secondary English) are closer in age to my high school students than to me, so this is quickly apparent.

This means mentors should scaffold and use gradual release models- just like with their adolescent students. This includes providing guidance with co-teaching and planning, adding ever-increasing tasks and responsibility as the student teacher progresses in their student teaching experience. 

For instance, they will need to observe at first and may want to work with small groups of students before teaching a whole-class lesson. Then, they may want to do mini-lessons before doing a full lesson. Often, my interns watch me during the early classes in the day and gradually take on more of the teaching responsibilities as each day progresses.

2. Be sure to communicate often. 
This can be challenging during a busy school day, but it is essential to success for you and the intern. I usually set aside at least 15 minutes of each planning period to talk with my interns. We may also schedule discussion times before and after school as needed.

Recently, I found it helpful to reiterate and review our conversations through email to make sure we both remembered what we talked about. It also gave use both time to reflect on earlier discussions and ask follow-up questions. Furthermore, it helped make expectations clear since they were in writing. Mostly, it’s important to have routine conversations in a way that work for you both.

Three-Column Feedback Approach

Communication also includes providing feedback. Of course, student teachers need praise and positive reinforcement to build their confidence, but they also need honest feedback, including constructive criticism. I like using an “I See,” “I Hear,” and “Questions” approach. (My own supervisors used this technique with me.)

I divide a page into three columns and observe the intern teaching, noticing details such as which students in the class participate in discussion and what those students are saying and doing. I also note the intern’s words and actions- movement around the classroom (use of proximity). I’m much like a human video camera (although actually videotaping the intern teaching is also a great idea – and usually required.) However, by personally observing, I can bring attention to things that an intern might not be aware of when watching a video.

3. Expect professionalism.
Student teachers often look young, especially if they’re working in a middle school or high school classroom. They’re probably accustomed to wearing jeans and casual clothing for their college classes, but they should wear professional attire appropriate to the school culture where you teach. This may include being even more formal than the seasoned teacher at your school. At the university where my interns attend, they even sponsor a “fashion show” for their methods students. At the very least, it may be worth a discussion between the student teacher and mentor.

Furthermore, use of cell phones should also be discussed. Unfortunately, I’ve had several student teachers who were on their phones while they were supposed to be observing our classes. In my school, students aren’t supposed to have their cell phones out in class and the intern should model appropriate behavior. This may be a new concept for your intern, however, so it may need to be explicitly stated.

4. Collaborate with them.
Take time to plan engaging lessons together! Use both of

student-teaching, internships
your talents and skills to improve instruction in your classroom. This may involve taking turns for who leads lessons or works with small groups of students. I’ve gained wonderful ideas from my interns. One made an environmental connection to our Native American Myths with an excerpt from the book, No Impact Man, and I've expanded the lesson since then. Several have introduced me to new technologies including brainstorming tools. Another intern, dressed up with me when we hosted a Roaring 20's Party after teaching The Great Gatsby.

5. Say Goodbye & Celebrate Success!
Plan some goodbye activities for the last week with your student teacher. The students may want to write notes or cards to her or him. The intern may need to do a survey and request feedback from the students.

You may even want to throw a small party or get a cake for

teacher intern, mentor teacher
your student teacher. If possible, make the celebration fit with a current unit. I’ve ended with a To Kill a Mockingbird tea party and Great Gatsby celebration.  You may also want to purchase a gift for your student teacher. Depending on the intern, I’ve given gifts including a t-shirt from our school store, a journal for reflective writing, books, and gift cards. And of course, be sure to offer to write a recommendation.

For the Intern

1. Show humility and appreciation.
When I was a student teacher, I thought I knew a lot more than I actually did. I had worked as an educational assistant before pursing my M.Ed., and obviously, I was up-to-date on the latest research from my methods classes.

While I found some of the lessons and procedures used from my cooperating teacher to be boring, I didn’t understand that she had many years of experience that lead to her routines and teaching style. I also didn’t know that she had to meet mandates from her own supervisors. It’s best to be humble during your experience and consider yourself a “house guest.” The mentor teacher has invited you into his or her classroom, and you should be as gracious as you would with any other person who is hosting you.

2. Listen, reflect, and ask questions.
Take time to listen and reflect on your days. Often, as you’re

pre-service teacher, cooperating teacher
reflecting on your daily experiences, you’ll realize that you have more questions for your mentor teacher. Jot these down so you won’t forget to ask them, or email the questions so your cooperating teacher has time to give you thoughtful responses. You may also want to keep a diary in which you note your thoughts each night. Or, if you’re like me, and find yourself too busy to write in a journal, you can simply write notes in your teaching plan book.

3. Be professional.
As mentioned above, your mentor teacher should expect professionalism from you, but you can make that easier by simply acting in a professional manner. That means that you should dress appropriately and refrain from interacting with students outside of the classroom unless it’s for a sanctioned extracurricular activity.

