Why I Recommend SparkNotes to My Students (and how I encourage its use)

I was a pretty obnoxious kid growing up.

Okay, fine. I’m still pretty obnoxious. But as a kid, and more specifically, as a student, I was obnoxious. I wouldn’t have wanted to have me in a classroom (Hey, what do they say? Teachers make the worst students? Even as a secondary student I knew I wanted to be a teacher.). I talked all the time; I was a total smart-ass (not to the teachers…usually…or directly…). I am telling you the absolute truth when I say that my freshman year of high school, my World History teacher (who, by the way, was also the Dean of Students) took hold of my desk – with me in it – and flung it about 20 feet across the room because he was so exasperated with me one day. In his defense, I purposely provoked him, asking all sorts of inane, yet, just believable enough to be answered questions, with the sole goal of postponing the day’s test.

sparknotes obnoxious

Yeah. That was me.

But I’ll tell you one thing I wasn’t. I wasn’t a cheater. It wasn’t that I had a strict sense of morality. Other stuff I did growing up would disabuse you of that notion pretty quickly. No, I was an intellectual snob. Well, I suppose a better way to say it was that I didn’t trust anyone’s brain but my own. If I didn’t know it, or didn’t remember it, there was no possible way anyone sitting around me would, either. Of course, given who my circles of friends were at certain points in my secondary education career, I may have been spot on about that. But those less-than-stellar-albeit-necessary-for-making-me-who-I-am-today choices are neither here nor there. The point is, when my senior government teacher accused me of cheating on one of my last high school tests ever, I was justifiably affronted. I would NEVER cheat off of someone.

sparknotes horrified

And so, with that sense of justice (and because I was really worried about what would happen to me if I got caught doing it), I approached my Physics teacher before final exams that year and asked her if it would be considered cheating to program (okay, I’m using that term loosely…I really just wanted to save it in a file/page) the formulas into my TI-whatever-number-was-out-in-1998 graphing calculator and use it on the exam. She paused, seeming impressed – whether at my honesty or comfort level with the technology, I’m not sure – and said that if I could figure out how to do that, she’d be fine with me using the calculator. So I did, and I don’t think I really used it more than once or twice because I was well-prepared.

I tell you this background and anecdote to give you context for my decision as an English teacher to openly guide my students toward – and even encourage them to use – the resources on SparkNotes.

If you’re not familiar with SparkNotes, you should be. And I’d wager that you are familiar with Cliff’s Notes. It’s even a colloquialism these days – “Give me the Cliff’s Notes version!” Meant to only include the information of utmost necessity. Enough to pass the test. Because who really has time to read every assigned novel in British Lit? Or American Lit? Or all of high school?

sparknotes aint nobody

Cliff’s Notes has a pretty negative reputation as being a cheater’s way through the material. Good teachers would know right away if you’d only read the Cliff’s Notes version, because your answers would only skim the surface. And likely be phrased far too sophisticatedly for an average high school student.

SparkNotes is the modern-day version of Cliff’s Notes. On Steroids.

So, why would I encourage my students to go there, when no self-respecting English teacher would hand out Cliff’s Notes copies of a novel to students and say, “You know what? Go ahead. Skip the real thing. Hell. Watch the movie. It’s close enough.” Now, you might think you know the answer to this, because if you follow my blog, you know I often write posts that seem, perhaps to some, like I just lower the standards for my low-performing students. Like, I know they’re not going to read the novel. Why fight the battle? Why not give them something they actually might, if all the stars and planets align, find it in them to do? Would it really be that terrible?

But that is not what my rationale is. No, I don’t direct my students to SparkNotes because I just like to lower the bar. (And I prefer to think of my philosophies more as “realistic expectations,” thank-you-very-much.) No, it’s because of what SparkNotes offers.

Go to a Sparknotes unit for a novel and you will find a veritable cornucopia of resources for that work. You’ll get the context of the work, the plot overview, character list and analyses, and even discussion about themes, motifs, and symbols. And then, if that weren’t enough, you’ll get chapter summaries. They even have quizzes and review questions. They explain important quotations. And it’s all free. Free for students, free for teachers.

