New Handouts

I began the process of adding more handouts and other content to this site. I removed some handouts I didn’t really think would be useful.

It made me wonder about content in general. What would be helpful? If I have it, I can put it up. I have some great research paper stuff that I need to scan, but I could put it up, too. Also, I have other handouts at school. Right now, most of my handouts are either writing or American literature, but I did add one handout for British literature. More should come as I gain more experience with the subject. I taught one section of it last year for a semester, but will teach two sections all year this coming year.

I’m not taking requests, mind. If I don’t already have it or don’t have a use for it myself, I don’t see the point in creating it, especially not for free. However, if I have it made up, and it’s just a matter of uploading it or even if I don’t have it but think I can use it myself, I can upload it.

Here’s a Power Point on the twenty most common writing errors:

Update: I know that the 20th slide isn’t rendering properly, but I can’t fix it because it’s SlideShare’s problem. If you download the file, it should be correct because the transcript is correct; however, if it’s not, you can easily change it.

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The Teacher’s Daybook, 2008-2009

The Teacher's Daybook, 2008-2009I just pre-ordered my copy of Jim Burke’s handy planner, The Teacher’s Daybook, updated for 2008-2009. The planner will not actually be released until July 10. Usually, it is released much earlier, and I wonder if some of the changes made didn’t cause a delay in publication. The planners usually run from July to June of the year specified, so I can’t help but think there was a problem this time.

I actually mocked up syllabi for this fall yesterday. Why do I want to go back to school so bad when I just started my summer? The Folger Teaching Shakespeare Mini-Institute! I am really excited to teach three Shakespeare plays this year — Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth, all of which, interestingly enough, are included in volume one of the Folger Library’s Shakespeare Set Free series. As a participant of the institute, I will be receiving a copy of this volume. I already have one, so I plan to donate the older copy to a colleague and keep the new one. I am not sure what the difference between the one I already have and the new one is (aside from the cover). Does anyone else know?

If you can only get one volume of the series, this volume is the one I recommend because it contains two of the most frequently taught plays — Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth — both of which are frequently anthologized in 9th grade texts and British literature texts respectively. It is my hope that if Folger produces another volume in the series, they will consider creating a unit for Julius Caesar, as when I have had to teach that play (twice), I have had difficulty in coming up with creative ideas, although it looks like there are some good ideas on the Folger’s Web site. There is a great idea for the scene when Cinna the Poet is attacked by the plebeian mob that we did at the Mini-Institute, but I don’t see an identical one on the Web site (here is a similar one).

Well, I need to tell myself to enjoy this break from teaching. I am twenty pages from the end of Wuthering Heights, which I am actually reading in its entirety for the first time (sorry Mrs. Keener — it wasn’t personal — I just couldn’t keep up with the reading schedule!) and Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them was set aside while I finished up with end-of-year business (and I mean “busy-ness,” too), and I feel I have not been a good participant at the wiki. And I need to read the summer reading books assigned to my students (or at least the ones I haven’t read yet) so that I can make assessments for the books.

Techy Addendum: I have been getting a 500 Server Error when I post to this blog that says there is a misconfiguration on the server.  No problems posting at all, so it must be related to something that happens after I post.  No problems when I edit posts.  I am not sure what is causing it, and trying to figure it out over the last couple of hours hasn’t been fruitful.  Please let me know if you are having problems commenting.  Comments are held in moderation, so your comment might not appear right away, and that is not a bug.  However, if you get a strange error message (such as a 500 Server Error message), please let me know.

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Write Beside Them: This I Believe

The main message I took away from the second chapter of Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them is that writing teachers will not be effective unless they are also writers.  She says, “We don’t learn many things well just by following directions” (7-8).  However, it was this remark that struck a chord with me: “[T]he instruction has to come during the process of creating a piece, not in polishing the product, or nothing changes.  That’s a crucial error I was making for years” (8).  I think perhaps focusing on the product and not the process of creation may be why students flip to the last page to look at their grade.

Kittle compares learning to write to teaching her son to drive.  Parents wouldn’t send their sons and daughters out on road without being in the car with them, modeling first by “talking [them] through [our] decisions” (7).  The important thing to do is model writing: “If we don’t model smart thinking in writing, our students will write like kids who’ve read the driver’s manual but still hit the curve too fast and just about send us to the hospital” (8).

