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Friday, December 26, 2014


In my ongoing battle for students to absorb vocabulary, I have found a technique that I have very slowly begun mentioning to my students: Word Wizard. This technique, focused on extending vocabulary beyond the classroom, comes from Bringing Words to Life.

As we have discussed different words throughout the year, I have tried to point out to my students when I have heard and/or read our words outside of class, whether it be on a television show, in a book, in a magazine, in a conversation. On occasion, I have had students come back and tell me that they are also encountering our words in life outside of school (vex seems to be a very popular word). 

This is the premise of Word Wizard. In Bringing Words to Life, the authors set up a Word Wizard system in which students earned extra-credit points based on vocabulary evidence by sight, sound, or use outside of the classroom lesson. I am not a big fan of extra credit assignments, but I do like the idea of giving extra credit points for being a Word Wizard (celebrate the nerdiness). 

So here is what I have done so far:

  • I have encouraged my students to be on the lookout for our words because they might be rewarded in the future. Because I came across the Word Wizard idea in the middle of a marking period/end of semester, I decided to hold onto it until our second semester. 
  • I have started using a Word Wizard hashtag on Instragram (search #wordwizard and/or @kirstenfoti). Whenever I run across one of words, I post it. Sometimes I take a screenshot of my Nook book. Sometimes I type out a quote from a TV show. Sometimes I take a picture from a book. Anything I can do to put our words out there. One of my students actually filmed a segment from the TV cartoon Lilo & Stitch, pointing out that there was rubble (one of our words) on the screen. He then told me that he really think that episode helped him understand the word even better.
  • I have started inviting my students to be Word Wizards. Yes, they let me know that I am dorky, but I know that I can sucker them into this. 
My next step is to introduce the Word Wizard system to my students when we return to school in January. I am going to create a classroom poster (link added 12/17/14) that contains the words we have covered so far this year. As we learn more words, I will add to it. When the kids bring me evidence (link added 12/17/14of a word encounter, I will put a stamp next to the word (may as well work in some math graphing skills), and the student will receive a coupon (link added 12/17/14for five extra credit points on any assignment. 

I am definitely seeing successes with vocabulary in my classroom. We are moving beyond rote memorization and moving on to fluent usage. I am going to share this idea outside of my content area and see if we can create a new culture within the school. It is a grand idea, but if we expect our kids to dream big, we must also dream big. 


As I finished typing this post and clicked Publish, one of our classroom words (fancy = to imagine) was used by Lena Dunham on a repeat episode of Ellen from last October. I am getting ready to post it on Instragram!

Friday, December 12, 2014

When tragedy strikes

In the eleven and a half years that I have been teaching, I have had three students die during or after high school - one from a drowning, two from car accidents. It is devastating every time, but the current tragedy has hit me far worse than any other. 

At the end of the school day Wednesday, our principal came over the loudspeaker to tell our students to not go to the elementary school down the road. A police perimeter had been established in the neighborhood, and the elementary school was on lockdown. It was emphasized that we were all safe. 

I left school, ran to get my daughter, and headed back for a basketball game. By the time I returned, numerous news helicopters were perched above the houses next to us. I started hearing rumors of two dead bodies, but there was no specific news. I focused on the basketball game. 

Toward the end of the first game, I was checking my Facebook news feed for any information about the nearby police activity. A familiar name immediately jumped out at me. 
A woman had been arrested for a the double homicide of her husband and stepdaughter. 

This woman was my former Words with Friends buddy. We played for years, connected by her son, a former student of mine. We chatted often, keeping updated on kids and progress. The son comes to see me every now and then, often inviting me to his wrestling competitions. I have been waiting to hear from him this year, but I have recently learned that there have been things going on aside from this of which I was unaware. 

The past two days have been rough. There are four surviving children, including my former student. I worry for his mental health as he grows into adulthood. I worry about how he will cope with what has happened and with what will happen with his siblings. This is truly a good kid, and I am deeply pained for him. 

I have struggled to understand why this has hit me so hard. I had a visitor yesterday who told me that in her travels to different schools in the area, she has not encountered many who care like I do. When I tell my students that I love them, I mean that I love them. When I tell them, "Once a Foti kid, always a Foti kid," I mean it. When I tell them I will always be here, I mean that I will always be here. 

