Bring Joy into Your ELA Classroom

joy in school

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. After the stress of the past two years, enjoyable learning is more important than ever, and 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
cookie exchange
novel or story, have students make cookies that symbolically represent literary elements. For instance, a student can make a cookie in the shape of momma's plant from A Raisin in the Sun.  Let students bring in their homemade or store-bought cookies to exchange with one another. During the exchange, they can explain how the cookies connect with their selected literary elements. Use these free handouts to guide their planning and presentations.

literature activity
As a modification, if some students can't make cookies, offer other ways for them to participate.  Maybe they can design cookies with illustrations or online programs and write descriptions of their cookies.  Of course, b
e 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! 

2. Lead students on a "writing walk."

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!

5.  Celebrate with a Special Event

english-language-artsOrganize 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.

6.  Play Games

Play games to make learning engaging in the days leading up to winter break or other holiday occassions.  You can find many pre-made activities at online sites such as Kahoot or Blooket.  You can also create your own twist on classic games such as Jeopardy, Bingo, or Jenga.  My students love to play trashketball, and I'm happy to get students who are stuck inside out of their seats.  

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!

Pique Student Interest with Banned Books


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.

argument writing for ela
Banned Books Week, from September 26 - October 2, is an 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.  Unfortunately, this is becoming more common in our current culture.

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 in previous years.
teach banned books, high school English

Make a Display

Have your students create displays that educate their classmates about banned books.  In years past, the librarians at my high school displayed books from our media center which have been challenged.  In the display, they included reasons for the challenges with each displayed book. It was easy for them to decorate with caution tape and construction paper.

Collaborate with Your Media Center

I also 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?

banned-books, intellectual-freedom, high-school-english
Here is a quick and easy free activity your students can do to connect argument writing to their reading of a challenged book. The argument writing prompt asks 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 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.

banned books

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

Teachers can also request rationales and report a censorship incident for classroom texts if they face a challenge.  What do you do with banned books in your classroom? Please share in the comments below.


TED Talks for Back to School (And the Rest of the School Year)

Oh, no! It’s back to school, and time for teachers to greet their new students, create routines, complete team builders, and make their classrooms welcoming. But with the pressure to cover extensive curriculum in a short amount of time, secondary teachers may feel tempted to skip the process of creating a positive classroom culture and delve straight into their content.

It’s a mistake, however, to ignore the importance of building safe and inclusive classrooms that encourage students to participate actively in their learning. This is more important than ever since students, educators, and family members are all facing back to school with uncertainty in the face of the pandemic.

Even though you may not think you have the time, these TED Talks from diverse speakers are great filler activities for those days when a lesson finishes early or when you need an activity to get all of your classes on the same schedule. Best of all, they’re a meaningful way for students to practice their listening and speaking skills. Furthermore, they develop students multimedia literacy skills and they spark student interest. These talks teach important lessons for the beginning of the school year, communicating life lessons such as overcoming obstacles, having gratitude, and being productive.

Back to School

Aimee Mullins: The Opportunity of Adversity (21:27)

Life isn't fair, but Aimee Mullins has never let that interfere with her success even though she was born without shin bones and labeled "disabled."

In this talk, she shares some of her struggles and the positive influence of her childhood doctor, Dr. Pizzutillo, from AI duPont Institute in Wilmington, Delaware. He empowered her and helped her see her own strengths. As she notes, humans can adapt and have "the ability to survive and the struggle of the human spirit through conflict into transformation." Her inspiring talk may help empower some of your own students as they navigate this difficult time period in our country.

Megan Washington - Fear of Public Speaking (12:58)

Lots of people, including students in all of our classes, are afraid to speak in public – even if that’s just in the classroom. This talk by Australian singer Megan Washington may inspire more willingness in your students to speak up. In the talk, Washington shows how she converted her speech disability into her passion and success in life. Students will love hearing her sing, also!

Secondary English

Mac Burnett - Why a Good Book is a Secret Door (16:59)

Motivate your students to seek out “wonder” in the reading of books with this funny, entertaining talk by children’s author Mac Burnett. He reminds us that reading provides avenues for imagination, art, fiction, and reality. His talk is perfect for motivating students in English class right before they visit the school library for selecting novels during choice reading units.

