News Analysis, Halloween Style

Our first quarter just ended, I turned in grades and comments this morning, my students are turning in personal essays before we start our next text, and I expect Friday’s half-day to be fairly chaotic, so I’ve been thinking about how best to transition between units while still building skills. Here’s the email I’m sending my students as classwork over the next few days:

Hello students,

The New York Times has a feature called “Test Yourself,” designed to help students use context clues to detect vocabulary usage using articles from the newspaper itself. At the bottom of each “test yourself” exercise is a link to the original article. See how well you do on figuring out the context clues, and when you get the end of the “test,” read the full article and answer the following questions for each in a Word document. Whatever you don’t finish today, we will continue on Friday.

1. How well did you do on figuring out the vocabulary in context?
2. What was the headline for the original news article? Explain who, what, when, where, why of this article.
3. Did you find it an interesting read? Why or why not?
4. How did the author keep you engaged as a reader? Think about techniques, phrases and sentences you found especially well-done or written.


Ghost Hunting in the Asylum

Theme Park Frights

Halloween on the Subway

Scary New Pumpkins

American Horror Story

How to Make a Black Hole

In case you end up using this with your students, all NYT articles linked through their Learning Network section are free to read. I’m planning to have my students work together fairly independently on these, but you could easily split them into small groups and have each group analyze one piece.


I participated in my first #nctechat on Twitter this Sunday evening, and it was so much fun!

Since setting up a public Twitter account, I’ve been looking forward to participating in this kind of fun professional exchange, and this chat on summer reading certainly delivered. Donalyn Miller and Kelly Gallagher were our hosts, prompting us with questions and offering from their own rich teaching experiences. As they tossed out questions, they joined teachers from all over the country in answering, sharing titles, strategies, feedback and commiserating over the challenges of encouraging summer reading without making it yet one more hurdle between our students and the joy literature can bring them.

If you teach English, I’d highly recommend getting yourself a Twitter account and following NCTE so you can be in the loop for the next Twitter chat–you can also skim through archived chats on topics like valuing poetry in the Common Core era. Keep an eye on the third Sunday of each month for a fast-paced hour full of professional development, all without leaving the house!

Hashtag #Macbeth

Lady Macbeth: You made a promise #manup

Lady Macbeth: You made a promise to me. #startedfromthebottomandwearealmostatthetop

Macbeth: I DO NOT KNOW WHO I AM BECOMING #sleepwith1eyeopen

As an experiment, I asked my 9th grade students to envision exchanges from Macbeth happening in the world of social networking. Their creativity, as always, impressed me, and I think they impressed each other too, as they wove together images, song lyrics, slang, emoji, and social network lingo to paraphrase and re-imagine different scenes from the play. This would be easily adaptable to any Shakespeare play, and a way to remind students that the themes and dynamics from these great works echo and resound in our own culture today.

Macbeth: the Social Network

Macbeth is a play full of rumors, whispers and secrets, as the character try to conceal their motives and actions from each other but are not always successful. This is mimicked in our modern world through interactions in social networking, so we will blend these elements together to make the world of Macbeth come alive.

You must:
• Choose a form of social media (Twitter, Facebook, Secret, Whisper, Instagram, Snapchat, or another you clear with me) and create an exchange between at least two characters based on a scene or section of the play
• Provide citation for the part of the play you are referencing
• Show strong understanding of Macbeth
• Turn in a printed copy of your exchange for display in my classroom

Feel free to use hashtags, captions, etc to make your exchange authentic.
This assignment is worth 25 pts.

Flipping Out (My Classroom)

Spoiler: this post is longish and details a technological/pedagogical innovation and my plans for trying it next year, not me destroying my classroom in some kind of Hulk-Smash moment. Sorry.

We’ve got almost two months left in the school year, but I’m already thinking about September, and what changes I’d like to make for next year, now that I know I’ll be teaching the same major units I taught this year. It’s what I both love and hate about teaching sometimes; there’s always something you could be doing better, some new innovation you could be testing out, which is exciting but can often be overwhelming too.

