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Redos: an essential part of the learning process

Years ago, I would have shuddered at the thought of asking my students to redo an assignment, envisioning myself chained to my desk for hours, buried under paper. However, several things made me change my mind about this:

1. I was giving feedback and then moving on without giving students a chance to use it, hoping that they would remember what I told them the next time we did something similar-- which could happen weeks later. Only my most conscientious students would look back at the old rubric, while the rest just kept making the same mistakes. Most performance based activities are built around a feedback-practice model. The track athlete, the basketball player and the swimmer get feedback from their coach and then get to try their skills again before the big game. The singer and actor do the same. But my students often got feedback and the grade at the same time. Even when I'd given them lots of help as they worked on an assignment, the best feedback came just as we were ready to move on to something new. That just didn't feel right anymore.

2. At the beginning of every semester, I preached the importance of embracing failure. But I was just giving lip service to its importance in the learning process. I realized that if I was telling my students it's ok to make mistakes as long as they learn from them, then I should give them a chance to do just that.

I knew something needed to change, but I am also a realist who really does not enjoy the time I spend grading assignments. How could I allow redos without chaining myself to my desk?

In my regular academic classes, I started using writer's and reader's workshop, which is built around the feedback-revision model. However, I didn't have that luxury with my International Baccalaureate classes because of the standardized nature of the program. I needed to find another way to work on the feedback-revision cycle with them.

After a few semesters of trial and error, I've come up with a system that has lead to great improvements in my students' writing. Now, the students redo many of their assignments. It's mandatory for all of them, not just the ones who did not attain a certain mark. This is because I want all of them to work to improve their skills. This does two things: it leads to better writing, and it puts the focus on the learning process, rather than just the grade. 

The best part is that I've managed to do this without increasing my grading load. Read on to see how:

1. I started to give smaller assignments that targeted specific skills. For example, I wanted them to write focused analysis that started with an assertion, and was followed by effective textual evidence and commentary. I did not worry about their own word choice or mechanics, because I wanted them to focus on the process of analysis. They passed in a paragraph, and I gave them feedback using a checklist, and underlined or highlighted problem areas on their paragraph. Each paragraph was redone and passed in for a summative mark.

2. I planned my assessments so that the smaller assignments lead into the bigger assessments I wanted to do. They did many quick-writes to practice the assertion-evidence-commentary pattern I wanted them to follow. They passed in journals and paragraphs that included literary analysis. I gave them feedback using the same checklists and rubrics I would use for the essay we were building toward.  When it was time to write the essay, they were very familiar with my expectations and had had several opportunities to practice and improve those skills.

3. After giving feedback on longer assignments, I knew I couldn't manage the time to have them redo the whole thing. Instead, I asked them to choose an area on the rubric that was their weakest and use the feedback to improve that. So, one student might choose to work on their organization, while another is working on idea development or word choice. When they redid the assignment, they highlighted their changes (we do this with Google Docs, but they could do the same on a paper assignment as well). Students were also required to include a comment that explained what they revised and why. I collect the original rubrics, locate the changes, and decide whether or not they have improved their work. It takes very little time (comparatively) because I only have to read what they have changed.

4. Many times, I follow this process in a conference. Students complete the same process and they explain their changes to me in person. The conference is far more effective process, as I can provide even more feedback to the student, who can respond and revise on the spot, if necessary.

5. I have also made reflection and revision a daily event in my classroom. I build in time for revision, so students get into the habit of thinking about the skills they need to work on. With every quick-write or prompt, I ask them to look for places where they can add more detail or improve their word choice. This goes a long way in helping them to become reflective students, as they get into the habit of improving their work. You can find more strategies for daily reflection and revision here.

I'm still tweaking, but I can honestly say that my students are now regularly using my feedback to improve their work, and I feel like the grading process is far less painful. That's because the focused feedback I give on the smaller assignments is leading to better written essays. Reading them is now far less painful because the students are actually learning, rather than just getting a grade and moving on.

If you have questions or concerns about this process, please leave them in the comments!

