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What to do when a Student says "I hate reading!"

You know the old English teacher saying, "You don't hate reading, you just haven't found the right book yet!"?

Well, it's true.

But for kids who hate reading, it doesn't solve the problem. They have no reason to WANT to find the right book. Because as they have just mentioned, they hate reading. They're not exactly combing the shelves for good options, building "maybe" lists on Goodreads, and checking in with their parents for the latest and greatest from Audible.

I know you know this. I know I'm preaching to the choir.

It's hard to reach these students sometimes, because they have tried to close their doors to reading. But that's just because they haven't gotten the help they need to find the right book yet.

Now, however, they have you. A teacher who cares so much about them that they're using their free time to peruse the blogosphere for ideas to hook them on reading. To show them the world of books they are sadly missing. And you, my friend, have come to the right place.

Here is a barrage of options to help you reach these hard-to-reach readers. You can put most of these into place in your classroom in such a way that they will start to help allll your haters (book-haters, that is). And you can also tailor some of them to conversations and interactions with specific students who are really struggling. You'll know what the best combination is for your students, right now.

By the way, have you joined my free five-day challenge, 5 Days to Build a Better Reading Program? Each day focuses on a different area to help you build a reading program that will change your students' lives. In one week, you could have the ideas and tools you need to create a reading revolution in your classroom!

OK, now let's start with the list. The critical list of books that have been THE MOST POPULAR with your students over the years. The books that won't stay on the shelves, and get passed from hand to hand under the desk while you're trying to roll out your new unit on The Crucible.

This list is a very big deal. These books are going to be "gateway" books to help your students realize what a wonderful thing reading can be. You can use this list in a few ways: to recommend sure-thing hits to a specific reader, to build displays in your classroom that will help your readers connect to books, and to publish and put up on the wall in big, bold, colorful print so that no one could possibly miss it.

Here's what would go on my shortlist right now. No need to judge whether these books are "hard" enough or "challenging" enough to recommend to kids as old as your students. That's not the point. The point is to get them through the gate.

The Outsiders
Harry Potter
The Hate U Give
Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief
Go Ask Alice
Ender's Game
Ready Player One
The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Building this list is going to make it really easy to create a great display across the top of your classroom library. If you don't have a classroom library, try to empty out a shelf where you can put a few great books from the school library. Probably books from your shortlist, that you can slip straight into the hands of your reading-haters.

Whatever you call your display, "Starbooks," "Books you can't put down," "Books you'll love," etc. ,just start with the MOST popular books you can. As you begin to see development in your readers, then you can start to branch out into other fun displays. But never forget your shortlist, because it's going to take time to reach all your readers.

It's also important to give students time to read. Teachers around the world are experimenting with ten minutes of reading a day, reading Fridays, reading in homeroom, reading when students are done with quizzes and tests, etc. Try to find a dedicated period when students can read in your classroom, because you really need to SEE a student reading to know if they are connecting to their book.

Say you just gave a book-hater Ready Player One and are peeking over eagerly from your own book to see if he's falling in love with it. Instead of seeing him glued to the page and racing through chapter one, you see him glaze over. He needs you! Race (nonchalantly) over and ask him if he's liking it. If it turns out he hates futuristic fantasy, slide The Outsiders across the table and go through the process again.

Keeping an eye on your readers while they're reading is huge. You need to see who's connecting and who's not. And you need to help those who aren't find a new book as quickly as possible. Especially if they have a history of hating reading.

Another great option for hooking students who think they hate reading is to experiment with audiobooks. Play some audio hooks for the class, putting on a chapter or half a chapter every couple of weeks to see if they'll hear something they love.

Be prepared for a line of students wanting to read the book if you've just played an amazing audio hook, so try to have a few copies of the book ready to check out. You can also see what's available in your area in terms of letting students listen to full audiobooks if that works well for them. We're not judgy here in converting-reader land. If a student can fall in love with books through the audio route, GREAT!

This can be especially helpful for students who work, need to help take care of siblings, or are very committed to sports. Audiobooks allow for multi-tasking. Many local libraries offer audiobooks with a card, or your school system may have audio subscriptions as well. It's worth asking. Connect readers to print books through audio hooks, or connect them to audiobooks. Both are great tools for your quest to get everyone reading.

Now, though I've said it before, I'll say it again, book talks really help connect students to great books. You can let students have thirty seconds to pitch their favorite books to the class after they finish reading them, invite guests from around the school or community to come in to chat about their favorite books for a couple of minutes, and do book talks yourself.

