Thursday, October 31, 2013

Mentor texts outside of the English classroom

This year I moved to a new teaching assignment called Convergence Journalism, which is basically an English class on speed. Think of it as writer's workshop, but with video cameras, editing software and a blog. My students create videos and write stories for our school website. I am also teaching a class called Sports Information where students read, write and talk about sports.

In this transition, I have relied on my English roots. If you are a regular follower of my blog, you know that I am a huge fan of the Yoda of English teachers: Kelly Gallagher. Specifically Gallagher's latest book Write Like This. From this book I have borrowed many ideas, but the one I am using the most now is his idea of mentor texts.

The idea is that students first analyze how professional writers write, then emulate that style with their own writing.

We do this analysis through first close reading the text. This is no different from how my students used to do Articles of the Week in English class. The students need to see the moves and style that writers employ.

Once we have performed a close read, we then move to using it as a mentor text. I follow Gallagher's model of we go, I go, you go. The steps look something like this:

We go: Analyze the text together. Look at the style of the writing. Examine the sentence structure. We look at what the author is SAYING, but also what the author is DOING. This offers two very different perspectives of a text.

I go: Gallagher says that the teacher is the best writer in the room. I agree, and believe that students need to see their teacher writing in front of them, even if they are struggling with it.

This. Is. Scary.

I don't know if there is another thing in teaching that makes one feel as vulnerable as staring at a blank computer screen and writing from scratch while 30 students are watching.

I revised that last sentence at least five times, but you didn't see me do it. When you write in front of your students, they will see you go through the entire writing process, warts and all.

One tip: Don't write for more than five minutes at a time. I found that if you write for too long, students will begin to zone out or lose interest. At some point they will get the point and be ready to write on their own. This is when I stop and we move on to the next stage.

You go: Students are then responsible for taking what they saw in the mentor text and my writing and applying it to their own work.

I know what you are thinking: There is a fine line here between plagiarism and creating your own work here. I tell my students that we aren't emulating the IDEAS of the author, but his/her STYLE. I also tell them that they would not want to write so close to the same style of a writer on a true academic paper that a teacher might think they are plagiarizing. It is a fine line.

One of the first mentor texts I use is this book review for Catching Fire that falls under Gallagher's writing categories of Analyze and Interpret, as well as Take a Stand/Propose a Solution. In order to write a good review, students must analyze the subject and take a stand about it.

We look at this book review closely. What does the author do?

I point out to students that it isn't just plot summary; in fact there is only one paragraph that addresses the plot specifically. They notice that there is a paragraph comparing it to the previous book. There is one that analyzes a character. Another talks about the author. Finally, they notice that one short paragraph gives the writer's opinion of the book.

Then I write in front of them.

Finally, I turn them loose to write their own reviews of a book, movie or restaurant. Here are a couple of the results:

Succotash: The Hipster's Restaurant.

Monster's University.

As you can see, the students took the writing model and put their own spin on it. Had I just said, "Write a book review" I would have seen 90% of the paper just retelling the plot.

This is how I implement mentor texts in my Convergence Journalism class. In upcoming blog entries, I will show other mentor texts I have used along with student examples.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Standards Based Grading + The 3P System

A few years ago, I stopped grading my students' work. It was scary, but very rewarding. Instead of grading work, I began assessing their skills and progress throughout the year.

I borrowed my ideas from Steve Peha's 3P Grading System.

I also wrote about "Five Reasons Why You Should Stop Grading."

During this time, I began looking at Standards-Based Grading. If you aren't familiar with SBG, here is a great article from ASCD the explains the concept.

After a couple of years, I began to think about how the 3P grading system could be combined with Standards Based Grading. I wanted to give students the feedback that SBG provides, but also allow students ownership of their grades that the 3P system provides.

Here is the new grading system I developed:

1. Everything is based on a 4-point scale, much like official GPA transcripts:


2. I still do a participation grade that is worth 1/3 of their overall grade. 

I conference with students at midterm and quarter about their participation grade. They give themselves a grade (out of 4), and I give them a grade (out of 4).

I have the students fill out this rubric to help them determine what grade they would give themselves.

The student and I must be within 1 point of each other. For example, if the student gives themselves a 3 and I give them a 2, then we are OK. However, if the student gives themselves a 4 and I give a 2, we must come to a compromise. Either I must come up to a 3, or the student goes down to a 3. Either way, we must be within one number of each other.

3. I eliminated the "Progress" component from the 3P system. For me, it was too vague and difficult to assess. 

4. Instead, we have three weighted grades:
Participation = 1/3
Writing Assessments = 1/3
Performance = 1/3 (Anything not covered by writing, such as Socratic Seminars)

5. After the participation, we added SBG.  Each assignment that we grade has multiple “Standards” that we assess. So one assignment may have 3-5 grades. In the gradebook, it looks like we have a ton of grades, but it is really multiple grades for one assignment.

Here is a rubric we used for our Animal Farm assignment. As you can see, there are six grades that will be entered into the gradebook. This allows me to see what each student is doing well on or needs to improve. It also allows me to track the class as a whole, providing data on trends within the class.

6. Because everything is out of 4 points, you have to change what grade percentages correlate with each letter grade. I multiplied the lowest grade that would be rounded up, and figured out what percentage it would be. For example, 3.45 / 4 = 86% which is the lowest percentage to get an A. 

This is confusing, but here is the formula:

A= 3.45-4.0        (86%-100%) 
B = 2.45-3.44     (61% - 85%)
C = 1.45-2.44     (36% - 60%)
D = .45-1.44       (13% - 35%)
F = 0-.44             (0% - 12%)

Kids and parents will freak about this because they could have a 65%, but it is a B. However, a B is a 3 out of 4 in the GPA grading scale. I tell them to LOOK AT THE LETTER GRADE AND IGNORE THE PERCENTAGE!