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Creative Assignments for Reading & Writing Workshop

I love the fact that my students can choose from a rich array of novels when it's time to read. Reader's and writer's workshop has been such a game changer in my classroom because the kids are so much more engaged in reading and writing than they ever were before.  

Young adult fiction has come so far these last years, and students can explore complex characterization and themes. My favourite trend in YA lit, though, is the way that authors are experimenting with narrative technique. 

This experimentation inspired me to create some writing assignments that link to the books that the kids are reading. Nicola Yoon's Everything Everything, for example, develops her main character through the various things she shares with the reader, like short blurbs, definitions, sales receipts, pages from her diary when she was ten, sketches and texts – scraps and pieces of things that give a glimpse of what matters to her. 

Creative writing assignments for middle and high school students

I thought that was a fascinating way to develop character, so I created an assignment for my kids to mimic Yoon's technique. I've also made one for Jandy Nelson's The Sky Is Everywhere. With this assignment, students write poetry to explore an issue, idea or character; however, they have to choose unusual mediums to write these poems on, like coffee cups or scraps of tests. These mediums, together with the poems, work to create meaning.

Students do not have to read the novels in order to do the assignment. I have the books in my classroom, but the handout also has links to Amazon, so they can "look inside" the novels and get a feel for the technique. The added bonus is that this process may inspire them to read the book, if they haven't already. It's a wonderful way to meld reading and writing workshop, or just a fun writing assignment if you aren't in workshop mode.

I'm having so much fun making these that I plan to add more to my new product. Currently, I'm working on ones for Tell Me Three Things, Solo and Salt to the Sea, and I'll add those to the file as soon as they are done. Then, I'll just have to read more books! If you have suggestions for titles with interesting techniques, let me know in the comments and I'll add them to my list.

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Keeping Kids Accountable with Independent Reading

Accountability and Independent Reading

We give our students quite a gift when we allow them to choose which books they will read. However, independent reading and readers' workshop can be difficult for a teacher to manage. Many believe it's easier to keep kids accountable when they do a full class novel because everyone is - quite literally - on the same page. However, there are several strategies you can use to build in accountability when your students are choosing their own novels. Read on to find out what I do with my students:

Accountability and Independent Reading
Instead of thinking about the chapters and specific elements of a particular novel, zero in on the skills you want your independent readers to acquire. Then, make a plan for when and how you will focus on these skills. My biggest focus at the beginning of a semester is building reading stamina in my students. We attack that right from the beginning by choosing good books and setting goals for each week. 

Later, I will focus on different elements of fiction, like the methods that authors employ to develop characters, or the ways that they use point of view and perspective. We will delve into word choice and theme. All of the things I would cover with a full class novel are covered with reader's workshop -- but I need to start with a plan.

Accountability and Independent Reading

Whether they are reading the same book or different ones, teach students how to be active readers. Do this by modelling your own reading and by focusing on one skill at a time. Talk to them about how you choose a book, and show them your thinking as you read. And, if you want them to track character or theme, give them mini-lessons on how to do so.  Then build in activities that can help them learn how to do this. If you'd like some help with this, you can check out my Activities for Independent ReadingIt offers a variety of activities that you can use to help your students become active readers who can effectively analyze their texts. These activities will teach them the habits of active reading and will guide them to have meaningful discussions about literature. 

Once you have given your students these tools, and you have provided them with opportunities to practice their active reading skills, you can begin to assess them.

Accountability and Independent Reading

Reader's notebooks, journals, logs, whatever you want to call them, are essential for managing independent reading. Students can use them to record their reading goals, the books they've read, their thinking as they read, and skill building exercises you might assign. One of my favourite ways to engage kids who are reading different novels is with writing prompts that can be applied to any text - especially ones that the kids will find interesting. I have a whole series of prompts that ask students to reflect on -- or connect to -- some aspect of their reading, such as character, theme, point of view, conflict, or setting. Some prompts ask them to make a creative connection. I use them as bell ringers or I print them off and use them as a basis for small group discussions about books.

