Easily Find Authentic Audiences for Student Work



Most of us have had a teacher we wanted to impress. So badly. A teacher we truly connected with, that we would work our hardest for.

We all want to be that teacher for our students. But no one can do it for everyone.

No matter how hard we work to engage our students and show them that we care, they need a reason to work hard that is not all about us. They need to be sharing their writing with others, putting their voice out into the world so that there is more at stake than the opinion of one (no matter how caring) teacher.

Helping students find authentic audiences for their work can make a big difference in their lives.

Have you watched a student perform spoken word for her peers? Noticed their faces when their principal walks into a showcase night featuring their work?  Seen the affect it has on them when a younger student is deeply impressed by their project?

I've seen my students' eyes light up when they read letters from other kids halfway across the world, found out National Public Radio would be publishing their essays, or discovered that their work would be featured in a special display at our school.


So how can you find that elusive authenticity that will give your students a chance to feel like their creative work really matters? Here are five ideas to help you help them take their work to the next level. 

#1 Let them Invite Guests: Every course has its showcase project (and the more, the better, I say!). Whether your students are culminating a unit with a performance, poetry reading, art gallery, debate, mock trial, or something else amazing, let them know up front that you plan on having guests in the classroom on that day, and you'd like them to be in charge of choosing and inviting those guests. Make suggestions - would they like to invite their parents? The youngest students at the school? Their principal? And then make inviting those guests a part of the project. Get some RSVPs and let your students know who is coming. 

#2 Work with Blog Portfolios: Ask students to put up their best work on a blog online. Remind them not to use their full names or any personal details, just images, links, text, video, whatever they want to represent themselves and their work. Then build in assignments where students check out each other's work and comment. You can see some examples of student blog portfolios here and here. 

#3 Submit to Something: When I was in high school my favorite English teacher built a personal essay writing unit around the local rotary essay contest. Never had I worked so hard on a paper, and eventually I won the contest and received four hundred dollars at a special prize ceremony. I was beyond thrilled, and it helped reinforce my positive feelings about English and writing (and I did become an English teacher and a writer). I've had my student write "This I Believe" essays to submit to NPR for publication online, though NPR no longer accepts entries, and I've heard from other teachers about various writing contests they have found. Look around in your area, or check with organizations that you care about, and see who is hosting student writing contests or offers opportunities to publish student work. Write letters to the editor or even submit articles to the school newspaper on some theme connecting to your course. Giving students a chance to potentially see their name in print or earn a sense of honor and validation in the community really helps them focus in on their writing.

#4 Add a Performance Element: There are SO many ways to do this. Reading poetry? Do a poetry coffeehouse on campus or a poetry slam or jam. Reading The Canterbury Tales? Have students perform their own tales as you wander around campus, then vote on a winner to receive a fun prize. Reading a play? Have student groups perform scenes for the class. Working on personal narrative or reflective essays? Have student choose snippets to read into a mic as if recording a live radio show - we did this with our "This I Believe" essays after listening to several featured on NPR, and it was so much fun. 

#5 Make them the Expert: Who hasn't heard that teaching helps you learn? Consider how and for whom you can make your students the expert. Have your seniors finally mastered the college essay process? Have them share their essays and their wisdom with your juniors. Have your sophomores struggled through to mastery of the formal introduction? Have them create a video course about it to show next year's sophomores. Create a final exam where students record podcasts or make videos about all that they have learned and then share them via a class blog or website. There are so many ways to help students feel they are sharing their mastery, giving them a stronger sense of self and more confidence in the subject along the way. 

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For your Classroom Bookshelf: The Outsiders



I have to admit that it took me several years of reading students' rave reviews before I read The Outsiders. The picture on the cover seemed dated, the title not particularly exciting. But I knew my students were connecting with it. Year after year, someone picked it off the shelf as part of my outside reading program, then passed it to a friend, who passed it to a friend, who passed it to yet another friend.

There was something about it.

So I finally read it. I squeezed it into an insane last minute spring break trip to Florida with my two children under five. And that's how you know how good it is.