Be sure to set boundaries since students won’t always know how to handle a young teacher and may see you as a friend, (or even a love interest). Make it clear that you are not able to be friends while you’re interning. That includes making sure not to connect with them on social media. Unfortunately, I had a student teacher who was asked to leave our school when she went to a party with students (even though she had graduated from our school and knew some of them for a while). It’s best to err on the side of being more conservative while you’re a student teacher.

4. Observe many different teachers.
Given the opportunity, ask to observe as many different teachers as possible. This may mean watching teachers in different grade levels and/or content areas. You will notice that in each classroom, teachers will have unique procedures and ways of managing their classroom. By watching a variety of teachers, you will get the best ideas for your own style of teaching and future job. It also helps to see how students behave at different grade levels and with different teachers' personalities.

5. Get involved and volunteer!
If you’re serious about getting a teaching job (maybe even at the schools where you intern), take time to assist out of the classroom. Administrators will truly be impressed with interns who attend sports or club functions. At our school, we’re always in need of adult chaperones for dances and nighttime activities during Homecoming or Prom spirit weeks. Not only will you have opportunities to network with staff members, but you’ll build better rapport with students and parents!

Although student teaching is challenging at times, it can be a wonderful experience that will lead to a fulfilling career. Hopefully, some of these tips will make the experience beneficial for both mentor teachers and their teacher interns.

What tips would you add? What experiences have you had with student teaching? Please add your thoughts below!


Roundtable Discussion - Turning Book Discussions Over to Students

How do teachers get students to talk about their reading in a meaningful way?
As a high school English teacher, I have often been reluctant to let students lead their own book discussions. When I have tried book discussions in the past, students focused on the literal meanings of their books, usually recalling plot events; however, I wanted them to use critical thinking and to make inferences and relevant connections with their reading.

secondary elaOver the years, I’ve experimented with strategies that have made me more comfortable turning the discussion over to my students (and that make them more at ease with taking ownership of the discussions). These trials have turned into my “Roundtable Discussion.” Both students and administrators have praised the use of this discussion format, which I’ve used both in my American Literature and AP Literature classes.

Here are some reasons why my class discussions became more meaningful:

1. Students prepare for their discussions. They use handouts to summarize, to identify quotes and vocabulary, to write questions, and to research topics related to their reading. These handouts are assigned with specific chapters and discussion dates in mind. Students bring them to class and their completed work is stamped at the beginning of discussion.
high school English

2.  They write to get started.  Students respond to a quick write on their response sheets before discussion.  The prompt varies- sometimes asking a general question about literature and sometimes asking a specific question about their current reading.  For a recent quick write in AP Literature, students wrote about the structure of Snow Falling on Cedars.  This lead to a good discussion of nonlinear plotline.

3. Students rehearse. After setting goals for discussion, students meet with partners, sharing their quick writes, handouts, and goals. Next, they move the desks into a circle and participate in a “whip around.” During this activity, each student shares one thought about their reading. They cannot respond to each other at this point; they just listen. Finally, this leads into spontaneous discussion.
reading discussion

4.  They listen to one another and take notes. During the discussion, I ask my students to note at least three - four interesting comments they heard their classmates contribute to the discussion.  I encourage them to use these notes to help them build their comments off of one another's ideas.  If I have a large class, I split them into two groups, and the "outside" circle listens and jots notes.  (Sometimes we add a “hot seat” and students from the outside can move into the inner circle to respond to a discussion comment.) This helps keep them focused.

5. After the discussion, students reflect on the day’s conversation. Often, they write about whether they achieved their goals, but on other occasions I give them specific prompts related to rubric criteria. When students observe one another in outside circles, they can also use their peers’ feedback for their reflections.

With practice, students have thoughtful discussions, and I am rewarded with time to listen and observe. This helps me develop other lessons based on my informal assessment of their discussions.

Best of all? It’s wonderfully relaxing to be a listener and not the lead participant in the discussion.  Students take ownership for their learning!

A few more things to note about effective discussions:

  • It takes practice! The first discussion is challenging for many students because in my school, they’ve rarely been required to take ownership in this way. They are also nervous to talk in front of their peers, but eventually almost all of them get comfortable and leaders emerge naturally. It’s great for hearing students who otherwise would not participate, too!
  • I have 90-minute class periods so this process can take from 45 – 60 minutes. Using a timer helps keep the process moving along. Again, with repeated discussions, it goes more smoothly.
  • It often helps to use a short story for a model discussion before tackling a larger text such as a novel. 
Would you be interested in learning more Roundtable Discussion? You can get handouts, a rubric, and a lesson plan here.


Back to School Stress? 5 Ways to Take Care of Yourself!

self-care, bts, back to school, stress

It’s that time of year again.