This year, it’s flipping the classroom, explained in a handy infographic here, but also all over the place, as flipping the classroom is one of the hottest educational topics these days (in addition to Common Core, of course). If you haven’t heard of it before, flipping your classroom involves students watching recorded lectures and other videos at home, and then doing activities and problems in class, instead of the other way around (hence the flipping). So instead of listening to a lecture about bases and acids in Chemistry classes, you could watch an instructional and engaging video at home, pausing and rewinding as you see fit, and then come into class to ask questions and do fun experiments, applying what you learned in the videos. As I teach in a one-to-one laptop program, it’s especially relevant to me, because my students have guaranteed access to an internet-enabled computer and should be able to access anything I would ask them to view.

However, I didn’t see at first how this could really work in my class, because many English classrooms already run this way. I’ve never spent a whole or even half a class lecturing; my students are always interacting and discussing after reading at home, which seems like the flipped model exactly.

But then: grammar and vocabulary came to mind. These are the areas where I do the most direct instruction, where students could use the most repetition and practice, where repeated exposure to the concepts do seem to be best pedagogical practices, and quite honestly, where I feel I do the most mediocre teaching. Maybe I could “flip” my grammar and vocab instruction, and save class time for more engaging activities to reinforce what the students would have already learned. What if I could use the Virtual Grammar Lab instead of a textbook? Maybe I could use TED-ED to create interactive quizzes and activities with the videos I assigned for homework and track my students’ progress. Maybe I could preview vocabulary in class with context clues, use videos to reinforce definitions, then engage creatively with the words together. Could I set up a system where students would earn badges based on mastery of the content? Once I started thinking about it, flipping how I teach grammar and vocabulary seemed like a natural fit.

For me however, the biggest hurdle isn’t giving up class time or my own position in the spotlight, but instead, devoting the time to sort through these resources, see how best they would fit together, build my own comfort with the technological piece involved, and then map out a curriculum that would support, engage, teach my students, while encouraging reflection and setting clear goals. During the school year, I don’t have time to overhaul an entire part of my curriculum in a focused and productive way while juggling grading, prepping, advising, and doing the lesson or assignment tweaking I already do.

That’s why, even though it’s only April, I’m already thinking about September, and how I can use the summer to get ready. Much of the material I’ve seen on flipped classrooms involves teachers who make their own videos, for example, so setting myself a DIY-video project this summer would put me closer to this goal. I’d like time to experiment with flipping tools and resources that exist, test out the wealth of online grammar tools that are out there, and time to watch the dozens of videos even a quick search on “flipped classroom” turns up on YouTube. These are all activities that seem overwhelming now, but not too onerous once I’m out of school. I know I have a colleague in our Foreign Language department who uses screencasts to flip some of her instruction, and I know I have a colleague using TED-ED in the science classroom; I’d like to sit with both of these teachers and learn from how they’re using it. I have also been thinking about how to use more video in the classroom, in the most educational ways, as our library has recently added several streaming video resources, so I want to do more research and curating on the best resources to do so. I think video could be useful to provide background knowledge for our different units, but also to inspire creative writing assignments.

Looks like I’ve got a busy summer ahead!

Revising, Re-seeing

education online

education online (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

In this world of technological advances, we have to rethink how we teach writing; every good writing teacher knows that already. Like I tell my students, I use Grammarly’s grammar check because having bad grammar is like tucking your skirt into your pantyhose; people will notice you, but not in a good way. Relatedly, how do we validate teaching bibliography formats when EasyBib exists? We need to impart the importance of grammar and proper citation, but it’s silly to pretend that we’re still on the equivalent of the abacus when in fact, better “calculators” are readily available.

