Teaching the Introduction

When I first started teaching, the formal essay seemed like such a beast. How would I ever teach all my students to write a good paper when what I really wanted was to teach them to be creative? The 5 paragraph essay (ew) felt like such a time drain. We had plays to produce! Projects with partner classrooms across the ocean to work on! Electronic portfolios to design! Poetry to slam! And yet, formal writing was a skill I knew my students needed. Just about every profession calls for the ability to write clearly and well. 

Still, I didn't want to spend the entire year on practice essays. And I didn't want to spend all my free time commenting. So I developed a system. It focuses on two important parts of the formal essay: the introduction, and the quotation sandwich. Today I'm going to focus on the introduction, because it all starts there. In my experience, teaching students to write a clear introduction is the end all be all of the formal paper. By the time they are done with the introduction, the rest of the paper should just about write itself.


Poetry Outside the Textbook

There are poetry units that spring from a textbook and there are poetry units that don't. I've taught them both, and both have their pluses and minuses. What I like about designing my own unit is that I can choose poems that I believe will specifically appeal to my students. I can find themes that matter to them, audio clips I think they'll love, videos that I hope will knock their socks off.

But where to start? There are a lot of great sites out there. You can choose a mix of print, audio, and video to share to keep students engaged. Give them a whirlwind tour of spoken word and slam mixed in with your poetic devices and canonical names.

Here are some great sites to get you started:

Poetry 180: Billy Collins hosts this site. He has chosen one poem per school day that he believes would be meaningful to this generation of students. Shop through and grab the ones you love. Or use the site as part of a web quest for students. I like having them choose lines from a variety of poems inside and combine them into an illustrated poetry collage. They end up with an unusual combination of images and an extensive introduction to the site. And the collages look wonderful on our walls!

Poetry Out Loud:  Here you can find a huge variety of poems recorded by actors and poets for your students' listening pleasure. You may wish to give students permission to doodle or close their eyes as they listen. My experience is that audio in class is great but it's a bit awkward if everyone is simply staring at each other while they try to focus! 

Poetry Archive's Next Generation Poets Collection:  I don't know about you, but my students crave material written NOW. Though they are prepared to jump on board with long dead authors at times, they love to read words they can connect to in the small details as well as in the great themes of human experience. 

The SlamNation Youtube Channel:  I am so happy to be able to share this with you! I bought the super expensive SlamNation Educator's DVD when I first did poetry slam, and didn't manage to preview it until the night before. Somehow or other I had the regular edition, and there were plenty of moments I didn't care to share with my sixteen year old students! SlamNation is an awesome collection of Slam Poetry, and I highly recommend using some clips in class. The great thing about this youtube channel is that you can choose the poetry you believe will speak to your students instead of surfing through three hours of content and writing down at which minute/second mark all the poems are that you want to show your students! I'd start with Like Totally Whatever  and Love.  These always got a strong reaction from my students. I like to have them give slam clips a slam score 1-10 after watching. If you want to try this, have everyone write down their score and a one or two sentence explanation. Then call on a few people so they can see how very differently different people react. 

If you'd like more ideas, follow along with my Pinterest board "Poetry Outside the Textbook." I'll keep adding great material as I find it! 


The New Teacher Series

Welcome, teachers who have jumped into the fray! If you're like me, you have spent most of this year staying up past midnight most nights trying to stay one or two days ahead of your students. I remember my first year of teaching as one of the most engaged times of my career. Though constantly sleep deprived, I always felt I was discovering amazing things. One week I was trolling the Los Angeles library education shelves for graphic novel versions of Shakespeare, the next I was applying for a grant to create a theater corner in my classroom. I was watching poetry slam videos, trying to figure out how to deal with the language of Huckleberry Finn, learning discussion methods, planning tennis practices, reading every novel in the curriculum, and occasionally stopping for a cookie.

I look back on the year fondly, but at the same time, I don't think it needed to be quite THAT intense! That's why I've started this series. It's meant to give you something to help you out in class tomorrow, something to help in the coming weeks, and something to give you a little more time overall so you can eat actual meals sitting down!

Idea #1, the Here and Now:
So you've got a class coming in tomorrow. Whether they are writing journal entries, turning in a project, bringing a paper draft, discussing a reading... one of my favorite strategies for just about anything is one I invented called Rotating Circles. Have half the class stand up and create a circle. Then have half the class create a circle OUTSIDE the first circle. Have the circles face each other. Partners! These partners can share writing drafts, present their homework to each other, discuss a question about the reading, brainstorm a thesis, etc. Give them some time appropriate to the task and then have one of the circles rotate. Continue to do the same thing until you feel the activity is complete. These fast action rotations with multiple partners have really engaged my students. And I love how it works for just about everything!

Idea #2, for the Not-too-distant Future:
Literature Circles! I LOVED doing this with my American Literature students my first year of teaching. I presented two books to them, The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises. Then I let them choose what they wanted to read. For the next month we met in our literature circles, each group discussing their own reading on their own schedule. I rotated from group to group, listening and helping as needed. Then they presented on their texts to each other. To help guide the students through the literature circles, I had them prepare for each discussion by completing a role assignment. For a great rundown on roles and the literature circle method in general, check out this free packet online. 