I also use learning stations to get my students to focus on specific elements of their reading. At each station, students are asked to reflect on, and write about, character and thematic development, author's craft, great quotes, etc. All of this writing goes into their readers' notebooks. I will read some of the entries, but not all of them. I do assign some grades, but I treat the notebook primarily as a place to build skills and to capture thinking about text, rather than something that needs to be assessed.

The students will also use the information in their notebooks for conferences with me, as well as with their peers during small group discussions. If they don't have the work in the notebook, they have nothing to work with. In a way, this makes them much more accountable than traditional chapter questions with a full class novel. They are reading their own books and are responsible for the notebook entries, something they can't just copy off someone else.

Accountability and Independent Reading

Group discussions are perfect for keeping kids accountable while reading -- and they are where a lot of the magic happens. There's nothing better than hearing your students sink into a deep discussion about a theme and how it relates to their lives. The key to success in this is providing them with some focus and direction for their discussions. Give them a topic that can relate to any novel and ask them to discuss it in terms of their text: how does your book speak to the concept of loneliness? Or, if you want them to focus on skills: How does your author use dialogue to develop character? I usually have them do a quick-write in their notebooks first, and then move them into groups. 

If you'd like a little help with small group discussions, you can check out my Placemats for Talking About Text and my Reading Task Cards.

Accountability and Independent Reading

Conferencing with students is a cornerstone of the reading workshop. But even if you aren't doing a full workshop, you can use this strategy to keep your students accountable. The beauty of a conference is that you can quickly and easily assess the student without taking home a paper to read and grade. 

I give my students bookmarks that they can use to track the elements I want them to notice when they read, and I use prepared guides to keep myself and them focused when we conference. Sometimes these conferences are sit-down ones that take several minutes with each student, but often they are quickie-conferences, where I walk around the classroom with my clipboard, asking questions like: can you show me a place where your author is showing rather than telling? If the student can, I mark off that skill on my checklist.

If you'd like more information on how and why you should use this strategy, you can read about it on this post.

I hope that I've given you some strategies that you can use when you do independent reading in your classroom. If you have questions, never hesitate to reach out through email. You can also join my closed Facebook group, Strategies for Teaching Secondary English.

All of the products and activities I mentioned in the post can be found by checking out my Reader's Workshop Bundle. Most of them are in the bundle, and the others are mentioned in the product description. 

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The Literary Essay: A Guided Approach

In my last several posts, I've shared the work I've been doing to teach my kids to analyze literature effectively. It all culminated in an essay they wrote last week. I know from past experience that students find this type of writing very difficult, so I decided to walk them through it and let them focus on learning the necessary skills. 

Here's what I did:

The basis of an effective essay is the thesis. Without a strong assertion to build on, students will wander aimlessly through the essay. So, to ensure that my kids had this foundation, we did some work to create one together -- with some final tweaking from me.

In my class, groups worked to create a strong thesis that focused on the author's overall message. We discussed all of them and narrowed it down to this: In A Separate Peace, John Knowles suggests that to be truly at peace, we must deal with our inner demons. Because I wanted them to focus on a certain element of author craft, I tweaked it a bit: In A Separate Peace, John Knowles uses the development of Finny and Gene to illustrate that to be truly at peace, we must deal with our inner demons. 

I find that one of the biggest problems with my students' literary essays is that they want to build them around the evidence, rather than using the evidence to support their assertions about the text. In order to change this, I guided them through a pre-writing exercise that would keep them focused on analysis.

I took my kids to the lab and we did a pre-writing exercise to build the bones of the essay. I had each kid write the thesis in bold at the top of the page and told them to keep their eye on it -- the essay had to prove the thesis, so I wanted it there as a visual reminder so they wouldn't veer off topic.

Then we discussed whether or not the essay should deal with Finny or Gene first--which made most sense? I was pleased to see them reach the same conclusion I had: as Finny chose not to deal with his demons and Gene did, it made sense to put Gene last, as he was the example of what to do (you could make an argument for the opposite, but for this exercise, I wanted them on the same page).

