12 Tips for Teaching Grammar like a Pro

In the past five years, I've tried everything a variety of methods to meet the grammar needs of that year's class of students. Let me save you the trouble of finding some things out the hard way... as well as some ideas that are just plain cool.

Here's the problem: 
Teachers of English are put into a tricky set of dilemmas every school year:
  • How do find "enough" time for students to master, or at least improve, in different grammar topics?
  • How do we engage students in a topic that they find boring and/or difficult?
  • How do we choose which topics we do (or do not) teach?
  • How do I cope when my students either didn't master OR didn't maintain grammar fundamentals from previous years?
  • How do I reconcile my own beliefs, opinions, and/or background knowledge with the task in front of me?
On one hand, there's no one right answer. We have to adjust our grammar instruction from year to year to meet the needs of the classes we just inherited. 

However - and I may ruffle feathers here - as long as there is standardized testing in our schools, we cannot blow off grammar. Period. 

Even if we don't want to uphold the most traditional norms of Standard English and wish to be more linguistically progressive, it's a disservice to not equip students to be competitive in the worlds, like test-taking, that are not optional at this time. 

SO, how can teachers survive and thrive in this subsection of ELA? Here are some tips to think about as you plan your school year of instruction!

1. Find and give a grade-level pretest
Make or find a pretest to see what students know, but don't feel pressure to make it include all grammar for the year; it's fine to pretest just the topics you think you'll cover that quarter or term. Then you'll know more confidently what you do (or don't!) need to teach.

Even better? Give a pretest in the format of the next standardized test they'll take. I've been known to scan and print a page of the ACT's English section from a test prep book and give it to 8th graders. 

2. Prove why students should care
I love using part or all of my "Why Grammar?" mini-unit, because it lets students read why grammar and editing matter (from people OTHER than me), and motivates them to care more. I'd rather have them hear it from more authentic sources than just take my word for it!

If you don't have enough time for the whole mini-unit, you might like part or all of my Word Crimes lesson, made to go with the music video!

3. Give quizzes that grade themselves
Check out all of the tech options you have in your building and see if any come with the ability to create self-grading quizzes or polls. My team uses Edmodo, so we can create self-grading quizzes as little formative checkpoints. (Backup plan? Use Google Forms!)

4. Teach it in reverse
The trouble with traditional memorization of rules is that not all students gain the ability to really understand the patterns and "why" of grammar; they know a rule, but can't apply it.

I recently started teaching grammar with inductive reasoning, showing wrong AND right examples and asking students to infer the rule. It helps their analytical skills!

5. Narrow your rubric
You don't have to grade EVERY piece of writing for grammar, but even when you do, there's no rule that says you have to point out EVERY mistake they make (at least all the time). It's fine to make a rubric in which you JUST grade commas, or JUST spelling/homophones. Your shortened grading time per paper will thank you!

6. Put students in the role of teacher (& artist!)
We learn by doing and teaching, right? Push students to deeper levels of thinking with two cool projects

7. Take requests!
Every once in a while, why not take student requests on which mini-lessons you should do next? It will up their engagement as well as make them take some ownership and curiosity of a sometimes-dry topic. 

8. Students make their own learning goals 
The ultimate low-stress differentiation is to let students self-assess, identify their own problem areas, make plans to fix them, and then accomplish those plans. Show visible growth from each student with my Grammar & Proofreading Project. 

9. Reward error-finding
Students catch a grammar error on a store sign? Found a typo in a published book? Caught a business in a sloppy mistake on an ad? Find a way to reward them for their finds - it can be a point, a piece of candy, or just public praise. 

10. Write original sentences ASAP
Don't just give all the mentor sentences away; make students copy real sentences from others AND also write their own original ones! They need to practice recognizing errors AND drafting correctly the first time. If you need help, here are 10 activities to write grammar rules in context.

11. Use videos wisely
Even if you don't have student-made videos (see #6), I highly recommend giving students EITHER videos you find online, or recordings of you explaining a grammar topic. I "flip" most of my grammar instruction with homemade videos; I make PowerPoints explaining a topic and then use screencastomatic.com to record myself narrating over those slides and teaching.

There are serious advantages to having grammar instruction in video format. It helps absent students, not to mention any student (IEP or not) who needs to hear something multiple times before it "sticks".

12. FREEBIE: Find it in the texts you're reading!
I've seen elaborate mini-lessons analyzing the grammar used in a specific text, and while those are fine, sometimes it's enough to just:
  • Make brief mentions while doing a close reading ("Did y'all see that semicolon that Dickens just used, btw?")
  • Collecting correct sentences from texts! Use my FREE Grammar in Literature activity sheets if you need a starting point!

The bottom line
Any grammar instruction is better than none, and you have the professional skills and judgment to help your students in the best way that you can. If you don't give up, and if you model that grammar is important, then your teens and tweens will be better for it!

