3 Ways to Get Your Teens to Dig Deeper

Do some of your students like to skate across the surface of things, just doing the bare minimum to get by? I certainly have my share every year. I also have quite a number of students who want to do their best, but they need more guidance to be able to push themselves to the next level. I've found that I get so much more out of my students when I do the following: 

Lessons and activities for middle and high school English
Students have a tendency to put their focus so much on creating a final product, that they skip over important parts of the process -- and those parts are where the magic happens. Unless we force their hand sometimes, many will take the easy way out and just "get 'er done." When my kids are reading, writing or speaking, I build in opp-ortunities in class that require them to slow down and think. Learning to analyze complex texts, for example, is difficult, but it's less so when students realize that even we English teachers have to go through a process when we analyze -- it doesn't just come to us magically. I also focus on the process when they write, taking them through the steps necessary to write something great. Giving an effective presentation requires a thinking process as well, so we spend time on that too. Even something as simple as a bell ringer prompt turns into an opportunity to dig deeper. Before they begin any prompt, students need to brainstorm. Then, in the following days (or later in the class), they spend time on the different skills they can use to turn the prompt into a effective piece of writing. You can try one of these by clicking here

All of this process work takes time, of course, but to me it's time very well spent.

Collaboration is an important part of the thinking process for so many reasons. The ability to listen and ask good questions during discussion is a key component of learning, because speaking allows us to explore our ideas; hearing the ideas of others helps us to take them even further. 

My students do a lot of work together in groups, but they need to be shown how to do that effectively too. Early in the semester, I take volunteers to the front of the room to help me model what effective collaboration looks like. Then, I provide discussion starters for the students to use when they work in groups. Most of the group activities I have them do require that they follow a process to get to an end product, so I constantly marry process with collaboration.

Lessons and activities for middle and high school English classes.
One of my favourite new tools for student collaboration are my placemats. They are not only colourful and fun to use, but they take students through a process they can follow when they work together in groups. I especially like them because they begin with individual reflections, some-thing many of our students need to do before they can share their ideas with others. Then, students are guid-ed through a process that helps them complete the task in a way that requires that they fully flesh out the idea on the placemat. 

Classroom decor
If we want our students to grow, they need to be willing to take risks. And, if we want them to do that, we need to provide them safe place to do so. One of the first activities I do each semester focuses on the importance of failure in life and learning. I love this activity because it gets the kids talking about learning from failure while I teach and model the skills they will need to be successful throughout the year. It is also the first time I will give them a formative assessment, as they get descriptive feedback on the responses they do for the unit. Using formative assessment is a sure way to encourage your students to try new things, to stretch just a little bit farther. (Would you like to grab the poster in the above image? Grab it  here.)

When we put a focus on process, collaboration and risk-taking, we give our students quite a gift. They won't often analyze a text or write an essay in years to come, but they will be working with others. They will need to think. They will definitely need to be friends with failure. By giving them a safe place to hone these skills, we are preparing them for a lifetime of learning.


Espresso Shot: Creating a Classroom Community in an English Class

In the first month of school, teachers are usually focused on classroom setup, establishing procedures, launching routines, and digging into the first unit. Although we DO want students to be organized and to feel safe as individuals, we also need them to open up and collaborate as part of a bigger classroom community. 

Read on for 9 ideas about how to create bonding, shared experiences, and interactions that foster community-building. (By the way, you can check out a similar blog post of ours about community-building here.)

The SuperHERO Teacher
Teaching kindness and collaboration amongst students is such an important part of a positive classroom community! I love using interactive bulletin boards to encourage students to motivate each other. Recently, I created this nature-themed bulletin board using Polaroid frames with inspiring quotes, twine, and clothes pins. Basically, if students need a bit of motivation, they can take a quote from the board, but they must replace it with a new quote! At the end of the year, students will be exchanging quotes from each other-- making a strong classroom relationship! Here's the link

Addie Williams
I work hard to create a collaborative and welcoming classroom community and one way I do this is through writing about kindness. I share a kindness quote with my students as a writing prompt and have them work on it individually before sharing their ideas with a partner and then with a larger group. I ask them to look for similarities in their responses. Demonstrating to my students that I value kindness and community early on in the year will hopefully create a sense of caring throughout the year. Use these free Kindness Quotes to get started!

