New Teacher Series/ Question 14: How do you stay on top of grading?

Grading is the English teacher’s special crucible.  Sunday nights are especially arduous. You’ll bring those papers in on Friday afternoon, promising yourself to grade them first thing Saturday morning.  But Saturday morning rolls around, and you run some errands, go to the grocery. Then you promise yourself that you’ll get to them Saturday afternoon.  You know what happens. Finally, it’s 3:00 pm on Sunday, and there’s a pile of ungraded essays on your coffee table that you keep circling.

My late father-in-law always said to me, “You know how to avoid those essays? Don’t assign them!”

Of course, it’s not that simple with English teachers.  Writing is a skill that requires nuanced and individualized feedback.  Last year, a meme was making its way around the interweaves that showed how many hours it takes teachers to grade essays.  At the low end (a teacher who had 100 students and only spent 5 minutes on each essays) the teacher spent 8 hours grading papers.  At the high end (a teacher who had 150 students and spent 20 minutes per paper) the teacher spent 50 hours grading papers.  That’s just insanity.  So how does a high school teacher, with a relentless daily schedule, do it?  Here are a few tips:

  1. Don’t make everything due at the same time. I know this might be impossible if you are teaching several sections of the same class, and you want to keep them at the same pace, but one class of 25 essays isn’t as daunting as five classes of 25 essays.  Even if you break them up by a few days, the wiggle room will keep the grading stress to a minimum.
  2. Don’t grade everything all the time. There are numerous activities that are both important and beneficial that don’t need to be assessed.   Carol Jago’s book Papers, Papers, Papers gives many examples of strategies for assessments that are non-graded, but still provides students with skill practice.
  3. Google Forms is your friend. Any online grading system, such as a clicker system, which collates student answers in a spreadsheet and provides graphs and individualized data for you is excellent for quick assessments.   Use these online data gathering tools to streamline your grading flow.
  4. Grade essays with an analytical rubric, preferably one designed with your students. Rubrics make grading essays easier as the descriptions and feedback concentrates on 3-5 categories in a range of performance levels. Creating a rubric with your students is an instructional gold mine that allows them to understand how they are being assessed and what the expectations of the assignment are before they start.
  5. Formative assessment comes in many forms. You don’t have to have a paper and pencil test to assess all student learning. A quick conference or a thumbs up/thumbs down survey can yield the information you need to know.

 

New Teacher Series/ Question 12: What are the best strategies for teaching grammar?

Confessions:  I’ve never diagrammed a sentence in my life. I always have to roll around lay/lie and who/whom in my head before I commit. And if someone put a gun to my head, threatening death unless I told them the pluperfect subjunctive tense of a regular verb, I most likely would die.

However, I love language, and I love to write.  And gosh darn it, people can understand me, so what gives on the grammar front?  Unfortunately, grammar has gotten a bad rap because teachers tend to trot out the grammar exercises as the path to writing greatness, when actually clarity of expression, significance of idea, and originality of style and voice have more primacy in good writing.   Yes, correctness is significant because without an agreed upon system of communication, how could one enjoy the expression, idea, style and voice? But grammar and usage are only a small part of the wider practice of writing.  Many of us have made grammar instruction the one and only path to better writing.

Let me save you a few years of frustration.  In the first decade of my teaching career, I was a beast with the grammar worksheets and grammar units. But here’s what I discovered.  Kids might score 100% on an isolated comma drill worksheet, but then write an essay as if they’d loaded up their BB gun and comma shot through every sentence.

Even after I circled every single grammatical mistake and wrote in the margin the page number where this error was addressed in the textbook, they might fix the errors on that draft, but would make the same mistakes on the next essay.  The corrections didn’t stick.

