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Can New Teachers be Happy? Get the Hacks.


So you're a new English teacher. Congratulations!

The first year is the most intense, the most overwhelming, and often one of the most rewarding and fulfilling. But often there's not much sleep, not much comfort, and not much relief. Life is one long marathon of work, punctuated by the deep joy of seeing your students engage and succeed.

Mountains of grading join you at your favorite coffee shop now. One negative comment on a student or administrative review haunts you in the middle of the night. Lunch is a flurry as you dash to make photocopies, catch up a student who just missed a week of class, and microwave your leftover pad Thai.

Still, it is so worth it. Your new job will give you opportunities to express your creativity every day, share your journey with hundreds of young people who need you, and eventually, greet your class with a feeling of excitement but also peace every day. (It takes a while, but really, it happens!)

After almost a decade in the classroom, I can look back at my first year and see some of the things that could have helped me so much. Some of them are hacks that I had figured out by the end of that first year, and others have taken me much longer to figure out. I hope they can help you avoid some of my long nights, technology crises, wardrobe stresses, and general first-year frenzy.

Here are twelve ideas to help you rock your first year.



#1 Take the Spotlight off Yourself

Feeling nervous? Afraid you might trip up on your words, or even throw up on your shoes? I've been there.

One of my favorite epiphanies when I began teaching was that I didn't need to position myself front and center day after day. Indeed, my students were far happier and more engaged when I didn't.

"Turn to your partner and...", "Find a group and...", "Begin by taking a look at the handout in front of you. Warm up by filling it in before we..." became my best friends. Workshop days, journal writing, peer editing, web quests, creative project work, movie clips, discussions that kept students talking to each OTHER and not pin-balling every comment off me... these have become the core of my teaching.

You'll find me lecturing about once in a blue moon, if I really can't think of ANY other way to present my information. As soon as I realized this, my blood pressure went way down and I stopped feeling faintly ill all the time

#2 Keep Fillers Handy

Oh the strain of a lesson plan that finishes before you thought it would. And it will.

The first time shocked me to my core. I had things scheduled minute by minute, but somehow my students completed them so much faster than I expected. I had no idea what to do. I think I awkwardly and guiltily released them early.

By the second term I had a handy mental list of ideas for these situations, and you should to.

Flexible Activities to do any Time:

Have students keep a choice reading book in your room that they can always read when they finish early or when you just need ten minutes for WHATEVER reason.

Keep a stack of journals in class and a set of prompts glued inside the cover so you can always have them do a writing activity on a moment's notice.

Invite students to participate in an ice-breaker activity to get to know each other better. If you don't know any, check out these fun ones from Cult of Pedagogy.

Have students start the homework (use this as a last resort - if there isn't much time, they won't take it seriously).

The critical thing with any unplanned activity is NOT to say it is an extra activity. Just smoothly transition into it as if you were always planning to do it, so they don't get a sniff of the fact that maybe you might consider letting them out early because actually they finished everything at speed.

If you're short on time and you'd like a packet of fillers that are ready and waiting, I've put together ten short, creative activities for you that you can photocopy and keep handy.



#3 Back up ALL your Files

Never did I ever think my computer would die the week grades were due in my first year of teaching.

I knew I was supposed to back up my files, but it seemed like the kind of thing I would grow into when I actually had time for that kind of thing. Dragging and dropping my million and one projects, handouts, and grade files into a flash drive every week or two was not something I felt excited about.

These days I use a really easy system. I have the SeaGate external hard drive (I'm not an affiliate!) that will simply memorize everything on your entire computer when you plug it in and agree to have it do so. No more sorting, dragging, and dropping. If your computer dies, you've got everything. (By the way, mine died again, and I DID have everything).


#4 Plan in Stages - the year, the unit, the day.

You don't need to plan it all at once, but it's wildly helpful to look ahead. I eventually came upon a system of stage planning. At the start of the year, I would lay out the order of my texts. Then when I was almost done with one text/unit, I would look through the calendar and make a unit syllabus for what was coming. It would show all the dates and a VERY general summary of what we were doing each day and the homework. I used it, and I gave it to my students.

For example:

9/3: The Scarlet Letter Ch. 1, Freewrite
HW: The Scarlet Letter Ch. 2

9/4: The Scarlet Letter Ch.2 Discussion, Vocabulary Journals
HW: The Scarlet Letter Ch. 3, Open Mind Exercise

9/5: Showcase Open Minds, Ch. 3 Reader's Theater
HW: Listen to Questions of Morality Podcast and answer response question

Etc.

Then when a new week came up I would look at my various syllabi and pencil in what every class was doing each day.