18 Tips for Teaching Creative Writing {with FREEBIE}

Teaching a creative writing class?
Need a boost before your next narrative unit?

Regardless of your experience and enthusiasm, teaching creative writing can be daunting in all its forms (fiction, poetry, narrative nonfiction, etc.).

But why is that?

Problem #1: Writers are picky.
As both a teacher and a student, I can vouch that creative writers can be picky. I'm sure you know the excuses objections we raise when faced with a task...
We don't like THAT prompt.
We want to listen to OUR music while we write.
We don't feel like it right now.
We want to sit somewhere that's NOT a desk.

Making a classroom environment for creative writing becomes a differentiation task in itself!

Problem #2: Student writers are vulnerable and may lack self-confidence. 
Middle and high school writers constantly claim that they "can't think of anything to write about" or "don't know what to write next". Sometimes, those cries are the truth, but a lot of times, they DO have an idea and just don't feel self-confident enough to move forward with it.

Combating student insecurity has to involve a combination of:
  • "Stacking" an assignment in their favor (more on that later), 
  • Teaching new skills in mini-lessons (so they have new techniques to try as a starting point), and 
  • Training students not to fear revision. If the first attempt is crap, then they can always rewrite it, so there's no reason to not try!

Problem #3: Revision is hard. 
... for both the teacher and student. The student doesn't want to do the REAL work of rewriting; you're lucky if you can get them to EDIT.

Teachers sometimes struggle with teaching revision, especially if:
  • The student has wildly different needs, mistakes, or patterns than the class,
  • The draft is terrible, and there's TOO much that could be commented on, or
  • You can see an issue, but you're not sure how to correct the student (and if it's worth picking a fight over). 
Unfortunately, not all English teachers in K-12 put equal emphasis on the writing PROCESS, so students may need to be reminded about those revision, proofreading, and publishing/sharing steps. Be prepared to fight discomfort in this area at first. 

So, how are you supposed to appease finicky writers who might not know much, might not feel like writers yet, and might not have buy-in to the tasks?

To be honest, entire blog posts could be devoted to each of these issues, but here are some starting tips of what to think about before you start your creative writing unit or class.

1. Decide in advance what is negotiable.
Before the first task, decide if you will say yes or no to students who want:
  • To sit unconventionally (feet up, head down, on the floor, etc.)
  • To listen to music, like Pandora or a iPhone playlist
  • To eat or drink
  • To work on it at home instead of at school
  • To change their topic/plot/idea
  • To cover up their screen or keep a draft to themselves
  • To throw away a draft and start over
  • To use the names of students, teachers, celebs, or other real people as characters
  • To write about REALLY dark topics, like suicide, abuse, abduction, self-harm, drugs, etc. 

2. Start with a student survey, and ask...
  • What do you already know about what a "good" story has in it?
  • What kinds of writing do you like to do?
  • What writing have you tried by yourself, outside of school, or in another English class?
  • What do you want to accomplish in this class?
  • What kinds of writing do you think you could need in future careers?
  • What do you want to learn or try in this class?
  • What help do you need from me?
  • What is your ideal writing environment?
Notice how all of these questions are student-centered, positively worded, and seeking out student motivation? ;-)

3. Start with really, really short quick writes.
At first, especially in a longer unit or course, you're up against a lot of student uncertainty, so break the ice with quick writes! Whether they're really short (like a bell-ringer, 5 minutes or less), or in the 10-20 minute range, try a new prompt a minimum of once per week, and just see what sentences or scenes emerge while students find themselves. It's fun and a good confidence-booster!*
*Eventually. A majority of the class will like it, but you WILL have some students who are slow to decide on an idea and will need time to get better at this. That's okay. 
4. Alternate between required and choice prompts.
Yes, sometimes it's good practice for everyone to respond to the same prompt. But that's not necessary every time, and some of my students' best writing has happened when I gave them a choice of prompts out of a pretty long list. 
For example, I've given students access to my PowerPoint of 100 prompts in advance of the in-class writing day and told them to walk in prepared with which prompt they want to respond to. It works brilliantly every time. 

5. Don't spend TOO long on every draft or assignment.
Yes, it's good to have one (or a few) drafts that get extra attention and revision. But...
  • It's better to get more practice drafting, not less, and 
  • The longer you spend on one draft, the increased likelihood they will hate it, especially if they didn't like the prompt or assignment to begin with! 

6. Assign a variety of genres.
You'd be surprised at which students turn out to be really great at writing which genre. Give them a chance to try their hand at as many as possible.
For example, you can assign some or all of these five genre assignments; another option is to give students access to all five, but they only have to choose and write one!

7. Assign BOTH fiction and personal/memoir writing.
Fiction is where MY passion lies, but for some, it's way more important to share from real life. This kind of writing may provide a therapeutic outlet, or might simply be more appropriate to what they want to pursue one day. (Not everyone will become fiction novelists!)
If you need a starting point, here are five realistic fiction assignments that can be based on real or fictional events. Assign one, some, or all!