Hearing a little about a book from someone who really loves it makes a huge difference to students' desire to read it, especially if the person talking is someone they like and respect. Is your reluctant reader obsessed with hockey? Invite her hockey coach to come in and book talk her favorite book. Is your reluctant reader serious about science? Invite the science department chair.

You can also use Recommended Read posters to help accomplish the goals of book talks in a quick display format. Snap pictures of students and teachers with their favorite books, get them to write a line or two about the book and why they like it, and turn the results into printable posters using the free online poster-making tool at Canva. 

If you're looking to kick it up a notch, you could also try the "book tasting" and "speed dating a book" activities I've been seeing floating around Facebook and Pinterest. While I haven't done these myself, they look like a ton of fun and not too complicated.

For a book tasting, choose the books you want your students to check out. Group the seating in your room to look like a cafe or coffee shop. If possible, decorate with a few tablecloths and fun little centerpieces. Maybe add a few snacks. Then put books out at each station and give your students a menu reflecting the different choices they will see, as well as a question or two about each, like "What does this book seem to be about? Does it look like a book you would like?" Have everyone find a seat and look at a book, checking out the back, the front, the first page or two, and filling out their menu for that book. Play a little music in the background. Then call for them to switch to the next "tasting" station. Keep switching around until everyone has had a chance to sample lots of different books.

Speed dating a book is very similar. Pull your seating into a long line going across the room. At each seat, place a book. A few flowers in vases here and there would be a lovely and hilarious touch. 

Give everyone a piece of paper with sections like
  • Title of book 
  • Would you "go out with" this book? 
  • Why or why not? 
Then have every student sit down with a book and check it out, filling out their papers as they go.  By the end, they should have a bunch of ideas for books they might like to read.

I have one final idea for you, inspired by the wonderful work of the library at my school. Our library team is often to be seen rolling a cart or bringing a stack of books to all different locations around the school. 

When our students finish all their work at study hall, there's a bunch of books available to give them something to do besides watch Youtube (which is not allowed). When students walk into the cafeteria, they pass a little cart of books suggesting that they "Check out a good read!" When students leave for breaks, there are extra book locations near the doors to inspire them to take a book home for vacation.

Is there a way you could adapt this idea at your school? Could you work with your librarian to place some books in key areas of the school? Ask your friends in other departments to keep a few books on a shelf for students who finish their work early? This is just a fun, small step you and your department could take to help encourage a reading culture at your school.

Alright, I hope you've found a bunch of ideas for how to help the next kid who flatly announces "I hate reading" in the middle of your English class. You CAN change the course of their life.

Give Students Voice with Real-World Argument Writing

It can be hard for students to understand the point of writing papers. Almost as hard as it is for you to hold their hands through the process time after time when they haven't bought in.

"ANOTHER paper?" they cry when you roll out the new assignment, "WHYYYYYYYY?????!!!" 

You'd think by their moans and groans you'd just told your three-year-old she can't have the double-decker banana split.  

Practicing argument writing can get old fast for students. But repetition helps so much in getting them to understand how to write literary analysis, which you know is a skill they really need.
So what are you supposed to do?
You want your students to know how to make points, give evidence, and analyze that evidence, but without the agony. 

Why not try showing them the power of argument in the real world? Letting them write for an authentic audience, like their school administrators, local politicians, or city newspaper editor? 

You can teach the same skills with argument that's real-world relevant, help students see that those skills do matter, and then try literary analysis again with a new perspective. 

Let me walk you through an easy process for showing students that in the end, writing argument is really about giving them voice. 

#1: Start with a variety of real-world prompts

Get students writing about real topics, to real people. They can write to you, to school administrators, to the local political officials and newspaper editors.

You know your students well. What matters to them? What frustrates them? Would they like to write to your school principal suggesting new types of electives or a new program at the school? Would they like to share their personal stories and make a stand about a political issue in letters to your local newspaper? You can find a list of ten ideas in a recent prompt list I created for We Are Teachers.

Consider letting them experiment with this type of writing a number of times. Maybe you designate Friday as a day when you write real-world argument. Or you experiment with a number of prompts as bell-ringer activities.

The key to keeping this activity not only inspiring, but also helpful in developing the argument skills you want them to have, is to keep driving home the ways they can make their argument convincing. They need to provide evidence and explain why it supports their argument. Over and over. And over.

If they're writing to the school board about developing the college guidance program, they can talk about their friend "Bob"'s experience trying to get into college without the help of a counselor. Or about their own busy schedule and how they don't have time to figure out how to apply for scholarships. Or they can cite statistics comparing the college acceptance rates in their high school to another which has a better program. It will be easy for them to see that all this makes their argument far more compelling than writing "we need a better college guidance program."