Julian Treasure - 5 Ways to Listen Better (7:43)

How much of what you say do your students remember? In a world that often assaults our senses and distracts our attention, Julian Treasure argues that we are losing our ability to listen to one another. In this talk, he offers strategies to improve our listening skills, and most importantly, the listening skills of our students.

TED Talks

Shonda Rhimes - My Year of Saying Yes to Everything (17:25)

Shonda Rhimes, the producer of hit television shows such as Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, calls herself a “titan” and brags about her impressive success in this talk. She also shares how she confronted burn-out and learned a valuable lesson while saying “yes” to everything she was asked. Her daughters unwittingly taught her to seek out joy in life. This talk helps students keep perspective and is especially beneficial for high achievers.

TED Talks

Jonny Sun - You Are Not Alone in Your Loneliness (10:21)

In this short and honest talk, artist Jonny Sun talks about sharing his feelings of loneliness when he is online. He thinks that by discussing his sadness, it has helped connect him to others. And while he admits that the internet can feel unsafe and intimidating at times, it can also provide a platform for building supportive communities. In fact, he feels that having conversations about feeling isolated and insecure can normalize discussions about mental health.

I think this talk would be fantastic for my high school students, but I would make sure students understand that sharing their unhappiness online is not the same as sharing severe emotional trauma or suicidal thoughts. I would provide resources for seeking out help from their friends, families, teachers, and counselors if they think they have major depression.

Jarrett Krosoczka - Why Lunch Ladies Are Heroes (5:14)

This children’s author who wrote books about superhero lunch ladies tells his audience about the importance of validating everyone – even those who don’t usually get recognized. It would make an effective video at the beginning of a kindness activity, and students may want to thank a variety of school staff members – custodians, school nurses, library staff, etc.

Olivia Remes - How to Cope with Anxiety (15:15)

With student anxiety increasing at alarming rates, this recent TED talk will be helpful for many kids in your classrooms. Olivia Remes, from the University of Cambridge, explains the science behind anxiety and discusses the importance of gaining coping skills. She also describes several ways students can take charge of their anxiety.

Jia Jang - What I learned from 100 days of Rejection (15:31)

Using humor and personal anecdotes, Jang talks about how he remembered experiences from his youth and, thus, decided to take chances that led to 100 days of rejection. He learned to be a stronger, more courageous person in the process, and acquired valuable lessons such as turning a “no” into a “yes.” This talk will teach students the power of perseverance and to embrace rejection.

Amy Cuddy - Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are (20:48)

Teach students to use “power poses” to build their confidence with this authentic talk from Amy Cuddy. In this talk, Cuddy, a social psychologist, uses scientific research to show that both humans and animals demonstrate power and dominance through their body language. She explains that physiology affects psychology, so she teaches people the importance of the mantra, “fake it till you make it.” She also supports her claim by sharing her personal experience of overcoming a brain injury after being in a horrible car accident.

Often, teenager girls dream of being models, or at least, conventionally pretty.  However, supermodel Cameron Russell provides an honest and critical assessment of her job in this talk.  She admits that she received advantages as a model but notes that she always feels insecure about her appearance.  She also critiques the lack of diverse representation in the model world and encourages girls to become leaders and women in positions of power.  Although girls may relate to the talk the most, she has an important message for all teens about the superficiatlity of physical appearance.

The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Our students have stories.  Sometimes they share these stories, and sometimes they simply read the stories presented to them.  Whether these tales are used to stereotype people or to enlighten people, stories have power.  Educators can broaden student horizons by sharing Adichie's message that readers should search out mulitple stories that reveal myriad human experiences.  Her talk reminds students to read and think critically- essential skills for high school.

Of course, it’s important to preview these talks to ensure that they will be appropriate for your students. Most should appeal to secondary students in any content area. If you teach American Literature, however, I have written other blog posts with recommendations that connect to many American Literature texts.

