Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Teaching Spelling in Middle School

Guest Post by Malerie Huguley

8th Grade English teacher, Helena Middle School

There are two things I distinctly remember from my 8th grade year: a boy named Mat and spelling tests in English class.  In fact, that very well may be the last time I saw a spelling book.  This is my eleventh year teaching, and I haven’t seen a spelling book as part of my curriculum in my whole career.  Is it a lost art?  Even with all our technological advances, shouldn’t we at least know how to spell correctly?  I think yes.

Teaching spelling—especially to middle schoolers, I believe—is challenging.  We have so much fighting against us with smart phones, texting, social media, and everyday slang.  It seems we can’t expect our students to spell correctly when they are getting along “just fine” without it each day.  The truth is, they aren’t getting along just fine.  I see the spelling challenge in my classroom every single week.  One reason I see it so much is because my students are required to hand-write most of their essays.  I know we live in a tech world where everything is typed, and I want my kids to be tech-savvy, but I also want them to master basic communication skills without a computer doing it for them.  So with that in mind, I decided to do something about it. 

I tried several techniques before landing on one that was successful.  For example, I spent an entire semester having my students look up words from a vocab book that I bought to make Word Webs each Tuesday and Thursday for Bellwork.  That proved simply to be busy work.  The kids were still misspelling the very words I had them define!  Moving on from that, I had to get creative.  Seeing that each student showed unique spelling challenges, I knew one curriculum or lesson for the whole class wasn’t going to work.  So I began using the Personal Dictionary.  It’s so simple, but so effective!

Whenever a student turns in a writing assignment that is of substantial length (essays, for example) I circle any misspelled words.  I don’t correct the spelling for them, and I don’t take points off from the essay.  I just circle.  When the student gets the essay back, we spend 10 minutes in class filling in our Personal Dictionary.  (My students use notebook paper, but you could type up a cute template to use too.  It must be hand-written though, not done on a computer.  That defeats the purpose.)  For each misspelled word, the student must write the word five times with the definition.  That means if he misspelled a word three different times in one essay, he will have to write the word fifteen times with the definition.  The Personal Dictionary is kept in the student’s binder, and I use it as a quiz grade every two or three weeks.  If a student doesn’t have any misspelled words, he gets a 100% on that quiz.  It seems like cruel and unusual punishment, I know, but I have seen immediate results.  I mean, wouldn’t you learn how to spell “beautiful” correctly so you didn’t have to write it 30 times again?   

A quick Google search will show you evidence that teaching spelling within a composition context is most effective.  That’s exactly what I’ve experience in my classroom.  The more students can see and focus on their own spelling deficiencies, the more apt they are to correct them. More importantly, it’s key to have them see those weaknesses in their writing, not in an isolated lesson. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Navigating Rhetorical Analysis

Guest Post by Emily Barnes 
AP English teacher, Hoover High School
When I found out I would be teaching the AP Language course, I spent most of my summer just trying to study what in the world rhetoric is. Besides a basic concept of Socrates and Plato (very basic), I had not taken a class in college that focused on all of the nuances of rhetoric. I found myself in a rabbit hole of information that made me feel overwhelmed, and frankly inadequate.  
Picture this: I’m sitting with a thick book filled with thin Bible pages and tiny print on rhetorical analysis and argumentation frantically highlighting, a legal pad beside me taking notes on my highlights and notating things I needed to look up in detail later, all in front of a computer screen trying to watch YouTube videos discussing all of this terminology that I had never heard before. That doesn’t even take into account the weeks of online searches of teacher’s webpages and syllabi. Total information overload.
This is the same way many teachers feel as the paradigm is now shifting toward non-fiction study. It is asking us to step outside our comfort zones of literary analysis and put together a new bag of tricks.
Two years later I’m a little wiser and a little better at faking wisdom where I am lacking. Though I am always endlessly on the pursuit to make lessons better, faster, funnier, and all together less terrible, I would like to share a few strategies that have helped in my presentation of  rhetoric and argumentation to my students.
The first year teaching the course I fell into the teacher trap of front-loading my students with too much terminology. They must know all of these terms in order to understand right? After not really seeing the fruits of my labor, I tried a different approach this year.  Here are the basic steps I took my class through as we introduced these concepts.
  1. I start with a video clip of a speech. Something accessible, visual, and powerful.  This year I started with Rita Pierson’s TED Talk “Every Kid Needs a Champion” . Students can immediately identify their best and worst teachers (and luckily this happens early enough in the year that I haven’t had the chance to become their worst teacher).  This made the topic easy to relate to and discuss and allowed us to enter into the realm of rhetorical analysis in an nonthreatening way.
Depending on the level and age of students you can decide to either have them watch without any prompting or questions, or choose to have a few directives. For instance, ask them to identify three strong points and the main idea of the speech.  The goal here is to have them just observe. What things are obvious to them? What elements of the speech made them feel something (you can work on labeling the something as an actual emotion later)?
  1. After viewing, start a conversation about what they saw and how it impacted them. “What did you think?” “Effective? Why?” Let the students talk out everything they heard. Start making a list on the board of all they are describing.
For example a student might say something like “She said she had been a teacher for over 20 years and came from a family of teachers.”

