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045: Memes, Interactive Notebooks, and YA with Tracee Orman

As a kid, my favorite book was Anne of Green Gables. I read the entire multi-book series a dozen times (all the way up through Rilla of Ingleside, Anne's last daughter), and watched the movies whenever I was sick. Anne is ever in search of "kindred spirits," people who she feels intuitively connected to. 

In today's podcast, I get to talk to a kindred spirit, and I think you're going to feel the same way.

I just loved getting to sit down with Tracee Orman. I agreed with everything she said, and found myself nodding along enthusiastically and taking notes as she talked. For the first time, I really understood how memes could play more than a humorous role in the classroom. For the first time, I felt like interactive notebooks were worth diving into. And I got to dig into some of my favorite subjects - YA and Creative Project Prompts - and hear a fresh and fabulous perspective. 

You guys, this show is fantastic! That's why I saved it to share with you right as school starts. Because Tracee shares so many wonderful actionable strategies that you can use RIGHT NOW as day one approaches. (And of course, if you're listening later on, anytime!). 

The ELA Assessment Game Plan (25 Options)

So you've finished a novel, and you want your students to practice writing. But you don't really need a five paragraph essay at this point in the year. You want your students to practice their writing, but you want it to be creative and empowering, involving no busywork or hoops to jump through.

Preferably, the assessment you're looking for would also be interesting to grade.

Luckily, there are a MILLION options when it comes to creating an inspiring ELA assessment. Folks, we won the lottery here in ELA. Inspiration is everywhere!

For example, flip the radio on on the way to work and you've got half a dozen assessment ideas.

Students could create a playlist to match a character's experiences, host a literary podcast and bring on the author of the novel for a conversation, script a news interview between an NPR anchor and three literary characters around a theme from your current novel, write and perform a song about a character's development throughout the novel, curate a Ted show pulling together three existing Ted talks relating to a theme in the novel, or write the script for a call-in show in which characters from the novel call in for advice and discuss their problems with a host.

For me, the important thing in designing these assessments is to have students explain the WHY behind the WHAT. This is what takes these assessments from fun little exercises in imagination to a real analysis and argument relating to a novel.

For example, I might ask a student to create a food truck as if from the perspective of Starr in The Hate U Give. If the imagined truck just serves up food that Starr eats in the novel, with no particular theme or meaning, it's not a good project. Even if the title of the truck is super catchy, the colors coordinate, and the student cooks something tasty for the final showcase.

On the other hand, if the goal of the proposed food truck is to enter communities, help them activate politically by giving people a safe place to talk and plan while eating menu items themed to revolutionary political thinkers, and all this is tied together with an argument based on key quotations from the novel in the explanatory write-up, this is a GREAT project. Even if the colors are a little off and the title is "Starr's Political Truck."

Now in my ideal world, the artistry and details help to highlight the message and meaning. That's the best. But it's important as you design creative assessments to build in the language that will inspire students to make connections and arguments through their work.

25 Assessment Ideas for Any Novel 

1. Define and defend a road trip with at least five destinations for a literary character. Where would they go? Why?

2. Interview literary characters on a podcast with the theme of your choice

3. Propose and describe a food truck somehow based on a novel, either to represent key elements of a novel or to represent the vision of one character based on what you know about them

4. Invent a clothing line with a character as the designer, including the names and elements of several collections and information (pieces, purpose, etc.) about one runway show

5. Imagine a literary character started a Kickstarter campaign - invent, describe, and explain its nature and purpose.

6. Create an escape room based on a novel and challenge another group or class section to escape from it.

7. Script and put on a one minute version of the play. Consider letting the class vote on awards for different performances - "clearest interpretation," "best depiction of a single character," etc.

8. Create an Instagram account for a character in the novel, complete with extended captions and hashtags.

9. Script a dinner party between important characters from the novel, discussing at least three of the most important themes from the novel.

10. Create a podcast based on an important theme in a novel, including an interview with a character.

11. Start a Youtube channel for a character - would Austen's Emma start a channel giving love advice? Would Hinton's Ponyboy start a channel about how to prevent bullying?