Now that I’ve shared some of my favorites, do you have TED talks or other videos that you recommend for BTS? Please share about them in the comments below.


Strategies for Back to School Success during In-Person and Online Learning

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

However, advice varies and can be confusing. Some educators recommend that teachers refrain from smiling for months while others suggest letting your students sit wherever they want on the first day of school. And as all experienced teachers know, every year presents new challenges, new research, and new technology, so we need to adapt and be flexible all of the time! That's why I have my "go to" strategies every year but tweak them for the most current situation. In fact, it’s taken me 24 years of teaching to feel confident about my return to school.  I’ve acquired a few strategies to share with you. 

1. Empower yourself by learning student names.

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

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

Use Icebreakers In Person or Online
To better learn names, it helps to start with icebreakers. You may be interested in this free icebreaker or these team builders.  Last year, when teaching virutally, I used "Two Truths and a Lie" in an onine discussion and a Padlet brainstorm where students identified things in common (favorite color, birthday month, hobbies, etc.) This year, I'm trying something new and will use this hexagonal thinking activity from Betsy at Spark Creativity.

2.  Build Community
Building a welcoming and inclusive classroom has always been important, but the pandemic taught me that this is more important than ever.  For that reason, I've added more community-building activities at the beginning of each class to help create a positive rapport with students.  My 90-minute blocks start with online warm-up discussions. A mixture of whimsical, serious, practical, and fun, a small sample of the questions include the following:
  • If you could only take three things to a deserted island, what would they be? Why did you choose these things?
  • If you could talk to your pet (or another animal) and it could understand, what would you say? Why would you say this?
  • What is your favorite holiday to celebrate? What do you like about this holiday?
  • What is your favorite outfit to wear? Why do you like it?
  • Would you rather be a zebra or a kangaroo? Why?
  • Would you rather have three arms or three legs? Why?
  • How do you stay motivated to do well in school? Give specific strategies in your response.
  • How do you take care of your physical, emotional, and/or mental health? Give specific strategies in your response.
  • Where do you want to live when you grow up? Why in this place?
  • What social media or websites do you visit the most? Why these platforms and sites?
  • What's something that happened to you that has made you a stronger person? Why did it make you stronger?
  • How do you think your best friend would describe you? Why these traits?
  • What is the last thing that made you laugh? What was funny about it?
  • If you were a ghost, who or what would you haunt? Why?
  • What goes with bacon? You can't say eggs!
  • You have a tutoring session for a test next week.Your tutor is from the last television show or movie you watched. Who is it?
  • It’s burger night! What toppings will your burgers have? What’s the best way to eat your burger?
Along with questions, I ask students to post photos (with the option not to if they don't feel comfortable).  Some of these photos include:
  • Pets
  • Family and friends
  • Favorite books
  • Favorite places to hang out
  • Silly hat
  • Study space
  • Memes (school appropriate)
In another activity last year, I used breakout rooms to play "survivor island" where students had to choose a limited number of items they would bring to a deserted island.  The groups had to compromise and provide a rationale for each item that they selected.  Then, they shared their group's choices with the rest of the class when they're finished.  This was a hit!

3. Minimize chaos by making a seating chart.

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

However, this strategy didn’t work for me because students immediately sat with their friends and formed cliques. It gave me some insight into the character of my students, but it made it difficult to develop a strong community of learners who all work together. In addition to the formation of cliques, I realized that this  was intimidating for any students new to the school or who didn’t have friends in the class.

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

4. Don’t do all of the talking.

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

Keep Video Chats Short
If I teach online again this year, I expect to use Zoom or another video platform for class lectures and discussion but will keep the sessions short.  Even though I teach on a block schedule, last year I learned that limiting online class meetings to 30 minutes was optimal. In truth, it's best to employ the 20-20-20 rule when teaching online.

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

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

5. Create a calm and peaceful classroom with routines.

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

high school, middle school, rules, teaching, educaiton
It's also important to revisit your rules, procedures, and expectations after the first week of school.  Like anything else you teach, true mastery of learning takes review.  That's why I like to use my Back to School Trashketball Game after a couple of weeks have passed.  I usually prefer a fun activity for class on Friday, and this game is helpful when everyone is tired from returning to the hectic school routine.  It brings energy to the room and builds community.

