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.

 

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New Teacher Series/ Question 13: Do you find bell ringers helpful?

In 2008, I first used bell ringers to sneak in a few ACT strategies before the regularly scheduled curriculum, but I liked them so much I began using them in every class to prime the class for whatever learning objective was on the table.   They have been lauded by everyone from Fred Jones to Harry Wong, and they serve as an effective way to set the tone and smooth the transition from the bustle of class change to an academic environment.

The utility of the bell ringer is myriad.  During a unit on the argument, I might post two short blurbs from opposing views on a controversial topic for a quick bell ringer debate. During a literature class, I might use the bell ringer to take a quick formative assessment to test for retention of a concept or skill from the previous day.  During a study skills class, I might introduce a free time or money saving app and have students try it out on their cell phones.  During a project-based writing class, I might use a quick Google form to check in with each student’s status and their goals for the day. During film units, I might show establishing shots or clips of dialogue or one scene and ask for a quick analysis.   Bell ringers can be used for introducing, reviewing, reteaching, or building on a skill or concept.

  • They need to be relevant. Don’t slap a bell ringer on the board just so you can take attendance in quietness.  Make sure the bell ringer is relevant to the skill or content you are teaching.  Ideally a bell ringer previews or taps into prior knowledge of what you are teaching that day or connects to an essential question that drives a larger part of your curriculum.
  • The transitions need to be smooth. One of the main reasons bell ringers are popular is they create a good transition from the bustle of the hall to the academic environment in the classroom, but the transition from the bell ringer into the main lesson needs to be equally seamless. Bell ringers that require a lot of moving parts are cumbersome and the cost-to-benefit ratio decreases when that is the case. The strategy should increase, not decrease, classroom efficiency.
  • They need to be time-bound. Don’t allow the bell ringer creep. This is sometimes difficult, especially if your bell ringer involves discussion or debate, but I use the online stopwatch and project it onto the whiteboard to make sure the bell ringer stays within the time limit.  Some teachers play music and the bell ringer is finished when a single song is over.
  • They should be diverse. Having a writing prompt every single day can get stale. Using a variety of  bell ringers will keep the practice fresh.   A quick poetry analysis or a visual rhetoric inquiry using a video will create the necessary change of pace, but also include inquiries, grammar, journaling, vocabulary, silent reading, even mindful meditation, breathing and stretching– all great bell ringers.

 

 

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 10: What are the best strategies for teaching writing?

 

Last year, I had a conversation with one of my classes on why writing was so hard.  Here are a few of their reasons:

  • I don’t know where to start.
  • I don’t know where to end.
  • I don’t write in chronological order or in any order that makes logical sense. It’s all over the place.
  • I don’t always write in complete sentences, but sometimes I do.
  • I’m afraid I’ll write the wrong thing and have to do the whole thing over.
  • The choices are overwhelming.
  • Every time I write something crappy, my teacher always likes it. Every time I write something I think is brilliant, my teacher thinks its crap.
  • Because it just is.
  • I have a hard time getting what’s in my head out on paper.
  • I’ve discovered that I really don’t know how to tell a story.

In an interview with the New York Times on the occasion of his retirement from fiction writing, novelist Philip Roth said, “I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration.  Writing is frustration— it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” And yet failure is the process by which all writers – novelists, essayists, social critics, screenwriters, journalists, technical writers—meander their grief-stricken way to the finished product. How do we support kids in failure?

Next to teaching (and all things for which there are no clear paths—loving someone, raising kids, grieving, etc), writing is the hardest thing I do and it may be the hardest thing we ask kids to do.  We’re asking students to engage in an activity which requires memory, logic, visualization, vocabulary, plus kinesthetic and cognitive awareness.  Plus failure.

Research on the neuroscience of writing shows just how enormous an undertaking writing is.  Neurologically, writing is a skill on par with someone playing a musical instrument or participating in a sporting event. It’s complex, unique, and only develops through practice.

So while I admit that writing is so incredibly, mind-bogglingly hard, I would argue, the teaching of writing is even harder.  A good high school English teacher attempts to create an environment wherein 150 students (with 150 sets of information and misinformation, memory, value, prejudice, vocabulary, and logic) grapple with the enormously complex task of 1) attaching mental images to 2) the concrete, appropriate words in 3) the best order to 4) move an audience for 5) a specific purpose in 6) a specific, cohesive form using 7) appropriate-to-the-product usage and grammar.

Gasp.

So how are we to manage this Herculean task?

You must be a writer yourself.  I feel everything that needs to be said about the importance of English teachers to be active readers and writers has already been said by great teachers, like Nanci Atwell  (In The Middle) and Penny Kittle (Write Beside Them). Writing with your students makes you humble in the face of the staggering, monumental task you are asking them to accomplish. Writing is dynamic, not a set of static concepts students learn once and master.  To understand the struggles of writing, you don’t have to be a published author, you just have to write on a regular basis. You can’t teach writing from a position of theory.  You must have a process and projects of your own.  If not, you are in an untenable position to support students with the overwhelming number of decisions with which they will be faced.