  1. Try and lead them to tone (without using the word). What was your reaction to the speech? What do you think she wanted the audience to feel? Think? Do?  If they can’t decide on actual tone words, just start with asking was it positive or negative? If negative, was it sad, angry, afraid? Giving them a tone word list is really helpful. When I give these lists I try and tell them to look through the list and highlight words that fit with their writing voice. We have all read essays where certain words scream out “a thesaurus placed me here!”  They need to find words that they might actually naturally use. Throughout the year I continue to remind them to fill their filing cabinet with information; this can be terminology, vocabulary, current events, etc. They need to be able to access this information when needed.

In addition to word choice they need to also understand the importance of choosing the right word. Take them through the process of landing on a strong word. I like to use the word “intensity” in my classroom to discuss the level of the words they choose. Does “good” fit the intensity level? No? Choose a stronger word. Keep the chain going until you hit on one that works.

Side note: I’ve really tried to shift the focus of acquiring words in my classroom through reading, vocabulary, etc. as a way to better express themselves. Why do you need to expand your vocabulary? Not for a vocabulary quiz which doesn’t work to motivate any sort of retention, but to help ease the paralyzing frustration of not being able to express what you want to say in a way that people can really understand your emotions. I’ve tried to shift the focus for all of our skills to encompass a “what’s in it for me” mentality.

  1. Now, take the list they made of things they identified and start labeling them as strategies. This is where we English teachers have to change our way of thinking. Possibly we viewed ourselves as great literary device scavengers who looked to identify these metaphoric gems in works. Now we are shifting to identifying “choices” that don’t have to have some elevated terminology to label. What choices is the author making in this speech? To tell a story? To ask questions? To repeat a phrase for emphasis?  You might feel the need to immediately identify it as anaphora, but it really isn’t necessary. If they can see a speech as a series of intentional choices carefully constructed to have a specific purpose and impact, they have mastered the skill regardless of the terminology used. That is easy to replace later.

When I front-loaded definitions at the beginning of the year I found myself trying to break them of just spouting off “logos, pathos, ethos” all year long. And why wouldn’t I? I just taught them some really fancy Latin terms…and then told them not to use them. That’s like having an awesome pair of boots you can’t wear. What’s the point? Instead, start by having them just be specific when discussing elements of the speech.
    1. Pathos- The question should be what type of emotion is present? How would it make audience feel? Can’t think of a word? Let’s start with laugh or cry? Somewhere in between? Again, modeling for them a process to find the correct word.
    2. Logos- What is being used? Facts? An anecdote? Why would those facts be important? Why would the audience care?
    3. Ethos- How does she make the audience trust him/her? Why would they believe what she has to say? Why would they feel compelled to act on the information presented?
I found working through rhetorical analysis in this way freed the students to see that they already          know this stuff. Analyzing how someone is persuading us is a constant in our everyday lives.
  1. Connect to purpose! In my class I ask two questions over and over and over again. WHAT is the purpose and HOW do they achieve it? Now I can simply ask them to identity the WHAT and HOW. What do they want? How will they get it? You can use this with any work of fiction as well. We can again go back to our points and make meaningful connections. Rita Pierson told us the story about her mother who took care of her students and made such an impact that they came back to attend her funeral decades later. WHAT is the appeal? Emotional? What emotion? HOW does it create that emotion? The answer will lead them to discussing the function of an anecdote.