Writing is one of the most important skills we can teach our students; this I know for sure no matter what space-age tool they end up using to compose and craft their work. As writers, they need to learn how to polish and enrich their language, and they need to learn structure and framework, but most of all, they need to learn how to really see their own work. It’s difficult to develop a critical eye, but it’s even more difficult to learn how to distance yourself enough from your own work to be able to engage that critical eye on it. I tell my students all the time that professional writers all have editors, but then, in the age of blogs and fast-paced e-journalism, I also think it’s crucial for any writer to be his or her own editor as well.

So how do we do this? I do direct instruction on important skills like outlining, quote integration, and how to craft argumentative sentences instead of ones that only summarize. I coach them on how to do effective peer review and ask them to reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses as writers, which we try to pinpoint in one-on-one conferences along the way. I provide them with model sentences, and after each formal essay, I pull strong examples of sentences and paragraphs from student essays to use as models. I hang grammar jokes and cartoons in my classroom, and we do activities focused on learning the rules of grammar, and we practice vocabulary strategies. I ask them to write personal and opinion pieces as well as formal analytic essays, and they do frequent short informal pieces to get more comfortable with low-stakes written expressive forms. I’m always looking for new resources and I’ve learned so much from other teachers and writers, and when it’s written out like this, I realize just how many different ways we approach the teaching and learning of writing in my classroom. But still somehow, it never seems like enough.

I’ll keep looking for the best tools to share with my students, and keep thinking about the most engaging ways to coach my students through the writing process. I don’t know if any of my students will become professional writers, but I hope mightily that they will become strong women, with confidence in their own voices.

Disclosure: I was compensated by Grammarly for writing this post, but all opinions included are my own.

A Forest of Vocabulary

Vocabulary - Words Are Important

Vocabulary – Words Are Important (Photo credit: Dr Noah Lott)

Like many English teachers, I’ve gone through a whole bouquet of ways to teach vocabulary before settling on what (I think) will be my preferred method. This year, I’m choosing about 25 words from each quarter’s main text, providing those word before the girls start reading the book, and then working with them on finding different ways to not only define, but feel comfortable recognizing and using those words. In the first quarter, they wrote definitions as well as sample sentences, took a fill-in-the-blank quiz, and then expanded their understanding of the words by finding them in the text once we had read the book and then adding in what they discovered from context clues, as well as assigning pictures to each word that might help jog their memories before they were tested on the words again. With this method, we will have studied about a hundred words together in the course of the year, but I hope also to have instilled in them the importance of doing more than just looking up the word on and copying/pasting the definition!

For the second quarter, I’ve provided them a list of words from The Catcher in the Rye and they’ve already done definitions, including parts of speech. We did vocabulary dialogues in small groups in class, where they had to choose five words from the list and write a dialogue showing that they understand the definitions, which they then acted out for the class. Next, we’re going to do a project where each girl will choose just one word from the list and do an in-depth study. They will do a vocabulary tree for their chosen word, and they will also make two short videos, one defining their chosen word, and another defining a related word I’ve chosen from the Word of the Day section on the New York Times‘s education-focused blog, The Learning Network. The Learning Network is running a 15-second vocabulary video contest, which is what inspired me to add a video component to this project, and I will be requiring my students to post all of their videos on the contest page. The contest post is full of helpful links and examples, and I think this will be a fun project for my students, many of whom are fairly adept with video production already. All the vocabulary trees will get displayed in my classroom, so the entire project has a public aspect with authentic audiences. Finally, at the end of the quarter, they will be formally tested on these words.

I’m also considering making a YouTube or TeacherTube channel where I could host all of the videos in one spot, which would be a great study bank for the girls to have for both the test and our midterm. I’m still working on this part, as I’m not sure whether it would be best to have one channel and share that password with the girls, or whether I would be better off having them send their videos to me for me to post them. There’s a learning curve involved here for me too, clearly, so it’s a challenge for me as well as the girls. If you have any suggestions on the best way to facilitate this aspect, I’d love to hear them, and I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

Teaching Beowulf: Gathering Links

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written i...