7. A grade book might look something like this:

Teacher participation: 4
Student participation: 3
Synthesis: Evidence: 3 (Writing)
Synthesis: Claim: 2 (Writing)
Synthesis: Conventions: 4 (Writing)
Ignite Talk: Preparation: 4 (performance)
Ignite Talk: Visuals: 3 (performance)

In this example we have the participation grade, and two assignments: Synthesis and an Ignite talk. The synthesis has 3 grades, and the Ignite Talk has two grades. The synthesis would go in as a writing assessment, and the Ignite Talk would be performance.

Each of these categories (participation, writing, performance) is weighted 1/3, so the computer does the math. Without doing the math, this student would be somewhere between a 3 and a 4, likely closer to a 4. 

8. Students may REDO any standard that is below a 3 UP TO a 3. This allows students the chance to correct and learn from their mistakes.

For example, the student in #7 received a 2 for his claim statement. He may rewrite his claim to meet the criteria for a 3.

Not all students take me up on this offer, but many do. It is better than giving students an F and not allowing them a chance to learn from their mistakes.

This is not a perfect system, but it is better than what I had before. Students have ownership in a part of their grade by giving themselves a grade, but they can also see what areas they are doing well and struggling in through the SBG component.

Please ask any questions you have in the comments section.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

All-Curl Concept

One of the most reliable and time-tested concepts in football is the Flat/Curl concept. Everyone from flag football teams to the NFL runs it in some form.

This year it was our most successful pass play. We were 14/16 on the play, a sign that we should have called it MORE throughout the year.

Here is a cut-up of our Curl concept from last year:

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Next year, we are looking to make one change. We are going to make Z a Choice route, similar to what we do with Z on our mesh concept.

This will give us two rhythm choices: Y-Spot vs. 2-High or Z-Choice vs. 0 or 1-High.

vs. a 2-High look there will likely be two linebackers, which provides more grass for the Spot.

Against a 1-High look there could be three linebackers in a 3-3, but we also like the post or fade vs. a 1-high Cover 3 or Cover 1 look.

This is what it will look like:

Monday, May 6, 2013

Teaching Animal Farm: Common Core-Style

When I was in high school, I studied George Orwell's Animal Farm through the lens of the Russian Revolution. I'm sure you did too. We had to learn which character represented whom. You know, Old Major represents Lenin... or was it Marx? See, almost 20 years later I can't remember.

If I can't remember, I should not expect my students to learn and memorize facts that will not be important to their lives after high school.

Previously, I wrote about close reading resources to support the Common Core. Animal Farm is one of the richest books we have on our shelves to teach two key concepts: rhetoric and satire.

This year, we had our students read the entire book, then we went back and taught rhetoric and satire through specific speeches. We didn't worry about which character represented whom in history; our objective was to get students to closely read and analyze the rhetoric in the speeches the characters delivered.

1.We used this lesson to teach rhetoric: the rhetorical triangle, appeals, and rhetorical strategies/fallacies.

2. Of course, the first major speech is from Old Major, imploring the animals to dream of a better future. Here is the text from the book that students performed a close read of Old Major Text.

3. After the close read, students then wrote about the text through a rhetorical precis. The rhetorical precis is a writing template that forces students to write about the text through the rhetorical triangle: author, audience and text. Here is a great template with power verbs that I found online. This is another fantastic explanation from Oregon State University.

4. After practicing with Old Major's speech, we did a summative assessment with two of Squealer's speeches combined: Squealer text. Students did a close read and then wrote another rhetorical precis over the speeches, analyzing the appeals and persuasive techniques. Here is the rubric we used to grade Squealer's speech.

5. Once we taught rhetoric, we switched gears to satire. We used a portion from Chapter 8 to teach satire: Chapter 8 text. Our purpose was to have students identify Orwell's elements and objects of satire. He uses satire throughout the book; however, the aftermath of the Battle of the Windmill is particularly rich.

Even after teaching Animal Farm this year, I still can't remember if Old Major represents Lenin or Marx. I don't care if my students can remember it either. However, I hope that they can take the skills that we taught them, such as close reading and analyzing rhetoric and satire, and apply them to much more challenging works as they move on through high school, college and beyond.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Close reading resources to support the Common Core

"Close reading" is the new buzzword in education, especially in Language Arts and Social Studies classes. Last summer I wrote a post called "Five close reading strategies to support the Common Core." After publishing that article, I received several requests for ideas on WHERE to find passages for students to close read.

Here are four ideas to get you started, with instructional ideas for implementation in your classroom:

1. Room for Debate - New York Times

If you are looking for multiple perspectives on current issues in the news, this is your one-stop shop. Room for Debate takes an issue and asks multiple experts to write a short editorial on the issue. I haven't counted, but I would estimate there are over 700 "issues" that are covered, and the site is updated with a new topic every couple of days.

I love the fact that most of the topics start with an essential question, such as: "Should Tweets Cost You Your Job?" and "Should Kids Pick Their Own Punishments?" Within those topics, there are usually 4-8 different opinions about the issue from professional writers. As you can see, they are high-interest topics for high school students.

Instructional idea: This site is great for pulling ideas for synthesis essays, where students must pull from different sources and address the opposition. Students can close read the articles and then develop an answer to the question in the form of an argument.