They need to get into a natural habit of asking why this audience, at this time, on this topic? What is the intended purpose?  Every speaker wants the audience to feel, think, or do something. What it is it? Why? The more they see this the more they realize they encounter these rhetorical situations all day every day. The better equipped they are to identify, the better equipped they will be to protect themselves.
At this point I try and give them a visual of the rhetorical process. How all of these elements have to work together in order to create an effective argument.
  1. After outlining the speech, show them how much they have done! You can even have them choose one of the items to write a paragraph discussing the impact, or even a chart that makes them more thoroughly answer these questions.
The end goal is to be able to approach any article, essay, speech, or letter with the ability to see what the purpose is and realize it has been carefully constructed to achieve that purpose. This opens the door to using these same strategies with paintings, political cartoon, print advertisements, and commercials.
The great thing in teaching rhetorical analysis is you are also teaching argumentation skills your students can use in their writing. Everything they identify as effective choices a speaker/writer makes they need to file away and use in their own writing. I have them look again to the graphic for rhetorical analysis, but now picture themselves in the position of the speaker. They need to go through the same process in constructing their argument.
All around us we are bombarded with a world asking for something from us; buy, do, believe. It is best we be able to identify what it is and why.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

It's time for ACTE 2016!

Hello English and Language Arts teachers,

it's time again to prepare for the ACTE conference!  We hope you can join us on April 23rd in Vestavia Hills.  We are excited to host Heather L. Montgomery as our keynote speaker this year!

We also look forward to your guest posts appearing HERE on our blog!  We would love for this to become a resource for Alabama teachers to find ideas from their colleagues around the state.  If you are interested in sharing your ideas, please email us at Alabamacouncilofenglish@gmail.com so we can get the ball rolling.

Finally, please spread the word about the conference! Use #ACTE2016 so we can stay in touch. Registration will be opening soon.

Can't wait to see you,
ACTE 2016

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Creativity in the Classroom..Have we Lost it?- Guest Post from Chelsea Baldwin

by Chelsea Baldwin ( Gulf Shores Middle School/@ChelseaSBaldwin)

With the push of new and rigorous standards, it's easy for us teachers to get caught up in the world of testing, assessing, and STRESSING. Due to this, many teachers feel as if there is no time or place for creativity in their classrooms.

But are the standards to blame?

No--Well, at least I don't think so. I believe the standards actually provide me with more freedom to be creative in my classroom. Yes, the standards are rigorous. Yes, they may not always be intriguing to you or your colleagues. However, they allow us as teachers to raise the bar for our students, to challenge them in ways we have never thought of, and to CREATE engaging lessons that ensure our students are prepared for the skills and knowledge needed in the real world.

Sounds simple enough, right?  The message conveyed may sound that way, but we all know it is not that simple. Creating engaging yet challenging material is difficult. It takes time--a lot more time than most of us feel we have. However, I have come to learn in order to create the innovative yet rigorous lessons I want my students to experience, I have to put forth the time. Yes, creating valuable lessons takes time up front, but the real and worthwhile learning that stems from it is what makes it all worth it. One way to help with the time issue is finding good resources.

With all the resources at our fingertips, there are plenty of ways to be creative without stressing over how you are going to transform previous lessons into challenging and engaging ones. May these ways be different than your notion of creativity? Maybe. Nonetheless, the resources are out there.  For me, the best resource for creative yet challenging lessons are other teachers. Many of the lessons and projects going on in my class this year have been inspired by other teachers across the country...and guess what? They are challenging, they are tied with the standards, and they are engaging for my students. So...Connect and collaborate with teachers through Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook; share your ideas; ask questions; but most importantly, TAKE RISKS! If a lesson plan or project intimidates you, then you're doing something right. Some of my best lessons this school year were ones I just knew were going to go terribly wrong. However, my students always found a way to surprise me.

Back to the original question: "Creativity in the classroom...have we lost it?"

Yes. Maybe for some of us, we have. But nothing is lost that cannot be found. We can still be creative in our classrooms. We can still challenge our students. It may be different, scary, or uncomfortable--but it is possible.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Learning to let go: Creativity isn’t all about me- Guest Post from Katie Grizzard

Learning to let go: Creativity isn’t all about me- Guest Post from Katie Grizzard (Prattville / @Katie_Grizzard)

Learning to let go: Creativity isn’t all about me

Creativity. Who has time for the grand production that is “creativity”? I’ve heard other teachers say it, and I’ve certainly thought it myself a time or two. See, though I would label myself as one of the  “creative types,” there doesn’t seem to be much time these days to truly “be creative.” Gone are the college days of luxuriating in cutesy coffee shops for hours writing to my heart’s content or getting up before the sun rises to write on my balcony with yet another cup of coffee.