Next, I told them I wanted two paragraphs devoted to each character: one that illustrated what each boy was like at the beginning of the novel and another that shows how he evolved - or not. We spent a few minutes discussing possible assertions for the first paragraph on Finny. After we chose a good one, I set a timer for five minutes and told the kids to write all they could think of to support the assertion. The response didn't have to be organized and they couldn't use their notes -- I didn't want any textual evidence yet. The purpose of this was to get them to write what they knew about the claim and not to focus on the plot.  We repeated this three times for each of the assertions we made. Each time we did, I told them to copy and paste the thesis just above the new paragraph, just so they would stay on topic (I advised them to change the color, so they would remember to remove it later).

It took most of a period to do the pre-writing stage; then, I assigned evidence collection for homework. I had the lab booked for the day after next, so the students had two nights to find examples and quotes from the text to support the claims they had made in each paragraph. We had already spent a lot of time working on the skill of finding the best evidence, rather than what was the easiest or most obvious, so I felt confident that they could do this part of the process at home.

When we returned to the lab, I told the students to get out the handouts I had given them when we learned how to make and back up assertions about text. We did a quick review and then they spent most of the period revising the paragraphs they created in our pre-writing session.

We purposefully ignored these parts of the essay -- other than the thesis, of course. I often tell kids to leave the intro to the end, because as they write the essay and build their argument, they may have a better feel for how to begin.  

We had already had several lessons on how to write intros and conclusions, so I reviewed what I had told them already. We talked about the various ways a student can lead into the thesis -- by starting broadly, by using an anecdote, an analogy, a contrast, etc.  Then we brainstormed broad topics that could lead to the thesis: teens often suffer from a lack of confidence, many of us feel envy, etc.  I told them to use one of these to start an opening sentence and then to explain it a little further. Next, I showed them how to write a transition sentence that could connect these ideas to their thesis. We repeated a similar exercise with the conclusion.

I have just finished grading these essays and, while they are not perfect,  the students are way ahead of where they would be had they just done it on their own. "Of course they are," you might say. "You spoon fed it to them." I would respond that yes, I did. And there's nothing wrong with that. I wanted to take their hands and lead them through the process before they have to do it on their own, which they will in a few weeks. The proof will be in the pudding then, and I'll come back and update  you on how it goes!

Teaching Students to Find Evidence in Literature: Part 2

I've made it my mission to explicitly teach my kids how to find good evidence to support their points in literary analysis. In my last post, I wrote about how I had students focus on finding evidence to support claims they made about one section of the book. The strategy in this post is one that shows them how to collect evidence as they read the whole text. (If you like the activity, read on to enter a contest to have theme posters created for your favorite novel!) 

We're reading To Kill a Mockingbird and there are several themes I want the kids to track as they read. I created some posters that represent these themes and printed them on colorful paper. I want them to be very visible in the classroom, so the kids have them as a visual reminder as they read. I adhered them horizontally to a piece of ledger paper to create the poster. They won't look like the finished product for awhile, because it's going to get pretty messy first!

After the kids had read their first chunk of the book (chapters one - four), I asked them to brainstorm all of the lessons they (and the Finch kids) had learned. With just a little prodding, they came up with the same ones I had. I assigned one lesson to each group and had them brainstorm good evidence to support it. 

Next, I gave each group a pile of sticky notes and instructed them to put one piece of evidence or a quote on each one. As they worked, I was putting the posters up throughout the room. When they finished, they put their stickies on the appropriate poster. At this point, we didn't discuss or evaluate any of the evidence.

The next day, after they had discussed another chunk of the novel, I passed out the stickies again, and instructed them to write down any evidence they could add to the posters. I didn't assign anything to anyone; they could choose whichever ones they wanted.  

At this point, I explained to them that we would continue to add evidence to the posters until we were a third of the way through the text.  When that happens, I will assign each group a poster and they will start sifting through the stickies. They will decide which ones overlap and which ones don't really relate. Stickies that don't belong will be removed and the ones that make the cut will be organized. We will repeat this process two more times until we have lots of great evidence at the end of the novel.