Now I'm here, telling you that you must have it on your classroom bookshelf. What The Outsiders has to offer your students is a deeper understanding of the ways we are all the same. As the protagonist struggles to understand the obstacles placed before him and those he cares about, he straightforwardly addresses issues of social class, cliques, hate, bullying and misunderstanding. He goes through hell and back, and he comes out of it with an intense desire to change the way people understand each other for the better. Instead of breaking, he bends, becoming even more deeply compassionate.

Written by a teenager, the novel tells the story of Ponyboy, a young man enmeshed in the society of "Greasers" who are in a constant battle with the "Socs." Readers can easily connect the hatred between these two groups with the hatred between any cliques, between countries at war, between racial or social groups all over the world. It's a hatred that seems founded on nothing but tradition, and yet it defines life for both groups.


Ponyboy tries hard at school, loves to watch the sunset, wishes he could get to know some nice girls, and cares deeply for his best friend Johnny, who not only is constantly abused at home but has been beaten up brutally by the Socs. He lives with his brothers since the death of his parents, and he cares deeply about them too. As we view the world through Ponyboy's eyes, we question it as intensely as he does, and that questioning cannot help but extend out away from the book to what we see in real life.


Some adults shy away from the intensity and violence of The Outsiders, but students never seem to. Perhaps its because they recognize the intense feelings from their own lives and social struggles, whether they actually encounter violence or not.

What I love about The Outsiders is that though it honestly explores some terribly difficult themes, the overriding message is one of hope and understanding. In the end, Ponyboy comes to a place of true compassion and empathy for the other boys in his life. As the events unfold, he shares his realizations - about a boy he thought cared about nothing but violence and surviving the streets, about his true friend Johnny, about the sacrifices and dreams of his brothers, about a girl and a boy he gets to know from the opposing social group, the Socs.


In the end, Ponyboy decides to take a stand for what he believes. To try to make a difference in the lives of the people around him by sharing his story (which, in circular fashion, turns out to be the book we are just finishing) and his newfound belief in learning to understand other people without judging them.


I'm sharing The Outsiders this week as part of a collaboration with several other bloggers around the themes of Equity, Empowerment and Empathy. We believe that now, more than ever, we need to work with our students to understand others who may be different from them. In our currently divided society, we face a situation not unlike the hatred between the Socs and the Greasers. By sharing this book with your students, either as a class novel or as a much-touted independent reading option, you can help them break down some of the walls being built in America today. 

                            

It is impossible to read this book without thinking about the divisions and hatreds that exist around us, why they are there, and what we can do to get rid of them. Therein lies its importance. 

I've created a free resource for you to use if you decide to use The Outsiders in your class. It's a series of three reflective writing prompts to help students focus in on moments in the text that question hatred and build bridges. 


You can get it here. You can also find more posts on the themes of equity, empowerment and empathy by checking out the linkup below. Each blogger has created a free resource  to help you focus on these important themes with your students.

Looking for more places to talk teaching and get creative ideas for class? I'd love for you to join my free Facebook group, Creative High School English!


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5 Ways to Take the Guesswork out of Groupwork (+ Free Curriculum Set)




Do you teach group dynamics in your classroom? Or do you just assume that students will figure it out?

In my experience as a teacher, group dynamics is not an integral part of most curriculums. The process of learning how to learn together is rarely if ever discussed in faculty meetings, professional development seminars, or department meetings.



And yet, what is more important for our students? When we say "get into groups..." or "in this discussion, try to...", we are assuming that they understand how to share a space, value everyone's voice, and build a conversation or group process that will actually work for everyone.

Very few people really know how to do those things.

Think about your faculty. Is there a discussion dominator in your department? And someone who tends to be silent? Are there freeloaders and hyper-organized do-it-all-ers at every meeting? Does everyone sigh when so-and-so asks yet another question, and everyone wonder if that one teacher is even paying attention or just checking Facebook on her phone?

