Saturday, 11 June 2016

No More Grammar Worksheets! Part 1

Every English teacher soon realises that at least a basic understanding of how grammar works is essential for efficient student-teacher communications. I have no interest in producing near-graduate linguists, but just try asking for an apple, without using the word 'apple'.  It's a lot more time (and energy) consuming than just using the specific word.
The same applies when trying to explain to a student why they can't use a comma to separate 2 complete ideas, and then getting into a further discussion about what an 'idea' consists of in this context. It just isn't as precise or clear as saying, "You can't join 2 independent clauses with a comma." Of course it takes some effort upfront for a student to get to the point where they understand what a clause, never mind an independent clause is, but over 15 years in teaching have lead me to the firm belief that it's time well spent.

So, how to develop these grammar skills without dragging your students (and let's face it - yourself) through another dull-at-the-desk worksheet exercise? Can any teacher hand-on-heart say that grammar worksheets honestly improved their students' writing?) While there are thousands of books, articles and blog posts on the subject, teachers don't have time to read them all, so in this series of posts tagged #nomoreworksheets, I'll explore alternative ways  to help build a more effective toolset of tried-and-tested activities.

One important note - the only way to truly improve student writing is through writing. Neither reading about writing, nor discussing writing will be as effective as actually putting pen to paper to practice any grammatical concept learned. With precise feedback, and regular in-class writing sessions (that can be as short as 10 minutes if you're feeling time-pressured), you will see improvement.

Approach 1: Make Language Board Games 
Objective: Reviewing & building students' grammatical vocabulary
While we may think students will scoff at the idea of such a project, board games are something of a novelty to most, given most of their entertainment is from a screen these days.
Some time near the beginning of the year, I get my students to take on one area of grammar to teach their peers. In any given class, there'll be teams researching and creating materials on whichever aspects of grammar I've seen their age-group struggle with. At this point, I am trying to build a common language around terminology, so they can use various question formats including:

  • multiple choice
  • true or false
  • complete the sentence
  • fill in the missing word
  • what is this an example of
  • give me an example of ...

Asking a local pizza shop for some unused boxes will save a lot of time. Students can use the base as their game board, paste the instructions inside the lid and keep any counters or other items in the box.

Click here for a FREE instruction sheet for your students.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Zombies Everywhere!

In my previous post, I set out my intention to create some 'zombie-themed' resources for my upcoming Learning to Learn unit. While I might not have been posting about it, I've been really busy and now I've made a start on a resource each for reading, writing and speaking and listening. While they are not entirely new, being based on activities I've used before, I'm excited that they are now in a ready-to-go format that I can simply print and provide.
My students gave me some super-helpful reviews and suggestions for improvement, so here are the results of my labours, including a freebie.

And the freebie...

What now? I recently heard about the concept of co-operative board games which has me intrigued. What a great idea for building community and collaboration! Time for some further explorations...

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Learning to Learn with Zombies

In a previous post, I raved about the Coursera 'Learning to Learn' MOOC I took,  and also set out my intention to create a start-of-year unit for my students that would address their readiness to learn, while helping them understand how to work with their brains to maximise learning success.
I'm not sure why it took me so long to settle on a way in, but I finally decided to engage the students with zombies. After all, my son regularly wanders around monotonously repeating the word 'brains' with one trouser-leg rolled up, and the students often talk of their zombie fascination, so why not?

To that end, I am still determined to maintain the integrity of my subject - English - so I've decided to make it a unit on reading, and the final assessment will be a research task.

I got so excited about the idea that I pulled together my tried-and-tested 'learner training' materials to start transforming them for the unit, and I'm pleased to say I'm well on my way. Already, I've created materials for reading, writing, and speaking, and I have been digging up articles on mindset, organisation, memory and inspirational learners so I am sure I will have plenty to draw upon.

Watch this space for updates, or check out my shop for previews and promotions.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

What to do with task cards?

One of the main reasons I have so many sets of task cards is that it allows me to differentiate and give students choice. No longer do I have to stand at the front and teach a concept that some already know, or drag students through the one task on offer. With task cards, I can introduce variety and engagement. My students regularly ask if we can use them more frequently than we do, so that's proof enough for me that they're worthwhile.

As for longevity, I am not a fan of laminating, but I do print them on thick card so I can re-use them year on year and with various classes. I keep the sets in marked shoeboxes so they are easy to identify when I need them in a hurry.

The most common ways I use task cards are below.

Set up stations in the classroom. For example, in a class of 32 students, I might have 16-20 different stations, depending on the number of individual tables available. I always like to have more rather than less so that students can move on without having to wait for everyone to finish. The best method I've found is to assign no more than 2 students at each station to begin. If possible, they sit opposite each other rather than together to minimise distractions, unless the task is actually a collaborative task.

Task cards are also great for students who finish an activity before others. They can simply be assigned one or more cards and can work quietly and individually, hopefully on something they have chosen.

For starters and plenaries, task cards can be used for the whole class or again individually. I like to use my writing prompt cards for students to demonstrate a particular skill we may have explored, such as subordinate clauses or semi-colons. By providing a choice of 3-5 prompts, students can do a 'quick write' in about 10 minutes to demonstrate mastery of the chosen technique: great for formative assessment.

So, that's just a few of the ways I use task cards, but there are many more I'll talk about in future posts. 