It’s interesting — I recall modeling writing poetry for my students years ago.  I slapped a poem in progress on the overhead and walked through developing it.  I remembered that it worked really well, too, and it’s a wonder I didn’t try other types of writing, too.

What Kittle learned are three important truths about teaching writing:

  1. Teachers needn’t be writers — “just someone trying to write” (9).  The process of modeling and thinking through a piece was the important part.  I would argue that Kittle was mistaken in not thinking of herself as a writer.  Our students don’t, either, and that’s why they think they’re no good at it.  One of the questions I often ask on a writing inventory I give my students is “Are you a writer?”  Almost none of them think of themselves as writers.  We make these arbitrary definitions of words like “writer”: writers are published and other people (important people who should know) consider them to be good.  Writers are people who use writing to communicate.  Period.  We can all consider ourselves writers.
  2. The books we read are great models of the product of writing, but it is the teacher’s job to model the process of writing.  We don’t see the effort that went into selecting the words and stringing them together.  We don’t see the painstaking process of editing.  All we see is a great piece of polished writing.  No wonder it looks daunting.
  3. We can learn how to teach writing by doing the writing ourselves.  Think how much easier it will be to plan for writing assignment instruction if we’ve already struggled through the assignment ourselves.

A few years back in order to better teach my students how to write a research paper, I wrote one myself.  It was probably the most effective thing I had ever done in terms of teaching the process; however, it might have been even more effective if the students could have seen me do it.  If they had seen me locating resources, taking notes, putting my notes in effective order, and outlining my ideas, it might have been even easier for them to figure out how to do it.  Well, there is always next year, and with my next class, I will write research paper beside them.

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Reflecting on Backward Design

The end of the year is drawing closer, and today I was thinking about backward design.  This year was the first year I implemented backward design planning.  I have been really impressed with how much students have learned.  My 9th grade students in particular really seemed to connect to this type of learning; furthermore, unless I’m a horrible judge, they have seemed more engaged than I can remember any other class being.  Today they started working on the performance assessment for the unit I created for Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye.  Students were researching and writing about the impact of media and society on how people feel about their bodies.  At the same time as they were analyzing a novel’s theme, they were also writing persuasive essays about body image, using research to support writing, and learning about ways in which literature truly can be a lens through which we examine our society.  In times past, I don’t think I would have designed an assessment nearly as good as this one, and students were clearly interested in what they were learning through their research.  They frequently called me over to read facts and statistics they found.  They wanted me to read what they had written.  One student began her essay with an anecdote that integrated information she learned from a YouTube video I showed the class.  And it was a brilliant introduction.

I know I sound like an evangelist when I talk about UbD, but I can’t help it.  Backward design revolutionized the way I teach.  I feel rejuvenated and invigorated by working with my students.  And I am learning so much, too!  Every day, I just can’t wait to work with students on the units I’ve created.  I truly enjoy planning and creating units now that I have a clear process that helps me focus and think about why I do what I do.  I am really proud of all my students have learned and are learning, and much credit for those learning experiences belongs to UbD.

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Week in Reflection, April 28-May 2

Our Spring Break was last week, so I didn’t post a reflection.  As this was the week of our return to school, and we have also entered that final stretch of the year, I’m not sure either I or the students were as plugged in as usual.

My seniors basically have two weeks left because our school allows them to finish early.  Next week and the week after, they will be working on a final paper for me.  This week, we finished watching A Streetcar Named Desire, and I was struck again by Brando’s performance.  You probably know this bit of trivia, but Brando was the sole member of the core cast not to receive an Academy Award, though he was nominated.  Vivian Leigh won Best Actress for her portrayal of Blanche; Kim Hunter won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Stella; and Karl Malden won Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Mitch.  The Best Actor award that year, however, went to Humphrey Bogart for his performance in The African Queen.

My ninth grade students are working through grammar.  One class finished up phrases and started on clauses.  The other class learned about active and passive voice and began discussion of Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye.