12. Create a graphic novel version of your favorite part of the novel.

13. Storyboard a trailer for a film version of a novel.

14. Write a script proposal for a t.v. series inspired by a novel.

15. Put on a play version of a text and invite local guests.

16. Have students create artistic pieces inspired by a text and showcase them in a gallery. 

17. In groups, create literary murals based on a text. Vote on the best and work as a class to paint it somewhere on campus.

18. Design one-pagers inspired by a text, poetry unit, podcast, or film.

19. Write and then submit an essay or creative piece based on the text to a writing contest.

20. Create a playlist for one character during the novel, matching songs with experiences, moods, thoughts, goals, etc.

21. Design one character's dream house. What makes it so perfect for them? Base all your choices on evidence from the text.

22. Imagine a character became the host of a television show. What would it be about? Who would come on? Why?

23. Using a phone camera, take a series of ten photographs to represent the themes of the novel. Defend your choices.

24. From the perspective of a character, write a letter to the editor of The New York Times based on an article in this week's paper. What would your character think about a key issue in the world today? Why?

25. Write a conversation between yourself and a character, debating one of the choices they make in the text. What did you question about their actions? Why? How would they defend their decisions?


Imagine your character had a chance to address your high school at graduation. What would they say?

Design an app that the character of your choice might invent. What does the app do? Why would your character invent it? What problem would it solve and why would your character care?

Don't be afraid to take a chance and try a creative assessment. Just remember to build in the question of the WHY behind the WHAT, and create a helpful rubric for yourself so that you can keep your grading mainly focused on the clarity of the student's purpose and arguments, while still applauding their artistry and creativity.

Now, I know this is a big list. I thought it might be more convenient for you if you could download a free PDF of all these to save on your computer or print out. So feel free to sign up below and I'll send one along! It will be my first message to you, and after that you'll get teaching ideas and web highlights from me on Fridays.

By the way, did you know there is a big new free resource section on my website? I think you're going to love it! Just jump over here to explore all the available free downloads, like one-pager templates, syllabus templates, attendance questions, book posters, and more. 

10 Elective Ideas for ELA

Electives can be incredible. I love teaching them, but I've also found they are not without their challenges. I often find my electives to be a mix of two types of students, the students who love English so much they are taking two English classes (an advanced course and an elective) and students who have struggled so much in English that electives are their best option to be successful.

Teaching a course that truly interests you and that you can fill with content so inviting and empowering that both types of students can succeed will help so much. There's more to the story than that, of course, teaching strategies matter too. But this post is to help you find a course elective concept you love!

So without further ado, here are ten elective ideas for your next ELA course design project.

Travel Literature
Do you love visiting other countries through books like The Sun Also Rises, Eat, Pray, Love,  and A Year in Provence? Travel literature is popular and broadening, and for students longing to stretch their horizons, it will make an appealing elective. The topic also lends itself well to an exploration of modern travel media, since travel vlogs, podcasts, Instagram feeds, and blogs are so popular and prevalent.

Blogging & Podcasting
Bring your students into the world of modern journalism and let them explore their own passions when you introduce them to these two mediums. Help them set up their own channels and then share stellar models from around the web before launching them to write, curate, and record their own work. They'll love the authentic audience, and you'll love the engagement.

Youtube Hosting 101
A lot of kids out there dream of becoming a Youtube sensation. The great thing about Youtube is that there is a market for practically every topic. As with blogging and podcasting, students can share on whatever topic truly interests them. They will still need the essential ELA skills of research, writing, and speaking to be successful. Get them going in iMovie and share tutorials of your own or online every week to help them learn new techniques in their video creation. While subscriber numbers won't have anything to do with their final grade, you can bet they will love realizing they are impacting viewers around the world as those numbers grow.

Journalism sure has changed in the last two decades. In a modern journalism class, you can explore everything from writing to video creation to podcasting to social media. Have students write about what's happening in their own community, and submit pieces to writing contests and local newspapers. Or start a class news site online or a class social media channel.

Film & Screenwriting
Are you a movie buff? In the era of Netflix, students have more access than ever to films and T.V. shows whenever they want them. Tap into their interest by studying great films with them and then launching into screenwriting units of your own. Let them create T.V. show and film scripts, act out scenes, even dabble in storyboarding and filming. All these skills are highly relevant in a world where a writer might well be asked to script and shoot a short video clip in relation to whatever they are writing about.