I am tormented by many negative thoughts right now (if I expressed them, I might get fired), and I know that it is nothing compared to what this family is going through. 

What we do is never easy. We deal with so much, but how much do we really know about every single one of our kids at the end of the day? 

I have received the reminder: Be patient. Be kind. Show love and tolerance. 

They need us.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Using Notice and Note with Dialectical Journals

I have discovered my favorite thing with Notice and Note: it goes with everything! I had been planning on teaching The Giver this year, as I have for the past few years. When I went to get copies of the book from our storage room, however, I discovered we did not have enough for me to provide each student with a copy. I did not want to work with a class set because I often have students who want to read ahead. I already had my Notice and Note lesson prepared, but since it works with everything, I did not have any issues with changing novels to work with. 

After much scrambling, I decided to teach Milkweed, a novel I used only with my Pre-AP students last year. My students will be studying World War II later this year, and after reading this book last year, I realized that even my knowledge was limited to a concentration camps (I still remember the paper I wrote in my eighth grade English class about Auschwitz). This easy-to-read novel gives my students a perspective that is not taught in most history classes. 

Coming back from Thanksgiving break last week, I had my students do nothing but copy my Notice and Note mini-posters. Ok, ok. I was really tired and did not want to have to work too hard the first day back, but...but... I am human, too! 

When I distributed student novels, I also gave them a Notice and Note bookmark. Aside from that, I have not mentioned one thing about the mini-posters until today (I actually had one kid try to talk to me about when we discussed the signposts earlier but we had not; I must be really good). 

Today I taught my students how to create a dialectical journal, using the signposts as a guide. We analyzed the text for signposts, using our bookmarks as a cheat-sheet. After identifying a signpost, we used the accompanying question from the bookmark and our posters to guide our class discussion and to write our responses. I never stopped to teach each the signposts individually. I simply jumped right in, and the kids reacted. This is what my classes came up with today for chapters one and two of the novel:

Tomorrow, the kids will start working in groups to identify signposts in the text. Some want more support before having to work on their own. Since dialectical journals are new to 76 of my 77 students, I do not have any problems with this. 

On a side note, many of my students are close to finishing the novel. Since I never even assigned a specific reading, this is a thrilling thing to see. 

Skills targeted:

  • ELPS - listening, speaking, reading, writing
  • using text evidence
  • monitoring comprehension
  • collaboration
  • inference
  • reader response

The victory is not in the test

I have a student who is well below grade level. I knew him from last year, and I knew that he was prone to acting out, especially when not understanding material. For most of this year, every day has been filled with frustration. The student gets upset when he does not know what to do, and I get upset because a number of someones did him wrong in the past.  Since day one, I have been concerned with what to do with this child. How do I help him? How do I prevent him from becoming a statistic? What services can I provide?

Despite all the hair I have pulled out over this kid in the past few months, he has grown on me. I do not know exactly when it happened, but one day I realized that he really makes me laugh and smile. 

In the past few weeks, I have watched miraculous things happen with this child, and I am not quite sure what has brought about the change. 

  • Last week, D. came into my room from another teacher to work on a make up assignment. While he was here, he listened to the lesson he would be part of the next class period. The student did his best to absorb all the "smart answers" to share in his class. During his class period, he did his best to spit back everything he had heard, and he honestly did a very good job. He was determined to be the "smart kid," and I gave him every possible chance to do so. 
  • I do a lot of choral activities in class. D. responds very well to them because he likes to talk. As D. has become more comfortable with these activities, I have noticed that he is using our class words more and more frequently. When a kid who can barely read is using words like plausible and preposterous in his speech, I am declaring victory. He has even been able to use the words accurately in his writing.
  • During one of our advisory periods last week, D. started reading Milkweed on his own. I simply handed out the books and told the kids we would be reading it. I never assigned a thing. My tutor and I did our best to act is if we did not notice , but we discovered that D. was reading the book on his own. He was very engaged, and the look on his face showed that he was focusing on understanding the story. We started discussing the novel today, and D. was able to raise his hand and participate in conversation. This is not something he has been able to do in the past. He even attempted to make an analogy about the plot, but he could not find the right words. I know potatoes and Cheez-it's were involved. Whatever it was, it made sense in his head, and I give him credit for working to express himself and clarify his thoughts. 
This is a student who rarely receives praise. I really felt that he needed to hear some. I called him over in class, and gave him some very specific positive praise about his participation. D. got the biggest, goofiest grin on his face, and I loved it. Once I caught him reading without being forced, I printed a "You're a star" certificate for him. I colored and signed it, writing a note at the bottom that it was for him to take home and hang on the refrigerator - which he did. 