Over the years I have learned to talk to my students about what it means to be a good group member and discussion participant. I have learned to ask them how group work is going and how they feel we could improve as members of the discussion. I have learned to offer them choice between group and individual work, so they do not always have to face a frustrating situation when they find group work really challenging.

Group work is not the easy option for most students (and teachers!). The thought of team teaching a class has always made me feel a little ill, though after years of learning from and with my students about what makes for good group dynamics, I might just be able to do it now.

Before launching in to literature circles, fishbowl discussions, Harkness, the socratic method, or any other discussion or small group pedagogy, it really helps to teach students how to share the space.

You can make a big impact on your students' lives, by helping them how to best work collaboratively together. It won't look the same in every classroom, or even every group. But you can help students discover what works for them, and what some of the universal guiding principals are.

Here are five ways to take the guesswork out of group work (scroll down for a free curriculum set to help you make this easy!).

#1: Interview Each Other about Group Work Past
Take a little time to have students talk to each other about their past experiences. How have their groups shared the work? Has everyone participated? Was everyone's voice heard? Let them interview a few partners to hear about their past experiences.

#2: Brainstorm Best Practices
It's anchor chart time. Put up one of those fabulous giant sheets of paper and let your students tell you what makes group work work. What does each participant need to do? What do they need to avoid? What makes it fair? What can the teacher do to help? Make a list, and POST it in your classroom. Draw their attention back to it before group activities and projects.

#3: Reflect following Group Work
Give students a chance to reflect in writing after group projects, and set a goal for the next project. How did they positively contribute to the group? What went well and what didn't? What could they work on for next time?

#4: Talk about Discussion Dynamics
Whole class discussions also rely heavily on positive group dynamics. I always like to spend one of the first days of class talking about what goes into good discussions. Students are great about brainstorming ideas, and I ask one student to write all the ideas down. There's always one thing I bring up, with every class. First I turn toward just one student, and stare into his or her eyes. Then I talk for a while, intensely, just toward him. "How does this feel right now? Is this a good way for me to focus during discussion? Does everyone in the room feel like they're part of things?" Usually the student I'm staring at admits to feeling totally weird and uncomfortable, and everyone else says it's weird and they feel left out. Then I talk about how EVERYONE is an equally important part of our round table discussions, and that students need to try hard to make eye contact around the room and not just focus on me as the teacher, as if I'm the only one who matters.

I use this brainstorming session to segue into the use of student-led Harkness discussions, which is one of the most positive ways to encourage good group dynamics that I've ever used.


#5: Imagine Real Life Applications
Putting group work in context is really helpful. Have an honest conversation about the group contexts that are waiting for your students. Someday they will need to share their ideas with groups at work. Someday they will sit down around the dinner table, or the PTA table, or the boardroom table. Someday they may be working on a collaborative start-up team, or working virtually through videoconferencing with a team around the world. Someday they will very likely find a life partner who they will need to share ideas and brainstorm solutions to everyday problems with. Rarely does group work get put into this type of context.

Could you use a little help with all this? I made you something! Grab the free curriculum packet that will help you guide your students through the complex waters of group work. Sign up below for my Friday e-mails full of creative teaching ideas and helpful resources and this packet will be the first thing I send you.





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The New Teachers Series: Journals, Costumes, and Stickers



As a new teacher, I know you don't have much time! So I won't waste it. The posts in this series each feature three great strategies you can incorporate right away to make your classroom a better place. I hope you find one (or two or three!) you want to try. 

An Idea for Tomorrow: Journals

Just say yes to journals. I love them. Journal entries make life so much easier. "Take out your journals," you begin, "and..." what? Anything! Once you have students bring in journaling notebooks, or even just flip their class notebooks over and journal from the back toward the front, you've got a tool that is constantly available. Here are three ways you can start journaling tomorrow:

1. Have students journal about the reading before the discussion. For example, "Write a letter to the main character of our novel. Ask questions about what is going on. Give advice. Tell him or her you opinions about what has been going on."

2. Have students journal using their vocabulary words. For example, "Write a story about two surfers who accidentally end up riding their surfboards across the ocean. Use at least five of the words on our vocabulary list."