When argument is real-world relevant, the need for the strategies becomes far more self-explanatory. Students know they need to have reasons why they want a new arts program if they want to get it funded. They don't always easily understand why they need quotations from the text to prove a thesis statement they didn't even want to write.

So start by practicing the skills through lots of different prompts the students will buy into. 

#2 Choose + Improve

Have students look back through their responses to the different prompts. Then let them choose the piece of writing they liked best. Let them spend some time trading with partners and receiving feedback on their work. The goal here, as you can remind them, is to make their argument as strong as possible before actually sending it to their intended audience. 

Looking for a little help with structuring peer feedback? These four options can guide your peer editors toward success. Sign up below and they'll be humming through the internet to your inbox in no time. 

#3 Final Feedback

The final step is to have students turn in their work to you and get a last round of feedback (and some points) before sending it out to their intended audience. Whether they are sending it to their parents, their principal, their mayor, or even the editor of The New York Times, this is the final polish to make it as impactful as possible. Help them stay focused on that, so they don't start to feel that this is really just for a grade. 

#4 Send it

Now's the moment! You can make this optional or mandatory. Have students read through your feedback, make their final tweaks, and send that argument into the world! Ask them to report back to you with any replies they get. You might just find out from them that they have brought real change to the world. How powerful would that be?

I hope you'll agree that giving students voice through real-world argument writing is a GREAT idea. The more they realize their writing can make a difference in their lives, the more they'll come to appreciate YOUR class. After all, the ability to argue well, in paper or in conversation, is a convenient route to practically everything. It will help them get what they want and need throughout their lives, whether that's investors in their companies, voters in a political race, or just a refund on a product that didn't work. Argument matters, and the sooner they realize it, the better. 

I've laid out all the prompts I wrote for We Are Teachers in a complete curriculum set over on TPT if you're looking to save time. Check out The Argument Writing that's Real-World Relevant Activity Set

Students CAN focus in December: 7 ELA Activities for the Holidays

With the holidays approaching, students tend to get a little obsessed. I mean, who isn't looking for a little brightness and cheer after the gray and brown month of November? I, for one, am already making a tremendous effort at this point not to say "I hate winter" every time I step outside. (You'd think I'd be tougher from my northern Minnesota childhood... but you'd be wrong).

It's a challenge to keep everyone focused on their work in December, but harnessing the holidays to accomplish some of your curriculum goals can really help. Luckily for English teachers, the skills of speaking, writing, analyzing, and creating can be applied to plenty of holiday themes with no trouble.

Here are seven ways you can incorporate a sprinkle of holiday fun into your ELA curriculum.

#1 Gingerbread House Maker Project

Hop aboard the maker train and let your students make a gingerbread house to use as the setting for a piece of writing. You can let them draw the gingerbread house, make it with a partner out of graham crackers, frosting and candy, or even build an amazing cookie one with the whole class helping out.

Once they've got a house ready, challenge them to set a short story, film scene, or chapter of a novel inside it. Get the full details for this fun project as well as a prompt you can project in this post I wrote for you over at teachwriting.org. 

#2 It's a Wonderful Life One-Pager

If you've got a spare couple of days at the end of your unit and you'd like to give kids a chance to see a holiday classic, but you don't want them to zone out and turn off their brains, try showing It's a Wonderful Life while having students create a guided one-pager for the film. Let them know what elements to include in their one-pagers (key quotations, themes, character development, their personal rating and a defense for it, etc.) or pick up my activity for this film over on TPT. 

#3 Holiday Traditions Collaborative Project

Partner with a teacher overseas for a holiday collaboration using this thread in my Facebook group, Creative High School English.

Let your students share stories about the holiday traditions that are important to them with kids in another country. Encourage the use of sensory details, descriptive language, and lots of specifics. Your kids will hardly notice they're practicing their writing as they describe their holiday traditions for their new friends and look forward to getting responses back.

Consider making your exchange digital, using Google Slides for each student to create a collage of stories and photos to share, or having everyone email you their work to send to your partner teacher for distribution. Postcards are fun too, but remember it may be well after the holidays by the time they arrive if they're going really far.

#4 Feature Holiday Books in your Independent Reading Library

If you've got an independent reading library, this is a great time to trot out your favorite holiday classics. There aren't as many famous holiday-themed books in reality as there are in my dreams, but I've found a few fun ones over the years, including Skipping Christmas, by John Grisham, and Knit the Season, by Kate Jacobs. Of course, A Christmas Carol is always a solid option too. You could also make your display about great books to read by the fire, holiday break reads that don't disappoint, etc. (By the way, if you've got a holiday favorite, please tell me in the comments! I'm always wishing for more holiday books to read and share).