Now, I am an avid reader. I love to read. And I hate, hate, hate previewing the story. It’s like nails on a chalkboard having to find out what happens at the end before I even start. That was my least favorite part of being an English teacher. We had these story previews in our curriculum workbooks that gave a synopsis of the entire story before the students even began. It drove me crazy! Where was the suspense? The situational irony? Everything was ruined!

Until I had to teach Julius Caesar. I’m not a humongous Shakespeare fan to begin with, but Julius Caesar isn’t my favorite play of his on the best of days. What made it worse was that I remembered studying it in high school but didn’t actually remember anything other than that I did actually study it. I retained nothing. I’m not sure if that was because I just didn’t understand it or I didn’t read it and spent the discussion time being obnoxious. Probably the latter. But I was not excited to have to teach it. I didn’t even want to read it. I felt like a whiny student.

sparknotes whiny student

So I found SparkNotes. I read all the Act summaries. I read the synopses of character analysis, themes, important facts, etc. I even – praise the literary powers that be – used their “No Fear Shakespeare” modern text version to get me through the PITA that is early Modern English in iambic pentameter. And then I picked up my copy and read it through. And it made sense. And I flew through it. And it wasn’t hard. And it wasn’t boring. And it didn’t make me want to carve my eyes out with a spoon. I was amazed. I wished I’d had SparkNotes in high school. It would likely have helped me get through other classic literature without falling asleep (*cough cough* Great Gatsby, I’m looking at you).

Yes, I already knew the ending, so I’m not sure how I’d feel about some other story being “spoiled” by reading SparkNotes first, but I’ve found – to my surprise – that my students didn’t seem to mind that aspect.

sparknotes i dont get it

So, when we would get ready to read a novel, I would encourage my students to go to SparkNotes. I would tell them to spend time reading everything SparkNotes had on that work of literature so they would understand and notice the subtleties of motifs, symbolism, and sub-plots. Sparknotes does such a great job explaining all this that we were able to spend our time in class talking about other meaningful aspects of the novel. SparkNotes is the modern-day Cliff’s Notes version. But it does it better. It includes so much more that makes it easier (dare I say, enticing?) to read the entire work. But it leaves a little mystery. As a teacher, I just made sure to look at the review, quiz, and essay questions that were on the site and steer clear of them. There were plenty of other things to discuss and put on my assessments.

SparkNotes is the modern-day Cliff’s Notes version. But it does it better. It includes so much more that makes it easier (dare I say, enticing?) to read the entire work. But it leaves a little mystery. As a teacher, I just made sure to look at the review, quiz, and essay questions that were on the site and steer clear of them. There were plenty of other things to discuss and put on my assessments. SparkNotes didn’t rob me of a unit. It didn’t give me a way to fail kids easily because they’d obviously only “read the Cliff’s Notes.” No, by using SparkNotes as a scaffolding tool, I made novel study more engaging and meaningful during class. And heck, it made me a better teacher, too. I like to think of myself as a version of my old Physics teacher who, rather than forbid what could potentially be an extremely valuable tool simply because it seemed like it would lead to slacking – or cheating, embraced it and all it had to offer, and that resulted in student success.

sparknotes hooray

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Newest Resource Reveal!

I’m excited to announce the completion of the entire grade 8 ELA Common Core (and LAFS, for Florida) CIM series bundle! It’s taken me about a year to complete, and I’m very pleased with what I’ve been able to create for you. In the bundle, there are 17 different resources. Each targets an individual standard with three mini-lessons. Each CIM uses excerpts that have been adapted to be (or were, in their original format, already) appropriate for 8th-grade readers. This was assured through the use of the Lexile® analyzer as well as several other online readability calculators (Flesch, etc.).

If you’ve never heard about or used my CIM resources, they use the research-based “model – teach – assess” technique. They are quick (10-15 min) mini-lessons that target specific standards. The only Common Core practice I’ve been able to find is general and mixed standards. Mine is the only one I know of that does individual standard, targeted instruction and practice. It’s low-prep and easy to implement. It even includes suggestions for differentiation and extension!