Mentor Writer: Leonard Pitts, Jr.
2. Mentor authors

In another post, I wrote about "Three ways to engage your students in writing." One of those strategies is to use "mentor texts" where students closely examine the "moves" that professional writers make, much like how I analyze the swing of professional golfers to help improve my struggling golf game.

There are many great mentor writers out there. Some of my favorites include:

Instructional idea: I ask students to first close read articles from these mentor authors and then emulate them for their own papers. Check out Kelly Gallagher's book Write Like This for more information on mentor texts.

In his book Readicide, Gallagher discusses how he noticed his students were not aware of current events happening in the news. His school implemented "Articles of the Week" where students read about a current event, while practicing close reading.

The last two years, I have had great intentions of doing an article each week for my students to stay current on what is happening in the news, but I keep moving away from it because I run out of time. This is something I need to commit to and stay consistent with in the future.

Instructional idea: Gallagher's site really kills two birds with one stone: practicing close reading strategies, while learning about what is happening in the world. 

Don't teach like this...
4. Short Passage from Novels

For years, I spent my time "teaching" as nothing more than a human Cliff's Notes, laboring through the plot and characters of novels. My quizzes and tests were filled with questions about which character said a particular quotation or what color of hat Holdyn wears in The Catcher in the Rye. It was boring for me, and I felt like I was working harder than my students.

I began to ask myself, "In 10 years, does it really matter that a student remembers the color of Holdyn's hat?" 

Honestly, I would argue that it is irrelevant and a waste of time.

Let me be clear: I believe it is important for students to be exposed to a variety of texts, including the "classics." However, I also believe that my job is to teach students how to dissect those works so they can extract meaning from them and then be able to apply those skills to other complex texts for the rest of their lives.

Instructional idea: I made the switch to teaching "excerpts" from the typical class novels, rather than the entire plot of a novel. 

For Fahrenheit 451, students read the entire book on their own, but did close readings of specific passages. For example, we closely examined the first four pages for the imagery and figurative language that Bradbury used. We also looked at the argument between Captain Beatty and Montag, and analyzed the rhetorical strategies that Beatty employed. 

I know... it is a radical way of thinking about teaching novels. Trust me. Students will dig far deeper into the novel and have a better understanding of the book than if you just plow through and answer questions about plot.

Final thoughts

My teaching style has been revolutionized by the Common Core. In my previous teaching life, students were only swimming at the surface level of a book. Now, we are diving in to the deep end of the reading pool. These are great places to go in order to get started with close reading.

What are other resources you go to in order to find close reading passages? Please post in the comments below.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Installing the R4 System

Coaches: This is the post that you will hope other coaches in your league DON'T read.

Almost four years ago, I came across the R4 Expert System. In short, it is an "operating system" for your offense; it helps guide your quarterback in his decision-making process before AND after the snap. 

The R4 system is a game-changer for the passing game. Once we implemented the system, we began to see immediate results. Our quarterbacks became more confident, which improved their accuracy and decision-making immensely. No matter what offensive system you run, the R4 system will instantly improve your offensive production.

Check out a great Q&A article with Coach Maddox about the R4 system here.

This spring, I put together an install cut-up that highlights the different types of throws in the R4 system: Rhythm, Read, Rush and Release. Check it out, and hope that your opponents don't:

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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Three ways to make your CLASSROOM more efficient

I believe that in order to be a great coach, you must be a great teacher. The two skills are really the same.

When I am coaching football, my classroom is 100 yards long, and I am managing 100+ student-athletes. When I am teaching Sophomore English, my classroom is about 15 yards long, with 25+ students. The skills needed to instruct on the playing field and in the classroom are really the same, even though the size of the classroom and number of students may be very different.

Last week, I wrote a post called “Three ways to make your practice more efficient.” As I thought about it, those three components really extend to the classroom as well: have a plan, go on the clock, and create competition.

Have a plan

This really goes without saying. However, there are multiple types of plans I believe you should have in the classroom: daily, weekly, unit, and yearly.

I still keep an old-fashioned plan book where I write down what we did each day in class. At the end of the day, I use any extra space to reflect on how the lesson went, and what I would change for next year. This is very valuable to me as I reflect back on the year, and when I prepare to teach the same unit or lesson next year.
When planning ahead, I have learned not to write anything in ink. Instead, I use small Post-It notes to write lesson plans on. I have found that it is easier to move those Post-It notes around in case there is a snow day, fire drill, or some other distraction that throws off your entire schedule. On the day of the lesson, I write down the objective, lesson, and my reflection in the book.

Go on the clock

Much like using a clock during practice to keep yourself on pace, I have found that using an egg timer is extremely valuable during class. It keeps me from getting too long-winded, but also gives students time to fully write or discuss a topic. I use it several ways:

  • Timing the first 10-minutes of Silent Sustained Reading at the start of the hour.
  • Giving students 5-10 minutes to “Quick Write” where I ask them to write and keep their pen or pencil moving the entire time.
  • Providing students with one minute to discuss a topic with their shoulder-partner.
  • Holding myself to a certain amount of time when delivering a mini-lesson so that I do not speak too long.
  • Keeping track during a time-write assessment.
I would be lost now without my egg timer. It is a simple thing to use, but it really helps to keep my lesson on pace each day.

Create competition (with yourself)

A few years ago, I went in a radical new direction with the “3PGrading System.” I have modified this system some, but one of the key components is factoring in how much a student improves throughout the year. This creates competition within the student: motivation to improve.