#5 Read and Write Holiday Children's Books

There are a lot of winners out there in the holiday children's books category. Take a look at a few in class, like The Grinch Stole Christmas, The Polar Express, Apple Tree Christmas, The Wild Christmas Reindeer, or Dream Snow. Then, let your students think about some aspect of the holidays they'd like to focus on and a message or idea worth sharing with younger kids. Let them brainstorm story ideas and sketch out a storyboard for their books.

Depending on how much time you have, you could actually write full children's stories, illustrating them digitally or on paper. Just to give you a sense, these photos are from a children's book project I did focusing on environmental themes with my students once, which we illustrated digitally and self-published in the end with funding from our school.

#6 New Year's Vision Boards and the Power of "Yet" 

A few days ago I was trying to build an incredibly complicated paper airplane for my six-year-old son. It was rough going as I folded and refolded the same bit over and over. Anxiously peering over my shoulder, my son kept peppering me with questions and advice.

"Can you just be quiet for a second, honey?" I finally asked. "I'm not very good at this."

"Mom, this time it was YOU who forgot to say 'yet,'" he replied. I had to smile.

I've been trying to convince him not to give up when something doesn't come naturally to him. So without actually bringing up growth mindset, I'm trying to teach him about it. The best way I've figured out is to add the word "yet" every time he expresses his frustration at not knowing something or not being able to do something.

You can talk about this simple trick with your big kids too.

Spend some time at the end of the year with your students imagining the year to come. Talk about what they haven't done/made/considered/tried/seen YET and create a collage of words, ideas, and goals for the year to come. Put your vision boards up somewhere in the room on the last day of school before break, so you can be reminded as a community when the new year begins of what you hope to accomplish, individually and together.

#7 Choice Blogging Passion Project

While this isn't automatically tied to the holidays, you COULD make implementing a two-week genius hour project your gift to your students. Let them dive into whatever interests them through a blog. They will be working on their research, writing, communication, and media skills whether they're blogging about fashion, video games, books, cooking, or whatever else holds their interest. Read all about how to do it in this blog post, A Beginner's Guide to Student Blogging. 

Are you feeling a little more excited about work in December now? I hope so!

And if you're wishing you had a little more time to balance your holiday fun at home and your holiday projects at school, don't forget to visit my huge free curriculum resources page. You just might find exactly what you've been needing and free yourself up for an afternoon of ice skating or an evening at a holiday cookie exchange.

Enjoy your Teacher Observation, 20+ Engaging Lesson Ideas

So your administrator is coming to visit. In an ideal world, this is your chance to ENJOY showing the amazing things you are doing and get some positive feedback and fresh new ideas.

Unfortunately, these observations can easily become major stressors instead. When you feel judged by your administrator instead of supported, then the observation period becomes almost as dread-worthy as a stack of one hundred essays that have to be graded by tomorrow.

It helps to have a solid battle plan. An activity that you know is going to be extra exciting for your students so they can shine and you can relax. Because your teacher observation should be something you can look forward to. After all, you are doing amazing creative work in this world, and you deserve a chance to be applauded for that.

In this post, I'm rounding up a bunch of ideas for you to tap into next time you have an observation. Of course, you can also use them any time you want, whether or not anyone's coming to visit.

Activities to Use with Novels

Post-It Discussion
Have students write questions on your whiteboard, or on cardstock that you tape up around your room. Hand out post-its to everyone and ask them to visit each paper and add comments and further questions using their post-its. If their comment stems from someone else's, they should attach their post-it just below or next to the one they are working from. As students visit each question, encourage them to read all the responses before adding their own. Once you feel the post-it discussion is petering out, extend it by either using some of the same questions in a spoken discussion (for which the students will now be very prepared and probably ready to reach new heights of insight) or by doing some related writing.

Collaborative One-Pagers

If you've read most or all of a novel, you could do a collaborative one-pager activity. Invite students to sit together in small groups and discuss the different components as they work, but encourage everyone to make their own unique version of the one-pager. In case you've never heard of a one-pager, it's a creative strategy that asks students to share their biggest takeaways from something (a novel, film, podcast, poetry series, etc.) on a single piece of paper. It helps a lot to give them a guiding template, so they don't get overwhelmed by the blank page. You can sign up below for my popular free set of four one-pager templates with complete instructions.

Silent Discussion

If you'd like to do a discussion, but your students are not apt to dive right in and shine without a lot of coaxing, consider starting with a silent discussion as a warm-up. You can read about this effective strategy for quiet classes right here. 

