Bailey’s Story

My very first year of teaching I had a lot of unique experiences, as does pretty much everyone who is in their first year of teaching. One of these “special” moments involved a student in my 8th grade Algebra I Honors class. This student – we’ll call him Bailey – was a great kid: funny, bright, athletic. I liked him a lot. In fact, the whole class was a lot of fun. One day, I was teaching up at the overhead (yes, back in the days when overheads were the “cutting edge” technology…jeez, I’m old…) and all of a sudden, the entire class starts to giggle. It spread like wildfire until I couldn’t ignore it anymore. Finally, I gave up and asked them what was so funny. They delighted in telling me that Bailey, apparently, had climbed out the window, walked around the school, and then walked back into class and sat down in his seat without my noticing. Oops.

Rather than be angry at Bailey (and really, how could I? what he did was hysterical), I recognized the need for my teaching to change so that the students were more engaged and less likely to resort to such antics to amuse themselves. In response to this self-reflection, I created a set of Algebra puzzles. I made a 3 by 3 grid and on each edge I put a problem/solution pair. I also put a problem or a solution around the edges, making sure they didn’t have a matching counterpart. Then, I cut up the squares and shuffled them around and gave them to small groups of students to try and piece back together. It took a while, but trust me when I say no students wanted to climb out the window whenever we did this “game”. They were in love with solving the puzzles – especially when I would give bonus points to the team who solved it first. I made several versions of them with varying skills/concepts. It was something I tried to do on Fridays at least 1-2 times a month.

If this sounds like something your students would like, check out my teacher store on TeachersPayTeachers to preview and purchase the product: Fun Algebra Puzzles

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Expository and Persuasive Writing Workshop

In Flordia, the state writing exam is usually around the end of February. For this reason, I’m continuing the theme of writing in this blog entry.

If you’re a writer, it’s hard to imagine anyone not liking writing. For my students, though – especially those who struggle with writing – it’s a chore. As a good writer, I struggled initially with how to effectively communicate how to be a better writer. Ironic, I know, that I found communication about communication to be difficult when I am a self-professed communicator. Through trial and error, and being fortunate enough to work with some really great writing teachers, I began to put together methods for improving my students’ writing. I always started with debunking some myths.

Myth #1: Essays have to be 5 paragraphs.

I would pound into my students that essays can be 3 paragraphs; they can be 8 paragraphs. What dictates the length of an essay are two things: what you have to say and how long you have to say it. I would give my students practice topics that would lend themselves well to various lengths/paragraph numbers. Creating a thesis statement with one, two, three, or even four points helped my students understand that it’s not the number of paragraphs that matters, it’s what’s written in them that counts.

Myth #2: Onomatopoeia is anything with an exclamation point and is the perfect hook.

So many of my students would routinely use “Bam!” or “Boom!” as a hook, thinking they were using onomatopoeia. I spent countless lessons teaching them the true meaning of onomatopoeia (i.e. crackle, pop, rustle, etc.) as well as numerous other effective hooks.

Myth #3: In a state writing assessment, the graders care what you think.

I had so many students write poor essays (or none at all) because A) they only wrote about what they believed or wanted, or B) they couldn’t think of what to write. I pounded into their heads that no one cares what they think, they just want to know if they can write coherently. I would give prompt after prompt and ask them not what their thoughts were, but what could they write about. I often used the topic of uniforms or extended school year because 99% of students are against these two things but often don’t have strong written arguments against them, so I would make them write in favor of them because those arguments are the ones they hear in the news or from teachers. Once they figured out that they didn’t have to agree with what they were writing, many of them showed marked improvement.

Myth #4: Anecdotes are the only supporting details you need.

I taught my students other types of supporting details (historical references, etc.) because the only ones they seemed comfortable with were stories about themselves or their friends.

Myth #5: Anecdotes, when used, have to be true.

For some reason, students tend to labor under the misapprehension that everything they write has to be true. When I did allow them to use anecdotes, I made sure they understood that the stories had to be supportive of the thesis but not necessarily true. I taught them how to come up with anecdotes that are relevant and supportive but not even close to true. My mantra was it has to be “plausible, not true.”

It took years of practice, but I came up with a workshop that addressed these and other myths and helped my students develop into more proficient writers. My experience has been with average and struggling writers, so my suggestions may not apply for gifted or AP writers, but my writing workshop can be found at my teacher store.