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written in alliterative verse and paragraphs, not in lines or stanzas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just as I did in preparing to teach Persepolis, I’m gathering links to help me with my other new 9th grade unit next year: Beowulf!

Teaching Persepolis: Gathering Links

Cover of "Persepolis: The Story of a Chil...

Cover of Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

Next year, I’ll be teaching Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood for the first time, so I’ll be spending part of my summer planning out that unit. My first step, as a digital social teacher, is to start pulling together resources that will inspire and guide me. In other words, welcome to my first collection of links for teaching Persepolis!

MOOCs, Redux

After making a strong start with Modern Poetry (nicknamed ModPo) last fall and feeling really enthusiastic, I ended up crashing and burning midway through the semester. However, since it was completely a falling-down on my part and not at all related to the course, I’m giving Coursera another try this summer, as well as enrolling in ModPo again for the fall. This summer I’m signed up for:

Latin American Culture: hoping this will help prepare me better to add more history and culture to my Latin American fiction course next spring

The Fiction of Relationship: not totally sure I will be able to complete this one, as there are several books on the reading list I’ve never read and don’t own! But I’m very curious about the class, and what they will discuss for the books I am familiar with, like Beloved and Ficciones.

This time around, I’m planning on taking more of a cherry-pick approach; I’m definitely aiming to complete the Latin American class, but if I don’t get to every assignment, I’m okay with that. With the fiction class, I’m planning to start off as more of an interested observer, and if I get hooked, then I will do my best to complete what I can. I think this is probably the most realistic approach for me, and I think it will also help ensure that I do feel I’ve gained something for the hours I end up investing in the class.

The next big Coursera development that intrigues me is their entry into professional development courses for K-12 teachers; I’m especially interested in this course on Brain-Targeted Teaching because I’m familiar with some of the professor’s work, and she is the former principal of the elementary school my daughters attended until this year. I also added this course on museum teaching strategies for the classroom to my “watch list,” so that Coursera will alert me when future sessions are scheduled. I have no idea whether MOOCs are a good venue for effective professional development, but I’m fascinated to see how this unfolds.

Tracking Students with E-Textbooks

English: Textbook

English: Textbook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The hot topic in education today is how technology is going to shape, track and modify student behavior, especially in areas that are typically hard to control. The NYT writes about e-textbooks that will track student engagement in real time for professors to view. However, how we interpret this data is not so clear cut.

Adrian Guardia, a Texas A&M instructor in management, took notice the other day of a student who was apparently doing well. His quiz grades were solid, and so was what CourseSmart calls his “engagement index.” But Mr. Guardia also saw something else: that the student had opened his textbook only once.

“It was one of those aha moments,” said Mr. Guardia, who is tracking 70 students in three classes. “Are you really learning if you only open the book the night before the test? I knew I had to reach out to him to discuss his studying habits.”

Here are my questions: who among us hasn’t been that student, where everything you needed to know was discussed in lectures, and the reading so thoroughly reviewed that a sharp student didn’t need to do it in the first place? But more importantly, doesn’t this also point to a greater problem with how the course itself is designed? In other words, if that student can pass that class without opening the book, then hasn’t the teacher gone wrong somewhere in designing the course, the content, the lectures, the assignments and/or the choice of book?

Later in the article, everyone involved acknowledges that students will still continue to be inventive:

students could easily game the highlighting or note-taking functions. Or a student might improve his score by leaving his textbook open and doing something else.

Apparently, students taking paper notes are also penalized because the system can’t track them.

Finally, one of the professors seems to engage in some self-reflection toward the end:

“Maybe the course is too easy and I need to challenge them a bit more,” Mr. Guardia said. “Or maybe the textbooks are not as good as I thought.”

If our students aren’t engaged, aren’t challenged, aren’t paying attention, they certainly own part of that responsibility. But we do too, as it is our job to track and reflect and engage, even without any high-powered software to help us.