The final step in my planning was to make a daily schedule every day. Call me a nerd if you like (I can own my own nerdiness) but I made a document every single night that showed everything going on in my day, in order, with exact timing and usually a beautiful picture at the top. I couldn't really function without it. It would look something like this:

Sept. 15

To-Dos:
Make unit plan for Macbeth
E-mail Brian about meeting
Grade B Block vocab quizzes and input
Plan tennis practice for tomorrow
Make brownies for advisees

8-8:40 A Block (put schedule on the board)
1. Journal: Watch kitesurfing video + do related vocabulary prompt (10 minutes)
2. Discussion Warm-Up: Question Pass
3. Fishbowl Discussion (rotate after 7 minutes)
4. HW: Scarlet Letter Ch. 4

8:50-9:20 Assembly (look for Kate, ask about missing work)

9:30-11 B Block Extended (give back in-class essays)
1. Film Clip - Into the Wild
2. Into the Wild Project Work (circulate to answer questions, send some students to the lab, library)
3. Grammar Mini-Lesson - Image Writing
4. HW: Into the Wild Project Draft

Planning Period (grade + prep)

11:50-12:30 English Department Candidate Lunch - ask about creative project ideas

12:30-12:50 Office Hours - extra help for Into the Wild projects

1-1:40 E Block (same as A this morning)

1:45 Early Dismissal for Tennis

Tennis Match in Pasadena (return around 7 pm) - get van keys, meal money, bring directions

This daily schedule kept me going day after day. No matter what crazy things the day threw at me, I knew exactly where I had to be and when.

#5: Figure out a Professional Wardrobe that's Easy

Call me crazy but for me, putting together a professional wardrobe was a matter of considerable stress and expense. My college jeans, sweatshirts and tennis uniforms didn't provide even a tiny start.

I didn't have much of a clue, I just knew I wanted people to stop thinking I was a student. I bought nice pants and skirts and button-up shirts, but I wasn't too sure how to put it all together in an easy rotating system. Years later I found a blog that explained how I could mix and match my clothes together to make a hugely varied wardrobe if I found a few scarves, "completer pieces" like sweaters and vests, and some fun boots and necklaces. Check out this post from "Putting Me Together" to see an example of how the author could wear fifteen nice outfits from ten different pieces of clothing. Then browse through her blog (maybe set a timer? you could be in there for a while!) for inspiration.


#6 Figure out some Boundaries 

If you're on social media at all, you've probably seen a ton of graphics featuring the quotation "You Can't Pour from an Empty Cup."

At the end of my first year I made a list of rules for the second year. There were at least twenty-five, though I don't remember a single one any more. The goal of my mega list was to carve back a few hours in each day that were about me. I knew I would burnout and leave the profession within a few years if I didn't figure out how to say no to students sometimes, how to allow myself to have an O.K. lesson every once in a while, how to find ways to get help from colleagues. Too many eighteen hour days had left me feeling fried. I liked what I was doing, I just couldn't actually do it any more.

So I made my rules. See if you can figure out a few rules BEFORE spending the entire year working from seven a.m. to eleven p.m. most days.

#7 Share your Ideas

It's easy to feel that as a first-year teacher you don't have anything to offer your professional community. You might think you should leave submitting articles for publication and applying to present at conferences to the more experienced teachers.

By the middle of the year, quite the opposite is true. You are likely applying lots of unconventional and fresh pedagogies, and getting intriguing results. Start early with submitting your work to education publications and presenting at conferences like your state level Association of Teachers of English annual conference.

It's a good feeling to realize you can help others and get yourself noticed by your administration for your quality work right away.

#8 Read Professional Books

Though it's great to carve out time for fun reading, professional reading is also so helpful in the first year. I read The Courage to Teach, Educating Esme, The Freedom Writer's Diary, A White Teacher Talks about Race, Active Learning, Differentiated Instruction, and many more in my first year. I think I probably read enough for some kind of an education degree if I could find a way to get credit.

I was avidly interested in ways to improve my teaching, and while I probably overdid it, reading these books filled me with ideas and enthusiasm for the classroom. They also helped me to feel a sense of community with other teachers. Reading stories of what others had gone through and the solutions they had found helped prop me up. And speaking of community...

#9 Find Community

You know how there are all those New Parent groups for people who have just had babies? Because of all the loss of sleep, confusion over what to do, and overwhelm that comes with a new baby?

Well, there should probably be New Teacher groups too. Joking with someone about the crazy thing that happened in class the other day and trouble-shooting together can provide SUCH a sense of relief. Invite another new teacher or two to have dinner with you once a month. Or join an online community like my Facebook group, Creative High School English. Talk about what's going on. Surprisingly, though teachers are always surrounded by people, it can actually be quite a lonely profession. You are always the leader and guide, with no one to really talk to about how you feel and what you think.

#10 Work. Out. 