By middle school, we want our students to know a lot. I have seen teachers give up on kids, thinking that if they do not have it be the time they reach us, they never will. I am not giving up on this kid. I do not know how far he will make it in the long run, but I want him to know that someone believes in him. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Plausibly Preposterous: Mixing Vocabulary and Grammar (Part II)

In Part I, I discussed my writing lesson using the vocabulary words plausible and preposterous, with the addition of the word there, using a strategy from Gretchen Bernabei. I now pick up with a revising strategy from Bernabei called Paragraph Overhaul. 


My students have done a great deal of writing this year, but we have not moved on to editing and revising until now. While attending the TexTESOL conference in San Marcos this month, Gretchen Bernabei discussed a technique she calls Paragraph Overhaul, and I brought this back to my classroom to use with my students. 

I had my students the steps in their composition books. We worked on each step as we went through the process. I modeled. They worked with me. I also had conversations with toys, but that's a bit farther along in the reflection. 

Paragraph Overhaul

1. Count how many sentences you wrote (this means a beginning capital letter to an end punctuation mark). Write this number at the top of your paragraph. 

This step made many of my students aware that they are not using end punctuation anywhere in their writing. I have a dyslexic student who can write clear thoughts, but he was surprised to discover that he had written one gigantic run-on sentence. As we continued through the writing workshop, I had to help break his writing into chunks for him to work with. I saw similar issues with some of my ESL students. 

2. On a new page, write your sentences in list form. 

Although I wrote my own paragraph for my students, I had not made enough mistakes to effectively model the paragraph overhaul process. I used a student's writing from different class periods throughout the day. 

Student Example

3. Put your sentences through the WRINGER.

This was another opportunity to introduce a vocabulary word. Although a few students thought this word was "that thing your phone does," most were able to define it when I made physical gestures and describes what I would do to a wet towel. My kids knew this word, but they had not seen it in writing to know that it was spelled differently than "that thing your phone does."

One thing I am not afraid to do in my classroom is embarrass myself. It is not easy to teach grammar. Grammar tends to be boring and dry. Over the past 11 1/2 years, I have embraced my nerdiness and let it shine in my classroom, and it seems to work. Bernabei shared her way of teaching this process, but I had to put my own spin on it. 

3a. Pssst! Test: Does it make a statement?

I don't even know how to explain this and have it make sense, so I am going to share a page from Bernabei's book:

Now, saying Pssst! in a room full of eighth graders sounds like another word that I do not like them using in my classroom. So, of course, I ran with it and made lots of corny jokes to sucker them into this part of the lesson. Sometimes ya gotta do what ya gotta do!  

I also added my own spin to this. I really wanted my students to understand that this "What?" voice is meant to annoy them and get them thinking. So I brought a prop:

Who is more annoying than Donkey?

As I modeled the Pssst! Test, I was having conversations with Donkey. Yes, my students told me that I am weird and that I have lost cool points (but earned crazy points), but within a few minutes, they were following my lead. 

Me: Pssst! Donkey!
(wait a moment)
Me (looking at class): Donkey said, "What?"
(read sentence, then listen again)
Me: Donkey says that is not a sentence, and he is not being nice about it.

This part was a struggle for them when they did it on their own. I had them drawing faces on their fingers and Pssst!ing their classmates to help, but because their everyday speech is grammatically flawed, they were not picking up on some of their fragments and run-ons. Most of my students did eventually pick up on their mistakes and make corrections.

3b. Verb Check

Although this step is meant for sentence fragments, I had my students to verb checks on every sentence they wrote. Yes, I teach eighth graders who are clueless about verbs. So I took advantage of the opportunity. I was also able to use this method with a student from another English class who was stuck on a subject and predicate assignment. It's so simple, I wish I had thought of it. 