I know many of you have been just waiting for me to finish the rest of the bundle, and now it’s finally ready for you! Buying the bundle instead of all the individual CIMs will save you a, well, bundle! If you’re looking for a quick, targeted, and easy resource for these standards, come check them out!

ALL RL.8 RI.8 Bundle

Common Core Practice for RL.8.4, RL.8.5, and RL.8.6

For those of you who read regularly, you’ll remember that I’m working on my 8th grade line of Continuous Improvement Model mini-lesson resources. I’m making good progress and I have recently finished and posted these resources:

CCSS.ELA.RL.8.4

8th grade CIM RL4

CCSS.ELA.RL.8.5

8th grade RL5 1

and

CCSS.ELA.RL.8.6

8th grade CIM RL6 1

I’ve also bundled these so you can save over 10% if you purchase them together.

8th grade CIM RL4-6

If you’ve never heard about or used my CIM resources, they use the research-based “model – teach – assess” technique. They are quick (10-15 min) mini-lessons that target specific standards. The only Common Core practice I’ve been able to find is general and mixed-standards. Mine is the only one I know of that does individual standard, targeted instruction and practice. It’s low-prep and easy to implement.

If you’re looking for quick, targeted, and easy resources for this standards, come check them out!

 

Why I Taught Formulaic Writing

Obviously, I am a writer. Obviously. You’re reading something I wrote right now. I write a wide variety of works, everything from poetry to book reviews. I’ve published a novel and create unique curriculum resources. I even write in the world of fan fiction. I will be the first person to champion free-form, creative writing. In fact, I am not a huge fan of strict structure in most writing (have you ever actually tried to write a sonnet?). So, why would someone like me resort to teaching formulaic writing in my classroom? I’m not talking about “beginning, middle, end” structure. I’m talking about essentially fill-in-the-blank templates for students. It might seem counter-productive. I’ve even had other teachers side-eye me when they hear or see what I do. Heck, I’ll be honest, the first time I saw this type of writing instruction, I side-eyed it.

formulaic writing side eye.gif

But I have my reasons. I have taught 7th, 9th, 10th, and 12th grade ELA (in that order). Every single grade level I have taught I kept hoping it would get better. I kept hoping that my students would come to me as good writers and I could take their writing and help them soar. I wanted to take them from good to great. I wanted them to enter contests and win scholarships. I wanted them to score straight 6’s on the state writing test. But for 3 years, my 7th graders demonstrated over and over their inability to form a coherent paragraph (some even struggled with a coherent sentence). When I moved up to high school, I was sure the students would have more basic skill. I was wrong. I started my formulaic writing in middle school and continued it in high school for 1 simple reason: I had to.

formulaic writing desperation.PNG

I taught low-performing, low-achieving students. I won’t pretend that I had any sort of Michelle Pfeiffer, Dangerous Minds experiences, but I had students routinely performing at level 1 and level 2 (level 3 is considered proficient in my state) and in remedial reading classes. I had ESE students in my FUSE classes. I had scores of students who either couldn’t write, thought they couldn’t write, or didn’t want to write. I would give writing prompts and watch as students put their heads down on their desks without writing a single word. Over and over I would try to get to the root of the problem. “Why aren’t you writing?” I would ask. Over and over I would hear some variant of the same answer: “I don’t know what to write.”

formulaic writing student head down

Well, finally, I said enough was enough. No one should not know what to write unless they’re halfway through a novel and can’t figure out how to relate a once-vibrant subplot to the theme. The prompts that the vast majority of my students were asked to write on were no cause for this answer. They didn’t require endless wells of creativity. They required some basic grasp of the main writing traits: structure, conventions, and ideas (I know there are 6 writing traits, but for students who typically hand in a blank sheet, even just getting 3 three under control is a major accomplishment). The vast majority of my students will not only likely never be published authors, but also don’t have any desire to be. I just had to figure out a way for them to live within their reality. I had to figure out a way to help them demonstrate some sort of mastery of the basics. If I could do that, then I could consider myself successful.

