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Monday, March 19, 2018

Visual Note Taking with Poetry

Over spring break, I managed to read another chapter of Keep it R.E.A.L!: Relevant, engaging, and affirming literacy for adolescent English learners by Dr. Mary Amanda Stewart. Chapter 3, "Read in a literature-rich classroom," offers strategies that are applicable to the middle school classroom, and today I was able to teach poetry in my STAAR class, a supplemental reading class consisting of various types of language learners, including ESL students. And let me tell you, I hate teaching poetry as much as the kids hate learning how to read it. But today, we all enjoyed it. 

Stewart writes, "Consider using poetry to develop students' listening the poem aloud without allowing students to see the words...Then, read the same poem while displaying the words for students and ask them if they now understood more" (54). I decided to combine this with a lesson on visual note taking (many of these students are also in my regular English classes, and I did not want to burden them with two class periods of standard note taking on our first day back from spring break). 

Introduction to visual notetaking

I began by showing my students a video from Youtube that addressed three components of visual note taking: decorative words, images, and connecting elements. Youtube is filled with videos about Sketchnotes and visual note taking. I chose the following video, as it is short enough to provide a general overview without overwhelming my students. 

Multiple "readings" of the poem

Because visual note taking was a new skill, I started with an easy poem, Jack Prelutsky's "Be glad your nose is on your face." One of my students recently informed me that I have a witch's nose, so I figured it was a good one to use in class. 

I wanted to engage in the note taking process with my students, so rather than reading the poem aloud to them, I found an audio recording on Youtube that did not display the text of the poem, forcing my students - and me - to use their listening skills. 

We listened to the poem multiple times, breaking our visual note taking into different rounds. While the students worked on their notes, I displayed my own paper via the document camera, modeling each step. For our first listen, we focused on words that caught our attention, adding them to our visual notes. We then listened again, drawing images that stood out to us. On the third, fourth, and fifth listens, we drew connectors between what we had drawn. 

Displaying the poem

The final layer of the visual note taking was the most complicated for my seventh graders, so I displayed the poem for them after we could no longer gather the information we needed by listening. The students and I referenced the text, adding more to our words, images, and connectors, adding more to their understanding of the poem. 

Be Glad Your Nose Is on Your Face

Be glad your nose is on your face,
not pasted on some other place,
you might dislike your nose a lot.
for if it were where it is not, Imagine if your precious nose
that clearly would not be a treat,
were sandwiched in between your toes, for you’d be forced to smell your feet.
it soon would drive you to despair,
Your nose would be a source of dread were it attached atop your head, forever tickled by your hair.
your brain would rattle from the breeze.
Within your ear, your nose would be an absolute catastrophe, for when you were obliged to sneeze,
be glad your nose is on your face!
Your nose, instead, through thick and thin, remains between your eyes and chin,
not pasted on some other place--
The results
For a first try, I was really impressed with my students. Not only did they enjoy the note taking strategy, they were actually invested in the poem, something that usually turns them off completely. I worked hard to remove the pressure of getting everything exactly right, focusing on building my students' ability to listen well. For ELLs with beginning and intermediate English skills, I think pairing them up with students with higher level skills might help connect the words and images together to convey meaning.
Tomorrow I am going to give them a more difficult, grade-level poem to work with to determine if they can garner meaning through visual note taking with a bit less support from me. Again, we will begin by listening to the poem without seeing the words. I am hoping that in the long run, the kids will start to hear how poetry should sound within their own minds without relying on the voice of another.
This one is mine. I think the kids did better. 

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Random Word Stories

Winter break was a long 18 days, and I did not think about school one time, as I was in the process of selling one house and buying another. Fortunately, the AVID community on Facebook came to my rescue as I scrambled to figure out what I was going to teach the first day back to school with everyone suffering from back-to-school-itis. 

Another AVID teacher posted that she uses random word generators to spark collaborative writing. Easy enough! I set up the lesson by explaining to my students that I would be providing them with six words from the generator. After discussing word meaning, I would provide them with six minutes to write a VERY short story with their table mates, using all of the provided words. We would then share out to practice listening and speaking skills. 