I was teaching these rules in isolation without understanding that while most people think of grammar as a bunch of arbitrary rules, grammar is actually a system by which a writer can order words in sentences for power and beauty.  Here are three broad tips I use for teaching grammar:

  • Teach grammar in the context of their own writing. Teaching grammar in the context of a student’s own writing is the key to students understanding and applying the logic of a grammatical system.   Students have varying readiness levels for grammar instruction, and meeting them where they are, on the page, is the most effective, differentiated instruction you can use. Read Constance Weaver’s Grammar to Enrich and Enhance Writing, a fantastic book that shows a teacher how to teach grammar in the context of a student’s own writing.
  • Teach students explicitly the top 20 most common grammatical errors as they edit their own writing. Most students consistently make the same types of errors in their writing. After you’ve read several thousand student essays, you will see that the pattern of errors concentrates on about 20 old familiars.  Showing them why these errors occur and how to remedy these errors will improve their writing more than a blue million grammar worksheets.  Use mini-lessons to instruct students how to avoid The Big 20, and then refer back to those lessons during one-on-one conferences.
  • Teach grammar in the context of their own reading. Students who read independently are more likely to absorb the sound and sense of syntax. They can hear the balance and rhythm in their own sentences.  If a sentence is awkwardly constructed or logically flawed, they will be able to identify it even if they don’t know exactly what is wrong with it.  That’s where you coach them on the structure or punctuation or positioning of clauses and phrases.  Ask them to examine the sentences of an author they love.  Illustrate the power of style, grammar and usage by examining the sentence structure and usage of William Faulkner alongside Raymond Carver.

New Teacher Series/ Question 11: What are the best strategies for teaching vocabulary?

Broadening a student’s vocabulary is important and critical to her academic success.  Having a comprehensive vocabulary increases a student’s ability to read with clarity and to communicate both orally and through writing with precision.  Students who are competent and independent readers often absorb much of their vocabulary from reading, but direct instruction augments that word pool even more. However, vocabulary instruction needs to be embedded and experienced multiple times for students to actually learn and use the words.  By introducing words once, then quizzing kids over the list and moving on, the skill developed is memorization and test taking, not literacy and word acquisition. Vocabulary unrelated to an actual personal, social, cultural, or literary context doesn’t stick in the brain.

Good teachers use a variety of strategies to teach vocabulary in concert with one another. Here are 15 Vocabulary Strategies in 15 Minutes   You will also find teachers using word walls, word journals, word maps, keyword methods, flash cards, vocab Bingo, Pictionary or Jeopardy.  Some strategies involve using the vocabulary words to write songs, short stories, or poetry. One of my favorite vocabulary trends was a call and response script – I can’t even remember the patter now – but it called for kids to clap, rap, and spell out the words and define them orally with me sing-songing and beating on my podium too.  It was fun, but I was still only asking kids to define and memorize words in isolation

About five years ago, I noticed several kids in one class were using some of the words from our vocabulary list during discussion.  I discovered these words not only were on their vocabulary list, but they had appeared somewhere in their reading that year, and—this seemed to be the key— they were words I used all the time.  The one I remember specifically was “truncated.” I love that word. I still use it all the time.  I realized that students were using it in their Socratic discussions and debates in class.

Why? Because they saw it and heard it more than once.  I used it all the time; they saw it in their reading; they knew what it meant, how to pronounce it, and how and when it should be used.  They had assimilated it into their lexicon.

From then on, I began to teach fewer words, but teach them more deeply.  I created a context for the words and allowed students to make connections with the words through discussion, reading, semantic maps, games, or even drawing visual interpretations of the words. I also read Bob Marzano’s great book Teaching Basic and Advanced Vocabulary  which provided me with many great strategies.  You will figure out what strategy scratches your vocabulary itch, but here are three broad conceptual stances that I suggest you develop:

  • Use a rich vocabulary yourself. Just as you must be a reader and writer to teach English Language Arts as a practitioner, you must also have a robust vocabulary and use it.  When you are leading a discussion, when you are describing something in the reading, when you are conferencing, or even lecturing on a concept, use precise, exact language.  You don’t want to use $50 words for the sake of using them; you want to use the specific and accurate word because you are articulate and have a range of rich, complex words to choose from. Develop your ability to speak with depth, nuance, and sophistication.   Describing something as “small” sometimes isn’t sufficient; sometimes that small thing is actually trifling or trivial or insignificant or inconsequential or negligible or nugatory (what an insanely fabulous word!) or infinitesimal.
  • Tap into the emotional shading of words. When you teach vocabulary, suck the marrow out of those words.  Ask kids what emotional baggage a word like “hysterical” channels.  Ask kids to chart the words on a positive to negative cultural continuum.  Ask kids how different generations might perceive a word.  The dictionary definition is flat and static, but the connotative meaning of the word is rich and varied and often dependent on culture, regional geography, and social class. Turn kids on to both the social- and psycho-linguistic power of words.
  • Be a language freak. Create a culture of language in your classroom.  In the words of my colleague Bob Howard when he calls on kids to analyze art in his Art History class, “Remember, we use big words in here! Big, huge, glorious words!”   Point out especially dizzying words in the reading.  Share new words with your students that they won’t be assessed on, just words you have discovered and fallen in love with.   Have a Word of the Day calendar and use it.  Assign this as a job to a kid.  Start your day off with language, maybe challenge kids to use that word throughout the day.    Show kids how to use the online OED