formulaic writing success

And so my formulaic writing was born. I began with my lowest students and created the skeleton essay. This is where I put every structurally required element in for them and they only had to come up with quasi-coherent content. I began with the three basic paragraphs: introduction, body, and conclusion. I skipped the hook (because face it, you can have a functional essay without one) and wrote the thesis statement for them. I wrote all the transition words and the blueprint for the body paragraph as well as the conclusion paragraph. I started with easy questions. Inflammatory questions. Questions that are in no way related to the higher-order thinking prompts required on state writing tests and SAT and ACT writing portions. But you know what? That’s okay. Starting with the hackneyed, “Should there be school uniforms?” is okay when you’re trying to get a kid from blank-page-head-on-the-desk to turning in something with meaning – something that shows him/her writing is something s/he can do.

formulaic writing argumenet

I started with blueprint, formulaic writing with insanely basic prompts and allowed anecdote after anecdote for “evidence.” I fostered the mentality that “no one cares if what you write is true; the reader cares if what you write is reasonable and related.” Once my students knew the formula and felt “allowed” to (essentially) make up evidence, they had no excuse. There was no room for “I don’t know what to write.” Because now they had a blueprint. They had a formula. They didn’t have to figure out how to start. I began having students who would write absolutely nothing turning in multi-paragraph essays. Not grade-level vocabulary or even sentence-length, but they felt like they had accomplished something.

formulaic writing happy student

I’ve learned over the course of my teaching career that I have to meet and teach students where they’re at. If I asked my 4-year-old to do Calculus, he’d hop down from the chair after less than a minute and want to go play. He wouldn’t care if it was state-mandated that he demonstrate mastery. He wouldn’t be able to do it. I have had to let go of the idea that I could get every kid performing at or above grade-level over the course of the year. I have seen time and time again that if I teach a student where s/he is at, engagement is higher, motivation is higher, and that student’s achievement is higher. Have I made up for years’ worth of deficits? No, but have I prevented yet another wasted year? I like to think so.

If you’d like to see (and perhaps try!) some of what I used to improve my students’ writing, come check out my mini-lesson on writing thesis statements or my writer’s workshop!

The Continuous Improvement Model

When I started teaching English, I was terrified. I had few ideas about how to effectively communicate what I knew about English and reading comprehension to my students. See, I was (am) really good at English. It was my strongest subject in school. I love to read. I love to write. It comes naturally to me. I rarely struggled with it. So when I encountered students who weren’t good at reading or writing, I didn’t know what to do with them. I had no strategies for how to help them learn and grow. My process for teaching writing evolved into something very successful, but that’s a topic for another entry. My process for teaching reading, however, improved as a result of my being assigned to teach a semester course of Advanced Reading, in which the curriculum embedded something called “FCIM,” which stands for “Florida’s Continuous Improvement Model.” The Continuous Improvement Model – or CIM, for short – operates under the best-practice assumption that education is a cycle of teaching and assessing, and is best communicated through some variation of the research-based strategy “model-guide-practice” or “I do, we do, you do.”

7-17-16a

I wasn’t overly impressed with the quality of the curriculum – as is true for most large curriculum companies, there were errors, lack of explanation for answers, and virtually no guide for teaching metacognition (another research-based instructional component). But I did like, and find effective, the overarching principles of the instructional model. It was on this that I based my own CIM resources.

7-17-16b

These resources are intended to be used in conjunction with other curriculum, instruction, and assessment. They should be a component of the Continuous Improvement Model within any classroom. They should be used to help the teacher gather data on student comprehension and achievement and that should drive further instruction.

This particular CIM targets the Common Core Reading: Literature Standard 1 for grades 9-10. It has a complete teacher script for lesson 1, which models metacognition for students and goes through how to determine the correct answer for the correct reason. It has a guided lesson script for lesson 2, which helps take students through the same process before trying it completely on their own in lesson 3. Although, lesson 3 has thorough explanations for the correct and incorrect answers so that it can be a part of the Continuous Improvement Model process.