6. Use a flexible teaching approach.

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

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

Of course, I still get butterflies in my stomach the night before the school year begins, but they’re not nearly as bad as they were in the past.

Implementing these strategies makes the transition from summer to a new school year go smoother. What helps you at the beginning of the year? What new strategies are you trying for the circumstances of this school year?  I’m always interested in getting new ideas and insights. Add yours in the comments below.


Make More Awesome Connections to American Literature with These TED Talks

high school English, speaking and listening skills
Students need teachers to make learning relevant and engaging, and one excellent tool for this is the use of TED Talks. I've been teaching American Literature for over 10 years and have found numerous TED Talks that connect to the texts my students read. In fact, I wrote about eight of them in an earlier blog post and have recently found more to add to my previous list.

For each talk below, I’ve included recommended literature connections, but I'm certain there are innumerable texts that may apply to each talk. Also, keep in mind that you can print transcripts of the talks to prepare for technology glitches or if you want students to take a closer look at the texts of these speeches. TEDTalks also allow you to use subtitles so you can meet the needs of all of your students.

TED Talks for American Literature

1. America's Native Prisoners of War by Aaron Huey
Date Given: 2010
Length: 15:13
Summary: In this sobering, yet informative talk, Huey reveals the shocking treatment of Native Americans (specifically the Lakota) in our country. He shares a historical timeline of numerous injustices against the tribe and the meaning of the Lakota word, "Wasichu." Perhaps with a better understanding of the events Huey recalls, our students will not only have more empathy for indigenous peoples but may choose to fight for solutions that help Native Americans with the many problems they face in the United States today.
Relevant Connections: "I Will Fight No More Forever" by Chief Joseph, Native American Myths, Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann, ThereThere by Tommy Orange

2. How to Talk to Veterans About War by Wes Moore
Date Given: 2014
Length: 14:16
Summary:  Moore's mom sent her son to military school when he continually got into trouble as a young boy, and in this talk, Moore shares how that decision lead to his time in the army and eventual deployment to Afghanistan. After returning from war, he realized he had a much truer understanding of the saying, "thank you for your service." Now he encourages people to ask veterans to share their stories and experiences as a way to honor them.
Relevant Connections: The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore, The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane,

3. The Sibling Bond by Jeffrey Kluger
Date Given: 2011
Length: 20:48
Summary:  Many works of literature include sibling relationships, and this talk explains the important role siblings play in people's (and characters) lives. Kluger shares examples of the impact siblings have had on his own life, the lives of famous historical figures, and those of people he interviewed for his book, The Sibling Effect. He also provides key findings from the scientific research on siblings. This is certainly a talk that will be meaningful for your students!
Relevant Connections: Brighton Beach Memoirs by Neil Simon, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker

4.  On Being a Woman and a Diplomat by Madeleine Albright 
Date Given: 2010
Length: 12:44
Summary:  Empower and educate your girls (and boys) with this conversational talk between former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Pat Mitchell.  The talk begins with Albright's explanation of her pin collection, including the pin "Breaking the Glass Ceiling," that she wears during the talk.  She also shares information from her diplomatic experience and explains that women's issues are world issues and should be central to foreign policy. Not only does her talk provide interesting information, but she acts as a role model to our female students.
Relevant Connections:  "Ain't I a Woman?" by Sojourner Truth, "On Women's Rights" by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, "Phenomenal Woman" by Maya Angelou, The Awakening by Kate Chopin, and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

5. Immigrant Voices Make Democracy Stronger
Date Given: 2016
Length: 12:33
Summary: In this talk, Sayu Bhojwani shares her personal experience of immigrating to the United States from India through Belize.  She discusses the importance of getting immigrants to vote and make their voices heard in America.  Ultimately, she advocates for three things -- immigrants' votes, voices and vantage points -- that she thinks can help make our democracy stronger. By sharing her personal experience and struggles, she also helps connect to our immigrant students.
Relevant Connections: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sanchez, "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus, “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros,  and Refugee by Alan Grantz