Boy is it ever easy to keep yourself awake half the night with those little mellow creme pumpkins so you can work and then get up at the crack of dawn so you can run to work and prepare an amazing escape room or museum exhibition in your classroom for your students. Over and over and over.

But making a decision that you are going to put aside a realistic amount of time each week to work out will make your first year of teaching so much more manageable. You will feel better and more in control of your life if you take some time. Whether you enjoy swimming, yoga, a mountain hike, or some other form of healthy time for yourself, just do it!


#11 Don't grade it all. 

Let me say that again. DON'T GRADE IT ALL. You don't need to. Students barely notice.

You don't need to read through every homework assignment and decide if it deserves a 7, 8, 9 or 10 out of 10. You can easily grade some assignments for completion, some on a system like check, check-plus, or check-minus, and some (the really important ones) for a grade. And speaking of grades...

#12 Use Generalized Rubrics

Make one wonderful rubric to use for papers all year long. Craft one for book talks, one for research papers, one for creative projects. Assigning a project with eight different fabulous options? USE THE SAME RUBRIC for all of them! Make it general. You'll be so glad you did.

Grading without a rubric or making a brand new super specific one for every major assignment is work you simply do NOT need the first year of teaching. You can check out some of my generalized rubrics right here, and either use them as inspiration or pick them up to save yourself some work this year.

___

I hope you'll find something in this list that eases your strain and makes you feel happier this year. It's not easy being a first-year teacher, but hopefully some of these tips and tricks will make it a bit more doable. I try to post the best resources and tips I find for new teachers all year long on my New Teacher Pinterest board. Here it is if you'd enjoy following along.


Hacking Discussion Dynamics: Because Dominators Wanna Dominate...


You've got the dominator. Or two. The silent student. Or ten. The thoughtful contributor. The doodler. The one who has always got a related story that's not really relevant, and the one who just can't help but interrupt.

As English teachers, we rely on discussion. But no matter how many styles we might try - socratic seminar, literature circles, Harkness, fishbowl, small groups - there's a certain issue we are always going to run into.

Discussion dynamics. Who will talk and who won't? Who will listen and who won't? Who cares enough to try to refer to the text? Who loves other subjects enough to try to make connections across disciplines?

By the time our students reach us, they often consider their discussion roles to be set. They know what they feel comfortable with, and it takes a lot of oomph to pull them out of their past ruts. Some students got shut down early by negative reactions from peers, some students have so much confidence they believe no one else has as much to say, some students come from cultural backgrounds that promote listening over speaking for young people.

For me, conscious discussion of discussion dynamics is one of the most important keys. It's the thing I love about the Harkness discussion method (which you can read all about right here). But not everyone has the time or inclination to cleave to the Harkness method.

Another way to cut through discussion ruts and help students to change up their roles is to create discussion role cards. Brainstorm a list of ways students can participate in positive ways. You can even let them help.


For example:

Students can make connections between points.
Students can play devil's advocate, forcing other students to clarify and back up their opinions.
Students can share their opinions.
Students can connect the text to things going on in world news or politics.
Students can connect the text to history.
Students can connect the text to modern music, television, or film.
Students can help draw out students who get shut down or interrupted.
Students can listen and make eye contact with speakers.
Students can ask penetrating questions.
Students can be careful to use text in supporting their statements. 
Students can help the class move on when the discussion is stuck for too long.
Students can be peacemakers between participants getting too heated.

Once you have established the types of roles you'd like students to work on, you can type them up as small cards that you can print out for every student. If you're a laminator, go for it! If not, just cut them out and have them ready for your next discussion.

Now, you have a decision to make. You can either personally match each role with a student you'd like to see work on that role, or you can leave it to fate. Personally, I just tape the cards under everyone's desks at random, then ask them to pull them out and keep their roles ABSOLUTELY SECRET during the discussion. The secrecy is half the fun.

Having a mandated role helps students feel a bit of obligation to try something new, and it also gives them courage to do so. As the discussion progresses, they realize that the others around them are not stuck in one single role either. Dominators get a chance to see quiet students making crucial connections. Interruptors are so busy trying to play devil's advocate that they don't interrupt. Clock-watchers are busily trying to notice who is getting shut down and draw them out. 

Another fun twist is to add a few startling questions to the roles. For example, make a student's role suggesting that a political book is "too political" for the classroom and see what happens. 

In the discussion role cards I made for The Outsiders, I tried to sprinkle in several questions that would help students explore their feelings about the novel, as many connect to it on a deep level. 



When you complete the discussion, give students a few minutes to reflect on paper about their roles. How did the experience change the way they view their own participation? How did it change the way they view others' participation? Chances are, they will see things a bit differently going into the next discussion. And if you continue to hand out roles now and then, you will continue to challenge students' natural inclinations and help them grow. After the written reflection, if you have a few minutes left, let them talk about the experience as a group. 

