10 Christmas Activities for Secondary English Classes

Consider your December lesson planning done!

Christmas is a fun time for all involved, including teachers! If you're stumped for ideas on how you can bring the Christmas spirit into your English Language Arts class, here are a few ideas to help you get started.

Fellow ELA teacher (and holiday guru) The Classroom Sparrow and I have compiled a list of of ideas to help you find the perfect match for your class.

An English Teacher's "Favorite Things" List

Most of us have a mental (or actual) wish list for our classrooms: the books we want to add to our libraries, the tools we want but don’t “need”, or the decorations that just aren’t in the budget. We fantasize about winning the lottery, having a successful Donors Choose list, getting a classroom makeover... or being in the audience for an episode of Oprah’s Favorite Things.

If I could share MY favorite things with YOU (a la Oprah), here's what I'd gift you!

6 Pitfalls to Avoid During Literature Discussions

So you’ve crafted the perfect discussion question about a chapter, but the room is full of crickets.
Or, just as bad, you have to wrestle apart two students who have taken things personally and are now ready to rumble, Outsiders-style.

How does an ELA teacher sneakily prevent literature discussions from going haywire, and what should we do in the heat of the moment when the drama begins?

Chatting with me today are two AWESOME fellow teachers, Jonathan and Lisa from Created for Learning.

Fixing Growth Mindset Struggles in Middle School

Determined to coach your students into a growth mindset? Want them to value learning, and not just grades, absorbing your feedback and persevering to the finish line?

Well, as with most educational theories, fellow ELA teacher Mrs. Spangler in the Middle and I have found that there are some hurdles to getting middle school (and even high school) students into a growth mindset that actually sticks (and doesn't just sound good).

The short answer: Encouraging a growth mindset in a vague way only helps to a point without addressing a student's underlying reason why he or she doesn't want to persevere.

Keeping Up with New Books as an English Teacher

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!)

8 Things to STOP Doing When Teaching Public Speaking

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.

10 Ways to Help Teen Writers Revise

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.

9 Tricks to Help Students FINISH That Book

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.

How to Play Grammar Quidditch

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!)

6 Guest Speakers to Invite to Your English Class

The right guest speaker can get even the most grumpy teenagers to sit up straighter, lean in, and maybe put in a little more effort into your class.

The best part? Many presenters will come to your class for free, will require low/ no prep on your part, and will lend their credibility to what you're currently teaching.

Especially in the older grades, it's still important to invite any of these six types of speakers to your classroom, where they can add inspiration beyond what even the most talented teachers can do alone. Writing with me today is Danielle from Nouvelle ELA.

10 Tips for Using Flip Books in Secondary ELA

What do heavy backpacks, stuffed binders, and busy students all have in common? Information overload. Each school day, teens and tweens are being given worksheets, packets, readings, textbooks, and more… for six or more classes.

Though not a cure-all, flip books are a great alternative to give students information or guide them through a sequence. Chatting with us today is Danielle Knight, a flip book guru and fellow English teacher!

9 Ways to Upgrade Your Short Story Unit

One day, while tutoring, I asked a sophomore what he’d been doing in English class lately. To my horror, he replied, “Oh, we’re just doing a short story unit. But don’t worry, I don’t need your help with my homework for it… we’re just filling out some worksheets about each one.”

Ouch. My English teacher heart was broken, because I’m pretty sure his English 10 teacher designed the unit with better objectives and intentions than just worksheets… but to the student, that’s all he was doing.

That conversation has driven me to get more out of every text, short or long, and to make every story memorable through the skills, the experiences, or the factual knowledge gained. Teaming up with me to talk about this is Lauralee Moss from the Language Arts Classroom.

11 Tricks to Balance Your ELA Curriculum

What is the second-hardest part of being an English teacher, after grading?

For some of us, the answer is planning - specifically, how to design a curriculum that somehow “does it all”. We have to balance all the areas of ELA (literature, nonfiction, grammar, vocab, writing, and speaking), doing justice to each within the limited time constraints of the year (and the inevitable interruptions, snow days, or disasters that pop up…)

And sometimes, that balance (even when well-intentioned) tips too far in one direction or another, leaving one of the six areas shortchanged.

