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Most of us became English teachers because we love reading. Some even have the passion and self-discipline to remain consistent readers while teaching.

I, however, am not one of them.

I’m terrible at balancing reading into my teacher life, which is made worse by the fact that I’m a picky reader. (There - I said it. Don’t turn me in to the ELA Police!)

I’m usually in the thick of an English Teacher Reading Rut: too busy reading student work and professional documents to squeeze in the latest hot book, much less the OTHER worthy titles being published seemingly every minute. And each school year, that problem gets worse for me, whether it’s due to my professional life (like adding on more to my plate) or my personal life (like adding a human to the world). I WANT to be reading, but I can barely read news headlines, much less the newest YA fiction.

As a result, picking out newer books to read or recommend is a real struggle. Even when I turn to a list of award winners or flip through a Scholastic catalogue, the lists are long enough that I can’t possibly read them all, decide which ones I need to buy for my class, and match them with the right reader... at least, I can't do it alone.

The question becomes, how can well-meaning English teachers find the best books to read, recommend to students, and buy for classroom libraries?

1. Build a relationship with a teacher or librarian you trust.
Even if you don't have a large English department of colleagues nearby, even one great librarian or teacher friend whose opinion you trust is a HUGE asset. If he or she knows your criteria and is actively reading, he or she can tell you if a book is worth buying and pitching.

In fact, my local library does "teacher requests" and creates PILES of books that meet what a teacher is looking for. It doesn't hurt to ask!

2. Follow teacher-readers on Instagram.
I stopped following certain types of readers on social media and started following more TEACHERS, ones who will not only look for similar qualities in a book but will be sure to recommend the REALLY good titles worth exploring.

To see a list of 40 recently-published books recommended by fellow English teachers, click through this Instagram loop!




3. Pick up the book you’re the most excited about.
If you've got a pile of books to catch up on, start with the one that YOU truly want to read. You'll be more motivated to fit it into your life, and your book talk to the class will be more enthusiastic.

4. Recruit trustworthy student beta readers.
If I know a few mature readers well (and also know their parents will be supportive), then I sometimes hand a new book to such students and ask them for their honest opinions. These readers often tell me what I need to know - both in terms of how engaging it is AND whether or not there's anything inappropriate that would cause me to pull the book from my shelf.

Do you have more ideas?
Tell us in the comments!

Enter to Win a Gift Card for Books!

The giveaway below is being sponsored by the following English teachers:

Secondary Sara, Tracee Orman, Nouvelle ELA, Hello Teacher Lady, Jen Maschari, The OC Beach Teacher, Read It Write It Learn It, Doc Cop Teaching, Mrs. Spangler in the Middle, Hanson Hallway, The Language Arts Classroom, Literary Sherri, Making Meaning with Melissa, Reading & Writing Haven, Erin Beers, Bs Book Love, and The Marvelous Middle

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We all know “good” and “bad” speakers when we see them, but it's shocking how often we teachers either ignore bad habits, don't explicitly teach good habits, or accidentally reinforce bad speaking with the types of speaking we assign.

IN OUR DEFENSE, speaking in all its forms is the category of English class that is usually given the least attention in teacher-ed programs, so when we attempt to teach it ourselves, we have to either self-teach best practices or fall back on what we remember from our own days in grades K-12... but some of those actions belong in the past.

(I should also mention that some of these are things I learned the hard way, so by no means do I claim to be a perfect teacher! Learn from my mistakes to save yourself some stress.)

Though there are always exceptions to these suggestions, here are some situations that English teachers should seriously think twice about before we assign and assess speaking.


Teacher friends, moment of truth: in my top ten list of irritating scenarios as an English teacher, one of them is looking at a student’s so-called “improved” draft that looks exactly the same as the last time I saw it.


If I make time to give formative feedback on a rough draft, I want the student to USE IT. If the student got the chance to revise a final draft and raise a grade, then the new one needs to fix the last draft’s problems instead of ignore them.

