Peer Read-Alouds: A Feedback Model

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My juniors giving “readerly feedback” through a partner read-aloud.

Grading student papers and giving feedback: it’s the bane of the writing teacher’s life, but it tends to occupy a lot of our time. Particularly now, as the school year comes to an end and our inboxes fill up with piles of final papers.

It’s such a source of consternation and frustration that there are a number of professional books out there on how to make the process faster, easier, and less painless. In one of these books, aptly titled Papers, Papers, Papers: An English Teacher’s Survival Guide, legendary English teacher Carol Jago underscores the importance of our work and concludes, “We owe it to our students not to let the paper load defeat us.”

Given the research on the importance of feedback on students’ writing (Hattie & Timperley, 2007–see link), we must continue to engage with students’ papers. So how do we stay strong and avoid defeat, as Jago argues we must? There’s a way to increase the valuable feedback students receive without adding to our own workloads. The answer lies in peer response. Continue reading

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Take a Mental Health Break!

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Image from Pixabay – Used with permission

“Can we take a mindfulness break?”

I had just outlined for my junior AP English language and composition students the remaining weeks of the school year, which included two essays, a final exam, an AP exam, and a short transitional unit into AP literature concepts. A few were visibly daunted by the ideas of dwindling time and high-pressure assessments, so I wasn’t too surprised when one girl sitting near the front of the classroom made this request.

“Can we take a mindfulness break?”

It’s a question that I encourage the kids in all three of my courses – English 2, AP English, and IB literature HL – to ask when they are feeling stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, or tense. Continue reading

A First-Day-of-School Priority

school-1575835_960_720Summer is winding down (or is already over for many of us), and, since your time is limited, I will be brief.

I want to talk to you today about the first day of school. More specifically, what you have planned for your students’ first day this year.

Teachers have a variety of go-to activities and routines on the first day of school. Some play name games or ice breakers with their students. Some stick to a traditional route and go over the syllabus, while others dive right into a content-rich lesson. Still others begin with an exam, particularly if they assigned summer homework for their incoming class.

I’m entering my sixth year of teaching this year, and I’ve done most of the above. Through trial and error, I’ve realized that many first-day approaches can work. Regardless of what your first day plans entail, though, I want to suggest to you that no first-day-of-school plan is complete without one essential ingredient. Continue reading

Celebrating My Seniors

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My senior IB literature students graduate this week, so we recently had a little celebration/send-off event during first period!

The school year is coming to a close at my school. Finals begin tomorrow. Senior grades are already submitted. Graduation is on Wednesday.

Every year, I use the last twenty minutes or so of our final class period to pass out personalized thank-you cards to each of the graduating seniors in my IB literature class (33 this year). Then, while they’re weak, I hit ’em with some Dr. Seuss: Oh, The Places You’ll Go! This year, I had my students memorize “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley and we found a place to work it into Seuss’s text and recite it together. It was a great final send-off.

But after all the hard work of the IB program and a year in my class, I always feel the students deserve something more celebratory that honors the hard work and accomplishments of the last four years. I call it “Celebration Friday” (or Monday or whatever day it happens to fall on in any given year). Continue reading

“April is the Cruellest Month”

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“April is the cruellest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.”
― T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

To be perfectly frank, I’m not a big fan of T. S. Eliot or of The Waste Land, but I can’t help but agree with what is perhaps the most famous assertion in one of his most famous (but little understood) poems. This is not a post about poetry, though (as much as I would enjoy writing one). This is a post about many teachers’ least favorite month of the year. This is a post about the cruelty of April.

To be sure, there are positive things that come with April: seeing in student assessments the fruits of months of labor, drawing to the end of a year of preparing for high-stakes exams, and enjoying the increasingly mild and sunny weather (if you’re into that sort of thing). Every year, however, I find myself beaten down a bit by the month of April.