Discussion Panel with Audience Tweeters
This one would require a bit of prep before the observation, but BOY would it be exciting during the observation! For this activity, you choose several students to act as an expert panel on a certain topic related to your novel, then set up the rest of the class in a backchannel chat to "tweet" their opinions about the discussion as it's happening. I learned about this activity from my friend Jenna Copper of Doc Cop Teaching last year on the podcast. Listen in or read the show notes here if you'd like to try it out.

Escape Room
Escape rooms are all the rage. Whether you create one, use one from a site like Breakout EDU, or ask students to create them, escape rooms make for an incredibly engaging learning experience. Students must solve themed clues and work through relevant activities as they work their way around your room and eventually break into the final box with the final prize. If you've never heard of escape rooms, check out this post and podcast, Escape Rooms: The Ultimate Guide for English Class. 

Reader's Theater
Turning key moments in the text into small theatrical scenes can be really helpful in drawing students' attention to them and unpacking them together. Consider letting your students break into groups to perform mini-scenes from your recent reading, and be ready with some questions to help them dig into what mattered most in what they just watched. Bonus points for bringing in some simple props and costumes for them to use! You're going to love how much big kids enjoy dressing up now and then. If you want to dive deep into how to use this option effectively, check out podcast episode number four, "Theater in the ELA Classroom." 

Role Cards Discussion

If you're at a point where you'd like to do a discussion, but you want to be able to guide it carefully, you could pass out discussion role cards to help keep things on track. These cards give each student a secret mission, asking them to either ask a certain question, or perform a certain role relating to the group dynamics of the class. Learn more about discussion roles here. 

STEM App Activity

Try mixing thing up with a STEM crossover project. Ask students to brainstorm apps they think a literary character turned app designer would create. As they work on the nuts and bolts of their apps, keep them focused on connecting each part of the app to the character  in the novel. What problem would their character need to solve with an app? Or what issue would their character care enough to try to impact? You can find full curriculum for this project in my TPT store if you're in the mood for a pleasant short cut.

Food Truck Festival Prep

Photo by Gina Hess, Project by her Amazing Students! 

Again, if you've come a good ways through a novel, it might be time to launch a fun collaborative project like the Literary Food Truck. Let students get into small groups and get them started on brainstorming how to capture the most important elements of your current novel in the design, menu, and social media of a food truck. Use my free curriculum set to help you on your way (sign up below).

Mock Trial
Mock trials are one of my FAVORITE ways to bring students head over heels into a novel. In high school, my AP Lit teacher had us recreate the trial of Gustave Flaubert for obscenity after his publication of Madame Bovary. I've had my students do trials related to Macbeth and The Crucible, and loved hearing about The Daring English Teacher's mock-trail for The Stranger in podcast episode number fifty-one.  If you can find a way to put one of your characters on trial, then divide up your students into lawyers, witnesses, and jury and get ready for quite a day!

Google Classroom Slides Project
I first learned about the wonders of Google Classroom from Matt Miller when I interviewed him in podcast episode number forty-nine. He suggested creating a Google slide set with as many slides as there are students in your room, then letting each student design a slide. There a million ways to make this work for you. You can have students each design a slide diving into what they think is the most important theme or quotation and exploring it with text, commentary, and images on their slide. Or you can assign them different questions, characters, devices, or themes to explore on their slides. As they work, everyone will be able to see the development of their slides as the class creates a collaborative slideshow to be shared whenever you decide - after 10 minutes, 20 minutes, etc. depending on how much work you've asked them to do.

Sketchnote your own Lecture

Sketchnotes are a powerful way to help students process what they are hearing. Perhaps you'd like to introduce this form during an observation period, teaching students what sketchnotes are, then briefly sharing some information with them as you sketchnote your own lecture on the board, then playing a Ted Talk or short podcast and letting them try out their own sketchnotes. Dive deep into how to use sketchnotes and find a great video to introduce this concept in my post, The Ultimate Guide to Sketchnotes in the ELA Classroom. Snag the free sketchnotes templates featured above by signing up below.


Storyboarding is a fresh way to have your students examine and interpret the details of what they've read. A storyboard is the basic sequence of a T.V. or film. It shows what will happen, but the key thing to focus on with students is that it also shows composition, lighting, angle, and other aspects of the film that put focus on different parts of the story. As they create the storyboards, they need to do so with intention. You can find my storyboard curriculum on TPT right here or create your own activity.

Differentiated Activity Menu
If you'd like to get students working on a variety of activities, a differentiated menu of options provides a great structure. Consider creating a menu with categories of activities across the top, then ask students to choose one to complete from each column. For example, the first column might be short argumentative writing activities related to the reading. The second column might involve more real-world writing. The third column might ask students to find a partner and respond to different types of discussion prompts. Finally the fourth column might have some fun twists, like building a soundtrack for a scene in the reading or choosing what apps would be on a character's phone and explaining why.