New Teacher Series/ Question 9: What are the best strategies for novels?

In the landscape of English-Language Arts, there are different camps for how to best teach the novel, so as with anything, you should read widely about strategies and find the ones that work for you and your students. While I’m a great believer in the power and beauty of classic literature, I believe reading should be a joy and a pleasure, and for some students, particularly what teachers call “reluctant” readers, the classics can be torture.  They become just one more irrelevant thing foisted on them by teachers.

Kids who don’t read well may not like to read because they haven’t mastered the skills to tap into the wonderment and magic of a novel. Maybe they didn’t have positive early literacy experiences; maybe they can decode the words but can’t comprehend the meaning; maybe they were forced to read boring texts and associate reading with suffering and agony. The list goes on and on.  But I firmly agree with J. K. Rowling, who said, “If you don’t like to read, you haven’t met the right book yet.”

Outside of an AP curriculum, where choices tend toward classic lit, I am a proponent of both the canon and the contemporary – whatever gets a kid to become a crazy-mad reader – comic books, graphic novels, genre fiction, poetry, whatever.  Reading is a skill, like writing, that improves with practice. The more a student reads, the better she becomes at reading.  The better she becomes at reading, the more she will enjoy the experience and become more proficient.  But the first step is hooking the kid, and that hook should be baited with a juicy bite. As he grows as a reader, his tastes and abilities may change.  There’s room for all levels and likes at the table of literacy.  But how do you get kids to willingly join you?

Here are a few tips to get started.

  • Read whole novels, not just excerpts. Teaching students how to analyze and read closely through the use of excised novel passages of no more than 750 words, about the length of a reading passage on the ACT, has become a trend. This practice is not teaching reading; it’s teaching the skim/scan/chunk method of test prep, and it should only be used in addition to reading whole novels.  This practice is like asking kids to appreciate a seven-course dining experience, but only giving them the soup.
  • Teach reading and analytical skills explicitly.   Using To Kill a Mockingbird to study social justice or civil rights is a defensible lesson, but developing reading and critical thinking skills is the primary objective.  Any novel can be used as the text by which students learn to analyze theme, characters, diction, syntax, and structure. Teaching a novel isn’t teaching content alone, but as a corrolary enticement to reading skill and practice.  Questioning, reacting, inferring, predicting, and analyzing are reading skills students will need whether they’re reading Jude the Obscure or  Unwind. 
  • Create a culture of reading in your classroom. Be excited about reading yourself. Constantly share with your students what you’re currently reading.  Share articles, blog posts, videos about popular writers and popular books with your students.  Talk about characters as if they were real people. Model what literacy looks like.  Have a classroom library, and create many opportunities for them to visit your school’s library.  Start an after-school book club. Demonstrate for them that proficiency in reading is powerful personally and politically.
  • Become proficient at Lit Circles and Socratic Seminar. The heart of both of these approaches is discussion.  When you, as a practiced reader, read something that sits your head on fire, you naturally want to share, talk about it with someone else, analyze the whys and hows.  Using Lit Circles and Socratic Seminars in your classroom gives students an outlet and a forming ground for discussing the themes, motivations, and conflicts in the text. The dialogue and debates that both of these practices generate mimic the conversations of practiced and sophisticated thinkers and readers.  I’ve used these two practices to great effect in my regular English classes with texts, both classic and contemporary.
  • Be a literary matchmaker. Know where your students’ interests lie, and then make recommendations to kids of books you think they will like. If students gravitate naturally toward Young Adult lit, use those texts to teach the skills they will need to develop and strength in order to read more complex texts in the future. I loved teaching the classics, but the language can be arcane, the syntax cumbersome, and the subject matter foreign to a reluctant reader.  Bait the hook with their choice of novels, then reel them in with deeper, denser, more challenging reading as they develop their abilities.  Help them create the text-to-self connections that make reading relevant and real to them.

