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