I spend some time during this process explaining to the kids that it's ok to record evidence even if they are unsure if it is good or not, because we are just exploring as we read. In fact, we won't really know how everything works together until the end of the novel.  We also discuss the fact that evidence can be used for multiple topics. 

Once we finish, I will assign a poster to each group 
and they will review all of the information on the stickies, and narrow it down to the best six best pieces of evidence. I will type the quotes and comments up and print them on stickies to adhere to the poster, so the final copy is clear and easy to read.  Why six? Well, mostly because that's the number that fits on the paper! However, if the kids can make a case for more, we'll post them on the side.

How will we use these posters? There are so many possibilities! First of all, I will have each group do an informal presentation to the rest of the class, explaining how the evidence supports the theme. Alternatively,  we could do a gallery walk, with one person from the group assigned to each poster to explain their rationale. After, the posters will stay on the walls until the kids finish their final writing assignments. They can use them as reference at any time during the process. 

If you'd like to use them, you can grab my TKAM posters here

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Teaching Students to Find Evidence in Literarure

We're reading A Separate Peace in my Pre-IB class right now, and I'm drilling down on teaching them to write analytical statements -- rather than summary. I'm also spending more time teaching them how to find good evidence.  

My experience is that students can find a quote to back up a point, but they often stop short with just one, usually the easiest one to find. There's a couple of problems with this: I want them to use multiple examples to fully develop their ideas, and when they use the first quote they find, they can often miss one that's even better.

After we read the first four chapters of the novel, we did some work on learning the difference between factual and analytical statements. I had the kids brainstorm assertions about the first part of the book, then I put them in groups to find evidence to support the assertions (full disclosure: because it was the first part of the book, I gave them assertions I made ahead of time for the group activity. I wanted to make sure they were  on the right track!)

Each group was given a handout that looks like this. They wrote their assertions on the top and then had to look for evidence to support it. First, we spent some time discussing what makes a quote an effective one to use as proof. I told them that if they want to do this well, they'll have to be willing to re-read and skim to look for ones that truly back up what they are trying to prove.

They took notes as they read and had to decide which of the quotes they found to include on the three sticky notes that would go on the handout. Before I gave them the stickies, we had a discussion about whether or not their evidence was good. If it wasn't, I gave them some hints about where to look in the text.  

Once they had their quotes on the stickies, they had to arrange them in the order they would use them to back up the assertion. Finally, they wrote their commentary on the side on the handout.

But we still weren't done. I took all of the handouts that focused on one character and arranged them on chart paper, and did the same for the other character. We did a gallery walk, and finished with the students making assertions based on all of the evidence on the poster.

This process took longer that I initially thought it would -- two full classes from start to finish. However, it was time very well spent. The students got a much better understanding of the process they should go through when they are searching for proof. I told them that they obviously couldn't spend two classes backing up every point, but that they should remember the process when they are looking for evidence. I believe that the activity will also help them to recognize effective quotes when they take notes as they read.

Update: we moved on to To Kill a Mockingbird, and I was thrilled to see lots of carry over from this activity. Read what I did next here.

You can get more ideas for teaching analysis in my latest product: Teaching the Process for Literary Analysis. And, if you'd like more support with this and any of your teaching strategies, you can join my Facebook group: Strategies for Teaching Secondary English.

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Teaching The Process of Literary Analysis

Teaching literary analysis
If you polled your students would they tell you that they really understand how to do a literary analysis? Or are they just blindly following a formula without really understanding the process? 