And if students are asked to REVISE their writing, heaven help them if they only fix a few commas and try to get past me.

Part of the problem is that true revision is real work. It’s difficult. It takes time, asks for focus, and requires really challenging decisions (such as which sentences to cut or where to add more). Plus, not all students are skilled enough to even RECOGNIZE which sentences NEED attention, so asking them to identify weak word choices can be nearly impossible.

Though I can’t solve the world’s revision problems in the scope of one blog post, here are a few ideas to get started.

(P.S. - You might also like the sister blog post, 10 Ways to Get Students to Proofread Effectively.)

1. Establish the difference between proofreading, editing, and revising.
Don’t assume that students know the difference between finding errors, fixing errors, and changing content. (I’ve put these three vocab words on tests before!) Even if they do know the technical definitions, they might need coaching about exactly how to do each one.

2. Use metaphors to explain why it’s important after all.
To really make the differences from #1 clear, I like to explain that proofreading is like checking your teeth, whereas revision is like a makeover. Those visuals help illustrate how proofreading is about the little fixes, but a good revision makeover will create “bigger” changes.

3. Give visual examples of “before” and “after” writing.
Many can be found online, but don’t be afraid to show students your own draft and EITHER revise it in front of them, revise it with them, or show them an already-revised draft and ask them to find the differences.

4. Show them what authors have said about revision.
One of my co-teachers, who is also an author, likes to preach that “revision is radical”, and she has shown them her past drafts (with real editors’ comments on them) to talk about what she changed over time. Another author, Shelley Pearsall, literally stacked all her drafts of one book into a pile that was taller than she was.

If you can find a local OR well-known author to make it visual and add credibility to your case, bring them in for a visit!

5. Require turning in BOTH a rough draft and a final draft…
… or use the revision history of Google Docs creatively. I have sometimes asked students to color-code what they’ve added or changed between drafts (with a highlighter).

6. Encourage them to read their work out loud.
Though I usually teach this as a proofreading strategy, it’s also good for revision. If a sentence is too long or a word choice is bad, those problems and others become obvious very quickly when read out loud. (Need a starting point? Check out my FREE revision read-aloud activity!)

7. Stress peer reading just as much as peer editing.
Peer editing is fine, but I think we teachers don’t ask students to do enough peer READING. To me, the difference is asking students to ignore the grammar and “be a picky reader”, telling the writer where they lost the reader’s attention, which parts they couldn’t visualize, or which moments weren’t clear.

8. Raise the stakes for the assignment.
Students are more motivated to revise when there’s a good reason to push for perfection, whether that’s because the assignment is important for their grade OR, even better, when people OTHER than the teacher will be reading their work. (For more on this, check out this blog post about getting guest speakers and judges into your English class.)

9. Show off the students who do amazing revision makeovers.
When a student REALLY bites the bullet and does dramatic revision (or perhaps starts over entirely), my co-teachers and I try to praise the student quietly AND publicly to show students that revision isn’t just something that authors do.

10. Honor it in a writing portfolio or display.
If you use a digital or paper-based portfolio, keep a tab for revision, and let students show off their best rough-to-final draft transformation. (Want to take it to the next level? Dedicate bulletin board or chalkboard space to showing off great “before” and “after” student writing side-by-side!)

(Click here to see an updated list of ALL my editing, revising, and grammar lessons.)

Do you have more ideas? Tell me in the comments!

This battle of wills is perhaps the most epic, universal, and notorious problem that English teachers face, even more than grading struggles: getting students to ACTUALLY read that book, short story, article, or poem.


Whether it’s an assigned text or choice reading, students have a variety of obstacles that make reading at home difficult. The struggle ranges from the innocent (forgetting to read) to the sympathetic (struggling to read) to the frustrating (too busy to read) to the malicious (choosing not to read, with no excuse). With an ever-increasing number of websites that make cheating easier, how can a teacher increase reading skills (and preferably a love of reading) if the student just won’t do it?