As I wrote about with my outside reading project, I ask mystudents to read 20 books in one school year. For some students, they have never read more than one or two books, if any. To think about reading 20 books seems like a huge stretch, so I ask them to compete within themselves to do it. If I have a student who only read one or two books last year, but reads 10 books in my class, I call that a huge win.
My students also keep writing portfolios. At the end of the year, I ask them to reflect back on their writing from the start of the year until May. I challenge them to identify areas where they have improved, whether it is organization, ideas and content, embedding quotations… something. This drives our end-of-the-year conferences where we look at their reading and writing and how much improvement they have made.

These are three simple things I do in my classroom that parallel what we as coaches do on the football field. What are some other strategies that you bring from the classroom to the athletic field?

Friday, April 19, 2013

Fahrenheit 451 Synthesis: Common Core-Style

In my former teaching life, I used to scour the internet for quiz and test questions for the book I was teaching. When I first started teaching Fahrenheit 451, I pulled questions from Sparknotes, such as:

1. Why does Beatty hate books so much?

2. Read the poem “Dover Beach,” by Matthew Arnold. In what ways is it significant that Montag reads this particular poem to Mildred and her friends?

These are both great questions, but frankly... who cares? The old days of multiple-choice tests to assess whether or not students can remember minute details from a novel are gone.

This year, my Sophomore English colleagues (Jessica Magaha, Neil McEachen, and Erika Backs) and I developed an AP-style synthesis prompt that acted as our culminating project for Fahrenheit 451.

The prompt we developed was: Write an essay in which you defend, challenge or qualify the claim that it is in the best interest of the people that the government restrict freedoms.

This is a huge idea; not one that you can find in any textbook or online resource.

While students read the novel, we did close reading of "texture texts" students could use as resources for their argument. The sources included:

Once we were finished studying all of these texts, students were asked to write an argument that synthesized three of the sources, with the requirement that Fahrenheit 451 was used as one of the sources. 

Download the complete assignment here.

We also encouraged students to attempt to qualify the prompt, which was a new way of thinking for them. When you qualify, you take a side while acknowledging that the issue is not black or white. We asked students to use the following template from They Say, I Say for their thesis paragraph:

Template for introducing ongoing discussion:

In discussions of _____, one controversial issues has been _________________. On the one hand, ____________ argues _________________. On the other hand, _____________ contends ______________. Others even maintain ________________. My own view is _________________.

This template forced students to look at multiple perspectives of the issue, and admit that it isn't a simple answer. 

Here is one student's opening paragraph:

In discussions of restrictions of freedoms, one controversial issue has been that the government restricts too many freedoms. On the one hand, Ray Bradbury argues that if the government is too strict and doesn’t allow much freedom, a dystopian society will develop where all individuality is gone. On the other hand, Todd Blodgett contends that the government needs to restrict freedoms or things will get out of control. Leonard Pitts, Jr. even maintains that restricting freedoms like the government does is illogical and can easily get out of control. My own view is that it’s acceptable for the government to restrict freedoms when there’s a threat the country’s safety, but not if that means taking away freedoms given to citizens in the constitution.

From this point, we used the tips from my previous post about getting students engaged in writing: we analyzed a student sample paper, and I wrote in front of them.

Overall, this was a challenging and rigorous assignment. Yes, it may be easier to give a scantron test with 100 multiple choice questions, but this assignment went much deeper into the IDEAS of the novel, and asked students to make connections to contemporary issues.

What are some ways that you are changing the way you teach novels in the era of the Common Core?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Packaging plays: Inside Zone & Quick Screen

The current trend for offensive coaches is packaging multiple plays together so the quarterback has multiple options once the ball has been snapped.

In the "old days," I would call a play and we were basically locked into it unless the quarterback was savvy enough to audible us out of it. Today, we are working to package as many plays together so the quarterback can choose the best option he has based on what the defense gives us post-snap.

In previous posts, I wrote about combining Draw and Y-Stick, and our Double Screen. 

Last year, we packaged Inside Zone and Counter-Trey with a quick screen. It paid huge dividends. There were a couple of obvious benefits:

  • It gave us an easy 5+ yards on the quick screen if there was a big cushion on the receiver.
  • It forced our Wide Receivers to block on every run play. In the past, our receivers were very lazy blocking on plays that were designed to hit inside, like counter-trey and inside zone. With the quick screen tagged, they knew the ball could be coming their way every play. Incentive to block!


For the offensive line and running back, it was inside zone. They honestly did not know where the ball was going.

We taught our inside receiver to run a "bench" or "flat" route, and then block the first threat. Ideally, we wanted him to hook the flat defender so the receiver catching the ball could get up the sideline. 

The receiver running the quick screen would take two-steps vertical, then then work back to behind the line of scrimmage. Once he caught the ball, he sprinted upfield. Ideally, we wanted him to get outside and away from the extra defenders in the middle of the field. 

Last year our quarterback was not a runner, so we did not want him to carry the football. We taught him to pre-snap read the cushion of the receiver and defensive back. If there was significant cushion there (+5 or more yards), he did a quick flash fake to the RB and threw the quick screen. If the cushion was not there, we handed off to the RB on the inside zone or counter-trey. If we had a QB who was a running threat, we would also give him the option to read the backside defensive end and keep the football like true Inside Zone Read Option.


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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Introducing Macbeth: Common Core-Style

Which of the following do you believe is the most creative interpretation for the opening scene from Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Macbeth?

  • Three old hags burying items on a lonely beach.
  • Witches, dressed as Catholic school girls, destroying a cemetery.
  • The witches disguised as nurses in Nazi Germany ripping the heart out of a soldier on a gurney.

With the new Common Core State Standards assessment looming on the horizon, teachers across the country are looking for ways to modify what they are doing in order to fit the increased rigor that the standards demand.