Date Given: 2016
Length: 14:35
Summary:  This fascinating talk brings to light an issue that may be particularly relevant and interesting to teens.  Lindsay Malloy, a forensic development psychologist, explains why some people would confess to crimes they were later exonerated for with D.N.A. evidence.  As part of the discussion, she highlights the case of Brendan Dassey, a 16-year-old student with an IQ of 70. She advocates for change in the legal system for young suspects and educating law enforcement.
Free TpT, high school EnglishRelevant Connections: The Crucible by Arthur Miller, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater, "Half Hanged Mary" by Margaret Atwood (Canadian but I include North American authors in my class sometimes), "Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau

7.  How to Fix a Broken Heart by Guy Winch
Length: 12:16
TED Talks American Literature
Summary: Romantic relationsips often consume the hearts and minds of teens.  And unfortunately, sometimes these relationships end in heartbreak.  For this reason, high school students will find this TED talk engaging and relevant.  Pyschologist Guy Winch uses anecdotes from his counseling practice to explain the science of the brain and human emotions when experiening heartbreak.  Best of all, he provides specific steps that people can take to move foward with their lives after a breakup.
Relevant Connections:  The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald, "The Story of an Hour" and "Desiree's Baby" by Kate Chopin, Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, "A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner 

Date Given:  April 2019
Summary:  Unfortunately, many teens end up in abusive and unhealthy relationships, so this TED Talk provides important lessons for them.  The speaker works for an organization called One Love that was started by the family of Yeardley Love, who was murdered in 2010 by her University of Virginia boyfriend.  In the talk, Katie Hood reviews five signs of unhealthy relationships including intensity, isolation, extreme jealousy, belittling, and volatility.  Be aware that this talk may trigger strong emotional reactions in some of your students.  You may want to warn them before showing the talk.
Relevant Connections:  In addition to the texts listed with the TED Talk above, other texts that could work with this include the following: "To My Dear and Loving Husband" by Anne Bradstreet (as a contrast), "My Papa's Waltz" by Theodore Roethke, "Mad Girl's Love Song" by Sylvia Plath, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

And of course, please share your recommended talks in the comments below! Additionally, these handouts can help your students practice their listening and analysis skills as they watch. 

If you're new to American Literature or just looking for innovative ideas for teaching the class, you may also be interested in my free pacing guide.  


Make Distance Learning Engaging with Virtual Trashketball Games

Did you know that high school students adore trashketball? Even though the game is played more often in middle school, it’s one of the best activities that I have in my teacher toolbox. In fact, I have never had a class of students that didn’t enjoy it. They like the games because trashketball makes learning concepts that aren’t usually exciting – such as grammar- more engaging and memorable.

Sadly, since the start of the pandemic, I have not been able to play traditional trashketball in my classroom. Although I encouraged my students to play on their own at home last spring, I wanted a way to play with all of my students during our distance learning. However, I struggled with how to make that happen until recently. After watching Power Point training videos to improve my skills, I finally came up with a solution – Virtual Trashketball! 

Like the games that I use for regular trashketball, I use Power Point to create the new games. I make them so that they can be uploaded into my Learning Management System (Schoology) and be played with a video presentation program such as Zoom.

The games start just like my previous games- with a review of the grammar concepts- skills such as pronoun and antecedent agreement, prepositional phrases, and sentence problems. I present the review to the class and ask them to take notes, or I assign it to them as an individual activity. Just last week, I used my sentence structures game with my students to help them improve their grammar in preparation for the SAT.

Once students review the concept, they play the game. Detailed instructions tell both students and teachers how to play. If the game will be a class competition, students print (or mark) the “score sheet” to record earned points after each “trashket.”

Basically, as the students progress through the questions, they click on their answer choices. If they’re incorrect, they click on an arrow to return the question and they get to try again. 

If they choose the correct answer, they click on a box that says “next” and takes them to a slide where they choose one of three different colored basketballs.