8. Teach direct vs. indirect characterization.
This is one of the single most important lessons I teach that has the most visible impact in student drafts. If they know this difference, they can identify boring/direct sentences and "convert" them into more nuanced indirect ones. Get the handout and answer key here!

9. Have page limits.
For everyone's sanity, have a word/page maximum, not just a minimum, and require teacher permission to exceed it. You will have less to grade, and it's a realistic practice for students to have to fit within someone else's word count max (ahem, college admissions essays!)

10. Vary between timed and stretched-out drafting.
Let them learn how to write under pressure as well as in a relaxed fashion. They might not like it, but they'll thank you later.

11. Teach more than just the plot arc.
Yes, stories need structure. But I see a lot of students who know WHAT the plot triangle IS, but have no clue how to execute it. Or, they spend so much time just mapping their plot that they don't really do much with description, characterization, symbolism, figurative language... See my point?
If your students need help developing a more "full" story, try the mini-lessons in this flipbook; it has instructional points, tips for writing, AND space to get started applying each concept to your own story. 

12. Teach the difference between editing & revision.
My all-time favorite ways to teach this are with metaphors, specifically how proofreading is like checking your teeth vs. why revision is like a makeover. You'd be surprised at how few students know (or accept) that editing and revising are not the same thing... as well as how many students don't know how to revise authentically. 
Give students this editing checklist and task card set to show students how to break down the scary act of revision into smaller, manageable parts!

13. Coach students on how to give peer feedback.
A lot of us tell students to give specific feedback (not the generic "good job"), but most students don't know what they SHOULD say instead. They need to see lists of possible sentences and think about how they could respond. If you need help, try this set of "superlative" comments that students can award to each other!

14. Don't grade for all things, all the time, on all drafts.
Not every draft needs to be graded for grammar AND dialogue AND plot AND genre conventions AND... You get the idea. Pick what you're looking for this time, and be clear about it to students in advance. 

15. Let writers throw out ONE draft.
Maybe give them a literal "pass" card to get one extension, one throw-out, or one forgiveness per academic period. In the real world, don't writers get to bury certain drafts? 

16. Be praise-heavy.
We are trained to critique, but we also are trying to show students to LIKE creative writing too, right? Even if you're normally an Alfie Kohn follower who doesn't dish out a lot of compliments, remember that creative writing is very different, and students are more vulnerable here than other areas of ELA.

17. "Stack" an assignment in their favor. 
You know how video games always give the player a tool, advantage, ally, or ray of hope?
Well, I try very hard to make sure that in every assignment, there is at least ONE element that is more in their favor than mine: a tool they're allowed to use, free choice of prompt/topic/genre, more in-class writing days (less homework), or SOMETHING. This isn't necessarily a bribe or carrot, mind you - just the perception of advantage that makes them more confident moving forward. 

18. Remember why we write. 
Never lose sight of why we bother with creative writing (other than our standards and curriculum): expressing emotions and messages to readers. If your enthusiasm is flagging, the kids will see it, so hold onto this idea to remember that we should ALWAYS feel something while reading and writing.

FREE BONUS: if you need a boost, I HIGHLY recommend you check out BOTH my slideshow of writing quotes and NaNoWriMo's list of pep talks from real authors!

You can also get all of the materials mentioned in this post in one download! Check out my narrative writing bundle for grades 7-12.) 

15 Tips for Pulling off Independent Reading (in Middle/ High School)

If you have any variation of independent reading in your middle or high school English class, you've undoubtedly faced challenges at some point in the experience. 

Unlike the enthusiasm for reading in primary grades (think stickers, SSR, take-home bags, cute reading nooks, etc.), it's a huge accomplishment in secondary to get students to read anything, much less doing so with a stocked classroom library, fair assessments, and anything resembling enthusiasm. 

When many of our kids are over-committed, how do we make reading habits enjoyable, instead of just assigning tasks that just feel like more work?

Though I won't pretend to have all the answers for every reader and every type of classroom, I *can* tell you 15+ solutions that helped me teach independent reading programs over the last six years, to four grade levels and two school settings (urban and suburban/private). 

Why Independent Reading, Though?
This book is gold!
(Link to Amazon)
Before I share these tips, let me clarify that I'm a Kelly Gallagher fan and believe firmly that teens should read as much as possible, without "killing the book" by over-teaching and over-assigning it. 

On the other hand, if your students are reluctant or growing readers, then even finishing one book per month might be an accomplishment. It's all about getting them to read the same or more than they are now, right?

My Story: Starting from Nothing
During my master's program, I was studying motivation and reading for my thesis/portfolio, and I was hell-bent on bringing some level of independent reading to my inner-city classes of sophomores and seniors for student teaching. 