The tenth grade writing class I teach presented Power Point presentations.  So often our kids add animations, busy backgrounds, and too much text, then read the text rather than use it as a guide for the audience.  Despite my instructing students on the perils of Death by Power Point, a few of their presentations included some of the problems I’ve mentioned, and I am frustrated that I somehow was not able to communicate how to avoid these issues to my students.  Also, I am frustrated by the fact that in order to be successful, they had to unlearn bad Power Point habits, which may explain why all of them weren’t successful.  We need to teach kids how to use Power Point correctly from the start.  I think too many teachers are a little too impressed by all the bells and whistles and actually reward students for making cluttered, busy, and ultimately unreadable presentations because they themselves don’t know how to do some of the things the students do, thus the teachers assume it’s hard and took a lot of time and effort.  Let’s face it, our students have become accustomed to being rewarded for style over substance.

The last two days of the week, my writing class began a unit on SAT preparation and practice.  I have evaluated SAT essays in the past, and as I haven’t done so for quite some time, I suppose it’s safe to disclose this fact.  Students generally find this unit to be very helpful.  I have been using Sadlier-Oxford’s helpful Grammar and Writing for Standardized Tests as a guide; I highly recommend this book, as it focuses on the SAT’s writing section (error correction, sentence and paragraph correction, and essay).

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Write Beside Them: Summer Professional Development Project

Write Beside ThemBecause I purchase The Teacher’s Daybook each year for my lesson planning, Heinemann sends me catalogs and fliers about publications quite often. In my mailbox today, I received a promotional flier for Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them. I was intrigued enough to check out the book’s page at Heinemann’s site. I watched the sample videos, poked around for a bit, and decided to make this book my summer professional reading project.

I started to order the book from Heinemann’s website and was pleased to discover that I would receive a small discount, but I was rather shocked at the high shipping price. With tax and shipping, the book was fairly pricey at over $38. I checked out the book at Amazon and discovered that while I didn’t receive as large an initial discount as I would have if I had ordered directly from Heinemann, the book was eligible for free shipping, which brought the price down to a more reasonable (for me) $30.80.

So… who’s in? Who wants to read this one with me this summer? We can have our own online professional development book club.

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Teaching Poetry

Inspired by this post by Traci Gardner at the NCTE Inbox Blog, I thought I would share some of my own resources for teaching poetry.

Getting the KnackAs Gardner mentioned, Getting the Knack by Stephen Dunning and William Stafford is a really good resource with lesson plans and ideas for poetry writing assignments.  I have used their found poem exercise many times, always to great success.  I don’t care how old students are, they always enjoy using scissors and glue.  These poems can be surprisingly good and surprisingly challenging to write, too.  What I like about the book is that it presents poetry as a craft, and the exercises enable all students to become poets.  This book has been in my professional development collection for years.  It is a good addition to a middle grades or secondary high school English teacher’s teaching and writing toolbox.

Gardner didn’t mention this book, probably because it is out of print, but Joseph I. Tsujimoto’s Teaching Poetry Writing to Adolescents is another handy book to have in your collection, and you can find it through used book sellers at Amazon (follow the book link).  It’s a shame this resource was allowed to go out of print!  The strength of Tsujimoto’s work is in the variety of poetry writing assignments (18) and the student models.  In this NCTE article from Classroom Notes Plus (October 2002), Rosemary Laughlin writes glowingly of Tsujimoto’s models, and this article written by Betsey Coleman in VOYA (PDF) also praises his work highly, and both say pretty much what I would say.

Inside OutI have also used Inside Out: Strategies for Teaching Writing by Dan Kirby and Tom Liner (in an earlier edition not including third author Dawn Latta Kirby, but instead with writer Ruth Vinz).  The focus in this book is not strictly on poetry, but on teaching writing in general, including research writing and expository writing.

Lisa Huff has a a new series of posts on teaching poetry at her blog, and the Reflective Teacher’s Literature Pocket Mod could easily be focused on just poetry.  Finally, I posted my poetry unit idea to the UbD Educators wiki, and I would love feedback.

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A Writing Teacher’s Pet Peeves

In my ten years of composition instruction, I have developed a set of pet peeves associated with the body of student writing I have read.  Any of my students reading this should keep in mind that I do not direct this at any particular student — this list is a synthesis of common writing errors that I often find in student papers at every grade level 6-12 and every academic level, including Honors or AP.