In today’s brief post, I want to share three things that get me down in April and how I do my best to counteract the stress, frustration, and melancholia that come with “the cruellest month”–as much to remind myself as to inspire you, perhaps. Continue reading

Sharing the Stage: Social Justice Speeches

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Image courtesy of Flickr

Going into late February this semester, my plans for my AP English Language and Composition class included teaching a two-week-long mini-unit on the culture of sports in America. The timing was right: the two weeks of instruction fit snuggly between the Winter Olympic Games and March Madness. Then, suddenly, Parkland happened, and the timing was all wrong for a unit on sports. What did sports matter when 14 high school students and three staff members were dead and 17 others were wounded? What did sports matter when students were leading school walk-outs and protests across the country? What did sports matter when righteously indignant teens were engaging in Twitter activism to rebut their critics and engage with members of Congress?

I had to change my plans. Continue reading

Guest Post: Engaging Students with Snapchat Stories

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Image courtesy Flickr.com

Goodbye, Facebook character profile; hello, Snapchat story.

In my last post, I described some of the benefits I’ve reaped as mentor to my student teacher, Leo Spengler. In today’s post, I pass the mic to Leo to share about the innovative Snapchat lesson he conceived and implemented as part of our sophomore English course’s argument unit. Many teachers have relied for years on the fake Facebook page activity (“Fakebook”) as a “hip” and relevant way for their students to think about literary characters. Facebook, now, has been passé to my students for about five years, so I’ve been without a good social media-based lesson for as long as I’ve been a teacher. I highlighted this Snapchat lesson in my last post and share about here today because it captures the innovative thinking that a student teacher can bring to a mentor’s classroom and illustrates how just about any social media platform can serve an educational purpose. Please read on to see my questions about the lesson and Leo’s responses concerning the overview, background, and reflection on his lesson. Continue reading

3 Reasons I Mentor Student Teachers

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My student teacher (right) and me having a discussion about student writing.

There are reasons both noble and practical to take a student teacher. Student teachers need mentors to complete the requirements of their credential programs. Public education will benefit from new teachers having capable mentors to learn from. You’ll be shaping the next generation of teachers.

There are selfish and harmful reasons to take a student teacher, also. Some mentors only want the free labor: someone to grade their assignments, teach their classes, and take some troublesome students off their hands. These teachers, however, often do a disservice to their students and to their supposed mentees by providing little in the way of support and guidance to the student teacher.

In addition to the purely noble, the purely practical, and the purely selfish, there are reasons for mentoring a student teacher that are wholly symbiotic. They can be selfish, but they will also make for a better experience for your students and your student teacher. These are the reasons I took on a student teacher this year–my second in as many years–and these are the reasons I plan to continue taking on student teachers in the years to come. Continue reading

When Routine Hampers Productivity

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When was the last time I posted on this blog?

The fact that I have to ask that question is proof enough that it’s been far too long. When I started this blog, it was an ambitious goal for me to post just once every other week. I’d started and abandoned two blogs before, so I launched Optimistic Teaching with a more than a little doubt that I’d be able to sustain it. In fact, I made it only several posts in before I took an unscheduled hiatus from updating this site that would go on to last over a year. Blogging simply wasn’t a priority, and when you have a heap of items on your plate and you have to cut back, it’s the lowest priorities that go first.

Determined to return to blogging this year, I had to evaluate why I had failed to keep going the last time. What was the flaw in my plan that I’d have to avoid this time? I could say it was a lack of purpose or passion, but I had those. My purpose was threefold and clear to me from the beginning: I wanted to have a place to reflect on my teaching, I wanted to enter into a digital professional world and discussion by sharing my experiences in the classroom publically, and I wanted to establish a professional presence online. Moreover, I was passionate about these goals; they mattered to me. They still do.

No, it wasn’t a lack of purpose or passion that led to my failure. I’ve realized it was something much more utilitarian, much less profound. It was rigid devotion to routine. Continue reading