3. Have students journal practicing the grammar or writing concepts you have been working on in class. For example, "Think of your favorite place in the world. Describe a morning there, using each type of sensory imagery we have been working on."

Once you get in the habit of using journals to complement your curriculum, they are a great always-in-your-pocket tool. Any time you find yourself with a few minutes to spare or a daily slate of activities that need more depth, you can just say "take out your journals!"

An Idea for Next Unit: Theater Corner

Start a theater corner. My first year of teaching I applied for a community grant. It wasn't much, just $200. But I had so much fun shopping for props at Goodwill and the local theater store. I bought masks and wigs, suit coats and dresses, funny glasses, jewelry, and face paint. I got a bookshelf and baskets to store it all in and tacked up some brass theater masks on the wall above it.

It wasn't that much to look at but it really added a lot of great dimension to our classroom. In the middle of reading a novel, if we decided to do reader's theater and act out a scene from the book, we had costumes readily available.

If we were reading a play and I wanted groups to perform key moments from the text, I knew right where to send them to help them get in the mood.

Our theater corner added pizzazz and fun to just about every week. I highly recommend it. If you can't get any budget, go through your own stuff or ask friends if they have any old costume pieces. Check out rummage sales and Goodwill. Build your collection over time.

An Idea to Save Time: The Checkmark or Sticker

After a few months of grading every little assignment my first year, I realized my students just did not need quite so much feedback.

There are definitely some assignments that need to be competed but don't need hours of your time spent grading. 

Did you assign a reading response question with the homework? Ask students to fill out a Facebook profile for a character in groups in class? Tell students that their brief in-class writing would be turned in? By all means, collect these pieces of work!

But that doesn't mean you need to comment and grade each one. The main thing is that students are completing this type of work and staying engaged in class. You can simply check it off, perhaps giving work that obviously goes above and beyond a sticker.

Pop it in your grade book as a basic grade of 5/5 or something similar (based on your own format) and move on.

If students ask why they didn't get any feedback, let them know that you do feedback for significant assignments, but you are always happy to talk to them if they have questions or really want to discuss something from the work with you.

Need more ideas, and some creative curriculum to support those ideas? 

Check out this extensive selection of free resources, made for you! 



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Hosting a Class Poetry Slam (or Jam)


Your poetry unit is coming up and you are wondering how on earth you are going to get your students to love poetry as much as you do. For a select few of our students, the beauty of Emily Dickinson's unique style and the transcendent power of Walt Whitman is enough. For the rest - what to do???! 

I remember stumbling onto my first explanation of poetry slam years ago, while asking myself this exact question. Slowly its history unfolded on my glowing screen, late at night after a busy day of teaching and coaching. I was so excited to discover the concept of poetry contests, to see the huge level of audience engagement on the videos I found, to imagine my students, too, falling for poetry. 
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STANDARDIZED TESTING: How to Encourage Engagement


You’ve got testing coming up and your students are not excited. Neither are you, for that matter. It’s hard to get behind a day in which your students are miserable, you don’t get to teach them anything, and the results of their bored labor can and will be used against you.


Luckily, there are ways you can encourage your students to genuinely engage in the process of standardized testing, whether or not they can ever genuinely enjoy it.

#1 Choose a class theme song –
Sports teams are known for their pre-game playlist, walk-out songs, and victory chants. Why shouldn’t your class have the same? Invite students to nominate a class pump-up theme song as a homework assignment. Have them choose a song and explain why it will help the class get ready for the test. Then let the class vote on which song to use. Download it and play it in the week or weeks leading up to testing. Play it as students walk in for the test.

#2 Create Prep Games
Looking ahead to your testing, create a daily game for your students to play in the week or weeks leading up to the testing that engages the test content in a fun and interesting way.  As you build student’s enthusiasm for the games, remind them that the test is just another way to show their mastery of the material they are doing such a great job with in class. If you don't already have a game generator you like, consider using Kahoot.
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