To prove you have a verb, find the word in the sentence that you think is a verb, and plug it into each of the following blanks:

I __________. You __________. He __________. 

If your word makes sense in any of those, you have found your verb. We did discover that some adverbs also made sense, but if the students had adverbs, they usually had verbs. 

3c. How many? If there is more than one sentence, how are they joined?

To join sentences legally, use one of the following:

. (period); (semicolon), conjunction 

This WRINGER sample is from an ELL. She struggles with
using correct verb tenses. We focused heavily on this,
and she made significant progress.

I modeled every step of this. I had kids making their own corrections as we modeled. I had some who took three days to figure it out ("I don't get it. What's wrong with 'take me a bath'?"). Regardless of how much (or little) they ended up understanding, there were huge improvements in their writing. 

The whole lesson was more fun than I expected, and I enjoyed every bit of frustration my students endured. I told them that frustration means they are thinking, and we need to push through that frustration instead of giving up. For a first attempt on my part, I think this went quite well.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Plausibly Preposterous: Mixing Vocabulary and Grammar (Part I)

Before I left for my trip to San Marcos last week, my students were reading an article about the Loch Ness monster in Scope magazine. In our reading, we ran across the words preposterous and plausible, and I decided to do some more work with them because the kids seemed to enjoy speaking with them. 

Monday, we started with a modified vocabulary routine. I put both words together since we discussed them a bit last week. I gave them pictures to identify as preposterous or plausible, including pictures of a much younger me (sometimes you just have to go there to keep them engaged). 

Now that my classes are comfortable with the Texas Literacy Initiative vocabulary routine, and because I am an ESL teacher, it was time to add another component: writing. Our school theory is that all students are English language learners, and as such, they need to listen, speak, read, and write every day. The kids have been doing a great job using the words in social conversations both in and out of my classroom, but I wanted to make sure they could use preposterous and plausible academically

Last weekend, I was in San Marcos for the TexTESOL conference. I learned some incredible things in my day and a half (I was also presenting, so I did not get to attend as many sessions as I wanted). One of the presenters, Colin Ward, introduced me to the website Just the Word. The site allows you to type in a word, and it returns common uses of the word. This is a benefit for students who are encountering new words that they may not be familiar enough with to use correctly in their writing. Providing students will phrases instead of single vocabulary words helps them use the words more effectively. 

Preposterous did not return any common phrases, so I gave my students two of my own: "That's preposterous", and "That idea is preposterous." Plausible returned six phrases, four of which I gave to my students for their use. Even though I provided my classes with these options, only a few students used them in their assignments. Most were able to effectively use the words on their own. 

I also had the honor of seeing Gretchen Bernabei at the conference last weekend. Bernabei presented information from her upcoming book due out in January. I took one many of her ideas and added to the writing lesson I was putting together for this week.  

The first idea I incorporated into my writing lesson was a simple trick (at least I think they are) to use with their, there, and they're. I chose to start with there:

Bernabei talked about having the kids prove that they are using the correct form of there/their/they're. I am constantly on my students about providing text evidence (proof) with our reading assignments, so adding this component to their writing was a natural fit. 

For there, the students use (here) as the proof piece. I initially gave this instruction but after a day, I realized that my kids were not actually checking anything. I added a piece to make sure that they were actually thinking through the method. In addition to (here), my students had to define the here (Bernabei asked us to play with her methods and see what works for us, so I do not feel guilty for the modification). For example:
  • There they are. 
  • Where are they?
  • Here. 
  • Here where?
  • Here in the school/cafeteria/classroom/etc. 

Bernabei also said that if her students used the word correctly one time, they earn one grade. If they use it five times, they earn two grades. I decided to follow her lead, and I have to say it was a fantastic idea. I do not give extra credit, so most kids took advantage of this "easy" option for earning an extra 100. 

Here is what the some of the first drafts ended up looking like:

We followed all of this up with an editing/revising activity. Stay tuned for Plausibly Preposterous: Mixing Vocabulary and Grammar (Part II). 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Library Speed Dating

Sixth Period
For today's library lesson, my kids are speed dating with books. I did not know what to expect with this particular lesson, and my students are not really fans of library day. But this is proving to be pretty interesting. 

Our school librarian got the idea from a blog post she ran across. Mrs. Reader Pants explains in detail how to set up the "dating," and I will not take away from her by explaining that here. 