This task gets even harder if...
1. You teach a specialized English course (like British Lit, journalism, or speech), where you have a focus to honor but still have to meet a lot of unrelated standards
2. You also want to take on non-required, but important topics or skills (like note taking, technology, poetry, logic, etc.)
3. You don’t have a ton of guidance for your curriculum. (That freedom is an overwhelming blessing!)

So how do we juggle all the needed skills and knowledge? To help new and veteran teachers deal with this problem, Britt from The SuperHERO Teacher is joining me to share our tested solutions. (We have combined experience in both middle and high school ELA!)

12 Ways to Make English Class Paperless

Do you want (or need) to cut down on paper? Is there a paperless initiative at your school, a harsh photocopying limit, or new 1:1 technology in your classroom? (Or, are you simply tired of hauling 60+ journals to and from school?)

Whether you’re already a digital native or are terrified of letting go of hard copies, here are 12 baby steps to start taking if you want to tiptoe (or cannonball) into a paperless classroom. Joining me today is Christina, who blogs at The Daring English Teacher.

Survive Before, During, and After TEACHER Maternity Leave

Like any first-time-parent rookie, I foolishly imagined that prepping my sub binder wouldn't take THAT long to prepare, and that during my leisurely six-week maternity leave, I would serenely cuddle the baby while getting caught up on blog posts, reading, PD, and other "me" tasks.

Ha. Very funny.

Though my maternity leave was joyful overall, it was a lot harder than I anticipated. Between crashing hormones, sleep deprivation, and moving physically slower than usual, it wasn't just lounging around for six weeks. (It didn't feel like "spring or summer break plus babysitting", as others had told me.)

Bottom line? You REALLY want your school life to be fully prepared for your absence, because you can't perfectly predict what you and your baby will need, and you won't want to put your newborn down to pick up your laptop instead.

Please learn from my mistakes (AND the things I'm SO glad I did) by reading this post and thinking about how you can survive AND thrive through this happy, messy new chapter in your life. Even if your situation looks different than mine, take the spirit of this list to heart to be proactive and ready for anything.

PRINT THIS FREEBIE: There's some overlap between the advice below and this checklist! You might also like my related blog post, Tips for Pregnant Teachers.

7 Tips for Decorating English Classrooms for Teens

There are three kinds of teacher-decorators: those who were born for Pinterest, those who can’t, and all the ones in between (such as the broke, the tired, and the I-have-no-time-to-decorate).
However, making a classroom appeal to middle and high school students doesn’t HAVE to involve serious crafting or expensive, time-intensive projects.
Check out these tips from me and Bonnie from Presto Plans as you prepare your classroom for the fall (or at any time of year that you want to give it a boost!)

You might also like Sara's more recent blog post, Inside My Farmhouse Classroom Makeover.

Tips for Teaching an English Elective Class

Congrats! You found out you've been assigned (or “voluntold”) to teach an elective. Maybe it's a course taught during the school day, or perhaps it’s an after-school extracurricular.

...but, what happens when that elective isn't something YOU did as a student, or your college degree(s) didn't really prepare you to teach it? How does one survive and thrive in an elective class that you have the passion, but perhaps not the training, to start?

Below are some tips to help you begin. Sara has taught speech/debate before and coaches an award-winning creative writing team. Julie Faulkner has taught journalism and yearbook for 10 years!

6 Ways to Help Seniors Write College Admissions Essays

The good news: by senior year, many teens ARE good writers who can crank out a thoughtful essay that answers the prompt.

The bad news: a majority of the rough drafts I see cross my desk (as a tutor) are really NOT submission ready. Not even close.

While I don't pretend to speak on behalf of admissions officers here, my inner English teacher is cringing while reading my students' work, the drafts that are supposed to not only gain admission for them but should ideally also win scholarships and/or admission to honors programs (and the like).

What's worse is that, at least in my area, my students are telling me three things:
1. My English teacher doesn't talk about admissions essays. We are on our own.2. Yeah, we wrote essays for school, but there was only one short comment on it. My teacher says that (he/she) doesn't want to grade or judge my life.3. I'm in an (AP/IB/honors) English class, so my teacher says we don't need help writing our essays. We are already good writers.

Here's my struggle. With all due respect to hardworking, overloaded, fantastic teachers of high school English, most of whom have limited freedom in their curriculums... this is arguably the most important essay that students will ever write.