Pressed for planning time? If you don't want to make your own discussion role cards, I've created a variety of them for my TPT store. I'm giving them away right now (3,000 copies so far!) so you should hurry over and pick them up. A recent reviewer wrote "What a fantastic idea! I can't wait to try these with my students. What a great way to get them excited and involved!" When you pick them up, you might want to follow along with my store so you get notified when I create freebies like these and other great resources for your creative classroom endeavors. 

If you're looking for a more novel-specific set of cards, I've also created them for 1984, The Outsiders, Harry Potter, and Into the Wild.    

I hope trying out role cards will help you teach your students that they aren't stuck in any one way of participating. It's a lesson that can make a real difference in their lives, in school and beyond. 


5 Fun Creative Writing Units


I've been hearing from a lot of teachers lately about getting thrown into teaching creative writing electives they weren't expecting! Been there. I was excited if a bit overwhelmed the year I took over my friend's "Creative Literature" course after she took a job in Northern California.

A creative writing course seems to flow out before you to the infinite horizon, am I right? There are so many different things you could do, and it's not easy to figure out a logical flow and pin down the  assignments.

That's why in this post I'm pulling together a list of some of the best creative writing units I've done, dreamed of, or participated in as a student. If I was writing a brand new course right now, I would use every one of these units.



The Multigenre Autobiography (the beginning of the year)
I once assigned my American literature juniors an identity project. After reading a variety of pieces by American authors about their lives and experiences, my students produced a portfolio of works in different genres that shed light on their own identity. The results amazed me.

If I was crafting this same project for a creative writing course, I would ask students to create a narrative of their lives using three or four genres linked together. Perhaps they would begin with memoir about their early childhood, move into a video of their own performance poetry about early childhood, transition into a travel piece representative of their teenage years and finish with a fictional story about their future. I would detail a big list of options for the different genres, examine a range of autobiographical pieces that reflected at least some of those genres, and hit the ground running.

Enter the National Young Arts Foundation Contest (early fall)
I've written here before about the power of writing contests. This particular contest allows for a range of creative options. From the website: "Writing encompasses creative nonfiction, novel, play or script, poetry, short story and spoken word. The strongest submissions demonstrate a sense of inventiveness, show attention to the complexities and technical aspects of language, and have a clear, original, and distinct point of view." Applications must be submitted by October 13th, and there IS an application fee, though it can be waived in the case of need. You could create the assignment around the application and then let students decide if they've worked hard enough on the piece to make it worth submitting. Or you could let the class vote on the top three and then try to find funding for those three to be entered.

Maker Unit (winter)
Angela Stockman's recent book, Make Writing, shows a classroom world in which students are inspired by what they make to take their writing in totally fresh, creative directions. I LOVE this idea.  Spend some of the drearier months making your classroom into a maker space with your students, gathering materials and creating areas where they can design characters in paint before ink, settings out of cardboard and wire before words, conflicts in cartoons across chalkboards before spinning them out across pages. Design a maker unit, in which students create elements of their fiction before they write, and see what magic unfolds.

One Act Play Festival (early spring)
As the weather begins to warm, get students going on writing one act plays in groups. If you want to pair the project with a mentor text, choose a play to read first and then have students brainstorm a list of themes from that play that they can incorporate into their own. Give them time to write and rehearse together. Then decide as a class when and where to hold your own one act play festival and invite guests. Consider letting students vote for several award-winning plays and hold your own awards ceremony when the performances conclude.

Creative Nonfiction (end of the year)
As the year comes to a close, invite students to experiment with the genre of creative nonfiction. Somewhere between hard news and fiction, creative nonfiction is something many careers will need these days. Being able to describe people, places, ideas, and movements with striking words and beautiful lines will benefit your students enormously. Though you could explore all kinds of creative nonfiction, travel pieces stand out as a fun way to try this genre. Students could write about places they have been, about their very own hometowns, or even enjoy a little research (including video viewing) into a place they've always wanted to go and then write about it.



Of course there are dozens more wonderful possibilities for creative writing units. You could write screenplays, memoirs, class poetry books, graphic novels, children's books, nursery rhymes, fairy tales. You could explore writing scifi, fantasy, mystery, YA, and more. The world is your oyster when it comes to a creative writing course, but these are just five fun possibilities to get you started.

Want to share your favorite creative writing units and get inspired by those of other fabulous teachers? Hop on over into my free Facebook group, Creative High School English, where there are at least two threads on this topic right now!






Creative Secondary Classroom Decor


Secondary classroom décor can be a touchy subject. It’s easy to consider it the domain of primary educators, or feel afraid of being judged by students or other teachers for trying to be cute or not treating students as near-adults. 