During the first round of my first class, most kids were engaged at truly looking at the book covers. I did hear one boy say, "I want the thinnest book possible." I asked if that was representative of how he chooses the girls he likes. Another said it didn't matter what he looked at; he was not going to check out a book anyway. 

By the end of the first round, however, five students had found a book that they wanted to check out. This surprised me. I expected one at the most. As we continued rotating, a few kids changed their minds and traded out their original choices.

As we approached the last round, one girl was disappointed that they could not continue rotating through the genres. To appease her, with our last few minutes, the kids were allowed to peruse any table they wished, as well as browse through the rest of the library itself. 
First Period

Third Period
Fourth Period (with model poses)

Now not every class was thoroughly engaged. I have two truly awesome classes and two that are a bit rougher. There is a clear line between readers and non-readers between class periods. But they still participate din the activity, even if they did not check out books at the end of the class. 

Most of the students in each class did end up checking out at least one book, and that does not happen very often. This included kids I did not expect. When I checked with students after each class, they said they really enjoyed the activity. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Vocabulary Enhancement

As we continue our journey of vocabulary development, I am taking some time in class to have kids review the vocabulary we have focused on for the first half of the semester. 
We are using a vocabulary enhancement technique presented by my district ELL representative. She presents this activity all over the state and has seen teachers have much success with it. My students keep asking what this activity is called, but I do not have a specific name for it. We simply call it a vocabulary enhancer

Students worked in pairs. Each pair received a word that we have covered explicitly so far this year. Their job was to turn the word itself into a picture that represents its meaning. I showed them (at a student's insight) how the word google is turned into pictures for the Google logo. I did have to clarify that what they are doing is a bit different: we are not creating theme pictures like the logo does, but the conversation itself did help my students understand what I was expecting from them. 

I began by showing them my own creation for the word setting and having them analyze how I had incorporated time and setting into the word itself:

Then I handed each group an index card with one of our words on it. Despite the whining and complaining, I would not allow them to trade their words. I wanted them to think. They were allowed to use technology to help come up with meanings and picture ideas. 

The following video contains the finished products, and I will be sharing this at the TexTESOL conference in San Marcos this weekend:

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

You compared the plot chart to WHAT?

Sometimes I have to wonder if the statements my students make are incredibly odd or insightfully genius. Today, I am going with genius. 

I was using The Walking Dead (among other shows/movies) to help students understand rising action, climax, and falling action. I was explaining that as we move through the rising action, things start relatively calm, but we suddenly find our hands making tight fists and our breathing becoming shallower. As the story reaches its climax, we are often holding our breath because the storyline becomes so intense. With the falling action, we start breathing again and our fists release as things calm back down. 

"That's like when you have to pee really bad!" a student blurted out. 

Yes, I was filled with confusion, but I had to allow her to explain. 

This is what she shared: Rising action is like when you have to pee a little bit, and the longer you wait, the more intense it becomes. The climax is when the teacher lets you out of class and you experience the moment of urination. The falling action is the moment of relief that follows the entire process. 

Linear plot and the process of urination. Who would have thunk it?

I'm Ready for My Close Up...?

Today was the day. After days of anxiety and nervous tension, I was filmed presenting the vocabulary routine that is part of my campus Data Improvement Plan through the Texas Literacy Initiative. (If you look over there on the right, you will see my tag list. Vocabulary Routine is one of the bigger ones. I write about it a lot if you are interested in reading more.)

The overarching lesson for today focused on the elements of linear plot - exposition, rising action, conflict, climax, falling action, and resolution. For the most part, these words were review for my students. The bigger goal, however, based on our state standards, is to understand the connection between resolution and the conflict of the story. 

Because we are focusing so heavily on vocabulary, we use a lot of choral techniques and deepening comprehension activities - like the vocabulary routine. I built two routines into the lesson linear plot lesson - one for conflict and one for resolution

Under different circumstances, I probably would not have used the word conflict in a routine. My students know what a conflict is. I did, however, want them thoroughly focused on its meaning to understand its connection to resolution. The vocabulary routine focuses more on tier 2 words that students are unfamiliar with but are likely to encounter in multiple situations. 