Apparently, there are a significant number of random word generators online. I clicked on the first one. I generated a different list for each class period. For some of the classes, I had to click through a few times, as there were words that I did not even know popping up. Sure, I could have used those words as an opportunity to model my own learning, but I was tired

The lesson went quite well. The time limit helped to keep students engaged. Many of the groups were amused with themselves for what they had created. Some wrote a couple of sentences, working in the words as quickly as possible. Others managed to write short novels in the time provided. If I had not been discussing new procedures for the second semester, I probably could have worked in a second round of this activity. I did have requests from many students to do this again, and I am pondering how to use this to inspire my seventh grade students for their STAAR writing test in a couple of months. 

If you find yourself in need of a fifteen to twenty minute time filler (or you are having an off /I-can-barely-keep-my-eyes-open day and need to improvise), this requires little energy and planning on the part of the teacher. Give it a shot. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Keep it R.E.A.L. - Chapter 1 Response

A few weeks ago, I received an unexpected message in my work email from a professor at Texas Woman's University. Dr. Mandy Stewart, a professor who I have not met, asked if she could share some of my work with potential graduate students. Fortunately, Dr. Stewart could not see me gushing and blushing behind my computer.

As if that were not flattering enough, our conversation led to a book she recently wrote, Keep it R.E.A.L!: Relevant, engaging, and affirming literacy for adolescent English learners. Dr. Stewart asked me two questions: Would I mind if she sent me a copy to read? Would I mind providing my opinion on how the information can be more inclusive of middle school students?

Me? Seriously? Two words: Jaw. Drop. What kind of expert am I? Fourteen plus years of experience teaching middle school, six of those as a certified ESL teacher, and I still do not see myself as an expert. But I do have opinions all the time, so why not! So here goes...something.

Reader Response:

Dr. Stewart shares how she used reader response instruction with newcomer students in a high school summer institute. Reader response might be the only theory I can comfortably discuss. I read Lois Tyson's book Critical theory today prior to entering the field of education. Even as I was studying this information as part of my English minor, reader response criticism resonated with me the most because it is how I read naturally. Once I entered the seventh grade classroom (and later on eighth), this became my go-to theory with my students.

Reader response is all about interacting with the text to make meaning. It is about the experience of the reader. Not only do I consider this to be an ideal way for middle school students to develop a relationship with text, I also see this as beneficial for English language learners. Because we are asking our ELLs to engage with the text and develop connections, they cannot be wrong (unless they have completely misread, of course). The students are bringing their experiences to the table that allow them to engage in writing, listening, and speaking, in addition to the reading, all within the framework of a low affective filter.

The Acronym:

Just as we wish for students to connect with text, we need to connect with our students. Why not incorporate some slang into our teaching? I could easily say, "We are going to Keep it R.E.A.L. today," as part of a reading lesson. (That is far more comfortable for me than referring to myself as the G.O.A.T. or as Gucci.)

Newcomers will need instruction in understanding slang American language. Pre-teens and young teens are on a journey of self-discovery, and as much as we may want them to be focused on long-term educational goals, their goal is simply to fit in with and be accepted by their peers. So I am all for keepin' it real. We can teach our newer ELLs an expression that will help them communicate socially, while also making new-language text more accessible.

So here is my initial opinion regarding this content and students in grades 6-8: The foundation of this work is definitely an ideal fit for the middle school classroom. It allows for all students to connect to the learning, in particular our ELLs who may feel isolated and withdrawn. Reader response through Keep it R.E.A.L. provides for every student to be part of the learning community.

Dr. Stewart discusses each element of R.E.A.L. in chapter one, and I would rather you read it than have me share all of my reader responses to the questions she proposes in regard to relevancy, engagement, affirmation, and literacy instruction, as we each bring different backgrounds and experiences from our teaching to these topics.

Friday, October 20, 2017


October 20, was the National Day on Writing. For weeks, I tried determine how to incorporate the day into my AVID class. We do write, but you see, it had been a long week for my students. They took the PSAT, and then they had to learn about the Pythagorean theory the same week! I had no desire to bog them down with a lengthy writing assignment. 

Fortunately, I ran across a trending hashtag on Twitter: #TwoSentenceHorrorStory. I started reading some amazing short tales and realized that there was no way my students could complain about writing two sentences. 

Being me, I presented the writing assignment to my classes as something dreadful. They groaned and complained about having to write until I said, "You only have to write two sentences." Boy, did their attitudes change quickly. After sharing some examples from the Twitter-verse, my students were excited to participate in the activity. I did clarify that scary is different for each person, sharing this example for them that I wrote:

That is, by far, one of the most terrifying experiences for me. It was bad enough that there were only three yesterday. 