 

 

New Teacher Series/Question 6: How regimented should I be during the first few days of school?

Regimented, as in organized, controlled, and on top of your game? Yes. Regimented as in mean, militaristic, and Machiavellian?  No, no, no.

There should be clear consequences of ignoring your classroom expectations, and you should be ready to address those during the first two weeks when students test your boundaries, but how you address those behaviors will set the tone of trust, respect and positivity for the rest of the year.

New teachers are often told “don’t smile until Christmas,” and several very successful teachers I know run their class like a boot camp until October, but ultimately, every teacher works out her management style through trial and error. Personally, I could not drive to a job every day for five months where I couldn’t smile.  And even though I can be very intimidating, I have zero drill sergeant skills, so boot camping is not an option for me.

My approach is more like, “I’m a professional teacher who wants to arm you with the tools for a better life and help you discover and respect your own mind.  I will expect nothing less than your best. I will honor that by bringing my best. I will not waste your time with busy work, but you will not waste my time with drama and trifling. In this class, we are about learning, as individuals and as a community.  I take my role very seriously, and you should know your role too.  You will be a better thinker, writer, reader, and human being for having been in my class.”

Think this to yourself every day.  Walk into that classroom with this disposition on your face.  Then make it happen. Exude positivity and confidence.  You can truly change their lives.  Believe that.  Here are a few tips:

  1. Connect with every kid that first week. This could be a home visit, a letter, or a call home just to say hello to her parents. Ask your bandies what instrument they play. Ask your ballers about their strengths. Ask your corner reader if she has read X; if she hasn’t, give her a copy to take home.  These small things state an important message to kids:   I see you. I see you as an individual.  I know you.  In high school, especially, kids can move through the day and never have a meaningful conversation with an adult if they don’t want to. Make sure every kid is on your radar every day.
  2. Greet kids by name, welcome them, and then immediately engage them. If you haven’t read Harry Wong’s The First Days of School, you need to read it.  Wong suggests you stand at your door and welcome kids with smiles and instructions. They will be nervous that first day.  Be positive, be inviting.  Check out these step-by-step scripts for a smooth first day.
  3. Good idea – Always explain why a rule is a rule. Better idea – let the kids create the classroom norms. They will create seriously good rules, and there’s immediate buy-in because they’ve established their own boundaries.   Make sure kids see why the rules you (or they) have chosen serve the community. Make sure they understand how the rules protect and aid everyone.
  4. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. They’re watching you. Students want to know if you’re one of those teachers who has rules, but doesn’t really enforce them.  They’ll know this in two days.   Address every infraction in a calm, confident and firm manner.  Remember, you are the adult in the room. You don’t have to threaten, scream, or belittle kids; deal with everything explicitly, stating this is what you’re doing, this is the rule, this is what I expect.  And don’t wear everybody out with giving a dozen warnings. Act fairly and decisively.  Then get back to the business of learning.
  5. Make the consequence match the offense. The consequences should be established long before the rule is broken. Deal with small offenses in your classroom, and lean on your administrators for the big stuff. Don’t send kids to the office because they didn’t bring a pencil. And always be fair.  If your favorite kid in the class is breaking a rule, exact the same consequence as if another kid had broken it.  Then get back to the business of learning.
  6. Always be alert. You can sense a shift from positive to negative energy.  When you feel that shift, move quickly to bring things back in line with your lesson.  Step into a group, shift focus, crack a joke.   Every kid in that room is just as exhausted by drama as you are.  They want you to deal with the issue.
  7. Never create a show-down with a student. If you yell across the room at a kid for doing something, all heads swivel.  You’ve now put her in the position to either comply or tell you to go jump in the lake.  You can imagine which one she’ll choose.  Don’t ask kids to make choices like that; you will lose.   Move in close, address the offender quietly by name, tell her exactly how she can get back on task. State the offending behavior, state the correct behavior, give her an opportunity to change.
  8. Being prepared, professional, and positive will curb 95% of all classroom management issues. Being prepared will guarantee your students are engaged which cuts down on chicanery.   Sometime between now and when school starts, read Teach Like a Champion 2.0 , which offers 62 strategies for engaging students and maintaining high expectations.  The book also comes with a DVD with over 70 videos of real teachers using these strategies.
  9. Don’t let kids talk over you. I’m always surprised by how many teachers allow this. If I’m giving instructions or explaining something, I expect all kids to be listening. Do not tax them with long, boring lectures, but expect them to listen when you are speaking.   Deal with the offenders individually; don’t punish the whole class.
  10. Always be real, which sometimes means pretending you’re a better person than you really are. To paraphrase Whitman, you are large and contain multitudes. Every teacher must know when to use the hammer and when to use the kid gloves. You need to be versatile and self-aware enough to tap into which persona the situation demands:  the magician, the healer, the listener, the guru, the crazy aunt, the wise sage, the storyteller, the performer, or the professional.  And at the center of all these multitudes is an authentic person who is honest and caring, led by an ethical vision that far exceeds whatever is educationally trendy.