In this podcast episode I’ll be sharing ideas for decorating your classroom in fun creative ways that honor the age of your students and your own life and personality as well. I still love to work in a beautiful space and I’m far older than your students, so I’m willing to bet they’ll be happy if you try out a few of these ideas.


The Door

Decor all starts with the door. Should we decorate it or not? Personally, I'm all for it. Here are a few simple, age-appropriate ideas.

      #1 Student photo collage – take class photos on the first day of school. Let students choose a location on campus and pose however they want (within reason). I've had entire classes climb trees, lay on the football field, sit in the bleachers, even try to make a human pyramid. Print your class photos and put them on the door. Then add more as you snap shots throughout the year when students are displaying projects, putting on performances, participating in festivals, etc.

     #2 The Coloring Book Door - I already wrote a whole post on this, so if you're interested, check out how I did mine! This is an easy and fun door with tons of potential.

      #3 The  Instagram Door - Instagram doors abound on Pinterest. But rather than doing it yourself, I suggest you have each student bring in one square photo with a caption that shows them doing something they love or visiting a place they care about. That way your Instagram door represents your whole community and not just you.

       #4: The List -  Cover your door in white paper and have students write up every book they read all year. Add yours too. Every day as students come in they will see new titles and ideas for their independent reading. Invite students to write a quick sentence about the book or draw a picture, or put stars around it if they'd highly recommend it. 

Book Displays
Another great way to decorate your room is with book displays.  They are colorful, interactive, and don’t risk being age inappropriate. You can decorate a significant part of your classroom with books on display and recommended reading posters.


I love using the Big Huge Labs "Motivational Poster" tool to make book recommendation posters. You just snap a photo of someone with their favorite book and then upload it to the poster and add your recommendation caption. These make great classroom decor, especially around your book displays. 

About Me
You know how every website has an "about me" section? Kind of like mine, right here. Why not
add one to your classroom? I had a colleague when I taught abroad in Bulgaria who created an 
amazing display of travel photos of himself around Europe. I’m sure they started so many 
conversations with his students. Consider adding a section in your classroom that shows you with 
your family, doing things you love, and traveling. Let students get to know you better. 

Postcard Collection 
I use my postcard collection to create all kinds of displays in my classroom, and also as story starters for journal writing. Build a postcard collection from your travels and ask friends and students to contribute. Soon you’ll be sharing images from all over the world with your students. Add literary quotations that relate to the images to draw them in. Travel may be a bit more broadening, but seeing a postcard collection on the wall every day is a good start to opening up your students’ horizons.



The Hall of Fame
I LOVE my student project hall of fame. It gives students the models they need to reach high. Collect best work and display it on a shelf or bulletin board, then draw students' attention there when you introduce a project with an example on display. The hall of fame makes for a colorful and inspiring display on any classroom wall. To download the banner I made for mine, just click here

I hope these ideas help you get inspired to decorate your classroom in some fun new ways this year. I'd love for you to share your classroom photos (and ideas and questions) with our community over in my Creative High School English Facebook group! Just click to join.

Finally, if you like to learn on the go and you haven't subscribed to The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast yet, you can find it on iTunes right here.  



Creative Project Ideas for ELA


For many students, creative projects drive the most learning. The project pulls together their interests and skills with the material, and engagement happens.

Projects make a huge difference in any curriculum.

When I look back on my experience as a student, creative projects are the highlight of every year going all the way back to 4th grade (my leaf collection!). As a teacher, I try to build them into almost every unit.

If you've been wanting to do more creative projects, but you're stuck for ways to get started, this post is for you. I'm going to share five different categories of projects to help you find inspiration. If you need a quick fix of project-based inspiration, I've created a printable checklist of thirty-two project ideas within these five categories. Print it out and put it by your computer and it'll be a LONG time before you run out of ideas! Subscribe below and I'll send it right along.


#1: Projects based on Modern Media 

My school once got rid of sophomore honors English and history.  Students could pursue the honors distinction by completing a portfolio of interdisciplinary projects instead.

Our teaching team needed to invent these projects and roll them out every couple of months. Our first was to have the students do a radio show like This American Life. They chose themes related to our curriculum, each recording an introduction, interviews, stories, and a conclusion. Then they mixed all this with music to produce a podcast. The results were phenomenal.

There are many more ways you could use podcasts.

Students in groups could create a podcast in which they interview guests who are characters from a novel.

You could have students go out and interview people in the real world about topics they care about.

You could come up with an interdisciplinary task, like creating a podcast about the school robotics team or maker space, featuring information, background and interviews that allow students to dive into STEM topics through humanities skills.

Another great way to use modern media as the basis of a project is through video creation. You could start a class Youtube channel covering modern news from the student perspective, then let students create videos every couple of months on a major recent happening. The videos should include commentary, interviews, and related storytelling.

Ask students to create two minute versions of the novel you are reading, either through cartoon animation or short acted scenes.