Secondary Sara
One of the hurdles to community-building is when students aren't willing to be vulnerable, they try to be perfect, or they compete instead of connect. As much as strengths and growth mindset are important, we teachers also need to help students identify and tackle their weaknesses in an honest way. I like doing this in a humorous way by "curing" student diseases. I joke about students who have "Procrastinitis", and when students own that problem, it becomes a springboard for other areas of concern as well (like upset binders, high test pressure, and silence infections). Get the poster set AND activities to accompany them here

Danielle Hall
One of the ways students build our classroom community is by working together to solve problems or puzzles. I use team trivia to start out our class at the beginning of the year, getting students used to collaborating and thinking critically.

 They develop a healthy sense of teamwork and competition.  Here's a free week to get you started.

The Classroom Sparrow
A simple way to create a positive classroom community is to display work from students around a classroom. It doesn't necessarily have to be an assignment, even a collaborative discussion full of insight from everyone in a class adds positivity and shows that everyone's opinion/view is valued! If you're lacking in work to display, simply begin a class with a simple prompt, motivational quote, or question! Here is a collaborative poem I had students create to begin a poetry unit. Everyone took 10-15 mins to cut out 30-40 words, then I paired students and peers to create a beautiful and colourful example of poetry, which remained on my bulletin boards for the length of the unit!

The Daring English Teacher
I teach at a very diverse school, and there are 23 different home languages represented in our student body. Bringing together such a diverse group can sometimes be challenging, so I created Classroom Community Bell Ringers to help us all find a common ground. These bell ringers include quotes about love, acceptance, diversity, and tolerance and a brief writing prompt. My students take the first five minutes in class to read the quote and quickly respond to the prompt. Then we share our responses aloud. This exercise has helped forge new connections amongst students who once thought there was no common ground.

Stacey Lloyd
At the beginning of the year we always spend time thinking about positive and negative behaviors in the classroom: social, emotional and academic. Students come up with their suggestions by walking around the room and anonymously adding their thoughts to various prompts. I then compile these into a list and have students all sign their names on the document - which stays on the wall all year. Any time I find a student acting out or being unkind or unhelpful, I point to their signature and hold them to account.

Room 213
We spend a great deal of time during the first few weeks building our classroom climate. I want kids to feel free to discuss their views and to know that it's okay to disagree with someone, as long as they do so respectfully. We develop a class code of conduct, and I put up posters to remind them to be empathetic, kind and understanding of differences. They are a good visual reminder of the things we discussed and the exercises we do during the first few days of school. You can grab them for free here.

Presto Plans
Building a positive classroom community is an intentional process. One way to do this is by having students complete short challenges that encourage kindness, collaboration, teamwork, expression, and the sharing of ideas and opinions. Start your year or semester by presenting short classroom challenges that can be used as bell-ringers, a class close-up activity, or a fun way to start or end the week. I suggest you set up a bulletin board that allows you to build suspense and reveal one challenge at a time. Make the challenges fun, collaborative, and stress-free. For example, you might consider getting students to write a thank-you card for someone, write a funny top 10 list, play a game of 20 questions, or interview a classmate.

We hope you enjoy these ideas! Tell us what you think, or tell us more ideas in the comments!

Espresso Shot: Our Worst Back-to-School Nightmares

It might look easy for some of us veteran teachers, but the truth is we all have back-to-school nightmares this time of year. Keep on reading to find out what keeps the Coffee Shop Teachers up at night:

The SuperHERO Teacher: Ahhhh! Back to school nightmares are the worst! I always dream that my students are in the classroom and my supervisor comes in and I have nothing to say and I completely blank. He just stares and me and is fiercely writing down notes. Then, the worst part, is when all of my students are smirking and laughing at me-- like I've instantly lost their respect! Yikes-- I'm getting uncomfortable just typing this! Lol.

