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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.