I have to admit that the kids went above and beyond my expectations. I am not sure the nightmares have stopped yet. Here are some of my favorites:

You might have to be an AVID teacher to appreciate this one. 

I liked this lesson because it was short and sweet in addition to being highly engaging. It could be used as a time-filler or a warmup. The tone could be modified to anything one is trying to teach: humor, sadness, grief. I can see a great deal of potential.

In addition, the limitation of two sentences kept the affective filter low for my ELLs and my struggling writers. And because we wrote on a Padlet board, we were all able to truly appreciate the madness of our minds. 

Happy writing!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


At our second annual Edcamp Arlington TX, we gave away George Couros' The Innovator's Mindset as one of many door prizes. I chose this one because it is one I want to read. It took me until yesterday to finally buy it, and it had immediate impact on me.

While I was drying my hair this morning (hey, I work in ever minute I can to read), I was perusing the introduction to the book. Couros writes

Well, I do happen to be a cat lover, so I stopped to watch the video.  

We are five and a half weeks into school in my district, and I am not seeing as much effort as I would like from many of my students, particularly for a college preparation class. This commercial spoke to me. I want my students to be more dog! 

So today I modified my lesson plan to address behaviors I am seeing on campus and in my classroom that I think need to be improved. Cat behaviors!  I was calling my students cats and making cat noises at them, speaking in complete metaphor about the cat behaviors. They were a bit confused until we watched the video. Then they were all about the dog behaviors!

I asked my students to write three ways in which they could "be more dog" - aside from eating their homework.  There were some definite dog references - be more obedient, fetching work to turn it in on time, walking faster to get to class on time. But I also received some serious responses about being more enthusiastic and actively engaged in class. We always share out, accompanied by some sort of applause - double clap, snapping, a quick Woot! Today, we barked our approval. 

I cannot say I have ever spent a dog hissing like a cat and barking like a dog in my classroom,  but this blog address does not start with crazyladyteacher for nothing. I am always willing to put my ego on the line and do something a bit ridiculous and adventurous in my classroom if it will benefit my students. 

I went with a bit of crazy chihuahua today. What can you do to #bemoredog?

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Roving Paragraph Frames

This summer, I was introduced to a book chat on Twitter specifically focused on English language learners. The first book I read for #ELLChat_BkClub was Boosting Achievement: Reaching Students with Interrupted or Minimal Education by Carol Salva. Most of my students are long-term ELLs, but good strategies are good strategies, so I was not going to pass up the opportunity to dialogue with educators all over the country regarding this information.

I do have some shorter-term ELL students in my classes this year, ranging from two to five years. Although we are four weeks into the school year, I do not know about their educational careers prior to immigrating. I do know that I want to provide them with the best possible education, and in Boosting Achievement, I discovered roving paragraph frames. As an AVID teacher, my students engage in writing, reading, collaboration, and reflection regularly. The roving paragraph frames strategy caught my attention because of its ability to meet my AVID expectations in addition to assisting my ELLs. I often use writing frames and templates in class, but the addition of movement and collaboration makes this a special strategy.

After spending a week watching videos and taking notes over the AVID tutorial process, my students needed a day to get up and move. I used the roving paragraph frames strategy as a collaborative reflective writing assignment about our learning. Salva provides options for students who cannot yet write in English and for the newcomer classroom, as well as the following method that I used with my students:
  • Provide students with a sentence stem. They should complete the statement, creating a complete sentence. 
"It is important to understand the tutorial process because..."
  •  Students signal when they have completed their writing and are ready for the next step. Salva suggests having students stand up in preparation to move. Because my classes are large, I simply had my students set their pencils down. 
  • Students next rove around the room to find a partner. I used the Kagan Hand up/Stand up/Pair up strategy. 
  • Once a partner is found, students read (speaking/listening) what they have written to one another.  
  • Provide another stem for students to add on to what they have written, creating another complete sentence. Students may write the information they received from their partners or write a brand new idea. 
  •  Students signal when they have completed their writing and are ready for the next step. Salva suggests having students stand back-to-back. I used this idea, but I would like to caution you in advance: we had some booty bumping taking place. 😀
  • Lather, rinse, repeat until your students have written what you wish for them to write. I kept this initial round to four sentences, as I was not sure how my students would react.
After completing the activity, I had my students reflect on how we used listening, speaking, reading, writing, and collaboration with the strategy. It is important to me that they understand all aspects of communication skills as part of their college prep program.