Writing Workshop

Writing Workshop

How to Plan an Essay

<<This entry is inspired by the FCAT Writes, which is the state writing test in Florida that is given towards the end of February.  I usually do a writing workshop a few weeks before the test, so I’m hoping that this will help any Florida teachers as well as anyone else who is looking for help on teaching writing.>>

I don’t know about you, but I hate planning out what I’m going to write before I write it. I find I am a much more fluent, witty writer when I just go off the cuff. Unsurprisingly, my students generally feel the same way. Well, I’m not sure they think they’re “witty,” but certainly, they hate planning their essays. Unfortunately, we all (myself included) write better when we organize what we’re going to write before we write it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a long, drawn out, detailed outline, but even just brainstorming and jotting down a few ideas can go a long way. If you’re a writer, then I’m just preaching to the choir, as they say.

One thing I found very difficult as I tried to teach my students to be better writers was debunking the “one size fits all” graphic organizer myth. My students always seemed to feel that there was just one right way to plan an essay. Some lived and died by the hamburger method, some by the 4-square method, others by the web. Regardless of what they chose, they clung to it like it was a best friend, unwilling to convert to some new graphic organizer. I tried to tell them over and over that I didn’t care what their plan looked like, as long as they did, in fact, plan. I would use the graphic that I, myself, was comfortable with, and students would freak out because it wasn’t “their” graphic. No matter how many times I assured them I would be more than fine with whatever graphic they chose, many of them still panicked and had mini-meltdowns.

It was also difficult because a plan is hard to grade. Most teachers don’t grade the planning part of the writing process, so students fail to see the value in it because it isn’t valued with a letter grade. I made sure to assign a grade to the planning part; it was pass/fail. Once my students understood that I valued their plan enough to grade it, they started doing it, and as a result, their writing improved.

The only thing that can really improve a student’s writing is practice, and that is true for any part of the writing process. The things I found successful are included in my “How to Plan an Essay” product at my teacher store.

how to plan an essay

How to Plan an Essay

How the school store was born.

blog thumbThere are many phrases teachers can’t stand. One of them for me is, “I don’t have…” you name it, pencil, pen, book, backpack, homework, etc. Kids being unprepared is a part of teacher life, but if it’s the same kids all the time, that gets really frustrating. I found this to be particularly disheartening with my lower-level, mostly at-risk students. Most of the time, they just couldn’t be bothered to bring their necessary materials to class. This was different from students who couldn’t afford supplies – I’m talking about the kid who just shows up to class with absolutely nothing except himself and the clothes on his back. Or the ones sagging to the ground. And of course, I noticed that the students who routinely failed to be prepared were the ones with the lower grades. How was I going to fix this? (Because you know it’s always what the teacher can do, not what the students or families can do…)

Three things worked for me: 1) golf pencils, 2) the school store, and 3) student-kept behavior checklists.

To combat the writing tool chasm, I bought boxes of golf pencils. They’re cheap and kids hate them. They’re uncomfortable to write with. So any time a kid announced he didn’t have something to write with, I’d silently point at the golf pencil cup and they would saunter over and, begrudgingly, take one. That, or they’d immediately find a neighbor who was willing to part with one of their pens or pencils. Either way, it saved me from the hassle of arguing with a kid over being prepared. Yes, many of them migrated away (which was odd, considering how much the kids told me they hated them), but they’re cheap and were easy to replace.

Eventually, I decided I’d like to start making kids pay for their supplies. I never made a profit – I always charged at cost prices – but the kids had to pay up to get stuff. This worked surprisingly well. I started off selling pencils, but eventually I got to selling pens, notebooks, highlighters, and a whole host of other things. Kids I didn’t even know would come into my room sometimes asking to buy things because they’d heard of my store from friends. I never broadcast to any colleagues that I was selling things on the black market, but I figured since I was only making enough money to replace the items I bought in the first place, no one could get too mad at me. Besides, it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Finally, to combat unpreparedness and the behavioral issues that went along with it, I instituted student-kept behavior checklists. These had my five main rules: be on time, be prepared, be safe, be productive, and be respectful. Next to each one, there were examples of what those behaviors looked like. There was a weekly checklist and also a daily checklist – for the kids who were really lost – for students to fill out and submit to me. They got to pick a reward (that was reasonable – a late homework pass or something equivalent, although it was nice if parents got involved to let the reward be something at home) and if they scored a certain total on their checklist for the week they would earn that reward. It really helped kids see how much they weren’t doing and led to improved preparedness and overall behavior.

My student-kept behavior checklist is available on my TpT store at http://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Student-kept-Behavior-Checklists-372239