Participate in a collaborative project with students in another country, producing a video as a class that explores your city and its people and sharing it with your partners, then responding to theirs.

Perhaps your students would enjoy drawing up storyboards for the Netflix version of your latest novel. Or writing a television series proposal they might present to PBS. You get the idea. Once you're rolling, there are hundreds of ways students could explore material with real depth through the medium of modern media.


#2 Festival Projects

Who doesn't love it when their hard work is truly celebrated? There are many ways to create a festival-based final project.

Have students present creative free choice reading projects at a reading festival. Invite younger students who could use inspiration in their reading choices. Play music. Have food. It doesn't take much preparation to pull off an engaging festival for your students. Let them help; they'll buy in more and it'll be less work for you.

Or make the creation of the festival itself the project. Maybe you'd like to do a transcendentalism festival for a local elementary school. Have students in groups plan activities, make food, create posters, postcards, and booklets to share with the younger kids. Put a pair of students in charge of leading a nature hike and another pair in charge of contacting local news media with a press kit and follow-up materials from the festival itself. Revel in the joy success will bring your students.

Performances lend themselves well to festivals too. Perhaps your students are going to write and act mini one-act plays. Any way you could gather everyone together from all your sections on a Thursday night, inviting parents and administrators to join you? Maybe everyone in your class is going to memorize a poem, could they perform them in the school garden after watching slam poetry clips chosen by the class while your ambiance committee serves smoothies? (I love putting students in committees. They seem to love it too.)

When students have created something outstanding, a festival can simply be a way for them to showcase their work.

Say, for example, you've had your students create innovative apps designed to solve the problems of literary characters (one of my own favorite projects). Let them present the apps at a class innovation fair, similar to a science fair but with a bookish flavor. Either have students take it in turns to wander or answer questions in front of their displays, or give everyone two minutes with the smart board behind them to present their apps as videos, Prezis, Powerpoints, or powerful speeches.

Thinking about ways to give students an authentic audience and a memorable day amps up engagement so much. I find that festivals get everyone excited, every time.


#3 Interdisciplinary Projects

The world is getting more interdisciplinary all the time. If a student wants to be known for great cooking, it's a good idea for him to be able to take good photos, make videos, write blog posts and run social media if he hopes to write a cookbook someday. Entrepreneurs must be good not only at whatever they hope to build a business around but also at all things media and marketing. Athletes must manage their personal brands and communicate with the news. Historians better be ready to broadcast live for their museum's Facebook page.

Providing students with ways to mix and match what they are passionate about from multiple disciplines sets them up to be happier later on.

Let's imagine a project or two you could do with colleagues in several departments at your school.

Art: Ask an art teacher if he or she would consider hosting a gallery show in your school's display area with work from your students. Then bring the art teacher in as a guest speaker as you introduce a project to represent the nature of one character from a novel through an artistic medium. Imagine a gallery featuring short videos, paintings, drawings, photo essays, murals, and sculptures expressing the nature of Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter or Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Have students write up reflective analysis papers demonstrating how their work represents their careful character analysis, and display these to accompany the art.

History: Talk to a history teacher about some of the important themes of the history curriculum in the year you teach. Choose one major theme and share it with students. Have students begin hunting for news articles, headlines, and images from modern media that connect current events and trends with this powerful theme from their history study. Get permission to create a giant collage somewhere in your school space. Have every student write a paper connecting ten things they find on the wall to the theme, and choose the best to publish and display by the collage for the whole school to read.

Math: Ask students to interview math faculty about exciting math-based careers. Then have them create a newspaper called "Why Math is Cool" to publish and share with younger kids who find math a struggle. Send them out in pairs to research the topics and create elements of the newspaper - comic strips, columns, infographics, articles, advice columns, etc.

When you do an interdisciplinary project, you not only engage your students but you understand them better as students. More interdisciplinary connections may naturally arise, and your newly strengthened relationship with your colleague in another department can only help.


#4 Inhabit a School Space

Again, this project provides that all-important piece, the authentic audience. When students know they will be creating a project that many people will see, it makes a big difference to their motivation.

Perhaps your students could exhibit final projects in the school office. Perhaps the culmination of a free choice reading unit could be the creation of a huge book display with recommendation blurbs in the library.

Maybe poetry slam winners could perform as part of a school assembly or at a parent night. Or a photography class could shoot photos of your class performance of Death of a Salesman to display in the entryway of the school.

Is there a dark ugly wall somewhere in your building waiting to be filled with a collage of great literary quotations? Or a mural featuring three important themes from great American novels?

Inhabiting a school space connects your classroom to the community and the community to your classroom.


#5 Take part in a Contest or Challenge

If authentic audience is king, competition is queen. Both have great power for motivation, like it or not. Engaging students in the writing process by taking part in a challenge or participating in a competition is an easy win.

