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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.