After enjoying a relaxing summer, stress levels skyrocket with the return to a busy school schedule. If you’re like me, you may have enjoyed waking up without an alarm clock, drinking your morning coffee or tea at a leisurely pace, and spending quality time with family and friends. But now that you’re back to work, time is limited for those activities.

It can be difficult to transition to the hectic pace of the school year, so it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself as you return to school. Of course, that’s easier said than done. So, here are a few suggestions for self-care that are reminders as you try to shift back to your school routine.

Stay Active

1. I don’t know about you but because my summer schedule is calmer, I am much better at getting exercise and going to the gym than during the school year. I’ve been taking spin and yoga classes throughout the summer, but once the school year starts and I can’t exercise in the morning, it’s much harder for me to get to the gym. (I’m not a person who can wake up and go to the gym before school.) Although I may miss my workouts at the gym when September returns, I can still get outdoors after school and take long walks. Though they’re not as demanding as my spin classes, these walks refresh me and still burn calories.

If I have a little more time, I may kayak or ride my bike. These activities help improve my energy and provide the added benefit of boosting my vitamin D from the sunshine. Hopefully, you can also find time to stay active. Like me, it can be as simple as an afternoon walk. Consider what activities you can do to stay active that aren’t time-consuming.

Say No

2. This is probably the most important lesson I’ve learned in
new teachers, back to school, self-care strategies
over 20+ years of teaching. “No” is such a little word, but sometimes it’s tough to say. Administrators, students, parents, and other teachers always make innumerable requests during the school year. Whether it’s attending a school talent show, chaperoning a dance, or teaching an after-school program, people always ask me to do more! No doubt, I enjoy attending some of these events, but I have to limit extra activities to one or two a week. If I don’t say “no,” I won’t have any time left over to take care of myself.

New teachers should especially heed this advice. If you’re a new teacher, you already have too much to handle, and you need to protect your time so you can effectively manage lesson planning, grading, communicating with parents, etc. (The list never ends). You may be inundated with requests for help because the demand for club advisors, coaches, and committee participants is always high. Please set boundaries and empower yourself! Really, it’s only two letters…N-O

Get Sleep

3. When switching from my summer schedule back to a school routine, it’s important to make sure I get enough sleep. In the summer when the days are longer, I go to bed later at night. In fact, I do everything later, including waking up, socializing, and eating dinner. But with the early mornings of the school year, I have to make sure I go to bed earlier, so I start winding down right after dinner. This means that I need to turn off my cell phone and walk away from the television. Without those distractions, I can often get to sleep by ten on a school night and get my full eight hours of sleep.

You should try to do the same. Don’t grade papers in bed and don’t bring your laptop into the bedroom. Find relaxing

activities that will help you quiet your brain. Include time before you go to bed to listen to soothing music, take a bath, enjoy a glass of wine, or read a pleasurable book. If those strategies don’t work, and you find yourself struggling to sleep, try deep breathing or meditation. I’ve found an app called Calm that helps me on those nights when I have insomnia.

Continue Summer Hobbies

4. In the summer, I cultivate and tend a small garden of tomatoes, peppers, and herbs. I make sure to water and prune the plants, and I enjoy the reward of fresh vegetables. I also spend more time with my dog, taking him for drives to the beach or park. Unfortunately, with my busy school schedule, I frequently forget to care for the garden, or I neglect my pup. Ultimately, work’s interference with these activities makes me resentful.

To keep from getting irritable and to improve my mood, I consciously devote time to continuing summer activities. Furthermore, maintaining my garden reminds me to cook and eat healthy. And when it’s too cold or dark to keep up with these hobbies, I add new ones that fit the season. (My husband and I compete in Fantasy Football league with friends.) If you have summer hobbies, schedule time to enjoy them even when summer break ends.

Pamper Yourself

5. When I meet my new students and start teaching after summer vacation, it’s easy for me to get consumed with work. I have long work days followed by evening activities such as back-to-school night during the first months back. Work and home responsibilities feel overwhelming. In the past, I’ve neglected to honor my self-worth. A few small indulgences like getting a manicure or massage make me feel better and cheer me up when I’m sad that summer is over. Don’t feel guilty and make sure you pamper yourself, too! In fact, research shows that taking care of your emotional well-being improves your ability to be there for others.

Occasionally, during extra busy weeks, I struggle to practice self-care more than usual weeks. Sometimes, I’m in a bind to find an engaging lesson for a new concept I’m teaching, or I need a good substitute lesson plan for when I don’t feel well.

At these times, I search for teaching resources that I can download for a few dollars. I know that teacher authors have worked hours to make excellent teaching materials so I can take care of myself. It’s not selfish to prioritize our health over work responsibilities.