Creative Writing
Aaah, the classic. If you'd like to keep your focus wide, propose a creative writing class and cobble together bits of all these elective options. Have students enter writing contests, try out Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month), record a podcast, script a youtube video, write a short story, start a blog, and more. Creative Writing is a header under which almost anything is possible.

Social Justice & Writing
For this elective, give students a peek into the impact powerful writing can have. Study great speeches, poetry, essays, and films that have impacted the human condition. Use design thinking to help students launch a project of their own to impact the community where you live.

Innovation / Genius Hour
For this elective, students will get to study whatever they want. "Whaaaaat?" you say? Yes, if you decide to try out this elective, you will be trekking into an amazing new wilderness with your students, encouraging them to pursue their own passions through reading and research and then create products reflecting their work. A student might choose to delve into the local food movement and then help start a farmer's market in your neighborhood, putting her ELA skills to good use as she writes letters to local farmers, records a video for a new market website she designs, and goes on a local radio show as a guest. You get the idea! This class requires a lot of one-on-one, so you want to get the basic structure and timeline clearly in place so students know it's not pure free for all.

Theater in Performance
Do your student love drama? Give kids a chance to get up on stage when you create an elective centering around studying, writing, and performing plays. Start your own one-act festival and involve other local schools. Invite an actor as a guest speaker. Watch screencasts of theater from around the world. Put on a class play at a local elementary school. Whatever else you do, bring in costumes.

There's a reason dystopia is sweeping the world. Ask your teenagers to help you figure out what that reason is as you study the literature they are choosing in their free time. What is so powerful about dystopia? Why does it resonate with this generation? Where do we go from here? Travel through the worlds of The Hunger Games, The Uglies, The Maze Runner, Divergent, and so many more as you and your students go deep with dystopia.

OK, and I'm adding an eleventh idea. This one is a bit rogue, but ever since I heard about a friend teaching it a decade ago I have been in love with the idea.

Stuff you need to Know
Seriously. That was the class. Isn't that a great idea? You could interpret this so many ways. Maybe you teach students how to waltz, change a car tire, make bread, write a thank you card, sew on a button, and repaint a wall. Or maybe you spin it another way and teach them how to podcast, edit video, take great photos, write a killer hook, and design a website.

Hopefully one of these ideas will feel like a great springboard to you as you get going in the exciting project of course design.

By the way, did you know there is a big new free resource section on my website? I think you're going to love it! Just jump over here to explore all the available free downloads, like one-pager templates, syllabus templates, attendance questions, book posters, and more. 

043: Tips for New Teachers with Kristy Avis

The first year of teaching is intense. From that day in the summer when you begin wondering if it's OK to call your assistant principal and request to get into your classroom, to the exhausted finale when you tearfully say goodbye to your students, so much of YOU goes into your work.

While the ups and downs were of rollercoaster quality, I still think my first year of teaching was one of my best, and I bet yours will be too. You have so much to offer - not just a passion for the profession and all the strategies you have been studying for years, but also the ability to connect with students closely. After all, you were just a student, and you will recognize yourself in them more in your first years than later on.

Everything I talk about on this website and in this podcast can apply to your work in the classroom, my friend, no creative strategy is out of your reach. But in this podcast episode, I wanted to narrow specifically in on some of the small tweaks you can make in the first year that will make your overall experience as a teacher a little easier. I invited Kristy Avis to share her ideas with you because I like her proactive approach to the first year, and I think you will too.

Her advice to find a mentor, build clear routines into your classroom, avoid faculty drama, find time for exercise, give yourself easy classroom wins when you are overwhelmed, and never stop believing in your ideas and sharing them in team meetings, all resonate with me.

How to Match Student Readers with Books they'll Love

You know when there's a book on your bedside table that isn't really working for you? It languishes as you read maybe one or two pages a night before falling asleep. Finally, you return it to the library, find something amazing, and devour it in one or two days, no matter how busy you are.

When it comes to independent reading, making sure our students are matched with the books they will fall in love with makes all the difference. But most kids who don't already love reading have no idea how to pick out a good book, so how can we make sure they find something they will want to read?

Is it really possible to match every student with a good book, every time? Or at least to try?