Previously, I wrote about how I changed my approach to teaching Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Instead of listening to and reading the entire play, I broke it down and did a close reading and analysis of specific speeches from the play.

When I used to teach Macbeth, I would just read the first scene, discuss it briefly, and move on. This year, I wanted to change my "old" way of teaching Macbeth by first looking at how different filmmakers directed their versions of the Scottish Play.

I found the following clip online already edited together featuring the opening scene from the following directors: Roman Polanski (1971), Geoffrey Wright (2006) and Rupert Goold (2010):

I posed the following question to my students:
"Which filmmaker's version is the most creative in terms of ______________________?"

The blank space should be one aspect of each version. As a class, we brainstormed aspects such as: costumes, setting, casting, props, music, sound effects, and camera work. Students were to pick one aspect, and collect evidence from each version using the following graphic organizer from all three versions.

View the graphic organizer here.

After taking notes, students developed an argument in answer to the question above. We used the following template from They Say, I Say in order to introduce an ongoing debate, and culminate with the student's main claim, or thesis statement:

Template for introducing ongoing discussion:
In discussions of _____, one controversial issues has been _________________. On the one hand, ____________ argues _________________. On the other hand, _____________ contends ______________. Others even maintain ________________. My own view is _________________.

First, I wrote in front of my students. I chose to do an unrelated topic, but one that I hold dear to my heart: Star Wars. In about five minutes, I used the template above to create an opening paragraph and thesis statement:

In discussions of the Star Wars films, one controversial issue has been the introduction of new characters to the film's universe. On the one hand, some critics argue that the Ewoks are essential because they ultimately helped destroy the Death Star. On the other hand, some people contend that Darth Maul was a ferocious Sith, and the only highlight in The Phantom Menace. Others even maintain that Boba Fett's introduction  (and subsequent death) added a bit of mystery to the series. My own view is that Yoda was, in fact, the most essential introduction to the Star Wars universe because he ultimately trained Luke Skywalker, and guided his development as a Jedi Knight.

Then, it was their turn to write. They went back to their notes, and reflected on each director's version, and chose which version was the most creative in one specific aspect. The template above served as a guide to get the students writing. Here is an example from one student:

In discussions of the various film versions of William Shakespeare's play Macbeth, one controversial issue has been the costumes of the witches. Shakespeare purists favor Roman Polanski's traditional portrayal of witches that are frumpy older ladies with long noses. Others prefer Rupert Goold's ironic portrayal of the witches with a very eerie demeanor and a nurse facade. I prefer Geoffrey Wright's witches who are contemporary teenagers in schoolgirl uniforms, but still have an apparent edge to their character.

After this initial paragraph, students developed the rest of their argument using the argument writing models discussed in Kelly Gallagher's book Write Like This. They were required to pull in evidence from all three versions to support their claim: both as examples and evidence that addressed the opposition.

This lesson moved far beyond my standard way of teaching the opening scene: listening to a CD and briefly discussing what the witches are saying and doing. Now, students were forced to analyze the director's decisions in dramatizing the play for film. It went into much deeper analysis than I ever had asked students to do before with the play.

What are some ways you are making Shakespeare fit the new demands of the Common Core State Standards?

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Three ways to make practice more efficient

As coaches, unfortunately we are often solely judged on how our teams perform on game night. Few people get to see the inner-workings of the program on a day-to-day basis, particularly practices.

Below are three simple things you can implement to make your practices run smoother and more efficient:

1. Have a plan.

People thrive on consistency. When you have a consistent practice plan, then everyone will be on the same page every day. Drills will run smoother. Transitions will happen quicker. Less time will be wasted. Generally, everything will be more efficient.

We try to be consistent on a daily and weekly basis. In other words, all Monday practices are the same, all Tuesday practices follow a different format, and so on.

Here is an example of a practice schedule we used last year. Note: We were a two-platoon system, so there is an offensive plan and a defensive plan included on separate pages.

Notice a couple of things:

  • Positions are grouped together. In other words, we find times for QBs to work with WRs, RBs to work with the OL, etc...
  • We progress through practice from individual to group to team. Everything builds on itself and culminates with the team session at the end.
  • 90% of our coaching happens during individual and group time. We coach on the fly during team time, and rarely stop to correct or redo a play during this part of practice. Pace is important to our offense, so we want to interrupt the pace of practice as much as possible. 

2. Go on the clock.

If you have a consistent practice plan, then everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to time. Unless every coach syncs his watch at the start of practice, nobody will be consistent. 

Notice that our practice schedule is divided into five-minute segments. One drill might be five, 10, or 15 minutes long. We started using our scoreboard clock to help us keep pace during practice. Our managers keep track of the clock, blowing a horn every five minutes to help keep us on pace. 
The managers also advanced the home score by +1 for each period, so everyone knew what period we were in. For example, everyone would know that 7-on-7 starts with period 17. 

If practice is not going well, one effective strategy is to yell out, "Stop the clock!!" This will quickly get everyone's attention, and it is a signal that we are going to do things right, even if it means taking more time. Sometimes players think they just need to put in time and wait for the clock to run down. Stopping the clock is a good reminder of when practice will end IF things are done correctly. 

3. Create competition.

Practice can get monotonous and boring as the season goes on. There is only so much team time you can run against your scout team. Eventually, boredom will set in and bad habits will form.

We implemented a short, five-minute period called "Championship Period" where we went our #1 offense vs. our #1 defense in a game situation. This was full-speed with little to no coaching involved. 