One of my district curriculum specialists came in to observe and to film the vocabulary routines. At the same time, I had my student teacher film the entire lesson for me. Who doesn't love seeing themselves on film and thinking, "Do I really talk and move like that? I teach students AND teachers for goodness sake!"

So, for those of you who are wondering what exactly this routine looks like in action, I present...ME and my wonderful third period class (and before you look around and wonder where the rest of the class is, I am blessed to have one class that consists of only twelve students). 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Deepening Vocabulary Understanding

This year, I am getting much better about reusing lessons that work, rather than reinventing the wheel for everything I do. For the past two days, my students have been working on our vocabulary for "The Tell-Tale Heart." This has included a Texas Literacy Initiative vocabulary routine and a sketch-to-stretch assignment. 

Today I had a follow-up vocabulary booster training to last year's vocabulary routine training. Although I have been using the routine, I realized that I have not been moving through the entire process. I introduce the words, but I have not been working to deepen understanding as much as I should. I put the words on a word wall and often refer to them, but I have not really had my students doing much with them. 

So guess what's happening now.  With some guidance from Bringing Words to Life, I am creating daily review lessons for the rest of this week to deepen understanding of our vocabulary words. 

Deepening Understanding Lesson #1: Find the Missing Word 

This strategy is essentially a fill-in-the-blank. Since I have been out for a day and a half, this will help show me how much my students have learned without my presence. In order to ensure feedback from all students, I am creating the review as a Kahoot lesson. Kahoot creates high engagement, and my students often ask if we are ever going to use it in class. This will be the first time in my class this year. 

Deepening Understanding Lesson #2: Making Choices 

For this strategy, students will be given examples and non-examples for each word. If the information given is correct example, the students will say the word. If it is not, they will not say anything at all. 

For example: If I say something you think is truly hideous (and not just your personal opinion), say hideous. If you do not think it is hideous, do not say anything at all. 

  • Adam Levine
  • Freddy Krueger
  • a puppy dog
  • maggots on rotting food

Deepening Understanding Lesson #3: Putting the Words to Use

On Friday, I am going to have my students complete a timed writing with the words. In an effort to get them to apply our vocabulary words to other disciplines, they will have to write about what they are doing in another class, using at least four of the nine words. This week I introduced Seven-Up Sentences, writing with a minimum of seven words per sentence, to make their writing more powerful. They will need to incorporate this into their work (to the best of their ability under timed writing circumstances). 

I am looking forward to seeing how things go this week. The district goal is to focus on 4-5 words per week. I have more for this week because I am using a district-created lesson. Once I see how things go for the next week days, I will determine if I continue using this set for another week, and if not, I have to figure out what to next. 

Stay tuned. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Hooked: How I suckered my kids into a poetry lesson

One of my summer reads was Teach Like a Pirate. Reading this book showed me how much I already do to engage my students, while also emphasizing the need to really contemplate ways to hook my students into a lesson. 

As I prepared to teach my first poem of the year, I found myself conceiving ways in which I could draw my students in to reading poetry without them immediately shutting down at the thought of poetry. And because we were going to use the poem for inferences, a very weak skill for my students, I knew I was really going to have to keep them as engaged as possible. 

Hook #1: As we wrapped up our informational text lesson, I casually mentioned that we were going to be reading a poem next. [Insert groans here.] Knowing that I had their attention, I told them that we don't read sappy poems in my classroom (only one girl complained). I know how to find the good stuff that is much more enjoyable. Hooked! I was getting lots of questions regarding the topic, but I said nothing more than it was a secret and they would have to wait until the next day. 

Hook #2: To introduce the lesson, I showed this picture and asked my students to complete a Quick Write: 

I let them know that we are a safe environment and that they would not have to share their thoughts verbally (although many of them did opt to share when given the opportunity). By the end of this activity, my kids were desperate to know just what kind of poem we were going to be reading. But they had to wait another day. 

Hook #3: We read "Fat Man" by Niall Janney - or so they thought. What I actually gave them was the first sixteen lines of the poem. We had great discussions about being judgmental (huge issue in the classroom this year), I made the speaker of the poem appear to be incredibly unlikable, and just as the lesson appeared to be coming to a close, I told them I had a secret to tell them: "This isn't the whole poem." I honestly did not expect the reactions to Hook #3 that I got. Anger, confusion, shock, and lots of whaddya-mean! And then I made them wait until the next day - again. 