As I sat in a meeting of teachers from all subject areas just this past week, the topic of creativity and engagement inevitably came up, as it often does in the world of education. One teacher was criticizing the newest standards and standardized tests for being so demanding that they make it “impossible to be fun and exciting.” “These standards don’t care how happy these kids are; they care about what they know!” she exasperatedly exclaimed to the group. In some ways, I agreed with this teacher.

The new standards are rigorous. They expect more intellectually from our students than has ever been expected of them before. But, and maybe this is where the power of perspective comes in to play, I have never felt that the common core standards or any curriculum limits my creativity or squelches the creative abilities of my students. In fact, I see it as quite the opposite. I see these increased expectations for our students, and, in turn, for us as teachers, as demanding of our creativity rather than detracting from it.

I also see the push towards higher-order, critical thinking as particularly linked to creativity. Creativity is defined as “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, and interpretations.” Is that critical thinking or what?? By challenging students to dig deeper, to think harder, and to not settle for what’s given to them on the surface, we are creating tomorrow’s problem solvers. We are establishing an environment where creativity is as necessary a survival tool as calculators and Google.

So in this new year, my challenge to you (any myself) is, yes, do not be afraid to take risks, to try a new projects, develop a new method for teaching an old lesson, or all the other typical things we think of when we vow to try to be more creative in the classroom. BUT, I also challenge you to reflect on the ways that creativity is already engrained as an innate desire within you and your students as human beings and to channel this.

We long to create and discover new things. We long to figure things out for ourselves, even if we don’t always realize it. It makes us feel good—accomplished even—and improves our self-confidence. Before you stay up for a week planning the perfect assignment or spend all your fee money on the latest technological gadget that promises foolproof student engagement, consider something a bit simpler but just as meaningful. On every occasion possible, let your students take the reins.

See, creativity and learning are both about letting go. The more responsibility that I have entrusted in my students, the more I realize that not only am I not the most creative person in the room, I don’t have to be. I am not the end-all-be-all, grand master of creativity, but I can be a pretty darn good facilitator of it. Sometimes we have to model creativity, and sometimes we have to get out of the way of it.

They won’t like it at first (and if you tend to be a bit of a control freak like me, you won’t either) because it’s not as easy as traditional schooling where they just sit back and listen as you provide them with all the answers, BUT do it anyway. Allow them to ask questions, but also push them to seek out their own answers. I love watching their little faces when I respond with, “I don’t know, what do you think?” Provide them with opportunities to solve real problems and make their own discoveries. This is creativity, albeit not necessarily the Pinterest DIY & Crafts board kind.

As often as you can and in all the ways that you can, let your students be responsible for their own learning. Let them struggle with a concept or an idea without swooping in at the first sign of distress, because creativity and hope are born of struggle, and we all know that the world could use a little more of both. Control is the true antithesis to creativity in the classroom or any situation. The more we can allow ourselves to let go of the reins, the more opportunities we generate for our students to discover and utilize their own creativity.

Monday, December 1, 2014

A New Definition of Creativity--Guest post from Victoria M. Whitfield

A New Definition of Creativity--Guest post from Victoria M. Whitfield (Autauga County Schools/@2live2teach)
I've always viewed creativity as something for "artsy" people or those who always think"outside of the box ." It is always something I have brushed aside, and I would often tell people how "uncreative" I was in order to not participate in creative things. To be quite honest, I never saw myself as someone who possessed creativity or would ever possess creativity. I always considered creative teachers as those far different than I.
My definition of creativity changed the moment I became a secondary instructional coach. As an instructional coach, I have the privilege of working with and observing English teachers on a daily basis. With the introduction of Alabama's new College and Career Readiness Standards in English, it is ever pertinent that these standards take on life--a life that is enriching and engaging for students.
I have listened and met with teachers who have grappled with understanding and implementing the ELA CCRS Standards. The types of lessons, strategies, and activities I have seen are nothing short of amazing. These same teachers embraced the new standards and found a way to make the standards enriching and engaging for their students. This is creativity as its best. In essence, these teachers have changed my earlier views of creativity. Creativity can no longer be considered something for those "out of the box" teachers, it must now be embraced by all. Our students' learning depends on it.
In her popular text Thrive, Meenoo Rami writes, "When you do truly creative work, you have to take risks and fail in order to succeed."
What risks have you taken in order to better your instruction and student learning? How have you embraced the CCRS Standards in your classrooms? How have you made learning come alive for your students? Why not share your approaches with other English teachers.
I look forward to seeing and hearing from you about ways you have tapped into your inner creativity as it relates to the CCRS Standards. We can only grow as a community if we share our successes as well as our failures. February is rapidly approaching. Until then, continue to make learning engaging for your students. After all, this is what creativity is at heart.
Victoria Whitfield (@2live2teach)
Autauga County School System