These three students are my newest to the United States and all wrote equally as well as their native Texan classmates: 

Student from Mexico; in US 2 years

Student from Vietnam; in US for 3 years

Student from Vietnam; in US for 5 years

If you have read my blog with any regularity, you know that I consider all students to be English language learners. Middle schoolers still have a lot to learn about writing fluently, and by using roving paragraph frames, my students have a foundation upon which to build.

During my last class of the day, one boy asked if we were going to be doing this again. I told him that depended on whether or not the class enjoyed the activity. I was met with a chorus of resounding approval. I also have to tell you that my kids gave me a bit of a hard time. Apparently, I needed to increase the sophistication of the transition statements because they already know how to use the basics. Challenge accepted! Stay tuned.

P.S. I will be presenting this information at the TexTESOL V conference in Plano in a few weeks. If you happen to try this before then, I would love your thoughts.

P.P.S. Here is the presentation from the TexTESOLV conference. Thanks to all who attended and shared. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

When literary life becomes reality

This is the third summer that I have taken advantage of the free audio books from Sync Audiobooks for Teens. I know, I know. I am not a teen. But I teach teens, and the summer program has introduced me to books and authors that I might not know about otherwise.

I am also currently enrolled in a children's and young adult literature graduate library sciences course. For this class, I have two projects for which I get to pick the topic and readings. My professor encourages the use of audio books to build a broader perspective.

In week four of the Sync selections, I downloaded In Our Backyard: Human Trafficking in America and What We Can Do to Stop It by Nita Belles. I cannot say I was looking forward to this particular text based on the content, but I always give every audio book a shot. I cruised through the entire book, and every bit of it was painful. I had no idea how much trafficking takes place in our own country, and now every time I see a missing child notice, I wonder if he or she has been dragged into this underworld.

While listening to this book, one of my classmates recommended Sold by Patricia McCormick during our poetry unit. I have had this book in my classroom library for years, and I happened to bring it home this summer. This text also happens to be about human trafficking. Because this is a novel written in verse, I read it quickly, realizing that I had unintentionally stumbled upon my topic for one of my book projects: human trafficking.

I am not one for light and fluffy topics. I am willing to delve into the heavy stuff and share it with my students. I want them to be world-wise, and being ignorant of important issues happening, literally, in our backyards is to be lacking an important awareness. These readings have made me think about all the times my young teenage girls have come to me to discuss the older boy they are dating or the guy they met online. Any of those situations could have become an incident of human trafficking. Fortunately, they did not.

 Unfortunately, the topic did reach into my personal bubble last week. While on vacation, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and caught a news article posted by a former student:

"Pimp" Sentenced to 293 Months in Federal Prison in Child Sex Trafficking Case

Underneath the article title was the name of the "pimp" and his age. In the comments of the Facebook post, someone wrote, "Didn't we go to school with him?" My response, "Why, yes. Yes, you did."

I taught this young man when he was in seventh grade. I remember our first encounter clearly because I did not know if he was a boy or a girl. He had long hair pulled back into a ponytail and a name that could apply to either gender, a name that I am intentionally not using in this post. I misaddressed him as a girl, and he became very angry.

Later in the school year, he became the first student to ever get in a fight in my classroom. It was the last class of the day, and the final bell rang. I was escorting my students from the classroom but had turned away from the door for some reason. By the time I turned back a few moments later, the fight was in full effect. It got so bad that there was blood on some of my desks. Sadly, the young man's role in the fight made an impact on me, but I could not tell you who the other student was.

My son was in the same grade as this young gentleman. When I asked my son if he remembered him, not only did he respond that he remembered him, he also remembered the boy being picked on all the time. My son said that he had it pretty bad.

I never sit in my classroom, looking at my students, wondering who the criminals will be. I know the odds state that there will be some, but I always think the best of every student in regard to their long term success. Stories like this break my heart. I hurt for the young girl and her family. She did not deserve this. I hurt for my former student as I wonder how bad the pain in his own life became, leading him to this life. I refuse to allow that to be an excuse, but something led to his following this path.

We need to educate our kids, even when the topics are tough. When they come to us talking about the older boy they met online, we cannot dismiss it. My students talk to me because they trust me, but they know that if they share anything with me that indicates a danger, I will share that information, not simply because I am legally required to, but because I refuse to let any of my students disappear into this underworld if I can help it.