Since students’ reasons for not reading vary, we teachers can’t only keep students accountable through assessment (although that’s important); we have to hack their motivation and ruffle their curiosity. Teaming up with me to tackle this question is fellow ELA teacher Kristy from 2 Peas and a Dog.


1. Start reading in class.
Sara: I have always found that if we start reading in class (either read-aloud or independently), they're more likely to go home and continue doing it. If we have built momentum, gotten the students hooked on the storyline, and talked through any immediate obstacles, then students are prepared to go it alone. For example, I personally hate the first chapter of To Kill A Mockingbird (even though I love the book overall), and I can't imagine teaching that novel without me doing an interrupted read-aloud to get students PAST that brutal opening faster.


Kristy: When we read whole class novels, I do almost all of the reading during class time. Then when I need the students to complete some reading at home, they are more inclined because I do not assign it nightly.


2. Keep parents in the loop.
Kristy: I remind parents through online portals and during in person meetings that it is a requirement of my English program for students to read at least 20 minutes nightly. Many parents thank me for this requirement as it gives them a reason to enforce reading at home.

Sara: In the past, I have sometimes sent a mass email to parents letting them know what book we are reading, when it has to be done by, and any other relevant information (such as project info or why we are reading this novel). Some parents appreciate being kept in the loop and will help remind their child to read at home.

3. Help students learn pacing skills.
Sara: Some students aren't reading because they truly don't know how to fit it into their lives (and other homework). I like to teach them that even a little reading every day is better than none; showing them the cumulative payoff of reading is easier with these pacing bookmarks. Students calculate a page goal per day and make a calendar to try to stick to their page goals.


Kristy: I explicitly teach my students how to select novels that are the right fit for them. This starts the first week of school. We set goals together and use sticky notes to mark places in their novels and write dates on each sticky notes. These visual reminders help students see their weekly reading goals. Not all students need a visual reminder; some students also do well with informal reading check ins. I regularly walk around my classroom during independent reading time and ask students questions about their reading materials. I also greet my students at the door almost every day - they have to show me their novel as they enter. This quick visual scan allows me to track their reading.

Sara: You might also like to read Kristy's blog post about Why Classroom Libraries are Essential and my post with Tips for Independent Reading Programs.




4. Ask questions that internet summaries can't answer.
Sara: Pick the questions on your quizzes or checkpoints very carefully. It's fine to ask about summary, theme, symbolism, or characters, but just know that this information could be in an online summary somewhere. In addition to questions like “Which of these events did NOT happen?”, throw in a few questions that ask for opinions, author’s writing style, predicting what's next, and inference.

Kristy: I use daily warm ups to check for comprehension when reading whole class novels. This only counts for a very small portion of a student’s overall grade for that unit. I plan assignments where students must demonstrate deep critical thinking, and not just repeat general comprehension information. During the assignment creation process, I try to create choice boards so students have several options to demonstrate their learning, but must complete one per column. This helps me differentiate, but also assess curriculum.

Sara: In addition, Kristy has great genre-specific book reports that students can't possibly fake!

5. Ask for quotes.
Sara: It's hard for students to fake that they read the chapter when they have to quickly flip through the text to find a quote or moment you're asking for. Ask students to show (or paraphrase) text evidence to back up their answer.


Kristy: It is important to explicitly teach students about finding and use quotations from the novel. I start this process using the gradual release model - lots of teacher directed, then slowly moving towards student directed and independent learning. Picture books, song lyrics and short stories are a great place to start when teaching students to analyze song lyrics.


6. Model enthusiasm for the text, not just obligation and accountability.
Kristy: Students come to me frequently and ask for book recommendations from the classroom library. I start by asking them what genres they like and pull engaging books from those areas. Then before I leave the stack of books with a student to look through, I pull my top three novels and explain why I think those would be a great fit.

Sara: If you don't like the text or aren't passionate about the unit, students will pick up on it, and they won't want to read it, either. If you hype up the book, act like you can't WAIT for them to read what happens next, drool over beautiful sentences, defend its modern-day relevance, and put some excitement into it, then comparatively more students will give it a try.