 

Additionally, it offers differentiation options by having two complete sets of lessons: one using multiple-choice questions and one using open-response questions. This resource combines 2 essential features of quality education: effective use of time and best-practices teaching methods. Finding supplementary materials that specifically target a single standard are difficult to come by. You either have to take a resource and pick it apart to use only the questions that apply to the standard you’re targeting or you have to make it yourself. And few teachers have the time (or inclination, for that matter) to pick passages and write standards-based questions for them. This takes that prep-work piece away and does that labor for you. However, you, as the teacher, get to decide how to use the resource, how to differentiate and scaffold it, and even whether or not to use pairs or small groups – all while knowing you are engaging your students in the model-guide-practice research-based teaching strategy and gathering information and data you can use as a part of your classroom’s Continuous Improvement Model.

7-17-16f

Although this is my first CIM for this level, I have a complete RL/RI (all 17 standards) CIM set for 6th grade and I’m almost halfway done with the complete 8th grade set as well. Eventually, the intention is to have sets for grades 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9-10.

How can you use this resource effectively? Many teachers who have purchased from my CIM line use this resource as bell work. Others use it as a part of a focus workshop. The product itself has suggestions for differentiation as well as collaborative work.

This line is also highly rated by teachers who have purchased the resource(s). Here are some of the things they’ve had to say about the different products in the CIM line:

On RL.9-10.1:

  • On July 16, 2016, Catherine R. said: This will be a valuable resource to walk students through the process of reading and using evidence to respond to questions. Thanks for sharing.

On RL.8.2:

  • On July 13, 2016, Wacky Apple (TpT Seller) said: Exactly what I needed.

On RL.6 (various):

  • On March 29, 2016, Megan F. said: One of the best resources I have seen in a while
  • On June 7, 2016, Rebecca Harris (TpT Seller) said: Excellent resource! I look forward to using these with my students this year!
  • On April 21, 2016, Janine L. said: Looking forward to using these to review the standards my students performed poorly on for their district assessments.
  • On January 24, 2016, Crystal V. said: I own the RL bundle and the RI bundle. Yes, they are a little bit pricey but I think it is absolutely fair considering the amount of content. You definitely get what you pay for! I love using these as Bell Ringer Activities, and to remediate standards since testing is coming up. Thanks!
  • On November 20, 2015, Shakera W. said: Thank you! this resource is so helpful for intervention! Thank you so much! Very thorough resources!
  • On January 20, 2016, Emily S. said: Great resource! Such a time-saver! Thanks 🙂
  • On October 14, 2015, Shakera W. said: Great intervention tool! Thank you!

If this sounds intriguing, head on over and check it out!

Common Core Practice with Non-fiction in the Middle School Classroom

It’s hard to get kids on board with reading non-fiction. Fortunately, there are websites out there with kid-friendly articles that are topical and approachable. It was these websites I went to when I needed to find non-fiction, informational text to create my Continuous Improvement Model mini-lessons for CCSS.ELA.RI.6.7.

CCSS RI6.7

This CIM has 3 different mini-lessons designed to take about 10 minutes each. Every lesson has 2 questions to help students practice this standard. I was able to find appropriate non-fiction, informational text on www.timeforkids.com and also on http://kids.nationalgeographic.com.

timeforkids   education nat geo

What’s great about this resource is that it ONLY targets the standard RI 7 (Reading Informational Text 7). All the other practice out there that I have seen has multiple standards, which is great if you’re doing summative work or have lots of time to go over every single standard with the students, but if you are wanting practice that pinpoints a single standard, mine is the only thing I’ve found like it. Mine also has scaffolded practice, which is the only resource I’ve ever seen with that as well. Other practice out there tells which answers are right and why, but mine has 3 separate lessons that follow the “I do,” “we do,” “you do” model so students are scaffolded on their journey to mastering the standard. It even includes a script for teachers for the first and second lesson, along with detailed explanations on answers for the third lesson, in case the teacher needs to re-teach/explain.

6th grade CIM RI7 c  6th grade CIM RI7 b   6th grade CIM RI7 d

This CIM is targeted for RI6.7, but because of how Florida redid their standards, it is also applicable for LAFS.6.RI.3.7.

If this sounds like something you could use with your 6th graders, you can check out the free version (RL.6.1) and then go from there.