Idea #3, Saving time for things like eating!
It's amazing how much CREATION has to happen in the first year of teaching. I find it very helpful to save my work as I go in editable templates. For example, instead of writing a vocabulary quiz for unit one, I can create a vocabulary quiz template with all the directions, grading components, answer blanks, etc. and save it. Then I can add in the words for unit one and save that separately. Here's an example you can download for free.  Don't stop with vocabulary quizzes. When you design a rubric to grade a paper or project, think about how you can make it a rubric that would work for ANY similar paper or project. When you design an activity to warm up for discussion, think about how you could tweak the language so you could use it as a warm up again in a few months. Not everything has to be designed specifically for the pages you just read! One of my favorite packets I ever created for teachers has to be my 15 ELA Discussion Warm-Ups. One reviewer called it "Hands down, one of the BEST products on TPT!" And I think that's because these activities can be used for any book at any time. You might want this packet if you want to use this strategy immediately. You can also apply it to your own curriculum building all the time. Making activities that apply to more than just one moment of your teaching life will save you a lot of (metaphorical) sweat!

If you decide to try these strategies, I'd love to hear from you! Join my Facebook group for Creative High School English teachers to share ideas and get support with other creative educators around the world.


Creative Classroom Design for ELA

From  the Reggio Emilia preschools in Italy to the corporate headquarters of Google in Switzerland, there are so many environments that help inspire creative work. In this post I'm going to take you with me on a creative tour, then share some ideas you can use right away in your own classrooms to help give your students creative inspiration.


Let's start with young children. Have you heard of the Reggio Emilia program for young children in Italy? I love it, so much so that I briefly considered moving to Italy with my one year old so he could attend.

Check out some of these beautiful learning spaces inspired by Reggio. Imagine what a difference these spaces make to the children learning and working through play inside them. In the Reggio system, the environment in which the children work and play is known as their third teacher. What if all children went to school in classrooms where the space was so vital and beautiful that it taught along with the teacher?

Maker Party

Moving on to another space-based educational movement. The maker lab. All over America these labs are popping up, providing the interesting spaces and materials people need to create innovative new items. Amazing how students suddenly get inspired when faced with materials and devices in a creation lab. How might this apply to our classrooms? What materials might we suddenly surprise our students with and watch to see what happens? Learn more about ELA maker spaces and how to use them in your classroom here.

Google's Hallway Library at the NYC Offices 

Any conversation about spaces requires a nod to Google. From their indoor Gondola meeting rooms to their infamous Google Garage (where every piece of furniture is on wheels for easy movement), Google has put an amazing amount of resources into their space.

I love their hallway library in the NYC office. Wouldn't that be fun in your school?

Check out this great video about the Google Garage. I like what Alex Cuthbert, Senior User Experience Designer at Google, says in the video: "I always describe Google as a mix between Kindergarten and a classy law firm." And I can imagine putting quite a few elements in my classroom into constant motion the way Googlers do in their garage.

The Mind Candy Coloring Wall

Check out this coloring wall at the Mind Candy offices. Many of the creative offices have some kind of entertainment element - why not let people talk about their projects while drawing on the wall, playing PacMan arcade games, or eating incredible food? 

I love to think about the possibilities for integrating a bit of fun into my classroom for students who have finished a project or need a moment to think through a thesis. This year I made a coloring book door for my office, using a Harry Potter coloring book I took apart. 

University of Minnesota Active Learning Classroom Showcase

This video from the University of Minnesota is simply inspiring. Though I don't see my school getting student microphones anytime soon, I love the way the university is challenging its preconceptions about how classrooms should work. Students have new needs now.

One article I found fascinating in my meanderings around the web this week was called 30 Things You can do to Promote Creativity in your Classroom.  One of the 30 things was to "allow space for creativity. Design some classroom space for exploration, such as a thinking table, a drama stage, a drawing table, or a space for groups to discuss ideas."

Consider adding a theater corner to your room, with costumes and props students can use for reader's theater. Or add flexible seating elements and some great bookshelves for a cozy classroom library and reading corner. Fill an old bulletin board with inspiring writing contest ideas, and another with a student work hall of fame.

Have you joined my e-mail community yet? Sign up below for insider freebies, fun classroom ideas, and podcast and blog post highlights delivered to your inbox, and you'll also get four free one-pager templates with complete instructions!


The Teacher Files: My Brown Book

This week I was wading through my storage compartment when I discovered the brown journal I used during my first year of teaching to write down stray thoughts from the education books I was devouring. Since my education was in English and not Education, I read my way through the Education sections of Barnes and Noble, my local library, and the Los Angeles Public Library. It was fun to revisit this book tonight. Here are a few from the first few pages. Expect more in the months to come. I hope they provide some inspiration for you too. 

What books and quotations have become foundations for your teaching? 

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