Secondary English Teachers CAN have a Life Outside the Classroom!

Strategies that reduce your work load and increase student learning.

How many times have you had to hold your tongue when someone comments that it must be nice to work from nine to three and get summers off?  It's a hard comment to take when you're spending hours and hours grading and planning, often ignoring time with family, friends and yourself.

It takes a lot of work to teach English well, but I don't think we should have to sacrifice our own well being and happiness for our students. I also don't think it's selfish to say so. Yes, we want what's best for all those kids in our class, but we can give them more and take care of ourselves - all it takes is a shift in mindset and in the way we run our classrooms. Stay with me as I give you some strategies that just might give you more free time, strategies that have made a real difference for me -- and my students. 

We are all painfully aware of how much of our time we give to assessment. It's such an important part of the learning process, and we want to tell our students what they need to do to improve. But does it all have to be done after hours?

Make your students responsible for the feedback you give them.
My answer is no, not only because it takes so much time, but because it's not the most effective way to move students forward. Kids don't always take the time to read your feedback, plus it comes after the assignment is done. If you shift things around and give them more feedback during the process, they are more likely to use it. And I'm not suggesting that you take in drafts and read them at home -- this post is about alleviating that! Instead, sit with your kids and give them feedback as they are working on assignments. This way they get direction exactly when they need it and can use it right away. You can make your students take responsibility for their role in this process by using these free feedback forms. Students will use them to come to the conference prepared, ready to discuss their work. And, as you conference with them, ask them to write down any feedback you give them. When they pass in a finished copy of their work, they will highlight places where they attempted to use the feedback. 

If you've been conferencing with students as they write, their final pieces should be more polished. Your job at this point is to assign a grade, not to give feedback, so there's no need to spend hours writing all over their papers. I have also successfully graded assignments with students as they sat in front of me -- rather than do it at home -- and every one of them agreed afterward that it was far more effective than getting graded assignments back a week or more later.

Strategies that reduce your work load and increase student learning.

Conferencing with your students does require a little shifting of the traditional lesson plan,  but I can tell you, based on my experience, that this is a real game changer, because you will take less home, and your students will learn more. Sound like a good idea?

Sure, you're thinking. But how do I make the time to do that? It's the exact same thought I used to have before I started doing these things successfully in my classroom. Since then, I've learned three very effective ways you can free yourself up to spend more time with individual students:

Strategies that reduce your work load and increase student learning.
One of the easiest ways to free up time for you to give one-on-one feedback is to use workshops and /or learning stations. With the workshop approach, teachers begin their classes with a short mini-lesson that introduces or reinforces a skill. Then, during workshop, students have time to work independently on that skill and apply it to whatever they are working on. Stations provide areas for them to complete tasks, work on certain skills, and conference with each other. While your students are working independently, you have time to work with small groups or individuals, giving them feedback and instruction where necessary. It's a very different approach for secondary classrooms, but it's one that works, mostly because it puts the responsibility right where it needs to be: in the students' hands. Try it by creating your own feedback stations using these task cards.

Even if you don't use a full workshop approach, you can still find ways to have more time during class. You've heard the saying before: teachers should not be the hardest working people in the room. Most of us have moved away from the stand-and-deliver lecture method of teaching, but often we're still the ones putting all the work into the prep before class and the action during it. If you turn this around, not only do you get more time, but your kids will think and learn more. So how do you do it?

Design lessons that put the responsibility for thinking and learning in the students' hands, not yours.
Most of my lesson plans when we do a full class text are very brief. Most contain a variation on the following questions: What's most important? Why do you think so? How can you prove it? What questions do you have? We begin with a quick-write reflection, then I move students into groups to discuss what they've written or the notes they've taken on the text.  Today, we did an activity that I blogged about last year, and while my students did the exercises, I got the rest of the week planned out. So, by planning activities that are student-directed, I can get more work done in class. Grab this freebie so you can try it too.

Now you can't just start this on the first day of class and expect success; you do have to do a bit of work upfront to get them trained. However, once they know what they are doing, you can stand back and watch them learn. To get there, you need to:

  • Teach students to close read/take notes
  • Model how you interpret & analyze text
  • Establish routines/expectations for small and large group discussion

You can learn more about how I do this on my blog posts: Getting kids to do their reading and Scaffolding literary analysis.

Strategies that reduce your work load and increase student learning.
We don't have to be the only one giving feedback. When we give students clear goals, instructions and exemplars, they are usually quite able to help their peers. In fact, they are usually better at revising others' work than their own. However, I know that teenagers can't always be relied upon to do a great job, so sometimes I give them a little more incentive, and have them to fill in one of these forms that require them to be explicit in their feedback. You can get more information about how I use them in my classroom on this blog post.