  1. Referring to an author by his/her first name only in a literary analysis.  It sounds too much like they’re writing about their old pal Walt instead of the poet Walt Whitman.
  2. Not using proper format.  I require MLA format.  I provide samples.  I correct it. I don’t know how much plainer it gets.
  3. Punctuation of titles.  I admit that I am probably harsher on students than is warranted because punctuation of titles comes so easily to me, but I cannot figure out why students cannot remember that short works go inside quotation marks and longer works are italicized or underlined.
  4. Use of second person in formal composition.
  5. Apostrophes used to designate words as plural.  Why?  Think of the poor overworked little punctuation marks!  Don’t they already have enough to do with possessives and contractions, not to mention quotes within quotes?
  6. Run-ons, comma splices, and fragments.  Subject+verb+complete thought=sentence.  Commas cannot join independent clauses.  Independent clauses cannot simply be mashed together either.  Let me introduce you to the semicolon.  He is your friend.
  7. Strange format decisions.  It is my experience that many young writers do not feel comfortable turning in work unless their own title is somehow different from the essay — a different font, font size, bold font, etc.  Why can’t it just be plain size-12 Times New Roman?
  8. And while we’re discussing titles, how about this attention grabber: “Essay”; or if that doesn’t grab you, how about “Scarlet Letter Essay.”  The title of the novel, of course either in quotation marks or not punctuated at all.
  9. Not reading feedback.  I spend anywhere between 15-30 minutes reading every paper.  Students flip to the grade and ask why they earned that particular grade before reading the half-page to full-page of written or typed comments I attached to the piece.  When this happens, a part of me dies inside.  And I think God kills a kitten, too.
  10. Commonly confused words and nonstandard usage: “loose” for “lose,” “then” for “than”; the whole to/two/too and there/their/they’re.  “Alright.”  “Alot.”  “Can not.”  “Irregardless.”

Professional writers are not exempt.  I had to quit reading the work of a popular writer whose plots I enjoy because I couldn’t stand the fact that she, and apparently her editor, can’t identify a comma splice.

Please don’t think I take a red pen to comments and correspondence.  I don’t think twice about it.  Formal writing, especially published writing, has to meet a different standard.

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The Freedom Writers

The Freedom WritersSoon after The Freedom Writers, a movie based on the book The Freedom Writer’s Diary by Erin Gruwell and her students, was released to theaters, I viewed the movie and posted a review here. I know some educators don’t like this kind of movie in general and didn’t like this movie in particular, but I enjoyed the movie and found value in using it in the classroom in order to teach the power of written expression and finding one’s voice. In addition, I think the movie is a great way for my students in particular to understand a broader spectrum of the American experience. Finally, as the movie centers around how Gruwell’s students were affected by a work of literature, I think the movie shows the profound connections we can make between literature and our own lives if we avail ourselves of the opportunity. I think the movie would work well in an English class, but I like to use it in writing courses as well.

The question is, what can you do with the movie? When my students viewed the movie last year, we used it as a springboard for discussion about several important issues, including racism, anti-Semitism, and abuse, and how these issues impacted the characters in the movie. We frankly discussed Erin Gruwell’s sacrifices and the fact that she did move on to working with the Freedom Writers Foundation and no longer teaches.

If you are interesting in using the film in your own classroom, there are many resources available to you:

Please share other resources you know about in the comments.

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The Best Laid Plans

Some weeks ago, I shared exciting news that my students were collaborating with a girls’ school in Israel on a joint wiki writing project. Just as we got our wikis off the ground, a teachers’ strike in Israel put our plans on hold. The strike has now lasted more than a month. If it is not resolved before the winter break in about three weeks, the project will be on hold indefinitely as my students will be writing a research paper from January to March.

I know that the teachers I am working with are saddened about this turn of events, and I think we all agree that the timing of our collaboration was unfortunate in light of the strike. However, I think our situation poses an interesting lesson for all of us who are interested in embarking upon global collaboration in our classrooms.

What do we do when the best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft a-gley?

And what does it say about the project that the kids are still chatting through the discussion area of the wiki and friending each other on Facebook even though the project is on hiatus?

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