The Daring English Teacher: Every single year as the new year approaches, I always have back-to-school nightmares that wake me up in a cold sweat, and they are always the same. I am scrambling to leave my house on time the first day back, and then once I get to school, I am in complete disarray. I haven't planned anything. I don't even know which classes I am teaching, my schedule, or where my room is, and I am a complete mess. After I eventually meander aimlessly into what must be my classroom, I am standing in front forty-something students without anything to say and a blank, dumbfounded look on my face. That is when I usually wake up, realize school isn't for another week or two, and try to go back to sleep.

Secondary SaraMy school nightmare is the classic unprepared dream with a twist. It's the first day of school, I find out that I'm teaching a new class I didn't know about, and when I arrive to a room of expectant teens, I obviously don't have a syllabus or lesson or anything ready... so I go off in search of one, and THEN proceed to get lost, until I end up wandering a mall or office supply store failing to find what I need... Just like any good Pixar plot, my dreams like to make things progressively worse for the protagonist!

Addie Williams: It never fails. Every year I have the same back to school nightmare. In it, I am starting at a new school and everything goes horribly wrong. I arrive late and when I get there I run in a panic through the halls because I can't find my classroom. When I finally locate my classroom, I arrive to find chaos. But the worst part of it is that my voice doesn't work... so as I try to gain control of the room... I can't. No words will come out...

Room 213: Even after almost thirty years of teaching, I still get that back to school nightmare in August, and it's always a variation on the same theme: I'm standing before an out of control class, trying to speak, and no sound comes out. I try and try to speak, getting increasingly frustrated as nothing works. The class gets worse and worse, and I stand there helpless.  I always wake up before I find my voice, but that feeling of desperation stays with me for hours. 

Stacey Lloyd: Oh, I get the nightmares: throughout the whole summer. And I have a whole variety of them: everything from being unable to find the school, to turning up completely unprepared, to having forgotten to put clothes on (that's a predictable, frequent one). Yet, every year my back-to-school season is a joy - a busy one, but still a joy. As yet, I have never gotten lost, or forgotten to get dressed, or turned up to the wrong class... so here's hoping this this year will be no different! I just wish my sleep wasn't so disturbed with these pesky nightmares.

Presto Plans: I tend to have a variety of nightmares during the month before heading back-to-school. Some of the reoccurring highlights include showing up late on the first day, having absolutely no control over my class, and being completely unprepared. One common dream that also finds its way into the mix has me arriving on the first day of school to learn that my schedule has completely changed from teaching English to teaching Advanced Math. I am given absolutely no time to prep and am thrown in front of a room full of high-achieving twelfth graders. I stumble my way through the start of a lesson, but it isn’t long until they see that I am a complete fraud who has no idea what she is talking about.

The Classroom Sparrow: My school year began like any other. Everything was set and organized for my first day of class. Our meet the teacher night was successful with lots of parents in attendance. I felt like I chatted with a lot more parents than usual, so I was pretty confident the school year was off to a great start. I also chatted with a lot of the teachers throughout the evening, as this was only my second term at this school after relocating, so I was still quite new to the building. I arrived home and was eager to tell my husband about the evening...then I looked down to take off my shoes. This image summed up my year. 

Nouvelle ELA: The rest of these nightmares are TERRIFYING and I'm glad I don't remember my dreams very often. I'll tell you that I have (in real life) shown up to school with two different shoes on, had mild clothing malfunctions, and made the wrong photocopies at least three times. My biggest tip is to handle every situation with grace and humor - kids will remember our reaction more than the incident itself, and this is what they learn from. So, admit you got dressed in the dark, fix the tear with a safety pin, and get them working on something without photocopies. You got this.

Clearly there's a theme here: we all have a great fear of not being our best selves on the first day, whether it's because a lack of preparation or the inability to take control of the situation. Luckily, we all know that these nightmares are just the stuff of dreams, as long as we go into that first day with a good plan (and all of our clothes on and matching!). As Danielle, from Nouvelle ELA said, "you've got this." 

What are your back-to-school nightmares? We'd love to hear them!