If we want students to truly understand what they are doing, we need to show them the process of analysis and then make it a daily habit, not just something for final assignments. I've developed a number of lessons and activities to reinforce these skills, and I want to share them with you:

We've all read those papers that are nothing but plot summary when what we really wanted was analysis. These essays were a waste of time for the student to write and for us to read. To avoid this, we need to devote some time to showing kids the difference. Here's what I do:

After my kids have read a short story or a section of a longer text, I tell them to write as many statements as they can about what they have just read. Then, I do a mini-lesson on factual statements versus analytical ones. At this point, the students will put a checkmark beside their analytical statements and an X beside the ones that state a fact. This is a really important step in the process, because if they can't discern the difference, then analysis will not be easy for them. It's an idea I reference often in class discussions that follow: Is that a factual or analytical statement? If it's factual, I'll instruct them to reframe if I'm looking for analysis. Or, if I want them to support their statements with evidence, I'll tell them to give me some facts to back up their analysis. We make evidence versus analysis part of our daily conversation so they become familiar and comfortable with the difference. 

While we want our kids to move beyond summary to analysis, they still need to be able to identify key facts in the text, facts they will use as evidence to support their analysis. Therefore, we also need to build in time for them to learn how to identify key information and important moments in plot. When I begin any full class novel, we start with a lesson that does just that.

I get the kids to make statements about key facts and events in the first section they read. The kids brainstorm as many as they can. They do a turn-and-talk and then we discuss their ideas as a class. I ask: why do you think these facts are important? What is the author using them for? We write the facts and events on the board and decide, together, which ones are the most important.  I transfer them to either a piece of chart paper or a digital file that we can add to and reference later.  These key facts and events, then, begin to make up the evidence they will use later for analysis.

Once they know the difference between these two kinds of statements, we do some lessons on how to write assertions about text, how to choose the best evidence back these up, and how to write commentary about the evidence. 

Teaching literary analysis

I'm not talking about thesis statements and topic sentences here. I want them to get in the habit of making analytical statements about text any time we discuss the text, whether it's in small group or full class discussion or in the journal entries they write. Once they get a handle on that, they will be less likely to fill their essays with plot summary.

Kids need to see that analyzing text is not something that just happens. They need to know that there is a thinking process involved, one that starts with a close read. The best way to teach them how to do this, of course, is to show them. Copy or project a section of a text on the screen and let them see the process you go through when you do a close read. (You can grab my intro to close reading freebie here). Then, show them the assertions you would make about the text. Write some down and talk to yourself as you decide whether they are good ones or not. It's best not to plan this ahead, so they can see the real work you have to do, even though you're a supposed "expert".

If you had to sit down and write an analytical essay right now, you would know how to attack it -- but even then, even with all of your experience, it's not an easy task. That's why I provide my students with opportunities to work on the steps of literary analysis before they do an essay. 

Teaching literary analysis: lessons and strategies

One of my favourite ways to do this is with learning stations. My Discovering Theme Stations,  Novel Study Stations and Analyzing Poetry Stations take students through the thinking process they need to follow in order to analyze text.  You can also find lots of shorter activities you can use daily in Critical Thinking Activities for Any Text. 

Teaching literary analysis-lessons and strategies

For those of you who follow this blog, you know that I spend a great deal of time getting my kids to think critically. I make sure I scaffold skills and give plenty of formative feedback. That's why I was so disappointed with the essays that my International Baccalaureate students passed in a few weeks ago. They were filled with plot summary, superficial analysis and unsupported generalization. These students know better.

After I returned the essays, I shared my disappointment and they didn't seem surprised. I asked: did you spend time really working through your argument, or did you just try to plug information into "the formula"?  The vast majority confessed to the latter.

I was even more disappointed. What had we been doing in class? Were my efforts wasted? After beating myself up for a bit, I realized something:  Usually, I "forced" the writing process by requiring them to work through steps and hand in drafts. This time, I didn't. We'd done so much practice that I figured I didn't need to anymore--clearly I was wrong. So, I've made up a revision checklist that they will need to hand in with their assignments from now on. It will remind them to do the thinking that they need to do with analytical writing.

You can get all of these ideas laid out and ready to go in my latest product: Teaching the Process for Literary Analysis. And, if you'd like more support with this and any of your teaching strategies, you can join my Facebook group: Strategies for Teaching Secondary English. Finally, check out my next few posts to learn how I teach students to dig deep with finding textual evidence.

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