So as you enjoy your summer break this year, spend some time thinking about how you could make some changes in your classroom that will allow you to bring fewer piles of paper home. It means you may have to totally change the way you run things, but it might also mean that your students learn more and you have more time on your hands. It's worth thinking about, isn't it?

Do you have questions or comments that you'd like to share? I'd love to hear them, so leave them in the comments! 

Happy teaching.

You might also like these time-savers:
Student-Teacher Conferences by The SuperHERO Teacher


4 Types of Summer Reading (and How to Assess Them)

As English teachers, we romanticize the idea of curling up with a book poolside... but our students probably don't. Even if they do, they likely do not appreciate the required reading books that we (or our department heads) choose for them. Further, more research seems to support reading choice books than reading teacher-assigned novels, but the latter practice persists anyway.

So how do we make summer reading assignments meaningful, if not enjoyable, for everyone?

I believe part of the answer is choosing the right TYPE of summer reading task, not to mention the form of assessment we will use with the book afterward. Based on our incoming students' talents and needs, what sort of reading will promote the most growth? Do they need an increased love of reading, or just a boost in comprehension? Is your goal to block the summer slide, or to prep them for the specific course you'll be teaching them soon?

As an English teacher and a survivor of MANY summer reading programs as a student, I've seen four common paths of summer reading assignments. Choosing the right one depends on your students' abilities and your eventual goal for that reading.

What it is: NOT just for elementary grades! Students read several books to meet a goal, such as a total number of books, a total number of hours spent reading, etc. The goal is usually to achieve growth as a reader (or at least to prevent the dreaded summer slide). Since the emphasis is on quantity, usually the students get to pick their own books (within reason).

Best for: Either teens who need challenge (i.e. An honors class) or those who need growth (like a middle school or lower-ability class).

Setting it up: First, see if your public library already has a Summer Reading Program that you can capitalize. (Here's my local one as an example.) If not, decide if you want students to log hours spent reading, total quantity of books read, or another metric.

Back to School: Your first goal is to confirm that they actually did it, whether that's asking for parent signatures or assessing their knowledge of the books. Then, decide what grade or course-appropriate way you want to celebrate that reading! (Why not with a Tower of Books?)

What it is: Choice reading again, but quality over quantity this time. Perhaps students choose one grade-appropriate novel from a list, or read one that meets certain criteria (such as, "anything that's a memoir" or "any contemporary fiction"). Choice reading can mean one book, or choosing several (like in #1 above).

Best for: English classes with a specialization, theme, or year-long essential question

Setting it up: Make sure you have a guidelines sheet that clearly explains what they can read, what the purpose of the assignment is, and what they'll have to do with the book upon return to school. (Pro tip: Proofread that letter from the perspective of the parent who is taking the student to the bookstore or library, and make your directions clear!)

Back to School: Use a broader assessment type or activity that can be applied to any book. For example, try this FREE Summer Reading Scavenger Hunt activity as a diagnostic or formative assessment (to see if students can find literary devices in their own novels)!

What it is: The teacher assigns one book (or a small set of texts) for mandatory reading, usually as a prerequisite assignment for the upcoming course; the text might be related to the course's theme or difficulty level (such as reading Shakespeare before a Brit Lit class).

Best for: Specialized or advanced English classes, the ones for which students might benefit from early exposure.

Setting it up: After making sure that the school supports your choice of novel (and will have your back in the event of protesting parents), make sure all upcoming students know what book to go find. (The bookstores and libraries might appreciate some forewarning, too!)

Back to School: Either collect student homework (such as an essay that was written over the summer), or begin a novel unit based on the text that they have (supposedly) read.

What it is: Whether it's choice OR a mandatory text, the novel is just a means to an end, such as examining the American Dream, identifying symbolism, collecting vocabulary, or finding a theme.

Best for: Any English class!

Setting it up: Frame your directions by defining and explaining the skill or concept you're looking for. (Perhaps your assignment sheet will include a mini-lesson on theme or active reading?) Make fully clear what you're looking for and why!

Back to School: Have students lead the discussion of how their book(s) did or did not fit the concept, or use self-assessment to see how they grew.

My FAVORITE way to keep the summer reading ball rolling (and get other assessments into my gradebook) is to expand summer reading to vocabulary, writing, and NON-fiction!

I use this mini-unit as a stepping stone to get students ready for DBQs, evaluating different source types, and thinking more about opposing viewpoints. (What do teachers, parents, booksellers, and others think about summer reading? How will we refute their viewpoints in an argument?)