However, despite my amazing mentor teacher, there was no classroom library, the school library was under-funded, and the kids had NO buy-in. The regular-English class of sophomores were outwardly priding themselves on having NEVER FINISHED A WHOLE BOOK BEFORE, and my AP Lang seniors felt that they had too much homework to squeeze in any more reading. 

So, with the help of book drives, volunteers, and various kinds of coercing on my part...

  • We built a classroom library. 
  • My "Book of the Month" system was born. 
  • We had guest speakers come talk about reading. 
  • We made time in class to read (and/or talk about) books. 

And, according to the letters that I got from students at the end of my time (which they were NOT required to write), many were "converted" to reading, before it was too late.

Now, I teach in a private middle school with a district that requires use of Accelerated Reader (which kids hate) and have a lot of over-committed students (who think they have no time for reading). My challenges have changed, but the solutions I used in both settings really haven't. 

So trust me, I know how hard it is to start (and enforce) independent reading. But the steps below have helped me a lot, and they can help you, too.

Top 15 Tips for Your Program
So here are a few solutions to think about before or during your choice reading requirements for your English class. 

1. Start with a quantity within their ZPD
At the beginning of your program, ease into the length and/or quantity of books you require. Let them pick up shorter books at first, and don't be afraid of giving them plenty of time to finish the book (before assigning shorter deadlines later).

When I helped teach sophomores and AP Lang, the one thing both classes had in common was my Book of the Month requirement, and it was a hit at both levels! 

2. Teach students how to pace reading to meet a deadline. 

We teachers HAVE to stop passing out books, assigning a deadline, and just saying "go." The sink-or-swim approach does little to actually teach students to pace themselves, and it probably won't help them like the experience, either.

I like using these pacing bookmarks to help my eighth graders calculate the number of pages they need to read per day to meet a deadline; it promotes more consistent reading instead of trying to fly through 150 pages the night before it's due. 

3. Let some books end with just opinion or reflection. 
Yes, some texts will end with summative assessments, AR quizzes, or your own check for understanding. But not every book needs to end with work (and you don't need to grade everything, either.) 

4. Use reverse psychology. 
One of the best ways to get a teen interested after all is to tell them they're not allowed to. Even if it's not September, try this banned books mini-unit to get students reading commonly challenged CHOICE books (that they negotiate with you and their parents). 

5. Make them watch the movie version. 
Yes, this activity is fun, BUT more importantly, it's extremely important for weak readers who have a hard time visualizing the text.

You don't have to play the movie in-class, either. Make students do the work of picking the book/movie combo (including getting parent permission based on film ratings), and then let them generate heated opinions of which version (book or movie) was better. Start here for more ideas

6. Eliminate excuses for acquiring books. 

  • Don't have books at home? Get them from school. 
  • Don't have time for the school library? Get a cart of books from there. 
  • Don't have a classroom library? Do what I did and ask your local Half Price Books (or whoever) to work with you on a Book Drive for your classroom!
  • Need more copies? If you qualify, set up a Donors Choose account
7. Let books become gifts. 
I always make a big deal out of it when new books arrive in the mail or when I've been shopping. I bring it into the room in its shopping bag/box and "unwrap" it in front of them, turning it into a suspense-filled book talk.

You can also literally gift them back and forth: let kids donate books to the classroom, and if you have the funds, buy a book for each kid at some point in the year.

8. Add a teacher book talk once a week.
Just make a starting goal to hold up and discuss ONE book for five minutes or less, once per week. You need to model what enthusiastic chatter about books looks like, especially if no other adult does. Plus, it will help them branch out into different books (other than the popular ones already being circulated in teen word-of-mouth).

9. Make STUDENTS give the book talks. 

I have a Student-Led Book Talks Project that lets students recommend one book, a series, or a themed collection in a short (graded) presentation.

Book talks that come directly from students always have WAY more cred than ones from a teacher (even if they trust your book judgment)!

10. Do a buddy read.
If ever, they probably haven't been allowed to read a book with just one buddy since elementary school. Maybe one month is a required Partner Read month in your class, in which both have to agree on a book and do a culminating partner assignment together!

11. Allow one "re-read". 
Let just ONE of the books be a reread of a book from the past 2-5 years (assuming it's a reasonable choice, difficulty-wise). Let them feel the confidence-booster of being older and smarter, noticing more as they read it again. Ask them to reflect on what they got out of the text the second time!

12. Make decorative book reviews that last. 
I did this Quote Analysis and Artwork project as prep for an author visit last year, and it gave us cool Pinterest-style illustrated quotes to hang on lockers or walls!

13. Bring in (free) guest speakers. 
I know this may vary, but our local librarians do free school visits to recommend books to students, especially if it's at the end of the year (to promote their summer reading program). See if a library or bookstore is willing to come talk to your class!

During student teaching, I also had college students come visit my sophomores and seniors to talk about their reading habits (both their required reading in college classes and what they read for fun).