Our championship periods included:
  • Goal Line (1st and Goal from the +8)
  • Read Zone (1st and 10 from the +20)
  • 3rd and Long (+8) - Blitz pick-up
  • 3rd and Short (+2) - Short yardage plays
  • 2nd & Short
  • Two-minute offense
  • Four-minute offense
  • 1st and 10
Each play there was a winner, so if the offense gained 10 yards on 3rd and 8, then the offense won. This created a spirited competition, with even the players on the sidelines getting excited. 

This period lasted no more than five minutes, which was about eight total plays. This competition prepared our players for the speed and intensity they would face on Friday nights.

Final thoughts...

I believe coaches are some of the best teachers in the school. The ironic thing is that these same principles apply to teaching the in classroom, although we often don't correlate the two. In an upcoming post, I will talk about how I apply these same ideas in my English classroom. There really aren't many differences.

What are other key strategies you use to help make sure your practices are efficient?

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Three ways to engage your students in writing

For years, most schools have operated under the following assumptions:

  • Social studies teachers know how to teach students about World War II and the Constitution.
  • Art teachers know how to teach students about painting and art analysis.
  • English teachers know how to teach reading and writing.

This is the logic in many schools; however, in the era of the Common Core State Standards, this paradigm must shift. One of the great things about the CCSS is that it asks ALL teachers to help teach reading, writing, speaking and listening. Previously, I wrote about five easy ways any teacher can get her students to start close reading.

For some reason, even though all teachers wrote countless papers in high school, college and maybe even graduate school, teaching writing simply freaks teachers out. Even English teachers aren't immune to this feeling when it comes to writing instruction.

Writing instruction should not fall only on the Language Arts department. Kelly Gallagher's book Write Like This is an excellent example for how English teachers can teach writing in their class.

However, his basic principles can be applied to ANY subject area.

Here are three simple things that you, yes even you Mr. Math teacher, can do to engage your students in writing:

1. Training wheels: Provide templates

Learning how to write is a bit like learning how to ride a bike. At first, students need to have "training wheels" before they can learn how to write on their own. Templates make excellent training wheels.

I first learned about templates from the book They Say I Say

Before the CCSS, my assignments would require a minimum number of quotations, and students would just "throw" those quotations in without any introducing or explanation. They would just appear randomly throughout the paper. Now, we use templates especially with our freshmen and sophomores when we teach them how to incorporate evidence in their writing. Simple quotation templates from the book include:

Introducing a quotation:

According to ___(Author)____, "________(Quotation)___________."

__(Author)________ states "______(Quotation)____."

Explaining a quote:

In other words, _____(Explanation)_______________________.

Basically, _________(Explanation)___________________________.

Sure, it is a bit like doing a Mad Lib, but it works. Once students have a basic understanding of how to incorporate templates in their writing, we expand to longer templates that we create in our professional learning communities. Here are some examples of longer, more complex templates:

Rhetorical Precis (From:
Satire analysis of Animal Farm
Imagery in Fahrenheit 451

Could you design a template for writing a lab report in science class? What about justifications in Calculus? Heart rate analysis in physical education? Think about templates that would be applicable to your subject area, and then create them from scratch. Once students have this basic writing idea down, then we can begin removing the "training wheels."

2. Take the plunge: Teacher modeling

We learn new skills best by observing others who are experts at the skill we are trying to learn.  Kelly Gallagher's analogy is that you would learn how to golf by watching PGA golfers swing a club. I show my quarterbacks game film from college and professional teams to teach them technique and plays. This is basic teaching, but something we forget when it comes to writing. Students need to see the teacher write (and sometimes fail!) in front of them.

It. Is. Terrifying.
Take the plunge! Write in front of your students.

It is scary to sit at a computer in front of 25 teenagers and have every keystroke appear on the projector. Sometimes the words flow right through my fingers. Sometimes, I can't think of anything to type. Sometimes, I make a number of mistakes that my students are quick to correct. It is very scary, but it is essential for students to see us struggling with the same work we are asking them to do.

This can apply to ANY subject area:
  • Social studies teachers can write thesis statements.
  • Math teachers can write justifications.
  • Art teachers can write art reviews.
  • Science teachers can write lab reports.
The next time you incorporate writing in your class, take the leap and try writing in front of them. You will learn something about the assignment you are giving them, and your students will learn through watching you write in front of them.

3. Learn from experts: Mentor texts

The problem with most high school students isn't that they don't know how to write. The problem is that they have yet to find their own style and voice. That takes time and work; unfortunately, it doesn't happen over night. One way to help this is to provide mentor texts that students can close read to analyze what the author is DOING, and then emulate that style in their own writing.

We first have students perform a close read of the text, making note of the moves that the author is making. I will often have questions about "how long" a piece has to be, or "what all needs to be included" in the writing. When we look at these mentor texts, we notice the length of paragraphs - usually 2-3 sentences (Not 8-10 you say? Blasphemy!) There are also usually 20+ paragraphs, which is wildly different from the five paragraph essays that we all know and love (hate?) to teach. This is how real writers write, and our students need to closely examine what these writers do.

There is a great blog written by two English teachers called Teach Mentor Texts where they highlight examples of texts that can be used for emulation. I love using Roger Ebert, Rick Reilly and Leonard Pitts Jr. articles as mentor texts because they have have distinct styles that students can emulate.

Admittedly, I am lacking knowledge when it comes to this area in other subjects. I do not know who the writing gurus are for math, science or social studies. I would encourage you to look through articles or examples from real experts in your field, allow students to closely look at the moves author makes, and emulate the style until they are able to find their own voice.