Why not try NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month) with your students this year? Can you imagine the feeling of accomplishment that would come with writing a novel as a teenager?

Or build a unit around submitting to a national essay contest (here's a list of great ones) or one in your community.

You could even start a youth writing contest in your city and make your students the judges. What a lesson in good writing it would be to create a rubric and discuss the finalists to determine what pieces are the best! Similarly, you could start a website to publish student writing and make your students the editors and the public relations managers.
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I hope you've found some inspiration for your next project. To borrow a line from Pringles chips, "once you start, you can't stop!"  I'd love to hear your plans in our fabulous Facebook group, Creative High School English. See you there!





Secondary Door Decor


There's nothing like raising a pair of young children to give you perspective on the primary world.

There's a lot that primary teachers do SO WELL, and I think we could adapt some of their beautiful design and decor for our secondary classrooms. My crash courses in Montessori and Reggio Emilia, play-based learning and interactive learning spaces, have all led me to believe that there is a great deal to be said for a beautiful environment, documentation of process, artistic and interactive elements sprinkled liberally throughout anything and everything.

I look at my little ones and I ask myself, will a point come in their future when I WON'T want them to be surrounded by natural light, art, books, beauty? Will they just suddenly cease to need creative spaces?

I don't think so.

I still remember asking a teacher I shared a room with in my first year if it was OK if I decorated the walls. "Sure," he said. "I'm not really into that." He was a great teacher, a great role model for the kids. I added a few flourishes, a plant, some costumes and books. I took the old outdated textbooks off the bookshelves and hid them away somewhere.

If you're like me, you're always searching for great posters, book display ideas, bulletin board inspiration. You sometimes invent activities and projects on purpose to make great wall displays.

If you're more like my friend and colleague, you tend to focus on the content of your course, and the environment is an afterthought.

Regardless of which camp you fall in, this just might be the year for you to create a fun, interactive door with which to welcome your students. Hop on board the adult coloring book craze and make a coloring book door.


All it takes is a coloring book (which you probably already have) and forty-five minutes.

I made mine this month and it couldn't be easier. Someone even already started coloring on it though the year hasn't begun.

Here are the simple steps you can follow to make one of your own.

1. Color one or two pages in the book to set the example.
2. Open the book and press down the pages several times to flatten it as much as possible.
3. Placing your hand firmly on the left page of an open fold, tear out the right page. Continue to tear out right pages until you tear them all out.
4. Trim any egregiously ripped edges. You don't have to cut straight lines on all of them.
5. Add tape rolls to the back of a page and start in the upper corner. Tape the pages onto the door in rows, moving from left to right.
6. If your pages don't fill the whole door, stack a few sheets of colored paper and cut across one side to make a border. Tape on the border along the edge where some door is still showing.
7. Either hang a basket of colored pencils, put some on a small shelf or table nearby, or get some ready for students to use during whatever moments you choose.

See what you have by the end of the year! I can't wait to see what mine looks like in May.

Ready, Set, Engage


If you tuned in to the live show on my Facebook page Spark Creativity and would like some notes on tonight's episode, or you missed it and you'd like to see the basic transcript, here it is. Of course, you can still watch the replay right here

Welcome everyone, to tonight’s episode in our collaborative series ELA Live. I hope you’ve been enjoying the strategies and tips we’ve been sharing in the series since August 1, and that you’ll continue to tune in to the end of the series August 15. I’m Betsy Potash from Spark Creativity, and I’ve been coordinating this series for you. I’m really excited you’re here, so let’s get into it!

Tonight’s show is all about ENGAGING students. I’m going to share with you the most powerful way I’ve found to make my students look forward to class, to feel they have authentic audience for their work, to help them become interested in material that doesn’t necessarily have immediate appeal for them.

Opening Question: What's one project you remember from high school?

For me, it was the obscenity trial of Gustave Flaubert. I didn't like Madame Bovary at all, but my A.P. Literature teacher had us recreate Flaubert's trial and I was the defense lawyer. Though I didn’t like Madame Bovary at all, but when this project was introduced I became obsessed with my preparations as the defense lawyer. I dove deep into the material and ended up producing a five page single spaced opening argument that left the prosecuting lawyer's jaw on the floor. It is still one of my happiest memories of high school, and I have fond memories of Flaubert now instead of negative ones. 

We’re about to dive deep now, and I can't wait to tell you about this powerful teaching strategy. It’s really the core of both my happiness and success as a teacher, and I’m excited to tell you about it.

First we’re going to rewind briefly to my first day as a teacher. Let me just say that I love teaching and I feel very comfortable in the role now, but my first day was a DISASTER.