In short, yes. Though it sounds like an intimidating or even impossible task, there are systems you can put into place to help you a lot. And the more you get to know your students the easier it becomes. Plus, they'll begin passing their favorites along, realizing they can actually enjoy reading, and becoming more active participants in the process.

What begins by seeming impossible, will become one of your greatest joys in the classroom.

So let's talk about the systems. What follows are nine ways you can operate as a successful matchmaker. Use one or use them all!

#1 Host an incredible classroom library

It would be nice if we could all rely on beautifully stocked, thoughtfully displayed, conveniently located school libraries. But since we can't, having a classroom library that is full of highly readable books is a critical part of matching students with books they will love.

Hit half-price book stores, rummage sales, friends' old boxes of boxes, the thrift store, used book stores, and everything in between. Ask for money if you can. Start a Go Fund Me campaign if you need to. Work with your school librarian to pull some books from the school shelves if that's possible.

Here are a few titles I would try to include if I was starting a library right now:
  • The Outsiders
  • The Hate U Give
  • I am Not your Perfect Mexican Daughter
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
  • Ender's Game
  • Cinder
  • The Knife of Never Letting Go
  • The Foundation
  • Fangirl
  • Carry On
  • Eleanor & Park
  • The Fault in Our Stars
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower
  • The Alchemist
  • Into the Wild
  • Slam
  • The Book Thief
  • Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief
  • The Hunger Games
  • Divergent
  • Persepolis
  • Maus
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time
  • Uglies
  • The Kite Runner
  • The Time Traveler's Wife
  • The History of Love
  • Sherlock Holmes

My friend Brynn Allison, of The Literary Maven, is constantly putting together lists of great book ideas. So if you are looking to build up your library consistently, stay tuned to her website as well. We also talk a lot about new and exciting books for students inside my Facebook group, Creative High School English, so feel free to join us there.

#2 Create displays that draw students in

How you arrange your books makes a big difference! Try to face a lot of book covers out so that students can see all the options, and when you have the time, craft a fun book display like the ones I featured in the spring in my "Classroom Library Hall of Fame." You'll see a lot of fun displays and set-ups in this post, it's definitely eye candy for English teachers. Students will be drawn to look at and discuss the books you feature in your displays, so be sure to put the cream of the crop out in the spotlight.

#3 Get a sense for your students' reading histories as school begins

Take a few minutes early in your reading program to survey your students somehow about what they like to read. Whether it's a questionnaire about their favorite books and genres, a one-pager about their own reading life and general interests, or a journalistic assignment in which they write up an article about their own reading history, find a way to discover what makes them tick as readers. Even if all you get is one title that they liked six years ago and the information that they're too busy working after school to read, you have a place to start and some important background about them.

#4 Take a break to PITCH

I first learned about this idea from Melissa Kruse of The Reading and Writing Haven when I was interviewing her for my podcast episode on book clubs. She called it a book commercial, while someone in my Facebook group recently called it a pitch. It's a great way to have students share what they are reading with the class.

Decide for yourself whether to choose a student who you know LOVES their book, or just randomly rotate through all the students. Then as a class opener or to kick off a reading chunk of class, invite the student to stand up and give an argument for why their book is awesome. (Students who don't like their books will need to be matched with a new one and given a pass to try again another day). Reinforce how helpful it is for students to share really specific reasons why they are enjoying the book, so that other students will know if they want to read it.

This practice helps generate momentum from within the student community. Certain books will pass from hand to hand quickly, and those matches will all begin to happen authentically without any help from you.

#5 Invite guest book talkers from the community

Inviting other teachers, parents, administrators, and other staff in to spend five minutes in your classroom talking about their favorite books (which you will just happen to have available for check out, based on your amazing foresight) is a great way to bring new titles into your rotation and help students to see that people besides their English teachers value reading.

I like to snap photos of my guests holding up their books and turn them into reading posters, as a nice visual reminder of the recommendations from within the community. (I also like snapping photos of students with books they recommend to turn into posters!).

#6 Visit your school library after hatching a plan with your librarian (if you have one... excuse me while I cry...)