This is the second year that I have used this poem, and not once in using it have I heard anything negative about poetry. My students were truly engaged and interacting with the poem, and I believe that using hooks throughout the lesson contributed to the overall success of the lesson. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Reading is...

As I have been dealing with issues getting my Scholastic READ 180 class off the ground, I have had to improvise and fill time. My focus has been giving my new class the foundations of the program, while building a new classroom community. 

Last week, I had my kids work collaboratively to write poems expressing their thoughts about reading. I revised an AVID poem called "Friendship is..." to "Reading is...". I have to admit that I truly love the honesty that comes from the mouths of middle schoolers. 

The writing needs work, and I am not sure what some of this means, but they definitely had fun during the process. 

"You'll come back"

Fifteen years ago, I was a teaching assistant at our alternative placement junior high. When I first went to the school to sub, I had no idea that the place even existed, that there would be a special campus for the kids who got into too much trouble at their home campuses. Maybe that's why I fell in love with those "bad" kids so quickly. I never had a chance to see them as the misbegotten. 

That three month experience set the foundation for my teaching career. I tend to do very well with those kids who have been labeled bad for more years than they can even remember. I have a soft spot for them, for showing them that they are lovable and can be successful. I want them to do well. I want them to know that someone will support them. 

J. was one of those kids. I knew his reputation from seventh grade, but I did not care about that. Kids change drastically from seventh to eighth grade. J. still put up some fights when he came to my class. He would try to sleep in class. We would argue.  He would refuse to do work. I would prompt and prompt and prompt. He would storm out of class. I would write referrals. He spent some time suspended. I always let him come back like it was no big deal. I never gave up on him because I would see those moments of intelligence shine through. 

J. was one of those students who could never understand why my formers would come back to see me or why they would email me or why they would ask me to be a reference for a job. To him, I was nothing more than a middle school teacher who would pass in and out of his life. 

At 12:30 this afternoon, J's name showed up in my school email inbox. I was taken aback because I had been speaking about him a week earlier with a former student teacher (one whom J. had a huge crush on). Before opening the message, I assumed it was going to be a spam link or someone else with the same name. My assumption could not be farther from the truth. 

This is the reason I teach. He came back. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014


Today I started teaching my first Texas Literacy Initiative vocabulary routine of the year. Earlier this summer, I was skimming through Habits of Mind (yes, I really do own all these books). I decided that the first thing I needed to focus on was persistence. I see kids give up on school in the first few weeks every year. This is my attempt to be a bit proactive. 

In the vocabulary routine, students have opportunities to participate in analyzing graphics, choral and partner speaking, and writing. Especially this early in the year, students respond well to choral speaking, as they are able to talk in a safe environment. And I get goofy with it - just the boys, just the girls, just the boys sounding like the girls, just the girls sounding like the boys. I tried to get them to rap today, but they just laughed at me. 

So far this year, and I know it has only been six days, my lessons have had a meant-to-be quality. We were using on online interactive presentation to respond to the lesson. I included a video clip, something I have never done before, but I knew the kids would respond well to it: 

Not only do my students love Finding Nemo, they often compare me to Ellen DeGeneres - and that is a compliment I will gladly take. 

After the comparisons, my often-used online site kept stalling and crashing. It was an ideal moment to teach persistence, to discuss how I was so determined to teach them this lesson that I had a backup plan. They groaned; I pretended I heard squeals of joy. 

Although I think "teachable moment" is an overused expression, I will happily make connections from any lessons to the world around us. The more I can do it, the more my students will understand. I am looking forward to picking this lesson back up tomorrow and seeing where it leads next. 


Side note: This is one of the images my students analyzed to determine if it showed persistence. 

When I asked how it showed persistence, one girl made a comment about the "big ball," causing massive laughter from this class. It is silliness like this that makes me absolutely love teaching middle school. (Tee-hee-hee! She said "big ball.")

Monday, September 1, 2014

How much can I cram into three days of the first week?

After reading Teach Like a Pirate, I decided to incorporate a collaboration activity into my lessons for the first week. My student desks are always set up in groups, and this seemed like an excellent way to teach my new students the expectations for working together. 