7. Make social incentives.
Sara: I never advocate for shaming students, BUT if there is a peer or social reason to read, that motivates some students. For example, if there's a group project and people are relying on a student to do his or her part, that helps. Or, if I tell students that they are allowed to publicly quiz each other on a chapter, then suddenly no one wants to be unprepared.


Kristy: Students love to read what other students have recommended. Build time into your classes just a few minutes for students to share their likes and dislikes. Eventually it will become an organic process not needing teacher involvement.



8. Use assessments that force reading.
Kristy: When I assess reading, students know they cannot Google the answers and that they MUST have completed their reading. Creative assignments in lieu of essays can be a great way to ensure students have completed their reading. It is quite evident to the teacher and to a student’s peers who has read the novel when presenting creating assignments.

Sara: Even if the student didn't come to class prepared, can your activity or assessment MAKE them get caught up? Can you get students to act out a chapter, look for evidence of a claim, or illustrate a paragraph?


9. Ask a question they WANT to answer.
Sara: I love using reverse psychology or a hook to frame their thinking. For example, for the short story “The Most Dangerous Game”, I tell students that I think Suzanne Collins copied this short story when creating The Hunger Games. That makes students want to read it to compare. (No, I don't ACTUALLY think Ms. Collins would plagiarize, but that's not the point!)


Kristy: When we read the first chapter of The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton - students want to give up on the book due to the names of the characters, but as soon as Ponyboy gets jumped outside of the movie theatre they want to know more. As the students become more invested in the novel, they answer reading questions and start to speculate about the plot of the novel.

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Do you have more ideas? Tell us in the comments!
One of my favorite ways to engage my students in grammar instruction is to play Grammar Quidditch. You've been asking to learn how it's played for a long time, and I'm finally sharing the rules and instructions for Grammar Quidditch in this blog post! Click through to get the whole scoop!

For the past five years, I have been slowly improving and managing the “Grammar House Cup”, our Harry Potter-themed, inter-homeroom competition. (More on that later. But come on… if YOU had exactly four homerooms in your middle school, wouldn’t you do this, too?)

And for all five years of the “GHC”, I wished I could find a way to play Quidditch. But for a while, I couldn’t figure out how to do it WELL with the limited space of the classroom (and while engaging ALL the students instead of just some).

This past May, I finally figured it out and beta tested it with all of my 7th and 8th graders. I got the supplies from the gym teacher, grabbed my recess whistle, and took students outside. (This activity was actually part of our final exam review!)

There are a zillion ways to adapt this game. Feel free to modify the instructions below to YOUR grade level, subject area, or course content. (This doesn’t HAVE to just be about grammar!)

Why play "quidditch"?

  • Low prep on the teacher's part (aside from maybe finding the hula hoops and dodge balls)
  • Students get to be active (and review concepts at the same time)
  • Both athletic and non-athletic students have a place in the game


What you’ll need:

  • A large space (outside, a gymnasium, etc.)
  • 6 hula hoops
  • 2 dodgeballs (or similar)
  • A premade list of questions you will ask students
  • 1 yellow, gold, or orange Easter egg (or container)
  • 1 harder question, written on a slip of paper
  • Optional, but suggested: a whistle or attention-getter
  • Optional, but suggested: 2 small dry erase boards and markers (1 set for each team)
  • Sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses for yourself, especially if you’ll be outside for several class periods in a row. (Trust me. I got my worst sunburn of the year on Quidditch day!)


Students need:

  • Totally optional: pen and paper to take notes on the questions you ask, especially for the teams of students on the sidelines.


Student Players/Roles:

  • 6 Hula-hoop-holders (students became the moving goal posts)
  • 2+ Keepers, at least 1 defending each set of 3 goals
  • 3+ players per team on the field; they start in the center of the field, backs to each other, facing the goal they want to score in.
  • 2 Seekers, 1 per team
  • Everyone else is divided into 2 teams; they sit on the sidelines, answer my grammar questions, and yell strategy to their on-field teammates.
  • (NOTE: I divided the two teams. However, once in teams, students were happiest when I let them decide who would be in what position, AND I gave them the option to “sub out” and change roles at the halfway point.)