Writing Process Activities

Maker Space Work
If your students are just beginning the writing process, consider building in some maker space elements to the brainstorming process. Give them foam boards, tape and index cards and let them move around their ideas to form the structure of their argumentative writing. Or ask them to create characters out of play doh before writing short stories. You can learn all about incorporating maker elements into your writing work in this podcast with Angela Stockman, founder of the #makewriting movement.

Stations are a great way to help students work on targeted areas of their writing while keeping them up, moving and engaged. Choose the aspects of their writing that need the most work, and set up clear instructions at several points around the room for accomplishing that work. For example, one station might have a citation guide and instructions to use the guide to check through their drafts for citation format. Then you might have a certain stamp or sticker they can put at the bottom of their draft when they've completed the station.

Peer Editing Options

Peer editing is another great way to help students improve their writing, but it can be hard to know exactly what guidelines to give peer editors. If you'd like to do some peer editing, but aren't sure where to start, sign up below for the guiding handouts you see above.

Poetry Activities

Poetry Collage

Poetry collage helps students cut through their fear of creating poetry, by letting them work with lines they search for in other people's poetry. It's a great way to ease students into the concept of writing their own poetry. For this activity, they search through an online database of wonderful poems collected for high school students, then combine their favorite lines with related images to produce their own poetry collage. Get all the details for how to do it in this blog post. 

Blackout Poetry

Blackout poetry is another solid option for helping students who are nervous about diving into the creative sphere create poems. Blackout poetry is a fairly simple process, and it produces stunning results. Get the step-by-step instructions and free curriculum set for blackout poetry in this post. 

Spoken Word
One of my favorite ways to engage students with poetry is to study it while we produce our own poetry slam. You'll be amazed at how your students light up when they discover spoken word. I love to begin poetry slam units by having them judge strikingly different poems on video with the usual slam scores of 1-10 and defend their scores. It leads to great conversations about what makes poetry powerful and why one student might give a poem a two while another gives it a ten. If you want to explore poetry slam or spoken word as an option, check out this post or this full curriculum packet. 

Vocabulary Activities

One Pagers

Turns out you can use one-pagers for just about everything, including vocabulary. If you'd like to put a fun twist on your usual vocabulary study, try having students sketchnote the words. You can use a template like this if you want to, or just explain how to bring out the meaning using both words AND images and let them work on a blank page.

Video Journals with Vocabulary

One of my favorite ways to have students practice vocabulary is to show them a funny or intriguing youtube video and then give them a short related writing prompt. Then I ask them to use all their vocabulary words in their writing about the video. So, for example, I might play a video from the hilarious "where the heck is Matt?" youtube series, featuring a young man who travels the world and teaches people everywhere a simple and silly dance step to build community, then edits the footage together into popular videos. Then I might prompt them, "Imagine you were one of the people in one of the places shown in the video when this goofy guy appeared. Write about the experience, using all of your vocabulary words." You can get a more complete guide for this activity in the lesson I created for it over at readwritethink.org. 

Word Wall Rotating Circles

If your school puts a focus on vocabulary word walls, try using this twist. After students create their word wall posters, have them stand up and form two circles, an inner and an outer. Have the two circles face each other, so the outer circle faces in and the inner circle faces out. Everyone should have a partner. Then give them thirty seconds to present their word wall posters to each other before calling for the inner or outer circle to rotate so everyone has a new partner. Rotate until everyone has had a chance to see a bunch of vocabulary words in action. Your students will be working on their speaking and presentation skills as well as their vocabulary retention, and the movement never hurts for helping everyone stay alert and engaged.

Whew! That's a lot of lessons! Hopefully you found something here to help you plan an exciting day for your next teacher observation. You should get to enjoy showcasing your creativity and classroom community, not dread being judged.

Finally, if you're a little sick of having your administration build their impression of you based on their short visits to your classroom, you might want to check out these seven ways to show your administration your strengths, whether or not there's an observation coming up.

The ELA Teacher's Quick Guide to Meaningful Peer Feedback

Peer editing can be sooo helpful, or kind of a waste of time. In an ideal world, kids trade their writing, get great help, become better writers, and turn in a final product that is more meaningful. They learn more, and you can spend your marking time writing about their big ideas instead of explaining how to analyze a quotation for the three thousandth time. 

But without some guidance, peer editing isn't like this. Students read each other's drafts, add a period here or there, and write "good job" or "more quotes." 