Espresso Shot: 9 of The Best Resources for Back to School

The lovely ladies of the Secondary English Coffee Shop have put together a list of their favorite resources to start off the year in your ELA classroom.  We hope these resources help you ease back into the school year after a restful and relaxing summer! Happy Back to School!

The first month of school is hectic as it is, so why not make your life a bit easier while you settle into your new classes? I use writing prompts to begin my first month of class. Not only do they give me an idea as to where my students' writing skills are, but they also give me a few minutes to settle into my new classes. That extra 10-15 minutes also settles the class before the lesson of the day begins!

Teachers have a lot of skills to review and procedures to explain during the first month of school. I like to find novel ways to do this that not only save my voice, but also help the kids really learn. These stations are designed to teach students the information they need to respond to text and to understand author technique. They make the kids more responsible for learning how to annotate, respond and analyze and get them ready for the work you'll do with them throughout the semester. - Room 213

One of the tough parts about the first month is easing back into the workload and staying as organized as you were on the first day. These grading helper sheets are my sanity-saver when student papers first start coming in. I've noticed that my turnaround time is faster and I actually remember to do and say more with students when I use these Grading Helpers. - Secondary Sara

In the first few weeks of school, I need to get to know my students. And yes, I mean that I need to get to know their names, work patterns, likes and dislikes; however, I also need to get to know them academically: how much they comprehend when they read a piece of text; where their weaknesses are grammatically; how fluently they can communicate their thoughts and idea. When I have a firm grasp on these things, I can better differentiate my instruction and meet their needs. Therefore, I always start with a reading/writing lesson which helps me quickly get to know my students academically, such as this Reading and Writing lesson, specifically designed for back-to-school. - Stacey Lloyd

Okay, so I am one of those teachers who doesn't rock at classroom decor. Instead, I make sure early on to let students do it for me. We review literary terms and devices in the first couple weeks, and each student makes a poster about a term. I use these to decorate our classroom for the first quarter, and swap them out later for drama terms or figurative language posters. Students love seeing their work on the walls, and their solid examples make the vocabulary easier to remember for everyone. - Nouvelle ELA

One lesson I always integrate into the first few weeks of school is teaching students how to effectively take notes. I prefer to teach students the Cornell Notes method since it uses a systematic procedure that allows students to organize ideas into categories and reflect and summarize on the information they learn. Not every student will choose to use the system regularly, but I make all my students try it for at least a couple of days to see if it could be a good method for them. Students can use their own loose-leaf, but I also keep Cornell notes templates in my classroom for those who prefer to use them - Presto Plans

One of the first things I do start off a new school year is to try to help students stay organized.  It can be easy to lose track of the vocabulary we learn during the year in my English class so I give all of my students a blank student dictionary.  As we move through different units and all of the new (and old) terms they learn during the year I have them add to their dictionaries.  By the end of the year my students have a great study guide and I know that many of them keep the dictionaries to use in their next English class.  - Addie Williams

There are so many essential skills I want to teach my new students in the first couple weeks of school, but there definitely isn’t enough time to get to it all. One of my favorite lessons to teach students is how to paraphrase, summarize, and quote text. I love this lesson for many reasons: it teaches students about three key writing elements for class; it helps make the transition into essay writing much easier; and it prepares students for future sub days. Once my students know how to paraphrase, summarize, and quote text, I can leave the graphic organizer and whatever text fits our current unit with the sub, and I know that they have a quality day planned. - The Daring English Teacher

At the beginning of the school year, I always feel overwhelmed about all of the data I'm required to record about my students as well as learning about my students' strengths and weaknesses in the ELA classroom!  To solve this issue, I designed a binder for student-teacher conferences.  Within the binder, there are three sections: beginning of the year check point, middle of the year check point, and end of the year check point.  During each check point, the teacher and the student sit down for a brief conference to discuss the students' strengths and weaknesses, and set goals for the next meeting!  Not only does it help you document essential information about your students' learning abilities, but it also builds positive rapport with them.  My students LOVED having one on one time with me and discussing all of the opportunities available for them.  -The SuperHERO Teacher

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