Setup:

  1. Prep the Golden Snitch. Remember that gold Easter egg? Take the slip of paper with a hard question on it, tuck it in the egg, and hide it in your space when students can't see you. (Or, send a trustworthy student to hide it.)
  2. Explain the game to students. The diagram helps. Make your explanation quick so they can spend time assigning players to roles and getting outside. It's a little chaotic the first few minutes, but after one “turn” of grammar-question-and-gameplay, they got it.


How to Play:

  1. First, get everyone into position. This is honestly the only hard part! Moving excited students is like herding cats!
  2. Ask a grammar question from your list, loudly enough that everyone can hear. (See my example list below.)
  3. The teams on the sidelines huddle and come up with their answer. On-field students are allowed to help IF they're willing to risk the other team hearing. (I suggest a time limit. Also, it's up to you if you accept the FIRST correct answer, or if you let both teams “win” the round just by producing the right answer.)
  4. The team(s) with the right answer gets to move players on the field. The 3+ students in the middle ALL get to take ONE giant leap forward (think long-jump without the running start). Wherever they land, they must stay until the next correct answer, when they can take another leap toward their goal.
  5. This is where the strategy comes in. When one field player is close enough to one of the three goal hoops that he thinks he can make the shot, his teammates can give him their one dodgeball, and he can attempt to throw it through the hula hoop, being held by a goal post student from the same team. The hoop holders can move their arms, but not their feet, to help; the opposing team’s keeper tries to block the shot.
  6. Once a shot has been attempted, all field players of that team have to “reset” back to the middle of the field and start over, trying to advance toward their hoops. (Thus, there's some risk involved in attempting a shot).
  7. To be honest, most of my students DID make their attempted shots, but it was fun for them to get points. If you want to make it harder for them to make the shot, there are many ways to do that (like spreading out the distance of the field more).
  8. Game play continues until we run out of time. 
  9. The team with the highest points wins.


Meanwhile, the golden snitch!

  • As soon as I ask the first question, the two seekers run off to start looking for the hidden golden snitch. (Yes, I gave them a boundary line to stay within.)
  • When a seeker finds it, that seeker must come back to me and attempt to answer the question that is hidden inside. A right answer gets them additional points for their team; a wrong answer gets zero.
  • Once the snitch has been found, I made all students stop, sit in place, cover their eyes, and badly sing obnoxious songs (like the ABCs or the HP theme song) while a trusted student went and hid the Snitch again.
  • Repeat the process, using the same seekers OR new ones that the team chose to swap out.

Other Pro Tips:
  • Bring a camera, or get a student on the yearbook staff to bring one! This can get pretty funny.
  • Use choral response to get all students across the field to repeat the correct answers back to you. This is one way to ensure students are still listening, participating, and learning. 
  • Encourage kids to strategize which students are in particular roles on the field, based on their strengths.  
Sample questions I asked:

  1. What does AAAWWUBBIS stand for?
  2. What are the three kinds of verbals?
  3. What's the difference between active and passive voice?
  4. Explain why Mrs. H wants to Hulk-smash things when students write “should of”.
  5. Give me a correct example of a complex sentence, including punctuation.
  6. Give me a correct example of parallel structure.
  7. What is a predicate?
  8. What is a participle?
  9. Sing a prepositional phrase used in a song.
  10. Trick question: how many Harry Potter books are there? (As you can see, I occasionally got off-topic, ha!)


About the Grammar House Cup
A partial blog post about the GHC can be found here (but I owe you an Update Post!). ALL of the grammar lessons, game boards, quizzes, and tests in my Grammar House Cup program can be found here.

Do you have suggestions or ideas? 
I would love to hear them in the comments!
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