 

 

 

 

New Teacher Series/ Question 5: How do I gauge student learning with 100 kids?

To do this, you will need to employ an edu-darling term, “formative assessment,” which is a fancy way of saying figure out where your kids are, either two inches or two miles away, from the standard, then give them clear feedback on how to take the next step toward it.

The first lesson of formative assessment: it’s not a thing; it’s a state of mind.  Formative assessment is not a grade in the gradebook or an activity to pass the time until the test comes around. It is the sum of all knowledge you own about the students. It is the collected and analyzed product of bell ringers, exit slips, writing notebooks, open ended responses, lab reports, quizlets, classroom observations, student interviews, homework, and portfolios.   It’s the answer to the question: where do my kids stand in relation to  where they need to be?

No one method of formative assessment is better than the next because, like a piece of exercise equipment, the best form of formative assessment is one you actually use.  Sometimes administrators force teachers to track student growth goals, but assessing kids just for the purpose of data collection doesn’t move them closer to the goals. It’s analyzing that data and modifying your teaching to move the kids up, back, right or left toward the goal that’s important.

Standards are static; kids are dynamic. Figure out where your shifting, ranging, all-over-the-map kids are in relation to those immovable standards. Think of a ladder as you map out the small steps that leads toward mastery of the standard. The correct edu-term for this is a “learning progression.”

Let’s say you have Standard A, which is a giant standard.  You break it down into 10 smaller learning goals, or ten rungs on the ladder, and design ten clear lessons to address those smaller chunks.  Each lesson should allow for multiple attempts, lots of feedback, and practice, practice, practice. Better yet, get your kids in on the action, and let them map out the ladder, wrestle with the smaller steps, connect to the ladder through their own interests.

Early in the process, design a formative assessment tool that asks questions about all ten smaller goals.  You could use a quick Google form, which provides you with immediate and collated feedback, or you could use a simple thumbs up/ thumbs down method too, as long as you get the data you need.  You analyze it and discover 25% of your class has only mastered two of the ten rungs required to climb the ladder while 50% of your class has mastered six of the ten and the last 25% have mastered eight rungs on the ladder.

Of course, it will never be exactly this easy because standards don’t necessarily distribute themselves into ten clean, small goals. Nor is the ladder always straight or OSHA certified.  And students’ abilities aren’t divided neatly into three categories (although it’s surprising how often they do.)

However, enlisting these three steps – breaking down the standard in smaller pieces, assessing the kidlets, then analyzing that data- will established a great starting place to meet their needs.   By matching an appropriate lesson to the students’ readiness, you have created differentiation.  You can also create more student ownership and investment by asking students to

  • set goals in relation to their progress and their own interests,
  • create their own rubric for meeting proficiency,
  • develop their own questions for the final exam based on the standard,
  • maintain their own spreadsheet or other visual representation of growth, and
  • analyze their own progress.

Give students many, many opportunities to apply the skills and concepts in your class to gain proficiency. Learning is not one and done.  Learning is trying, failing, re-adjustment, trying again.  Your job is to encourage, evaluate, modify, and assist. (Book recommendation: Read Robyn Jackson’s great book Never Work Harder Than Your Students about motivating kids to own their learning experience in order to create independence and autonomy.)