Once they click on their basketball choice, they’re taken to another slide which allows them to “shoot” their trashket. The player shoots the basketball and it bounces around, finally making it into the trashcan. (These are just random animations.) 

Once the ball lands in the trashcan, the points that are scored display on the slide. These points are arbitrary, so it really doesn’t matter what basketball they select.

The students advance through the game by continuing this process and recording their points until they finish the last question. If the teacher wants to add a prize, students can submit their scores to determine a winner.

Finally, to ensure that students understand the concept, they take a self-grading quiz which is in a Google Form. Then teachers can review the results, and based on the data, they may choose to reteach concepts that students are still struggling with.

It’s important to note that the trashketball “shooting” animation doesn’t work in Google Slides at this time. That doesn’t have to stop students from playing, though. Instead, they just need to download the game as a Power Point presentation and play it in slide show mode.

Have you returned to in-class instruction or are following a hybrid model?  You can still play the traditional games in your class with a couple of modifications. Minimize the spread of germs by ordering a multi-pack of mini-sports stress balls and allow each student to use his or her own ball.  Or, if you want to involve your virtual students in "shooting" the balls, ask them to choose a classmate to be their "proxy" trashketball shooter.

Whether you play to celebrate the March Madness or just to make learning active, any time during the school year is a great time to play and make real-world connections that your students will appreciate. I’m looking forward to playing another game with mine later this week, and it will be easy because the games are already made and ready to play!


Tips for Teaching on Block Schedule During Distance Learning

Although I’ve taught on a block schedule for 17 years and have many strategies in my teacher toolbox, the pandemic has made me rethink how I teach during long class periods.  Using my professional knowledge, teacher intuition, formative assessment, and reflection on successes and failures, I’ve adapted my teaching for hybrid and online learning.  In the process, I’ve developed new approaches until we get back to normal (or at least something closer to normal).  Read on to learn about them.

Keep Zoom Sessions Short

Just as I wouldn’t lecture for long blocks of time, I don’t Zoom with students for a 90-minute class period. My class Zooms last about 45 minutes or half of a class period, and with the remaining time, I tell students to complete their independent learning assignments.  Within the class Zoom session, I break up our work into two - three separate tasks.  It's a slower pace than instruction during block in my normal classroom, but it keeps me and the students from becoming too stressed.  During the activities, sometimes I am talking, sometimes students are using the chat feature, and other times students are working with annotation tools and/or breakout rooms.  One advantage of a 45-minute Zoom session is that I can provide support to individual students or small groups who need help with their assignments with any remaining time.

Provide Longer Wait Time

Although I keep Zoom sessions shorter than regular class periods, I’ve noticed that it’s essential to plan for additional wait time during online learning.  I pause for a couple of seconds longer than I would in my regular classroom.  During online learning, students need more time to process their thoughts.  Additionally, lags with technology may slow down communication in a virtual classroom.

Model with Videos

Sometimes, to better explain tasks, I make short videos that model for students what they should be doing independently. For instance, when recently teaching a speech given by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I used my iPad to record how to annotate the PDF. With a video, students can manage their own learning and pause or repeat the video as needed.

Take Breaks to Look Away

Research shows that students shouldn’t be on screens all day long. I keep in mind the 20-20-20 rule, which says a person should look away every 20 minutes at an object that is about 20 feet away for a full 20 seconds.  On the rare occasions when I expect to have longer Zoom sessions, I schedule short breaks in between activities.  During these breaks, I direct students to look away from their screens and stretch so that we follow this rule.

Include Asynchronous Days

After struggling to get my students to attend Zooms consistently last fall, and with permission from my administration, I’ve added one - two asynchronous days in each week.  Students have specific assignments to complete on the asynchronous days, and I provide video directions for them.  In these instructions, I share the standards, learning targets, success criteria, and daily agenda.  During the short instructional video, I tell students what order to work on their assignments and show them where to find each of the activities in the daily folder on our Learning Management System. 