Part I: Academic v. Social Conversations

Because we spent the first two days getting to know one another (a.k.a., being very social), I first taught a lesson on social versus academic conversations. This idea comes from Academic Conversations by Jeff Zwiers. I wanted my students to understand that, although we all love to be social, it is very important for us to focus on academic conversations for learning to occur. 

In this lesson, I taught the Think-Pair-Share strategy. This is one that I use often. This strategy shows up in many of the trainings I attend and is also a component of our school AVID program. This is one of my favorite strategies to use because it gives all students a chance to process information. My classroom consists largely of English Language Learners, dyslexic students, and those who failed the state reading test. These kids need time to think and share ideas without the pressure of being wrong. 

We used the Think-Pair-Share ideas to create anchor charts, showing how students can learn from talking:

One part of this lesson did not work: the t-chart. My students had a difficult time coming up with ways to characterize what academic conversations are and are not. When I saw this backfire, I started presenting examples for the kids to categorize. 

The biggest benefit: As soon as this lesson was complete, I started using the terms social and academic conversation while the kids were working. As soon as I asked social groups which type of conversation they were using, they were able to immediately get back on track. 

Part II: Learning Target

As part of a school district pilot program for a newly adopted instructional model, my students were presented with a learning target. This is essentially the same as an objective, but it is written as a learning goal for the students. In this case, my kids needed to be able to explain the difference between social and academic conversations. They were presented with the goal at the beginning of the lesson. We did not stop the discussion until I received a thumbs up from all students, telling me that they were prepared to write their explanations about the two types of conversations. 

Part III: Collaboration Activity

Once it was clear that we were now moving away from social conversations and into academic conversations, I presented the kids with their collaboration activity. I did get this idea from Teach Like a Pirate, and because collaboration is another key component of our AVID program, I jumped at the chance to use it. 

After searching online, I choose an activity in which students had to choose four people out of ten who would be placed on the lifeboat of a sinking ship. When I modified the activity for my classroom, I did not put any thought into the kind of conversations my students would have. If I had, I do not think I would have been able to imagine what they came up with. Many groups immediately left the captain to die, simply because they thought he was not a good person. One group contemplated whether or not they would eat the infant once he/she was born. Some thought the radio operator would be more concerned with flirting than working. 

While my colleagues complained about sore throats from going over so many rules the first few days, I was walking around my classroom, listening to amazing first week conversations. 

Part IV: Philosophical Chairs

Because the discussions in each class were different, my two smallest classes finished the collaboration activity sooner than my two larger classes. I used the extra time for a philosophical chairs activity connected to the survival game.

Philosophical chairs is an activity I have always been afraid of. I participate in the activity every time I attend an AVID conference, but I have never had the courage to try using it in the classroom. This year, however, as part of our AVID site plan, I have to. So why not get one done early?

Because I did this off the top of my head, I was not expecting my students to understand. This is how I presented the activity:

  • As we discussed each character on the list, they would move to one side of the room or the other to show that they had saved or not saved that person. 
  • When given my finger pointer, they had permission to speak. Everyone else was required to listen. 
  • When speaking, I provided them with the sentence stem, "I saved/did not save ____ because ___."
  • Once a student spoke on one side of the room, I would move to the other side of the room.
  • The student on the other side had to paraphrase first, using the stem, "I heard you say ___, but I think ___."
The "debate" turned out to be remarkable. Students articulated their thoughts clearly. They actually listened to one another and were able to paraphrase information. I even had students switch sides, an element I had not even discussed with them, once they heard different thoughts from different groups. 

Once we completed the activity, I asked the students for feedback. I was greeted with big smiles and bright eyes. They loved it. One of my AVID students had groaned when I mentioned what we were going to do, but by the time we finished, she said she enjoyed it because it was done differently than her previous experiences. She said she hated the paperwork part. She was shocked when I told her that she had done the paperwork in the collaboration activity. 

So what exactly did I do in three days?

  • Think-Pair-Share
  • graphic organizers
  • learning targets
  • formative assessment
  • summative assessment
  • anchor charts
  • collaboration
  • Philosophical chairs
  • English Language Proficiency Standards - reading, writing, listening, speaking
And I did all of this without having to do much speaking or lecturing of my own.