Final thoughts

Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hour rule in his book Outliers. The basic idea is that it takes 10,000 hours for anyone to become an expert in her area of expertise. If students are only writing in their English classes, they will never get to the 10,000 hour mark in 12 years of school. However, if the writing is happening in every subject area, this is a much more realistic goal.

No matter what subject you teach, all teachers can implement writing in their courses. The responsibility should not fall solely on the shoulders of the English department. These are three strategies that any subject area teachers can quickly implement in their classes: templates, writing in front of students, and mentor texts. My belief is that if we can just get students writing in their other classes, the English teachers can worry about the grammar, organization and everything else that comes with it.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Tackling Readicide: Five rules to establish

I will admit it: I am a control freak.

In my last post, I wrote about the importance of reading in my classroom and how I get my students reading books. Now that I have established the purpose for outside reading, I am going to share some of the rules I have established. For me, the scary part of this project is that I can't be a control freak. There is a need for established rules and procedures, but you also have to let your students go... which is scary for a control freak like me.

Here are five rules that I have established in my classroom that help me be LESS of a control freak:

1. Students must READ for the first 10 minutes of class.

For years, I attempted every type of bellwork they teach you in college: journals, grammar exercises, and responses. It probably works for some people, but it never really did for me. When I tried journaling, students would write for a couple of minutes and then put their pens down and sit. When I tried grammar exercises, there were always a million questions that I would have to answer. Nothing seemed to work.

Reading a book is something that all of my students can do every day. 

I have an egg timer that I use, but you can also use the timer on your cell phone. I wait until everyone is settled down (usually 30 seconds or so), and then I start the timer. 

I protect this time: I don't allow passes to the bathroom or their locker, I don't answer questions, I don't pass back papers. This is their time to read. 

If a student does not have a book, I have a set of short story books on my counter. That usually motivates them to come with a book of their choice to the next class period.

We have three 50-minute class periods a week and one 90-minute block. I dedicate 40 minutes a week for my students to read; this is almost an entire class period. Even a math teacher can see how important reading is in my class. 

2. Set a lofty goal at the start of the year. 

I commend her for this, but I did not feel like this was a goal that my students were ready for. For my sophomore students, I set a goal of 20 books in a year. Last year, I would say 1/3 of my students read 20+ books, 1/3 read 8-15, and 1/3 read 8 or fewer books. 

I am not naive. I know that probably half of my students lied and did not read the number of books they claimed to. However, at the end of the year I asked how many students read more books than ever before, all students raised their hands. I believed them.

This year, I have three sections of Pre-AP Sophomore English classes. I would guesstimate that many of them had read 20 books before the end of the first semester. They are avid readers. Next year, I will probably up the requirement for Pre-AP to 30-40 books, which I believe is a more appropriate goal for them. 

When I ask students how many books they read a year ago, I usually get the same answer: "None" or "Just the books we were assigned." When I ask how many books they have read this year, and they answer with "five" with huge smile on their face, I know that is a win. Going from zero to five books in one year is huge. Setting that goal of 20 is important because it gives students something to shoot for, even if they all don't reach it. 

3. Define what constitutes a "book."

When you set a goal for how many books students need to read, you must think about what defines a "book" when it comes to number of pages.

My loose definition is that 175 pages constitutes a "book." However, if a student reads a short book of 120 pages, I still count that as a book. For counting purposes, I say that every 175 pages is a book. So:

175 pages = 1 book
350 pages = 2 books
525 pages = 3 books
700 pages = 4 books

This system encourages students to read longer books, because they know they will count for more than one book. I have had students read the entire Harry Potter series, which puts them over the 20 book goal. 

It is up to you how rigid you want to be with this counting system. I often have students say, "This book is 330 pages. How many books is that?" I make a judgement call on how many books I want to count that as. If it is a rigorous book, I will count it as two. 

There has to be a cut-off somewhere, and this page numbering system for defining a "book" has encouraged students to read longer, more rigorous books. 

4. Allow students to read what they want, but push them to more rigorous books.

Genres is something that I am really struggling with.

My students become locked into a specific genre: Sci-Fi, Dystopia, Sports, Vampire, Chick Lit. I love that once they find a genre they enjoy, they want to read more books from that genre.

I have so many students who have read The Hunger Games series, and then the want to read the Maze Runner and Divergent series. That is great. However, I want to push them to more rigorous books.

One thing I have tried this year is once students have established they enjoy a specific genre, I recommend a more challenging book in that genre. For example, for my dystopia-loving students, I have recommended The Road. For my Vampire-loving students, I have recommended Salem's Lot. 

I am also working on how to push students out of their comfort zone. So many of my students get locked into a specific genre, usually fantasy or sci-fi. I want them to experience other genres, while still reading the books they enjoy.

Here is an idea I am working on for next year. During the course of a semester, each student will play tic-tac-toe. They must read from three other genres in some fashion on a tic-tac-toe board. (I put this board together in about 10 minutes, so I haven't given much thought to where the genres should go on the board.)

The idea is that students will still have choice in what genres to do, but they will be pushed from what they normally read. 

Has anyone tried something similar to this?

5. Abandon books if they are bad.

Simply put: If a book sucks, stop reading it. 

Some books are bad. Some books are not the right "fit" for students. Some students are not ready for the book they chose. 

I remember trying to read The Trial by Kafka on my own in high school. It was terrible, but I plowed through it because we were supposed to be reading a book, and I couldn't quit once I chose one. 

Fast forward 20 years. Last week I recommended The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien to a student who likes war books. I loaned him a copy, and he started reading it. A few days later, he brought it back to me and said he read 100 pages, and it just wasn't for him. I didn't make him feel bad; I helped him find another book. 