That's why in this post, I'm sharing four meaningful structures you can use to help students give each other feedback that really helps. By the way, you can sign up for the pack of four free guides featured in the upcoming photos at the end of the post. 

#1 Lightning Round Feedback

Years ago I bet you sat down with friends at camp and had your counselor ask you to share one good thing and one bad thing about the day. I ask my advisees this all the time at our weekly lunches, and it's also a great tool for peer editors. This is a QUICK way to get feedback. Each student reads another's paper, then lets them know one onion (the thing to work on) and one orchid (the thing that's perfect). Have them trade at least twice, so your students get a few ideas for improvement. 

#2: Scavenger Hunt Feedback

In a scavenger hunt round of peer feedback, you've identified some specific things you want students to be looking for. Maybe the whole class is struggling with citation format, or you've got an epidemic of passive voice. Maybe it's all about paragraph structure or strengthening theses. Whatever it is, in a scavenger hunt peer editing session, you give students the issues to search for and get them started. They need to hunt for the items on your list, and give advice about them right on the paper. If you've got plenty of time, you can also have them write general comments once they've completed the scavenger hunt feedback elements.

#3: The 3 + 3

Like the lightning round, this asks students to identify specific strengths and weaknesses. Except it goes into more depth. As peer editors read, they can mark any grammatical or spelling issues they see, but their real job is to be thinking about the main ideas of the paper, and writing down strengths and weaknesses for the author to consider.

#4: The Checklist

This one is great if your writers and editors need a big helping hand. It carefully walks the editor through the important parts of the paper to consider while giving feedback. Each question has a specific step for the editor to take, and a specific way to respond.

Now, a college professor in my Facebook group shared some really helpful advice last year. He said it's important for students to know that all peer editing is not worksheet driven. That eventually it's about talking to each other about writing. So as your students progress in their abilities, and get the hang of this type of guided response, you can gradually move in the direction of conversation. By the end of the year, if you have upper level students, they might be ready to read and then talk to each other for a timed feedback period, rather than following guides like these. 

I've always remembered something my most intimidating college professor once told me in my freshmen year. I was hot off winning the English award at my high school, and practically fainted when he handed me a paper with a "C" at the top. 

"Your first draft is like a chair," he practically shouted, drawing a chicken scratch chair on his battered old whiteboard and hammering it with his expo marker. "Then you have to rip it apart and build a boat!" 

I like to share this idea with students. As they become better writers, revision becomes a far more freewheeling process. It's not about editing sentences, strengthening one point, and adding a bit of punctuation. Eventually it's about incorporating counterarguments, changing big ideas, addressing research, and coming to new mountaintops of epiphany. 

But having a little guidance along the way never hurt. Sign up below to pick up the peer editing templates pictured in this post, and help your students learn some new strategies that will make them better editors.  

Tired of Crickets? Four Discussion Options for THAT class

Years ago a teacher friend told me his hilarious trick of playing a sound clip of crickets on his computer when no one responded to his questions in class.

I think we've all been there.

But even though the cricket noises are funny a couple of times, what then? What if your students really won't talk?

It's awful! No one needs the palm sweats, the awkward silence, the quick glances to the clock. When students won't respond, your teaching confidence slides downhill like an Olympic skier.

That's why in this post I'm rounding up four options to jumpstart good discussion no matter how challenging the group.

Let's start with the Harkness method, first developed by Phillips Exeter Academy. Harkness has changed EVERYTHING for me in terms of discussion dynamics. With Harkness, the students own their own discussion process, learning how to have a real conversation with each other and how to improve day by day.

I'll never forget the moment one of my students, her school president, cried in conversation with me following class after a totally silent boy opened up and joined our Harkness discussion for the first time. She had always believed that she and one other super smart boy in the class were the only ones with anything to say in discussion. She had no idea what lay behind the silence of her classmates. Gentle conversations with her about making room for others and the power of Harkness helped her see that everyone's voice matters. You can discover more about the method in this podcast or this post.

Harkness discussion charts, in which each line represents a comment 

Discussion warm-ups can also make a huge difference. Check out this podcast to discover how to help students think through what they'll be talking about before someone floats that first question. When students are warmed up, very few crickets come out to play.

Warm-ups can be simple ways to help students think back over the reading, like these playlist and timeline activities. Any short activity that helps students stop thinking about whatever just happened in the hall between classes and start thinking about their reading will pave the way for a better discussion. 

You can get my set of fifteen warm-up activities (including the two you see here) when you sign up for my weekly e-mails full of creative ELA strategies, new activities, and blog and podcast highlights. Pop in your info below and you can be printing off these warm-ups later today.  