Regardless of what they "should" be able to do by now (and the fact that it's not our job to be students' personal editors), this essay merits our attention. It's a special genre that most teens need help completing, and more importantly, this essay is an equality issue. Many students won't get help at all, or the right kind of help, to do it.

So, what reasonable steps can English teachers take, and why?

1. Encourage out-of-the-box thinking.

One of my biggest pet peeves is that so many essays sound the same. One year, I swore that if I read ONE MORE essay about why a volleyball or football coach was inspiring, I was going to quit tutoring forever.

Even when students have to answer a very specific prompt, they need to EITHER write unique content, have a unique answer, or put a unique spin on a common answer. Instead of telling me why your football coach is so wonderful, how about telling us that your football coach actually taught you more about academics than sports? (Just an example.)

Preach uniqueness to students. The readers need to see what is different and interesting about the applicant, or there will be nothing memorable about the essay.

2. Talk about blending genres.

Yes, this is (usually) an essay, but how about a narrative, storytelling hook? What about mixing informative and persuasive?

With some exceptions, a lot of colleges want to read essays with anecdotes, that flow more like a TED talk than a five-paragraph snooze fest. They want to be drawn into the story of who you are and see for themselves why you should be admitted. Bending genre is the new name of the essay game.

3. Discuss how to sell yourself appropriately.

Too much self-talk can sound arrogant, especially since admissions officers love honesty and humility... but not enough of it means that the essay may not reveal why the student is acceptance-worthy. 

Even if you don't have time for full lessons on tone and word choice, perhaps mention to these well-intentioned students that this IS a spectrum that they'll want to fall in the middle of.

4. Preach the RIGHT revision strategies.

Besides editing those essays to be grammatically PERFECT (obviously), I want students to actually revise their drafts.

But believe it or not, their biggest struggle isn't usually a lack of revision skills: it's knowing which friends and family members' feedback to listen to. Peers may or may not know what they're talking about, and parents sometimes have an outdated (sorry) vision of what this essay is supposed to be. (I once had a parent get angry with me because he was concerned that his son's essay structure wasn't traditional enough.)

Have an appropriate conversation with students, based on their skill level, about how to revise and who to ask for help. (You do NOT have to volunteer to be their reader; discuss who else is a good idea to ask!)

5. Ask if their draft makes a point.

This is a fun one. A lot of essays answer the prompted question... but do nothing else. No real thesis statement, no sneaky subplot, no revelation of their personality or uniqueness (see #1). Yes, students need to answer the question, but sometimes they answer it SO directly that the essay feels clinically impersonal and neutral.

The question I like to ask is: "If you forgot to put your name on this, would I be able to tell it's yours, or would it sound like everyone else's?" If the latter, then they need to weave  themselves in more somehow.

6. Check their organization.

We all know that some students are, um, "less organized" than others. Give them a hand by passing out this free graphic organizer to help them get their prompts, deadlines, word counts, and other details in order. 

How to Help Juniors on the ACT Writing

As an ACT tutor, I hate hearing students, teachers, or parents say any of the following about an ACT or SAT essay:
  • She's a good writer. She'll be fine.
  • They write essays all the time.
  • Yeah, I'm taking the writing test. It's just an essay, no big deal.
  • Oh, the essay section changed in 2016? Didn't know that. How different is it?

Tips for Pregnant Teachers: Ideas for All Three Trimesters

Dear Pregnant Teachers and Teacher-Partners, 

Congrats! You're going to be a parent, in addition to having "your" kids at school. It's going to be a fun, but sometimes difficult, ride. 

Below is a list of tips specific to teaching that I couldn't find in any baby book or app when I needed them most. Some teacher friends and I are sharing our best ideas to make YOUR journey smoother! 

Tips for TTC Teachers: Starting a Family (Despite Stress)

Dear Teachers-Becoming-Parents:

Isn't it cute when well-meaning doctors, family members, and friends tell you to "just relax" and "cut down on your stress?"

Ha. Funny.

5 Ways to Help Students Meet Their Goals & Resolutions

Many of us teachers incorporate SMART goals, growth mindset, perseverance lessons, RTI processes, charting growth with data, or other methods to help our students improve over time.

All of these pursuits are great and CAN work. My only concern with SOME school-led initiatives is that SOME of them do nothing to help student independence.