14. Get a (free) author visit. 
Many authors do free (or cheap) Skype visits, or sometimes even in-person ones if they're local. Ask your school or local library for ideas, or check out websites like this one that provide lists.

Not going to work out? TWEET AT THE AUTHOR and see if you get a reply! (I did this last year, and you can read about it in my TED posts.)

15. Give them TIME.
I saved this for last because I know it's the hardest one - making time to give students in-class reading time.

I've done this several ways in the past - doing it as my bell-ringer (while I take attendance), or doing a longer period of time once a week (so I can circulate the room and check reading logs/progress, etc.). Do whatever works for you, but once a week for 20 minutes is better than nothing, and it may give them a chance to RELAX in the middle of the school day!

For More Info
If you want help getting your program started, you can get my rubrics, logs, and other forms HERE in my Book of the Month programs for middle school and high school! And if you want to see my other lessons and tools for teaching literature, just click here.

5 Rookie Teacher Mistakes to Avoid in the First Weeks of School

Sure, all teachers learn and improve their practice each school year. That's especially true when a veteran teacher changes courses, grade levels, or school buildings.

But that first year or two brings special challenges.

I *thought* was prepared. I had all kinds of tangible and theoretical tools from my grad program; I'd had a good student teaching experience. But there are a few things that no mentor teacher, master's degree, or orientation told me.

Let me save you the trouble of finding these out the hard way!

1. Don't blow your entire back-to-school budget BEFORE the first day. 

Even if you have taken others' advice and satisfied all of your own Pinterest-worthy-classroom dreams, you won't entirely know what you need until you're in the room, WITH your students, for at least one full week. Experience your new schedule fully, and THEN go finish shopping.

I wasted money on an attendance book that was all wrong for my needs (and made this one instead), bought folders and files that weren't necessary, and got tools that didn't end up being relevant after all. Unless you're REALLY confident about your curriculum, procedures, and audience, allow yourself to buy a different clipboard or re-do that teacher binder a week later.

2. Don't over-promise, either literally or figuratively. 

Yes, you might be discussing a syllabus, setting rules/procedures, and trying to create a safe culture that first week. But while doing all of that, don't get too confident and make big statements promising things like...

  • How fast they will get papers back*
  • What your grading style & amount of feedback will be
  • What the prize for something will be
  • What units and lessons are happening (unless you truly know this)
  • Routines that are time-consuming (ex: guaranteed minutes of reading time per day/week)

Verbal promises aside, don't figuratively over-promise by creating expectations that will be hard to maintain, either, especially...
  • Bulletin boards or displays that constantly need updating (or redone entirely)
  • Extremely frequent changes to seating charts 
  • Playing a new video every day
  • A "new books" shelf that begs to be restocked

Look, I'm not saying that you CAN'T pull all this off. Far from it! But don't let the glow of New School Year Enthusiasm trap you into a promise that you won't want to maintain in January. 

(*And if you want HELP with that grading/feedback time, a lot of teachers like my grading helper forms!)

3. Don't lose your personality in favor of professionalism. 

Yes, fine, agreed - you don't want to be TOO soft, or try TOO hard to be their friend. But the kids are sizing you up on several levels, and they need help to not only figure you out, but know what kind of relationship they can have with you.

  • Are you going to be someone who will recommend great books? 
  • Are you a teacher who also digs Star Wars? 
  • Are you the teacher they will go to when they need help? 

Find an appropriate way to show who you are, and not just what you teach. I often have a 3-slide PowerPoint of just photos to introduce myself on the first day, showing students things I did that summer, hobbies I have, or life milestones (especially my dog). It helps them get to know who I am as a person faster, just as I'm trying to figure THEM out!

4. Don't wait too long to start learning new things. 

Trust me, I get it. My back-to-school season involves a syllabus, community-building, pre-tests, and dealing with their summer reading assignment. 


If you wait too long to start tickling their brains with new learning, then students will decide that this class is boring, or maybe easier, than it actually will be. Then the acting-up or tuning-out might start sooner than you want. The same applies to teachers who talk too much the first few days (instead of incorporating student talking and/or movement). 

Combat this by using bell-ringers, the start of your first unit, or a really worthy project as soon as you can, even if it's concurrent with the more dry stuff. Resist the urge to dwell in the aroma of new crayons for TOO long. 

5. Don't wait too long for the first confidence-booster. 

Notice that I did NOT say to give a prize, show a movie, or bribe them with candy early on. But students of all ages DO need to have hope that they can succeed in this class, that their efforts can result in good results, and that you are on their side. 

Maybe you'll choose to give a quiz that isn't too tough yet. Or make a group assessment. Or teach something firmly within their ZPD, with a method that's guaranteed to click. But whatever you do in the first weeks, try to ensure that your students choose to believe in themselves, in this class, and in you. 

The most important part... 
Finally, believe in yourself. You were hired for a reason, you are qualified to be here, and you CAN do this. Self-confidence is the best trick to NOT looking like a rookie, so stand firm in who you are and why you became a teacher.