Have a wonderful summer of reading!
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3 Types of Puzzles & Games for ELA

Have you tried incorporating puzzles and games in your ELA classroom? Well, I’m here today to talk about my favorite ways to do so, and the benefits I see in students. Using puzzles and games in the high school classroom is a great way to build collaboration, critical thinking, and a growth mindset. Puzzles can be particularly powerful in the ELA classroom because they allow students to approach words logically, mathematically, and visually, creating cross-brain connections.

Using Puzzles and Games in ELA helps engage students, foster critical thinking, and build collaboration. At the Secondary English Coffee Shop blog, we talk word games, team trivia, and escape rooms in the secondary classroom. (blog)

I’ve talked before about my love of puzzles at my blog, and how I’m good at some (jigsaw puzzles, woot woot!) and terrible at others (tanglement/mechanical puzzles… you know, the metal or string ones that supposedly pull apart? Yeah, those are tough for me), and today I want to extend that conversation and offer up some new ideas.

1.       Word Games

Word Games are the easiest thing you could possibly integrate in ELA, and they have so many benefits! They foster critical thinking, extend student vocabulary, and create multilingual connections. I’m a huge fan of word games, such as Taboo® or Scattergories®. These can be great as filler games, but they can also be incorporated into your teaching, too. They make fantastic reviews.

You can use the Taboo® set-up to review any list of vocabulary words, characters, or actions in a novel or short story. Simply create five words that students aren’t allowed to say when giving their clues. You can also have students create these for another team or group. For example, I split my class into groups of four or five, and have each student create five cards. Then, I have them duplicate the cards, creating two piles. Their whole group combines the cards into two duplicate sets. Then, they pass these sets to two other groups. Now, each group should have two sets of 20-25 cards, for a total of 50.

I also LOVE sharing Cryptograms with students. A Cryptogram is a single puzzle (often a quote or a list) where a cipher has been used to encrypt the message. Generally, this is a simple substitution cipher (A transforms to F, B transforms to X…) and the player must figure out the message. These are incredibly powerful in the classroom because students have to think about common letter clusters (t-h-e, s-t) and common double letters to begin unlocking the code. They have to develop a sense of patterns and possibilities and rarities (h-h isn’t a possible double letter in English, and the letter j is pretty rare).

Using Puzzles and Games in ELA helps engage students, foster critical thinking, and build collaboration. At the Secondary English Coffee Shop blog, we talk word games, team trivia, and escape rooms in the secondary classroom. (blog)

Download these free literary-themed Cryptograms to get started using these in your classroom today. :)

2.       Team Bellringers

I’ve also introduced Team Bellringers in my classroom.

I love going to play trivia each week at a local restaurant, and they have an ongoing competition where our points add up for the whole month. Our team members are committed to coming every week because we know the group is counting on us to win the grand prize.

I decided to introduce the same concept in my classroom. I created two sets of forty mini-quizzes (similar to one round of trivia) to be used as bellringers, and students split into teams of 3-4 and keep a running score over the course of a month. Each mini-quiz is focused on literature, movies, and music, and has some sort of word game twist to it. For example, one mini-quiz asks students to identify classic novels and authors based only on their initials. Another asks students to identify the children’s book depicted as a cake. There’s also a literary math puzzle that I love (“The number of Winnie the Pooh’s friends minus the number who are female…”)!

Using Puzzles and Games in ELA helps engage students, foster critical thinking, and build collaboration. At the Secondary English Coffee Shop blog, we talk word games, team trivia, and escape rooms in the secondary classroom. (blog)

These mini-quizzes can be used as daily bellringers or exit slips, a closing activity on a Friday, or as an entire reward day. They encourage collaboration and challenge students to think critically. They are also engaging and make use of everyone’s expertise.

You can grab these bellringers at my TeachersPayTeachers store: Volume 1 and Volume 2.

3.       Escape Rooms

Lastly, I am planning on incorporating Escape Rooms in my classroom next year. In a traditional Escape Room, you are led through a series of puzzles that eventually culminates in you receiving a key (to “escape the room”). You can also play Breakout Boxes, with the end result of the puzzles being a key to access a box that has some sort of prize.

I recently developed an Escape Room Review Game for Romeo & Juliet to use with my students in the fall. As a test review, I wanted to make sure that each puzzle focused on a different element (Plot, Character, Conflict, Figurative Language, Quotes, etc.) of the play.