Otherwise, you can go straight to the CIM for RI.6.7 here.

6th grade CIM RI7 a

My Newest Common Core Practice Bundle

I’ve been MIA for a while because I grossly underestimated how much work it would be to go back into the classroom! But I put in a lot of work into making my Continuous Improvement Models (CIMs) for RI.6.4-6 (Author’s Craft & Structure) so I really wanted to post about it. I just want to give an overview of the CIMs in the bundle and explain to you why you should be interested in my resources if you teach upper elementary/lower middle English/Language Arts.

I’ve been working on my CIM for RI.6.7 and I was having trouble finding texts and even looking for resources with sample questions to make sure that my resources are valid and on point with the standards and other resources out there. Well, I started realizing there weren’t any resources out there that target individual standards. Sure, there are lots of things out there for teachers that have texts and questions for Common Core, but everything I’ve found gives teachers a handful of questions that target multiple standards. For example, I might get 7 questions, but each one only targets 1 standard, so I really only get 1 – or maybe 2 – questions on any given standard. And nothing I’ve found uses the format I do – the “I do,” “we do,” “you do.” And none of the resources I’ve found give teachers the tools to work through teaching students how to correctly identify answers for the given questions. Everything I’ve found only identifies which standard the question assesses and the correct answer. Sometimes it will have reasoning for why it is the correct answer, but nothing more than a few sentences. My resources are much more in depth. There are 3 mini-lessons for an individual standard. In this particular bundle, each individual lesson has at least 2 questions. For lesson 1, there is a full script that explains, in depth, how to determine the correct answer(s). In lesson 2, there is a script to guide students through determining the correct answer(s) themselves. In lesson 3, there is ample explanation on why the incorrect answers are incorrect and why the correct answer is correct, in case students need re-teaching or explanation.

If this sounds like something your students could use, check out my newest bundle for Reading Informational Text Grade 6 standards 4, 5, & 6.

https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/6th-Grade-Common-Core-Practice-RI4-5-6-Authors-Craft-and-Structure-Cluster-2120055

Common Core Practice RI.6.2

When I started working with teachers two years ago upon CCSS roll-out in our state (which was slapped, tickled, and relabeled LAFS – Language Arts Florida Standards), it became clear there was going to be a void. Teachers I worked with and spoke to became nervous that there weren’t enough practice materials for students to master the new and more rigorous standards. I began creating resources for them, such as question stems, and they gave great feedback. As time went on, though, and the new state tests loomed on the horizon, I began to see that students in my district weren’t going to get enough test preparation. This was a function of the curriculum our district uses in English/Language Arts. I won’t elaborate beyond saying that it is completely void of any real, consistent, useful traditional assessments and how the curriculum potentially relates to what the students will see and be expected to demonstrate mastery on when they take the state assessment. I figured that if this was the case in my district, it was probably true in others. Based on this assumption, I began creating my CIM line. CIM stands for Continuous Improvement Model. It is based on the “I do,” “we do,” “you do” model of instruction. Students get three rounds of practice – once at the teacher level, seeing the metacognition that goes on during the problem-solving process; then in a guided setting, where the teacher can begin to see the areas needing focus and re-teaching; and finally, independently, demonstrating mastery or lack thereof. For those of you not familiar with the term CIM, I didn’t invent it. It comes from the reading curriculum our district uses, except we call them FCIMs – the “F” standing for (no, not that F word) Florida. Since the LAFS correlate pretty much identically with the ELA Common Core Standards, I just dropped the “F” and my CIMs are designed to help any student in a state with either Common Core or LAFS – or a state who did the same thing Florida did and just put a brand new coat of paint and called it a horse of a different color.