You have so much to offer! Good luck! :) 

THIS WEEK: Freebie, Giveaway, and SALE

When a good deal comes along, I just have to share! There are three cool things happening this week that you should check out, before they disappear... 

#1: FLASH FREEBIE from my store!

In my post from Monday, I shared some Back-to-School ideas in my blog hop with other English teachers. 

Be sure to grab these writing prompts while they're still free!

Make sure you read Monday's post and click around to the OTHER FREEBIES being offered by the other English teacher-bloggers!

#2: GIVEAWAY for High School English!

Several secondary sellers are giving away items from their stores in these cool prize packs, divided by age and content area. 

Enter HERE now before the window closes!

(Scroll down and enter for whichever prize packs you want. Mine is in High School English #2.)

#3: Birthday SALE on Thursday & Friday!
I'll be writing more about this tomorrow, but Jackie from Room 213 and I have adjacent birthdays this week, and we're celebrating with a sale in both of our stores! 

Check back soon for more details. 

This is a great opportunity for anyone who missed the big TpT sale on Monday/Tuesday, or who just wants more help getting ready to go back to school!

#4: Short Story Blog Posts!
I also want to draw your attention to a great blog post about short stories that I recently got to contribute to! 

It gives a lot of great teaching ideas to boost your next short story unit, and it's so awesome that the people of Teachers Pay Teachers decided to share it on THEIR blog, too. 

Go check it out for great inspiration!

Back to School: Freebie, Classroom Management, and More!

Welcome to back-to-school season! I know that August can feel like one long Sunday night, but let's hang on to the last bit of summer together.

Several ELA teacher-bloggers and I are getting together to share some great ideas and free resources this week.

Be sure to click through all of our blog posts (list at the end of this post).

About Me
The 2016-17 school year will be my sixth of full-time teaching in a private middle school, and my ninth of tutoring high school students. Since I teach 8th grade the most, I spend a lot of time helping students in a transition, shifting from middle to high school or from high school to college.

In addition to teaching and tutoring, I coach a creative writing team (called Power of the Pen here in Ohio).

Classroom Management Tip
Many teachers have food in the classroom, whether it's a fun motivator (like candy) or as an actual survival tool (like granola bars for low-income students' breakfast).

However, I have to balance those needs with the list of kids with allergies, which my school nurse hands us each year.

I keep student snacks in a plastic box (shown below), mostly to keep them organized and keep the smell contained (especially for peppermints!).

Some of my favorite allergy-friendly treats are Lifesaver mints, Jolly Ranchers, fruit snacks, Twizzlers, and plain chocolate (unless there's a food dye allergy in the room).

Last year, instead of throwing whole boxes or bags of candy in there, I just dumped the contents into the box, mixed it up, and gave students 5-10 seconds to pick when it was time.

I had the nutrition labels taped to the box lid so that my allergy students could verify what they could eat. It let them feel safe in my classroom, instead of just having to trust me and hope that I hadn't steered them wrong.

Free Resource Spotlight: Back to School Prompts
This set of writing prompts is more than just a choice menu - you'll get to diagnose writing skills, get to know your students' personalities, AND challenge them in multiple genres at the same time!

Download the set of prompts, rubric, and graphic organizer now - it's free this week only!
And if you like it, there is a set for each month of the calendar year HERE.

Thanks for reading!

Sale and Giveaway: "Pardon my Dust" & Thanks

Things have been quiet on the blog for a reason - I'm in the middle of some hefty projects that you're going to LOVE later on!

To thank you for your patience, I'm throwing some "Pardon My Dust" celebrations this week. 

  • There is a SALE in my store this week, today through Wednesday! Check out what's new in my store, or stock up on the items on your wishlist. 
  • I'm hosting a GIVEAWAY, right here on the blog, and the grand prize is something I've never offered before: a new custom product of YOUR choice, straight from me to you! (And hey, the TpT gift cards are pretty good runner-up prizes, too!)

Thanks again for being a reader of this blog, and thanks for your patience as I work on some behind-the-scenes magic. It will all be worth it later!

Best wishes,
Sara :)

a Rafflecopter giveaway

(FYI - Fine Print about the Grand Prize:)
  • All winners will be notified by email within 48 hours of the contest closing. 
  • Grand prize winner will negotiate the custom product with Sara via email. 
  • Sara will deliver the custom product via email no later than August 30th, not to exceed 20 pages; Sara can refuse to create the requested item if there are moral conflicts, or if she does not have sufficient background knowledge of the topic. 
  • Sara reserves the right to post the custom product in her TpT store and retains all rights with IP, copyright, and sales; prize winner cannot claim authorship of the item or distribute it online. 

Calming the Year-End Chaos: Tips for Success to Finish Strong!

At the end of the year, it's normal to feel... maybe not exactly burned out, but rather, as my friends and I call it... crispy.