Using Puzzles and Games in ELA helps engage students, foster critical thinking, and build collaboration. At the Secondary English Coffee Shop blog, we talk word games, team trivia, and escape rooms in the secondary classroom. (blog)

Making a “room” takes a lot of work (luckily, there’s TpT!), but students are engaged and motivated throughout the review. You’re not exactly fooling them (they know they’re reviewing), but you’re giving them stakes for the review beyond the grade. Also, it’s exactly what I would have liked to do when I was a student, so there’s always that. ;)

What are your favorite tips for teaching with puzzles and games? I’d love to hear more from you in comments!

Also, check out these great resources from the other Coffee Shop teachers.

Grammar Games Bundle by Room 213
Grammar Races by The Classroom Sparrow
Word Puzzles by Presto Plans
Board Game for Any Novel by The SuperHERO Teacher

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Using Puzzles and Games in ELA helps engage students, foster critical thinking, and build collaboration. At the Secondary English Coffee Shop blog, we talk word games, team trivia, and escape rooms in the secondary classroom. (blog)

Minimizing Stress at the End of the Year

Helpful tips for minimizing stress at the end of the school year.

The end of the school year is near, and that means it is time to start thinking about final projects and final exams. Usually the last few weeks of the school year are a whirlwind or stress. Between trying to squeeze in the rest of the curriculum, grade final papers and projects, and maintain our sanity, and maintain our sanity, it's easy to get caught up in the end-of-the-year madness. And let me tell you, it is entirely okay and entirely normal to feel stretched a little bit too thin right about now. We've all been there. Here are some tried and true ways to minimize end of the school year stress.
Helpful tips for minimizing stress at the end of the school year.

Now, I am not ashamed to admit it, but I always plan a student work day toward the end of each semester or grading term. By the end of the term, I totally need this day. Yes, I tell my students that the work day is to help them prepare and study for final exams, and yes, it really does help them, so that’s a bonus. However, the day is for me. I use that day to finalize any grading that I still need to do before the final round of grading begins. I use that day to get caught up with all of my work that’s piled up as I made my way through the end of the year rush.

When I give final exams, I always let my students bring one page of notes to use on the test, and I dedicate a day in class for them to write their notes. While some educators believe this might not be the best practice for final exams, I truly believe that it helps the learning process. In creating and writing their notes, students review the content, write the content, study the content, and learn the content. I get a day to grade, and students get a day to study. It’s a win-win for everyone!

In addition to planning for a student work day, teachers can also minimize stress by administering a multiple-choice final exam. To help stressed out teachers during the end of the school year, I have a premade, 100 question test with a student study guide that is completely formatted and entirely editable. Actually, there are two different versions of a 100 question test in this resource, so teachers have more than 200 questions to choose from! It is ideal for final exams because it covers standards and skills for middle school and high school English language arts classes. And since this test is a Word document, teachers can easily change questions and answers to suit their needs, all while keeping the formatting and answer key to save time. I’ve used this test (and various versions of this test) for many years.

Another way to minimize stress while maintaining high standards in class is by holding a Socratic Seminar or Fishbowl Discussion as a final activity. These activities can be graded in class as students participate in the activity, and they require students to practice their listening and speaking skills. When I hold a Socratic Seminar or Fishbowl discussion, I will usually give the students a list of comprehensive questions that require evidence to support their answers about a week before the seminar. I encourage students to work on a few questions each night so that they produce thorough answers that are complete with examples and analysis.

Free Socratic Seminar questions to help students review at the end of the year.
You can download this FREE list of end of the year Socratic Seminar questions that are ideal for reviewing an entire semester’s worth of content. For English and literature classes, I also have a Socratic Seminar resource that works with any novel.

During the Seminar, students discuss what they learned the most, what content stuck with them, what challenges and obstacles they faced and overcame throughout the year, and more. It’s a good review of the semester.

Another way to minimize stress is to plan backwards and make sure that you give yourself enough time to grade final essays. During my first year of teaching, I made the mistake of having large research papers due the Friday before final exams. I gave myself less than a week to grade more than 150 research papers. I was a ball of stress that weekend. Since then, I’ve learned from this mistake. All of my final papers are due at least two weeks before grades are due. Planning for adequate grading time at the end of the year is essential for your mental health. Here is what my final week of school typically looks like now. Between the student work day, using a multiple-choice final exam, and scheduling my final writing projects beforehand, the end of the year isn't as hectic as it used to be.

As the end of the year draws near, don’t fret. Have some fun with you students and try out various end of the year activities and end of the year growth mindset activities to end the year on a positive note. And if you find yourself stressing out, just know that you are in good company. Teachers everywhere are tired and overloaded with grading. You've got this. Summer is right around the corner.

Teens can get stressed at the end of the year, too. Jackie from Room 213 shares ideas here on how to help teens manage their stress.

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