On these days, I often include lessons that are easier for students to do independently such as watching and analyzing a TED Talk or completing SAT practice.  I also make myself available for private Zoom sessions in “office hours” on those days so that students can meet with me for individual assistance.  (I’ve learned that many students don’t want to ask for help in front of their peers, but they will ask for help in a private session.)  To manage the office hours, I simply create a Microsoft Form and students sign up for 10-minute time slots. (This could easily be accomplished with a Google Form too).

Start with a Warm-Ups

Whether you call them bell ringers, starters, or warm-ups, these are great activities that can be used in virtual and hybrid teaching (particularly for longer class periods).  By giving students a task to complete immediately at the beginning of the class, I accomplish multiple goals.  First, these discussions and activities hook my students and introduce the day’s topics.  Recently, I taught a lesson using the book How to Read Like a Professor.  Since my students had never used it before, they made predictions on what the title told them about the content of the book in their warm-up discussion.  We discussed their predictions and when we read a chapter later in our class, they had a better understanding of their purpose.

Another benefit to warm-ups is that it improves my classroom management.  Since we are currently hybrid, it gives my in-class students something to focus on when they get seated.  It also allows me to take attendance and add virtual students from the waiting room into the Zoom. 

Vary Technology

Just as I would vary modes of learning in my traditional classroom for a 90-minute block, I alter online learning with different types of technology.  I use online discussions and assessment tools in my LMS platform, add videos and media albums, incorporate Word documents and PowerPoints, create polls and forms for surveys, and link to other tools such as Padlet and EdPuzzle.  We also have our online textbook, MyPerspectives, and Khan academy resources. 

I’ve heard that NearPod and PearDeck are wonderful apps, also, and hope to learn them soon.  However, I think it’s okay to use one or two main apps consistently to simplify learning online.  I’m careful not to overwhelm students with too many different technologies in one day or week.  In fact, I create structure and routines for virtual learning just as I would in my regular classroom.

Provide Opportunities for Interaction

In my regular classroom I frequently employ cooperative learning, movement, and group activities, and I know my students need to interact socially in a virtual block, too.  At the beginning of my Zoom session, I start with a “chat” question to prepare students to participate and work together with their peers.  These low-stakes questions are easy to answer and can also act as icebreakers.  For example, I may ask students to share what pets they have, tell about their favorite music, movies, and food, or set goals for the day. 

Use White Board Activities

During whole-class reading and discussion, I check for understanding with white board discussions.  Recently, I used the white board to introduce the abstract concept of freedom at the beginning of the unit.  Students had to brainstorm words and we created a “word web” by writing words that seemed related to the idea of freedom.  In another lesson with a white board, I asked students to type what they thought was the most important line in the poem “Theme for English B” after we read and analyzed it.  Then I asked each student to unmute their microphones and share why they selected those lines. 

For my hybrid students, I muted myself and put in headphones so I could better hear what everyone said.  I’ve gotten in the habit of plugging in speakers for my in-class students, too, and I project the Zoom on my front screen for days when our bandwidth won’t allow everyone on the Zoom together.

Incorporate Breakout Rooms

For group work, I’ve been frequently using breakout rooms.  Just as I would with my students in the regular classroom, I give them directions to productively accomplish their tasks together.  For instance, I ask them to choose one student to be a  leader and manage their time, another to type their answers on a shared Power Point slide or other document, and another to share aloud with the whole-class when we end the breakout rooms.  I will join each room briefly to make sure they don’t have questions, but I think it’s valuable to allow them to work without my presence, too.  I do keep these breakout rooms timed, usually anywhere from 10 – 20 minutes depending on the tasks. 

Most of the time, I create groups of about four students, but I’ve occasionally made breakout rooms with two - three students for more informal discussion and activities. No doubt, by varying the ways students interact during their virtual learning, it helps me manage the 90-minute block.

As the school year proceeds, I will continue to adapt my instruction and learn new strategies for teaching 90-minute blocks during hybrid and distance learning at my school.  Ultimately, keeping instruction active rather than passive is my number one tip for hybrid and virtual instruction, particularly with longer class periods like blocks.  

Do you have tips that you can recommend too?  Please add them in the comments.

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