Between exams, end of year teardown, and all of the work that must get done before you walk out the door and into summer vacation, life can already feel overwhelming to the teacher. Add classes of checked-out, summer-hungry students to the mix, and the last weeks of school can be tough.

In case you've already read my post about 5 Things to Do Before Summer Vacation, here are additional ideas to help you cross the finish line!

Plus, scroll down to read tips from other teachers and enter to win a TpT gift card!
One Tip: 
As you plan fun celebrations for the summer, take an extra minute to ALSO plan something happy for the month of August. Doing this now could help ease your transition back to school and ease that "Sunday night "feeling as the summer progresses.

(And, if you want extra credit, plan some positivity for your first month back, too. Can you book a massage now? Plan a weekend trip for September?)

One Free Resource: 
Check out my free End of Semester Review Activity! The Top 10 List activity was a great conversation starter with my students, and it also helped solidify big ideas from our class.

Regardless of when your summer starts and how you'll be spending it, I wish you a happy, healthy closure to your year!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

More End of the Year Survival Tips

What I Learned from Teaching TED-style Speeches {Update Post}

Do you believe in the power of presentation literacy?

Ever think that your students are capable of more than eyes-down, wimpy presentations with Death By PowerPoint slides?

After a year of teaching TED-style speaking (and not just in a speech class), I'm even more convinced that presentation literacy matters, that our teens can be coached to a higher bar, and that public speaking doesn't have to be the ugly stepsister of the English curriculum.

As you may know from my Part 1 blog post, my eighth graders have been on a year-long exploration of public speaking to write and present mock TED talks.

(Read the last post to hear more about why, as well as how we brainstormed and drafted our speeches).

We worked on TED gradually from second through fourth quarters, in an off-and-on style, concurrently with other units. (While I think this pacing was beneficial in many ways, at least for this year, I might compress it more next year.)

It should also be mentioned that this unit was great for nonfiction reading and writing skills too, and not just speaking skills alone! We had so many good conversations about authors, ethos/pathos/logos, writing techniques, revision, bias, research, and other elements of the writing process!

Our Prep Work

Since that initial drafting stage, we did a lot of revision and practice to be fully TED-ready in May. We have...
  • Analyzed the transcripts of real TED talks as examples to imitate
  • Read articles from the TED blog, especially their advice about how to make good slides and how to overcome nerves
  • Revised our own speeches, using my Revision Bingo board for inspiration
  • Did more research on our topics to add even more facts and statistics 
  • Made modern, minimalist slides to support (and not replace) our verbal content 
  • Improved our vocals by annotating our own "scripts" and identifying where to pause, slow down, speed up, etc. 
  • Practiced our speeches in and out of class, in front of friends, teachers, and parents
  • Performed our TED talks live in front of small group peer audiences! Speeches were video recorded so I could grade them all fairly. (Note that THIS video determined their grades. The final TED event later was not graded, UNLESS they wanted to raise their grade from the small group video phase.)
Despite all this prep, some of my students were holding on to fear or needed encouragement, and to echo all of the non-fiction reading we'd done this year, I impulsively decided to pull in some experts for that last-minute pep talk.

On TED Day

On the morning of our TED talks, I tweeted at authors Carmine Gallo (Talk Like TED) and Chris Anderson (TED Talks: The Official Guide to Public Speaking), and they replied!* Both men graciously gave us some last-minute inspiration.

Here's Carmine Gallo's response:

... And TED guru Chris Anderson himself:

Their quick, gracious responses gave many kids the hype and the "whoa" factor they needed to start converting their energy from nerves into the adrenaline-fueled "Yeah, I got this" feeling. :)

*Important Note: I'm equally obsessed with the TED books of both authors. Gallo's got more class time this year simply because his was written first. I wrote a book review of Gallo's Talk Like TED here, and I will review Anderson's book as soon as I'm done reading it. (I'm in the middle of it now, and it's AMAZING.)

How It Worked

Here's how we pulled off our final TED day:

Rooms/Audiences: All students were divided into two groups. One group stayed with my co-teacher in our classroom, and the other group went with me into another space (a.k.a. the Science Lab). This was just to cut down audience size. You could do it whole-class if you wanted to. We made a "stage area" in each room by pushing back desks and making sure that the speaker would have adequate walking space. We also invited younger grade levels to come watch our talks as well, so the seventh graders now know what to expect in the future. 

Tech: Each student connected his or her Chromebook to each room's respective Smart TV using an HDMI cable. (We can do it wirelessly, but we were having WiFi issues that day and wanted to avoid a transition delay with our slides.) Each room also had a presentation clicker that I got from Office Depot (see below).
These clickers have been worth every penny! Image from Office Depot. 