Another great option is to use discussion role cards. Handing out these secret mission cards (or taping them under students' desks, my personal favorite) helps give them a specific way to contribute to the discussion, like "try to subtly draw out quiet students" or "ask a question when we need a new topic."

But sometimes even tried-and-true methods like Harkness, warm-ups, and discussion role cards just aren't doing the trick. So what do you do when your students just stare awkwardly at you and each other no matter what?

Try breaking the ice with a silent discussion!

Yep, you heard me right. A silent discussion.

In a silent discussion, kids ask questions, answer them, make points, disagree, give evidence, ask more questions, and generally dive deep into your topic, except... in silence.

It's actually really easy. And students tend to enjoy the unexpected aspect of it.

To hold a silent discussion, follow these simple steps...

1. Let the class know you are going to have a silent discussion. No talking. Zip. Zilch. Zero. Ask everyone to write a question about the novel/poem/play/etc. at the top of a blank piece of paper and take out their text, so they can refer to it in their silent conversation.

2. Have them pass the paper to the right. Ask everyone to respond for a minute. Ask them to pass to the right again, read the question and first response, and either respond to the first response or the question. Feel free to vary the response time and let it go longer when students are busily writing.

3. Continue to have them pass and respond, pass and respond for as long as it feels productive.

4. Eventually, have everyone stop and either tape the paper they are working on up on the wall, or put it facing out on their desk. Then give everyone a few minutes to get up and read the questions and responses.

5. At this point, you can either segue into another activity, or take the silent discussion verbal. Once students (even a really difficult, awkward group!) have already had a chance to respond to all the questions that might come up, and have also read a lot of other responses, it's like having serious training wheels for discussion. Ask someone to throw out a question that got some debate started in the silent discussion, and away you just may go with a great verbal discussion too.

I hope you've found some helpful ideas for the next time the crickets start chirping in your classroom. It happens to us all sooner or later, so it's nice to have some good options in your toolbox.

Are you a Pinterester? Love browsing for creative classroom ideas as well as Thanksgiving desserts and playroom decor? Follow along with my board "Awesome for English Teachers." I love sharing all the fun things I make and discover on this board with you.

The Easy Guide to Blackout Poetry

It's a quest, isn't it? Trying to help students see the point of poetry. Giving them reasons to love it.

I like to give students lots of easy ways to connect to poetry before I start bringing out the poetic canon. It's like teaching kids to enjoy cooking by having them make fudge brownies with you, not braised Swiss chard.

I've written before about the power of using Poetry Slam (or jam) to get students to buy into poetry. But if you're doing a poetry unit and you want a quick hook, a writing assignment to help students start enjoying poetry in just half an hour, it's time to try blackout poetry.

To see blackout poetry in one of its simplest, quickest forms, check out these poems by Austin Kleon, a writer and artist who invented newspaper blackout poetry.

Let's dive into how blackout poetry works in the classroom (you can sign up for a free download of these instructions in handout form for your students in a minute).

Start by finding some pages with words on them. These can come from magazines, newspapers, or very old falling-apart books that you are ready to let go. Let students come up and grab a page.

Then give them these instructions...

1. Skim your page of words. Don't read carefully, as the point is just to grab an idea from the words, not take them in. Find a word, phrase, or general theme that you like.

2. Go through and lightly circle the words or phrases you might want to use. Grab a blank piece of paper and write them down in order, then read through them. Cross out the words you don't want. If you need a few connecting words (like "a", "the", "it", etc.) then dive back in and see if you can find them between the words you want to connect. You often can.

3. Go back through your poem and boldly box the words you are keeping with pen, sharpie, dark pencil, etc. Erase any circles around words you don't want.

4. Read through your final poem. Sketch in a few images or symbols on your page that relate to the theme of your poem. Now it's time to start blackening. Using a sharpie, pen, or pencil, black out everything that is NOT a word in your poem or one of your own sketches.

(This is a nice time to play some music, a podcast, or a Ted Talk, so everyone can relax and enjoy this part of the process with a little entertainment.)

5. Write out your final poem to display next to your blackout poetry. Add punctuation if you wish.

The show begins. 
Water swirled
lighting up drifting glow.
I watched its glimmer
flicker out. 
A trail of sparkles set out at sunset. 

6. Finally, share your poetry!


These make for a great display. Now, as promised, I've got a blackout poetry present for you. Just sign up below for me to send you this assignment, complete with examples for each step just like in this post.

sources consulted and cited: 
DePasquale, John. "Blackout Poetry." https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/blog-posts/john-depasquale/blackout-poetry/. 10/28/18.
Kleon, Austin. "Newspaper Blackout Poems." https://austinkleon.com. 10/28/18.

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