The truth is that teachers are so generous with their time that they may be inattentive to their own physical and mental health. Overtired and burnt-out teachers are short-tempered, lethargic, and frequently ill. But by sacrificing their health, they end up being able to give less of themselves. If you’re one of those teachers, remember that by helping yourself, you’re also helping your students, colleagues, and others in your community!

I’ve shared ways that I purposefully care for myself. What do you do for yourself? I’m always looking for new ways to live a more balanced life, so please share in the comments below.


How to Keep High School Students Focused When They're Distracted

high school life

High school life is busy...last week our school celebrated homecoming, and as usual, everyone was distracted by “dress-up” days, evening activities (class competitions, a talent show, a teacher-student volleyball game), voting for the homecoming court, and of course, the dance. To say the least, it made teaching challenging!

New Teacher Mistakes

When I was a new teacher, I never paid attention to special times of the school year- whether they were traditional holidays, special field trips, popular dances, or important sports competitions. I took myself and my job too seriously- expecting that nothing would interfere with my students’ learning. Unfortunately, I had the mindset that students were in school to learn, and they needed to manage themselves better if life distracted them. 

Of course, this didn’t make me a very successful teacher during these times, but fortunately I’ve learned from my mistakes! Over the years, I’ve realized that teachers need to be flexible. I was a student once, too, and even though it was a long time ago (a really long time ago), I remember how exciting these special times of the school year were, so I shouldn’t fault my students for being distracted. Instead, now I try to help them manage their enthusiasm for these activities while they also continue to learn.

Tips for Managing Distractions

spirit weeks, holidays, school distractions
Here are a few strategies that I use to help make these weeks manageable:

1. Acknowledge there is a distraction and plan ahead! It’s not the wisest decision to make the Monday after homecoming weekend (or Halloween, or Thanksgiving, or prom, etc.) the due date for a major assignment or project. The reality is that many students will not complete the assignment. Then you will have to decide if you’ll let students submit it as a late assignment or fail the project. If they fail, are they learning? Ultimately, adding a day or two to the deadline and making the due date on the Tuesday or Wednesday after a special weekend gives them a weeknight or two to finish homework and will result in less stress and hassle for you and the students.

Parents will also appreciate this forward-thinking. For instance, at holidays, many parents struggle to balance travel plans with school schedules. They will thank you for making it so their children don’t have to stay up late into the night after arriving home from a delayed flight at 10:00 p.m. on a Sunday.

prom, special events in school2. However, it's still important to keep students accountable during these weeks. (Yes, I know that I just said I loosen up due dates but it's still important to set the expectation for learning). Although it’s important to recognize the holiday or event taking place, and maybe even incorporate a few fun activities, it’s important to continue with lessons from the regular curriculum. In my classes, students have vocabulary assignments every day, and I make sure to collect them. We also continue our weekly grammar and reading lessons.  I often choose an interesting story such as "The Story of an Hour" or "The Lottery" that requires critical thinking to help them stay focused.

With my high school students, I also talk with them about planning ahead. (In fact, at the beginning of the school year, I use problem-solving writing prompts to help them prepare for upcoming challenges.) For example, I tell them that they may want to complete their upcoming vocabulary index cards during the weekend before a spirit week or holiday. (I give them this advice when they will have a busy week at after-school jobs or in sports, too.) This way they can enjoy the evening activities that take place during our homecoming week. No doubt, this is a helpful life lesson for the many events that will distract them in their futures at college and in work.

3. Participate in some of the fun. I probably shouldn't admit this, but I honestly don’t feel that excited about homecoming anymore. (Between being a high school student and teacher, I’ve participated in 20 homecoming weeks and numerous dances.)  However, I still want to connect with the students and show my school spirit. 

Therefore, I choose a few days to dress-up for during the week. My students notice that I’m taking part in activities that happen outside of English class, and it opens conversations with them about their interests, hobbies, and life outside of school. Even though I think my English class should be the center of everyone’s attention (haha), lots of my students, parents, and other staff members won’t agree. They have their own interests and priorities, and it's important to accept that.   As you can see, my colleague and I dressed up for "Twins Day."

4. Maintain regular routines. I believe that structure and routines are beneficial to my students’ learning. They know they can expect certain warm ups, lessons, and activities on specific days of the week. For example, they know that I always start with journal writing on Mondays and that we begin class with silent sustained reading on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This helps me plan my semester and provides consistency. 

As much as possible, I maintain these routines during special weeks during the school year. Sometimes those weeks and events make them anxious. (They may be worried about who they'll go to the dance with or what they will wear to Homecoming.)  When students know there are daily routines and expectations, it actually helps calm their nerves.  Structure at school also helps me meet some of their emotional needs.

I hope by sharing some of my previous challenges and how I've learned to deal with them, you can avoid some of the pitfalls I've had in past years.  What advice do you have for keeping students focused during the holiday season or other eventful times during the school year? I’m always interested in new ideas so please share in the comments below!


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 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

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

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.


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!

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