6th grade CIM RI2 d

I’ve gotten good feedback from these lessons, so I’ve continued my quest to fill the void. I’ve done almost all of 6th grade Reading Literature standards CIMs (putting the finishing touches on RL.6.7…it should be ready by next Sunday) and have started on the 6th grade Reading Informational Text standards CIMs. That’s what this post highlights: RI.6.2 (central idea and summarizing). This resource has three lessons. Lesson 1 is a scripted teacher lesson that presents questions and a passage, along with commentary and reasoning for students to hear the process aloud to see how the teacher arrived at the answers. Lesson 2 is a guided practice lesson where the teacher helps students reason and analyze their way to the correct answers with a little help here and there. Lesson 3 is an independent lesson where students must demonstrate that they can come to the correct answers on their own. The results of Lesson 3 dictate either re-teaching or moving onto the next concept. These resources aren’t units and they aren’t meant to be stand-alone products. They’re designed to be more like bell work or class starters. They’re only supposed to take about 7-10 minutes each. My plan is to have a full line of RL and RI CIMS for grades 3-11 (I’m not sure 12th grade would have much of a demand, since most states stop testing in either 10th or 11th grade), so you’ll periodically see blog posts from me about the newest CIM I’ve added to the line.

6th grade CIM RI2 b

6th grade CIM RI2 c

I have a free version you can test out if you think this might be something your students could use. The good news is that if you’re at all familiar with Common Core or LAFS you’ll know that the secondary standards are remarkably similar, so if you have some students who aren’t quite reading on grade level, the 6th grade series might be a good place to start to build some confidence. Of course, if you use it and you like it, leave some feedback and rate the product. It helps me reach my goals and improve my products. Thanks!

6th grade CIM RI2 a

Summer BOGO #2!!!

Maybe last week’s BOGO wasn’t for you. Maybe you teach something other than math. Maybe you teach English/Language Arts. Maybe you teach a subject where you teach students about non-fiction writing (persuasive, informative, research). Even if you’re not an ELA teacher, you are still (if your state has CCCS or something like it) responsible for teaching writing in the content area. But writing is a skill, and it’s a difficult one to master for many students. For many struggling writers, teaching writing in small, manageable chunks can make learning how to be a better writer more accessible. For many struggling writers, visual examples of what good writing should look like can make learning how to be a better writer an easier process.

For example, when teaching students how to write essays or papers, instead of simply assigning a paper (topic, prompt, etc.) and grading the finished result, try assigning specific parts one at a time. Spend a bit of time (1-2 days) just on writing quality thesis statements. Once students have mastered that, move on to instruction on additional components of the paper.

For example, pick an arbitrary topic and write an outline for a paper, talking about the process out loud to your students as you go through and write. Present students with sample topics to mock-outline to practice. Then when you assign the real topic, they’ll feel comfortable with making their own outline and produce a better end product.

For example, pick an arbitrary topic and write an essay, color coding the various elements (thesis statement – original or restated is red; supporting details are green; transition words are blue; arguments are yellow; refutations are orange; etc.). Then show students how the elements fit together so they can see how a thesis threads through a whole paper, or where transition words should appear, etc.

Of course, give your students consistent feedback using some sort of writing rubric. It might be your state’s writing rubric, but you might want something a bit simpler for less involved writing assignments.

Do these things sound like something you’d like to have or do in your classroom next year? Well, you are in luck! This week’s summer BOGO is a writing resource package. Purchase my best-selling and highly-rated How to Write a Basic Thesis Statement lesson and receive my best-selling and highly-rated Sample Outline for a Research Paper, my Writing Rubrics, and my Color-Coded Essay for free! This BOGO is only available through Saturday, June 13, so click on the link now to take advantage!

June BOGO 2

Summer Writing BOGO!

Making Poetry Meaningful

I am a poetry snob. Perhaps one could call me uncultured, but I am very picky about the poetry I choose to read. To be perfectly honest, I really only enjoy two poets: Edgar Allen Poe, and myself. Well, in general. There are isolated poems from various poets that I enjoy. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (Tennyson), “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” (Dickenson), and a few others. So suffice it to say that I empathized with my students when it came time for our poetry unit each year. Writing poetry comes easily to me, but that’s not the case for most students. In fact, in my years of teaching English, I found that the predominant reason for my students disliking poetry was that they struggled with writing it. Also, they’d had countless other teachers who had made them memorize and recite poems (I won’t editorialize on that practice…the fact that I NEVER made my students memorize and recite poetry in my class should speak for itself), which mostly served to turn them off of poetry completely.