I had prepped in all the ways people had suggested. I walked in clutching my syllabi, first day outfit immaculate, brand new messenger bag swinging on my shoulder, heart pumping 8,000 beats per minute. And I tanked. It was the first time I realized I could be saying one thing and thinking another. As I went over my course expectations and the materials my students would need, I saw their eyes glaze over and my internal monologue went to utter panic mode. “They hate this! They hate me! My career is over!”

Yes I did cry on my office floor after my students went home. Yes, for a long time.

Then I realized I was never going to do anything like that again. I didn’t feel comfortable in the front of the room, and I didn’t like trying to captivate students in a lecture style. It made me feel tense and isolated from them, and more than a little ill.

Game changer! I spent the rest of the year building a showcase project curriculum. For every unit of material we covered, we worked on some larger exciting project to draw the students into the material. I never lectured, but I stayed up late virtually every night concocting big plans for the next day. We did play performances, poetry slams, literature circles with multigenre final presentation, guest theater workshops, and much more.

At its core, a showcase project is something that students can get excited about, something that ties together the material with some type of creative engagement that they buy into.



Think of my experience reading Madame Bovary in high school. To tell the truth, I thought it was dullsville. But I LOVED going to English class to learn more about it once I was involved in the trial of Gustave Flaubert.

A showcase project could take so many forms. Maybe students start a youtube channel to share videos scenes they film of The Great Gatsby to help students around the world understand the novel better. Suddenly their own reading lights up. Maybe they prepare a play version of Huck Finn to perform at the local elementary school. Suddenly understanding the important moments of the text really matters to them, as they prepare to walk on stage in front of a truly authentic audience.

Let me tell you about a couple of showcase projects I’ve used over the years to help you visualize it. 

One that I began as a first-year teacher that I have done every year since is the poetry slam. I still remember sitting up the night before I began my poetry unit. I was using the text I had been given by my school, 8 Great American Poets. And the poets were great. But I was not convinced my students would think so. I wanted a way to bring them into the topic that would captivate them right away. Which is when I stumbled into poetry slam. I found some audio clips, ordered a documentary called Slamnation and quickly put together a syllabus that would allow us to prepare for our very own poetry slam in just a one week unit. A bit ambitious, but it worked! As I taught students the concept of performance poetry and we pretended to be slam judges, scoring the clips we watched in class, they were looking at poetry in a new way. A good way. Suddenly the literary devices I introduced really mattered, because they wanted to use them in their own slam poems. Suddenly Wallace Stevens’ “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” was fascinating, as we did a writing workshop in which they wrote their own 13 ways poem, and many of them chose their own version as their performance piece.

The project creates the buy-in. It brings the students to the table with the material with their eyes wide open and their minds engaged.

I want you to have this experience and see how great it is. I’ve linked to a page where you can register to receive curriculum for five projects I’ve created that can be used with any novel. This is one of my favorite products in my TPT store, but I’m going to give it away to everyone watching tonight who wants it, because I really want you to test out my favorite teaching strategy and I’m sure that you will love one of these projects enough to put it into use right away. Feel free to share this link with other teachers, or to give away one copy of the packet itself once you get it. Usually you can't share TPT products because of copyright issues, but I'm going to waive the rule this time. I really want more teachers to try this strategy. 

OK, moving on to another example. Have you ever taught a text that your administration chose for you, and you knew would not be engaging for your students? 

For me, the worst was The Canterbury Tales. I was teaching sophomore English, and the majority of my students were English language learners. I was coaxing them along, trying to help them fall in love with literature. And then came Chaucer. Now, don’t get mad at me. I know Chaucer is a genius. He just wasn’t the right genius for them just at that moment. Every day they came into class with blank stares and dozens of questions about meaning and content, not themes and style. Despite my efforts to help them engage with fun daily activities like creating a Facebook profile for the Wife of Bath, they hated The Canterbury Tales!  

Then I thought of a project to draw them in. We would have our own tale-telling pilgrimage. They would write stories and hone them as we read Chaucer. Then we would traverse the campus, stopping here and there to hear tales performed and ending with a feast and an awards ceremony for the best tales, as chosen by the class. Immediately the atmosphere in class improved. Students were now actively engaged with the concept of our storytelling festival, and suddenly the difficulties faced by each tale-teller in Chaucer’s narrative were hitting home. How to impress the listener (or reader!). Should they use humor? Retell a classic story? Get personal? What kind of language would entrance? Through their personal connections to our project, their literary connection to Chaucer grew.

We had a blast with our storytelling pilgrimage, and in the end I think every students walked away from a unit that started disastrously with a fond memory of good old Chaucer. It wasn’t about replacing the text with something more fun, it was about creating a legitimate fresh engagement with the text through the project.

That's really the crux of showcase projects, and I can't wait for you to start reaping the rewards. 

Hit me with your questions in the comments on the FB live video! I hope to answer every single one. 



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