Friday, November 21, 2014

I'm not Creative--Guest post from Kristy Louden

As the title so accurately states, I'm not creative.  In any way.  And it's not for lack of trying.  

I come from a long line of crafty people.  My mom's creativity comes out through a variety of channels: painting Christmas decorations, sewing Halloween costumes, and putting together beautiful quilts.  My sister is similar in that she sews curtains and blankets, paints and decorates her house (like, all the time).  My dad owned a bakery for most of my life, where he designed and decorated beautiful cakes.  Even one of my brothers writes poetry and designed a piece of jewelry to help his kids feel safe when they're away from home.  I mean, come on, what happened to me?

Now, don't think I haven't tried to be creative. I have a lot of projects floating around in my brain (Thanks, Pinterest), but when I try to bring them to fruition, well, there's no fruit. Or if there is, it's all misshapen or rotten.  On top of that, I just don't really like being creative.  I can't draw. I can't paint. I can't sew (I can, but I don't enjoy it for more than ten minutes).  So, it's not all that fun.  Plus, fine motor activities hurt my hands.  

All of this transfers to me struggling to be creative in the classroom.  Since I don't like to draw/paint/etc, I sometimes forget to give my creative students an opportunity to express themselves.  Thankfully, I work with some really creative people who help me with my struggles.  

Most recently, my friend and colleague Hannah Zarzour (@hanzarz) encouraged me to try something new.  She got the idea of the Iceberg metaphor project from Kelly Gallagher (LOVE!!) and used it for The Great Gatsby last year but I was too much of a chicken to try it.  It's nice having a new teacher around to try things and remind me that it's okay to take risks, I mean, that's all your first couple years of teaching is, right?  Risks.  Anyway, the project was a success.  My students were a little confused at first because metaphors are hard (and, in full disclosure, most of them actually wrote similes, but I'll take it).  

Below you can see some of the beautiful pieces that I got.  (I'm sure you can guess that I had several that didn't make the blog, but overall I was still pretty impressed.)  I was excited to see how the kids put their thoughts into images, even those who can't draw (hey, I'm right there with them!) were thinking through their decisions and really putting their minds to Gatsby.  

These were all facing the right way when I uploaded them :(

Unfortunately, that's just one small example among not many other examples of me using creativity in the classroom.

I think it's easy for us to forget the importance of creativity in the classroom, especially as secondary teachers.  Crayons belong in elementary classrooms, right? But creativity is more than just coloring pictures. Perhaps we need to back up and reconsider what creativity even means.  I don't believe it's just drawing or painting pictures.  Students can be creative in writing, speaking, etc.  So what does creativity look like and how can we use more of it in our English classrooms? Or, how are we as teachers creative in our approach to teaching and learning?  

Sometimes we are creative in our approach to activities that in themselves may not be considered creative.  In an article from 2012 on theguardian.com,  Chaz Pugliese writes, "There's another reason why teachers should use (more) creativity in their classes. Just close your eyes for a few seconds, bring your students nearer: what do you see? They have very different backgrounds, different learning styles, different learning experiences, different degrees of motivation, different language levels and different intelligences and cognitive styles. Unless we bring imaginative approaches to teaching we will have failed to reach out to the very diverse cognitive and emotional needs of our students."

How do you use creativity in your classroom?  Better yet, how do you DEFINE creativity?  

As we explore this issue more leading up to the 2015 ACTE conference, I am excited to expand my ideas about creativity.  I might not be able to sew a Halloween costume, write poetry, or paint Santa on a sled, but perhaps I can use what creativity I do have to reach each one of my students through the lessons and activities I design for my classroom.  

I hope to meet you and learn with/from you at the conference!

~Kristy (@kmkteach)