I found that they also struggled with identifying different poetic devices within poems and analyzing poetry for any sort of meaning. Often, this was due to the fact that the poets they were forced to read were dry and confusing. What if my students were just like me? What if the poet they would enjoy reading the most were themselves? How could I get my students to write meaningful poems when they didn’t know how to write poetry?

First, I started small. I had to disabuse my students of the notion that all poetry had to rhyme or have some set rhythm and meter. That was difficult. Once I got that through their heads, though, I would show them examples of acrostic poems. I always had my students begin with an acrostic poem of their name. Eventually, the majority of my students were able to construct a reasonable attempt at an acrostic poem.

To help them understand rhyme and rhythm (and meter) I would use songs/song lyrics. This is also how I taught the poetic device: refrain. The jump from song to poem was easy with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I found (in my biased opinion, of course) that the best poems for teaching meter/rhythm were Poe’s poems. My two favorites are “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven.” Incidentally, when my own middle school teacher required that we choose a poem to memorize and recite, I chose “The Raven” simply to be obnoxious. It was the longest one I thought I could actually memorize. I got about 3 stanzas in before she forced me to stop and sit down. Yeah, I was “that kid.”

Occasionally, I would give the traditional quiz on the various poetic devices, but I never gave an end-of-unit test. Instead, I wanted what they’d learned to be meaningful to them. From the onset of the unit, I let them know that they would be creating their very own poetry product: a calendar. I would usually have it be the full next calendar year, January-December, although, that might change based on the time of year during which the poetry unit was taught.

I picked 11 of the most important (to me, as the teacher; the most prolific, common, whatever you want to call them) poetic devices we studied during the unit. Then, I told students that they would be responsible for writing their own poems for each month: one poem per month; one device per poem. The 12th month/poem was a free choice for them. I encouraged them to relate the poem to the month, season, or event that occurred during the month. I strongly suggested they think about personal connections to months: birthdays, family trips/vacations, etc. Of course I gave them the major holidays (New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Father’s Day, 4th of July, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas), but also suggested things like winter break, spring break, exams, summer break, back to school, etc.

I printed out the calendars for them and gave them free reign to decorate them according to their poems (if it focused on a birthday, then they would label that day on the calendar and illustrate it appropriately; if it was Valentine’s Day, same thing). They left ample space for their poems on each month.

I found that the vast majority of my students responded well to this authentic task. I had lots of students who would decide to give the calendar as a gift to a parent or relative (depending on the time of year you can suggest it as a Mother’s Day gift or a holiday gift for a parent/relative). Many of them expressed their excitement that the calendar would be hanging somewhere (on the fridge, in a parent/relative’s office, etc.), and they put in quite a bit of effort. It became meaningful to them. They suddenly were able to write poetry because they had a purpose and context. Over the years I got some very poignant, touching work (Veteran’s Day poems, poems to grandparents or others who had died, etc.). Not all of the poetry was going to win awards, but the students took the assignment seriously and did a reasonably good job. I was easily able to tell who had mastered the various poetic devices and other literary concepts.

The best part about this assignment was that it could be tailored to any level. I started with it in 7th grade and used it all the way up through my high school students. I had poems as simple as limericks and haikus all the way up to full-blown Shakespearean sonnets. And not only did the kids (many of them, anyway) actually enjoy writing the poems, but they (dare I say “all”?) enjoyed coloring and illustrating the months in the calendar. And I was able to photocopy the best ones to keep and display in my room that year and use as examples in subsequent years.

Creating the calendar (in its entirety – writing the poems, illustrating the pages, etc.) usually took about 2 weeks. Sometimes less, depending on the students, but never more. With my honors kids, I would often assign a certain amount as homework so it didn’t stretch too far into class time. I found that the kids needed my help, though, in many cases, so I shied away from assigning the whole (or majority of) thing as homework.

If this sounds like something you’d like to do in your classroom, you are in luck. I’ve already created the templates and rubrics for the project. All you have to do is decide which poetic devices you want to assess.

Click here for the Poetry Calendar Project.