To assess learning, you don’t have to give a formal quiz or test.  It could be as simple as a day-to-day student reflection that you collect at the end of class.  Get tech savvy, which will save you time. Use a classroom response system, like a clicker system, that records and prints out numerical data easily. Use online Google forms that collect and display data in linear scales, pie charts, and graphs.  Check out Alice Keeler’s website. She is the master of the Google classroom and has written two books and produced numerous videos to help you figure out how to use the Google suite of utilities to gather, analyze, and reflect on your growing, but manageable data of student wants and needs.

Remember, data is not the enemy.  Unanalyzed, empty data, whose production is washed in the tears of over-tested youth, is the enemy.  Data that builds the ladders for your students to make gains is your absolute BFF.

 

 

New Teacher Series/ Question 3: What if I’m not given a scope and sequence? How will I know what to teach?

When I first started teaching, the textbook was king.  If you didn’t know what to teach, you just started on page one and taught through Modernism or, in the case of Social Studies, the Vietnam war.  But luckily we live in an age of standards.  Standards are not “the test” nor are they curriculum; they are the expectations for what students will master by each grade level.  For teachers in the state of Kentucky, the Kentucky Academic Standards, a 745-page behemoth, lists the skills and content a student should master at each grade level, as she progresses toward graduation.

These standards are what we teach; curriculum, on the other hand, is how we teach it. In Kentucky, our standards are the same from Paducah to Pikeville, but our curriculum may be different from classroom to classroom.  A teacher’s curriculum includes “scope and sequence,” which is edu-speak for how deep and wide you teach a concept (scope) and the order in which you teach the elements of that concept to enhance comprehension (sequence). As an English teacher, you will be responsible for teaching the standards in four areas: reading, writing, speaking and listening, and language.  What you teach is established by the state; how you teach it is often determined by your teaching style, the students who populate your classroom, and the instructional resources available within your district.

Good districts create, maintain, and communicate to all teachers a large picture of all the moving bits of curriculum – instructional resources, materials, lessons, units, modules, assessments— that support their learning objectives and goals.  This big picture is called a curriculum map.  The curriculum map shows how the standards are taught in each grade and how the curriculum aligns vertically, so that the fifth grade math teachers know what the fourth grade math teachers covered, and the fourth grade math teachers know what the third grade math teachers covered, and so on.  The purpose of mapping and aligning the curriculum is two-fold:  so students have no gaps as they progress to graduation, and so students aren’t taught the same thing every single year.  Each year their learning should build on the skills they mastered the previous year.

Regardless of whether the teacher in the previous grade level did or didn’t teach the standards he was supposed to, it is now up to you to figure out what those kids sitting in your classroom know and don’t know. Tip: There’s nothing lamer than a high school teacher blaming the middle school teachers, unless it’s a middle school teacher blaming his student’s deficiencies on the elementary school teachers.  Impugning other teachers helps no one. Be solutions-oriented, not a blame artist.

Here are some more tips:

  • Know your grade level/content standards like a lover’s face. For an 8th grade ELA teacher, there are only 42. Learn them inside and out.  The current college and career ready standards were developed by a non-partisan task force of education commissioners, governors, CEOs, business leaders, and teachers like you.  They were designed to make American students globally competitive, and they were adopted by 42 of the 50 states.   They are quality standards. Don’t just cut/slap them onto a lesson plan template, but know them deeply and widely, and understand why these standards are appropriate and beneficial for students.
  • Do not re-invent the wheel. First, ask another teacher, your department chair or your principal for the district’s or school’s curriculum map in your content area. If this is not available, Google is your friend. There are literally hundreds of curriculum maps online. Download four or five, and use them to build your own scope and sequence.
  • Figure out what your students know. All good teaching starts there. Without knowing what your students already know, you will not be able to move them to master the skills they don’t know.  In edu-circles, this is called “formative assessment,” but I call it relationship building. This kind of data gathering can be a pencil/paper test, a thumbs up/down comprehension check, or a longer conversation that helps you begin to grasp each student’s intellectual and academic profile.
  • Be transparent and get the kids in on the gig. Give them the standards. Ask them to analyze and break the standards down into learning goals of their own.  Charge your students with calling you on any activity that isn’t connected with one of these standards.
  • Everything you teach should be related to the mastery of one of those 42 standards. Every activity and assignment should be intentional.  You only have 177 days of instruction; every lesson, every activity, every unit must count.