The Results
The result of this speaking unit? Visibly different speeches than what I had seen from them before. Their eye contact, movement, and use of slides were way better... but more importantly, they told us clear messages with facts, stories, examples, great opening lines, parallel structure, and memorable closings. They used ethos, pathos, and logos, and no two speeches sounded the same. 

Here's a sneak peek of some of their titles. I made the poster in PowerPoint and took the PDF to Staples to get printed into poster size, which only cost $20 (for color and the second-lowest paper quality). 

10 Teaching Ideas Worth Sharing

Now that we fully finished everything last week, here are my big takeaways as a teacher... both the things we did right, AND what I will do better next year.

  • It's worth the time to annotate speeches and embed vocal strategies. Treat the speech draft the same way that actors might prep a script. Intentionally planning where we will slow down, speed up, get louder/softer, and pause is hugely important. It's worth annotating into a draft and rehearsing right alongside the memorization of words.
  • When it comes to the memorization process, note cards don't need to contain your speech verbatim. It's better to have EITHER note cards OR slides that trigger your memory, as visual cues of what you're supposed to talk about next, and then just do it. 
  • It's okay to deviate from your script a little in favor of a conversational, engaging flow. Obsessively trying to memorize every word doesn't just add to our fear; it becomes the sole focus of our attention, when we should also be cognizant of what our faces, bodies, and voices are doing. 
  • Feel yourself starting to do that awkward, nervous, side-to-side swaying while talking? Turn it into a STEP mid-sway and walk to one side for a minute. Fake like that movement was intentional. (Just don't take it too far and start pacing, either.)
  • The best slides display just one thing at a time, whether it's text or an image. That one thing should be big enough to read or see, and needs to support - and not replace - what is being said.
  • Some students deserve to scaffold their audience size and build up to a large group. Sometimes, it makes sense to let a student give his or her speech with the teacher one-on-one, like during study hall, or present in front of a small group, and THEN in front of the whole class. Going straight to the full intimidation factor isn't always necessary for "learning". 
  • Telling a story early on in a speech is good for the speaker, and not just the audience's attention span. It helps build momentum and ease into the speech. Narrative hooks can be just as powerful as other hooks, like dramatic statements or asking a question. 
  • If note cards are allowed and you don't have a podium, hole-punch them and put them on a binder ring. It eliminates your chances of dropping them and getting them out of order.
  • Tweeting at an author is fun! It makes the topic more real. Don't be afraid to reach out!

Want My Materials?
Everything I used in my year of TED can be downloaded in my (updated) Mock Conference Unit. Check it out to pick and choose which pieces you might want to steal for your next speaking unit! 

Poetry in a Hurry: Two Ideas to Fit It In {plus a Freebie}

Sure... in an ideal world, we would do all kinds of activities with poetry (if not a poetry unit, a poetry slam, or even a poem-of-the-week system).

But this year, due to some scheduling issues, I had much less time than usual to celebrate National Poetry Month.

Like, a lot less.

And worse, my students seemed very anti-poetry, so I had to incorporate some explanation of purpose and an enjoyment factor to convert as many of them as possible.

So I had to adapt.

My goals were, as I told my students:

  1. To make them realize that not all poetry is, in their words, "bad" (i.e. difficult and boring)
  2. To expose them to the breadth of poetry that exists (more than just haiku and limerick), and
  3. To help them start understanding more difficult poems.
So, how could I do this in one class period (ish) that would be a positive experience?

Here's what we did:
  1. I made a few tweaks to my PPT collection of poems listed in my Poem of the Week program. 
  2. I converted my typical Poem of the Week handout to be a two-page "Intro to Poetry" assignment (described below). 
  3. In the lesson, I explained my goals, and I played/read two poems to them - "Invictus" and "Oh me, Oh life!", using the YouTube videos shown below. (I "cheated" by hooking them with two really great poems!)
  4. I shared the Poem of the Week PPT to them (via Google Drive) and set them loose. They each had to individually choose 4 poems, other than the ones I played, to read/listen to and rate on a 4-star scale, using the handout I'd given them. (We started this in class, and they finished as homework.)
  5. Out of the four they previewed, they had to choose ONE that was their favorite and analyze it on page 2 of the handout. 
  6. As a "challenge", they could write their own parody poems as extra credit. (The ones that students turned in were PRICELESS, ranging from funny to serious.)
This went REALLY, really, really well. My students appreciated having choice, getting to express opinions about the poems (and not just analyze them), and browsing through pre-screened poems from me that they "knew would be good". 

If you want to do this activity too, the "Intro to Poetry" handout I adapted IS NOW INCLUDED in my Poem of the Week resource!

Here's Morgan Freeman reciting "Invictus" (mostly correctly):

And here's the Apple commercial that I played to accompany "Oh me, Oh life!"


If we have time, I'm also going to let them have fun with some of my American and British lit Poetry Mad libs! If you want to try one for FREE, here's a link to my Shakespeare mad lib!

I hope this helps someone who wants to incorporate some poetry in a pinch!

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