If a student reads 175 pages of a book, I have her write it in her book log and count it as a book. 

If we are going to encourage students to read many books, we have to acknowledge that some books suck, and teach them that it is OK for them to abandon books. 

I know this outside reading project scares many teachers away because it feels like it is taking the control from the teacher and giving it to the students. These five simple rules have really helped me give structure to something that seems like it could easily get out of control.

What rules have you implemented to outside reading to help guide your students, while still making them feel in control of the process?

Monday, March 25, 2013

Tackling Readicide: Five tips to get started

Guilty confession: For the first eight years of my teaching career, I was clueless about teaching literature. By the way... I'm an English teacher.

In college I took several literature courses ABOUT literature, but we never had instruction on how to TEACH literature. My experience in college went something like this: we would read a book each week, then sit around in a circle discussing it... usually from a Freudian perspective. Then write an essay. That's it.

When I started teaching, I tried the same technique. The problem was, my students didn't care about the symbolism of the ducks in The Catcher in the Rye or the green light in The Great Gatsby. I quickly realized that I was merely a human Cliff's Notes, delivering the plot and basically having a discussion with the handful of students who actually read the book. 

I tried quizzes. I gave tests. I assigned projects. I showed movies.

My students simply weren't reading the books I was assigning.

Then, my teaching world was rocked. Two years ago, I read two books about teaching reading: Readicide by Kelly Gallagher and The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller.

After reading these books, I slowly began to implement the strategies from the books. This blog post will be the first in a series about how I set-up and run our outside reading assignment. It is a work in progress, but I am confident it is much more effective than the "Human Cliff's Notes" way of teaching reading.

Five rules to get started:

1. Allow students to choose what they read

This is a huge paradigm shift for many teachers. I will admit that I am a control freak in many ways. I believed that I was the paid professional, so I should control what students read and write. However, I have discovered that it is much more powerful when students get to choose and have ownership over the books they are reading.

When I look across the room at the books my students are reading, I see a wide variety of books. Some students are reading The Hunger Games series. Some are reading graphic novels. I even have students reading classics such as A Tale of Two Cities and Pride and Prejudice. Whoda thunk?!

The kicker? They are actually reading! Does it really matter that all students read the same book at the same time? I would argue no. As long as they are reading, that is what matters the most. Allowing students to have choice in their reading selections is far more powerful than force feeding "classics" like Jane Eyre down the throat of a 16-year-old sophomore.

2. Give up control

Repeat after me: "This is not about you."

We have already established that I am a control freak. Giving up control is scary, and this kind of shift forces the teacher to give up a great deal of control in the classroom. It is scary... and that is kind of cool.

I am not proposing that you let this turn into total chaos. There needs to be guidelines in place (which I will discuss in another blog post), but the teacher must be willing to turn control over to the students: selection of books, pacing, "abandoning books" when the student isn't digging it, etc...

This should be very individualized for each student. I set a goal for my students to read 20 books in one year. However, through individual conferences if a student tells me she read one book last year, and has read eight books this year, how can that be anything but a win for everyone? 

Giving up that control that EVERY student has to read the same books at the same time is scary, but also exhilarating.

3. Give students time to read

If you are going to make a commitment to reading, students need time to actually READ in class. I used to think of "reading" time as filler or a time-waster, but I have found huge value in providing SSR (Silent Sustained Reading) time to my students. The ONLY way students can become better readers is to actually READ.

We start each hour with 10 minutes of SSR. Once everyone has settled down (usually within the first 30 seconds after the bell), I start a timer and the students know they have 10 minutes to read. This does not change. It is the procedure for how we start the class each day.

I also ask my students to read 20 minutes five days a week outside of class. That time could be in another class during the school day, on the bus on the way home, or in bed before they fall asleep. I don't care, as long as they get in another 20 minutes during the day. This builds stamina. Just like a runner needs to invest time in running, readers need to invest time in reading. 

My classes meet four times a week. If you do the math, students should read 40 minutes a week in class, plus 100 minutes outside of class. That is 140 minutes of reading a week. If they can read one page a minute, they should be able to read a 300-page book in approximately two weeks. 

4. Model reading for students

Kelly Gallagher asserts in Write Like This that the teacher is the best writer in the room; therefore students need to see the teacher writing in front of them. The same logic applies to reading. 

Students need to visually see their teacher reading books along with them. 

During those 10 minutes of SSR time, I sit at my desk and read a book. I have been trying to read books that my students are reading (I am currently reading The Maze Runner, for example), but I also have been working through my own personal reading list. 

I would venture to guess that many students do not regularly see an adult reading books. You may be the only adult in their life that they can see actually reading books. That is a powerful responsibility. If they can see you as the teacher taking part in the same reading experience as them, it makes it a shared experience that you can discuss and talk about with your students, not an "assignment" where the teacher doesn't take an active role. 

5. Do not be a fun-sucker

Let me be clear: If you are not careful, you are going to suck all of the fun out of this:
  • Do not get bogged down in how you are going to grade it.
  • Do not worry about how you are going to keep track of everything.
  • Do not stress about students who are not keeping up with the pace.
  • Do not get upset with the students who are "gaming" you on the number of books they have read.
  • Do not force students to read things they don't want to read.
This should be an enjoyable experience for everyone. If you implement too many rules and guidelines, you are going to make it a dreadful experience. Some students will "game" you. There is no good way to grade this. Things will fall through the cracks.

Keep some guidelines in place, but the focus should be on reading enjoyable books. 

These are some simple guidelines I started out with when we started outside reading in my sophomore English class. What are some tips you have for getting started with outside reading?