If your school hasn't made the insane decision to cut the school library, get serious about using this resource. The librarian at the school where I work is a BOOK GENIUS. And so many librarians are. Get together with yours and get help in creating an incredible cart of good options for your students. Or talk with him or her about those few students you might still be having trouble matching after a month or two of school, then let those students browse the shelves with your librarian's guidance and recommendations. A quick trip to the library is never wasted time, as long as you have a plan for what to do with your students who already have a good book or choose a book in seconds. I like to have them write down a list of ten books they might enjoy in the future so they don't just start chatting in the entryway.

#7 Create an online venue for student reviews

I originally used Blogger to post pictures of the books my students were reading along with a paragraph review. Every once in a while I would pass out an index card and ask them to write the name of the novel they were reading and a short review including specifics about why they would or would not recommend it. Then I would type these into blogger as blog posts, building up a large library of student reviews. Now and then I would ask students to hop onto the blog and peruse others' reviews, making a list of books they might like based on others' reviews. This worked well, and students especially liked to see the little widget I put in the sidebar that allowed them to see little dots where they had readers around the world. Before long it was clear that people in dozens of countries were reading and benefitting from their reviews, which gave them a wonderful authentic audience beyond their own peers.

Another, perhaps easier, way to do this now that Instagram prevails would to have students write a short review in a colorful marker, snap a picture of it next to their book with their phone, and send it to you for a class Instagram book review feed. You could simply post it without retyping all the reviews (which was always a bit arduous, I'm not going to lie).

You could do something very similar with a private reading Facebook group, asking students to take one minute during class to post a picture of their book with three or four sentences about it and why they do or don't like it.

#8 TALK to them

OK, yes. This seems a little obvious. I almost forgot to include it, but it's definitely the most helpful way I match students with books. When students are reading quietly in your class, peek over your own book to see how things are going. Take note of students who are obviously not engaged or excited by their books. Then do a lap, checking in here and there. Walk around and peer over their shoulders for a few seconds, then quietly ask "how are you liking your book?" When they admit that they hate it, invite them over to your fabulous library for a few minutes and, based on whatever you know about them and whatever you can find out in those few minutes, help them choose a new book. You may be able to redirect four or five students a day in this way until all the other systems you have in place start to do it for you.

#9 Have "graduating" students create book review bookmarks

At the end of the year, have the students leaving your class create bookmarks featuring a little about themselves and a little about their absolute favorite book of the year. Photocopy these and use them both as bookmarks and as part of your library display bulletin boards or wall decor. Students rising up in the next year will see their older friends' recommendations and also see what students with similar interests enjoyed from your library.

I made you something! Sign up below to receive a fun set of posters for your independent reading library, and you'll also receive my weekly Friday e-mails full of creative teaching strategies.

The Perfect Theater Project for Any Play

I'm going to go out on a limb and say a performance project is the most engaging way to finish a theater unit. Plays were created to be performed! Sprinkle analysis into discussions, in-class essays, and projects throughout your theater units, but if you possibly can, I say finish with performance.

When I was in college I kept hearing about this amazing Shakespeare professor. She won the student-choice award for popularity over and over. Every Shakespeare class she taught finished with a performance, always in the same format. She would divide the students into groups, give each group an act to perform, and say good luck. At the end of a semester's worth of Shakespeare classes, each group, having rehearsed independently all term, would perform. The class would travel around campus watching each show, in order, until they had seen the whole play. 

My senior year I took the Shakespeare "Comedies and Histories" course for myself, and I got to perform the final act of A Midsummer Night's Dream with my group. The project was just as intense, delightful, stressful, frustrating, and amazing as it sounded. It was enough to inspire me to do it with my own students just one year later when I began working as a teacher. 

The Creative ELA Teacher's Back-to-School Checklist

As you prepare for the first day, there is always so much to do. Setting up your room, finalizing your syllabi, getting your grade book set up, collecting your textbooks, attending gobs of meetings.

This post is not about those things!

Rather, it's a list of ideas for helping you put some creative structures in place early so that the many details of those busy first weeks don't overwhelm your desire to prioritize creativity. These are things you can consider and prepare for over the vacation and put into place as the year begins. 

Learn about Sketchnotes

Sketchnotes are growing in popularity but still a fresh strategy to offer your students. Take a little time to download a free sketchnoting activity or bookmark a great video about how to sketchnote now, so that as school opens you can introduce this strategy to your students and help guide them toward a more engaging way of taking notes on anything and everything that you study in class.

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