Move beyond the free write, graphic organizers, and constructed response. If students are to become better writers, they must move beyond teacher-created forms, like the 3.5 paragraph essay and the 6 point essay.  Freewriting and graphic organizers have given struggling writers a great tool by which to get the ideas in their head down onto a piece of paper in the form of words and sentences. But those tools are still training wheels, and writers need to learn how to ride, wide open into the dark unknown. Struggling, then failing, then learning how to struggle and fail smarter is part of the process of becoming a better thinker and writer. If we provide students with the pre-fab forms by which to fashion their thought, they will never have the opportunity to learn from the process of navigating that road alone.   Students must learn to manage the project of their own writing from start to finish to become better writers.

Allow students to choose their own writing projects.  Teacher-created writing assignments come from the brain of the teacher, not the student writer. Writing prompts have a long and gloried history in the English classroom. From “What did you do over your summer vacation?” to the perennial “What would you do if you won a million dollars?” writing prompts have provided reluctant writers a spring board from which to jump onto the often-intimidating blank page.  Being able to respond in writing to an on-demand prompt is also one of the skills we use to measures how students demonstrate their own learning of a concept.  However, real world writing asks students to discover their own reasons to communicate, their own exigence.  We need to teach students to recognize this need and to write toward a finished product. Students must learn how to select their own topics, manage the time to research, draft, and edit a long project, and ultimately, deal with the inherent failure, even while becoming a better and braver writer in the end.

 

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 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 4: What system do you use for planning?

On average, a new teacher hits her lesson planning and teaching stride during her third year.  Don’t despair.  It will feel like you are drowning, flailing to stay just two days ahead of the kids. This is normal.  It doesn’t make you a bad teacher. It means you are a good teacher getting better to become great.

I’m a big picture planner, and even though I know daily what I’m shooting for (often called a learning objective or learning goal), I hate making rigid lesson plans.  If your plan is too exacting, it may leave no room for speeding up and slowing down, for the teachable moment or for the re-teachable moment.  An unexpected detour can often be the most productive part of the day.

Sometimes a lesson plan can be like a train you force your students to board. You’re the crazy engineer yelling, “We’re on this train, and no one’s getting off until the test!” That feels damaging to me because it doesn’t allow for student choice, intervention, or enrichment.

As a new teacher, every time I committed to some rigid plan, dragging the kids along with me, it failed.   Learning isn’t neat; it doesn’t often happen on a timeline, in a nice tidy box.  That’s both the reason you have a plan, and the reason you develop the versatility to abandon the plan for a better one.

Here’s a simple planning equation:  Know your standards + Know your students = Plan accordingly.  I know how irritatingly simple that sounds, but that’s basically it:    deeply understand the skill or concept you are teaching, then figure out what your students know and don’t know about that concept or skill through inquiry, then build a bridge between those two camps.

“Backward design” describes developing lessons based on the end goals or the desired results.   When teachers use backward design to develop curriculum, they start with the goals of their unit and work backwards to determine what lessons need to be mastered to achieve the goals. Share this term with students. Ask them how they might learn the content best. Start the unit by giving the students the unit test.  It’s not “teaching the test,” but teaching toward the test and allowing students to gain proficiencies as they master those standards.

Let’s say you are charged by the commissioner of education to teach kids how to make delicious mashed potatoes.  The standard states:  Students will produce savory mashed potatoes with a smooth, fluffy texture and a nice white-golden tone.

Here are ten tips for planning that:

  1. Know how to make mashed potatoes yourself. Teach yourself if necessary, but never attempt to teach a skill or concept that you don’t deeply understand.  Kids will figure out you’re a faker in about two minutes.
  2. Figure out exactly what your students know about taters. Create an assessment, either verbal or paper/pencil, that gives you some data about their prior knowledge and their mashed potato readiness.  There will be kids that don’t know the difference between a turnip and a tater while other kids already know how to make mashed potatoes while dancing the mashed potato. It’s your job to engage them all; welcome to public education.
  3. Tap into students’ prior knowledge and interests. This is important.  Students have to know why mashed potatoes are important to their lives. One cannot divorce the process of learning from the person who is learning, and if the plan does not address the learner, then even the best planned lesson will be useless.
  4. Break down the skill or concept into its smallest components and develop smaller lessons that lead students toward proficiency. This is a potato. This is butter. This is how you boil water.  Some kids will already know that, so you’ll need a different approach for them.
  5. Plan lessons that allow students multiple opportunities to apply the skill and practice. You will then create a new lesson (sometimes on the fly) to give feedback, reteach, ferret out misunderstandings, maybe reteach a third or fourth time. Give them as much practice as possible with feedback, not failure.
  6. Don’t absent-mindedly print a worksheet or an activity offline without understanding how it helps your students meet their goals.At the same time, don’t re-invent the wheel. Beg, borrow and steal all good lesson plans and tailor them for your kids.
  7. Don’t plan a lesson that you wouldn’t want to do yourself. Think of yourself as a teen in your class. Would this lesson make you want to hurl yourself out the window?
  8. Design lessons that hit multiple skills and concepts at once. Skills should not be taught in isolation.  One rich project-based assignment can hit dozens of standards.
  9. Some plans fail miserably; others succeed brilliantly. A lesson plan that worked fantastically first period will almost always fail after lunch. Be willing and able to abandon the plan mid-lesson and adapt on the fly.
  10. Struggle is good for students, but if you see students struggling to the point of frustration, stop everyone and say, “Hold up, what’s going on, why are you guys struggling with this?” You develop this intuition through failure, but don’t let that defeat you. The lesson plan is only as good as the reflection that follows it.