Friday, 6 May 2016

Memory and Learning

I recently completed Coursera's offering Learning To Learn. Apparently, it's the most popular MOOC ever and, although I've taken many a course in metacognition and learning, I can totally agree that it was the most useful PD and personal learning experience I've had in a long time.
Barbra Oakley, the main lecturer, fills the course with anecdotes and interesting neuro-research, while offering practical insights to how you really can learn better.
In watching one of the videos which introduced the Pomodoro technique, I sat down at my laptop and finished a book I'd been procrastinating on for over 2 years - it took me all of an hour-and-a-half!
Some of the best take-aways I've had are:

Now, I'm in the process of distilling the most practical and digestible nuggets of wisdom for my future Grade 6 classes, and I have recommended the course to anyone I can contact. A few have taken up the challenge and written to tell me how much they are getting from it - I urge you to take a look too.

(I followed up this course with another MOOC - Memory and Movies - which has complemented this learning. More on that soon.)

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Who'd Have Thought? 6th Grade Rocks!

Teaching and Learning Co-ordinator for the International Baccalaureate Diploma program was my last full-time role, and I saw my future as developing within the IB program. I enjoyed the Language and Literature course immensely and was (and still am) in whole-hearted agreement with the IB's holistic approach.

So how did I end up teaching 6th Grade in a non-IB school? I suppose my current school had originally caught my eye as a non-profit, particularly because it did run the IBDP program in high school. By the time I decided it was a good idea to put in an application, however, middle school teacher was the only position open at the school I truly wanted to work in. When I was asked which middle school grade I'd like to teach in my new school, I went for the one that involved a Digital Literacy class - Grade 6.  I wanted to keep my hand in with technology and felt teaching a class meant it would be part of my P&P rather than working above and beyond my job spec. 

It wasn't really until I had arrived in Vietnam that I really stopped to question that decision. Me. Teaching young students. Full-time. Probably not a great idea. Actually, possibly a terrible idea. Working in a 3-18 school meant regularly I witnessed the empathetic, patient superstar educators dealing with the young ones. Much as I wished I could be like them, I knew I simply wasn't.

Well, perhaps half the battle is realising you're in one. For sure, I wasn't going to let my deficiencies affect my students' learning, so I started the year with a strong focus on the socio-emotional domain in my classroom. I strived extra-hard to be empathetic, to give my students a voice where they were naturally inclined toward compliance and silence, and focused every lesson on communication and building a sense of a team, me included. We still have much work to do but already I'm seeing some great gains. By no means can I prove every student is comfortable approaching me or loves every lesson, but I do feel we've established a general classroom culture of sharing, expecting to be held to high standards but supported at the same time, and feedback indicates they know I care for them as individuals (even when I'm badgering them for their missing assignments).

And the big surprise for me is I am enjoying it immensely. I love being able to see actual growth, even over the few weeks since the start of the year. In teaching older students, you see progress when marking assignments, but with 6th Grade there seems to be a discernible change every week. This might be in their organisation, interaction or academic skills but their learning just seems so more visible. Not to mention they have a great sense of fun, and are willing to take risks when encouraged. I'm finding I have more patience than I ever knew, and they are teaching me to be a much more methodological and routine-based instructor; they need the structure to navigate through the transition from one teacher and one classroom to many.

So there you have it. After 15 years of teaching and seeing young learners as the classes to avoid, I find I've been staying away from some of the most rewarding teaching of my career. Let's see where this leads!

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Writer Workshop & Block Schedule (The Answer)

Since writing this post expressing my frustration with our block schedule when trying to fit in reading and writing, I've found a solution that works for us. Unsurprisingly, it comes courtesy of Kasey Kiehl so rather than trying to summarise what she says so well, here's the link.
I downloaded her free advice pack from TeachersPayTeachers and realised I was not using my time efficiently. Now we've got transitions down to seconds, and we are reading and writing, to some extent, every lesson. An added bonus is that the extra 2 or 3 students I conference with in the reading sessions adds up to a better rotation time between all the students.
If you're struggling with the same issue, I highly recommend exploring the above links.

Note-taking with Google Slides

Although I'm not a fan of teaching at the front, there are times when we just have to stand up and guide students through a concept or information. If you'd like students to be active listeners and take notes as you present, here's an idea I thought may be worth sharing.

Make a copy of your Google Slides presentation, delete your presentation notes and then distribute a copy to each individual (perhaps using Doctopus, or by asking them to make a copy themselves). In that way, they can use the editor view to look at the slides you are talking about while putting notes in the presenter part.

Then, to review, they can view in 'with speaker notes' to see their notes alongside each slide.

A couple of ideas for formative / summative assessment:
  • focus on note-taking competence: assess the notes they take by asking them to share the presentation with you (focus on note-taking skills)
  • focus on comprehension: ask the students to record themselves presenting it back, perhaps adding in their own responses to prompts embedded - an alternative would be to present live in small groups & get peer, rather than teacher, feedback
  • focus on quality of discussion: pair or group students to see what they can add in discussing the presentation later - I would ask them to use a different font colour to show what was added from their discussion, allowing me to see what was they managed on their own and what they gained from their peers' ideas.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Good at learning or good at school?

A former student responding to a prompt asking the difference between learning and studying:

"It’s one thing to read Romeo and Juliet, and I can tell you, you know, which ones were the Capulets and, you know, I can name and tell you Juliet, who she is. I can pick out the symbolism and I can say, this is a reference to this, that was happening in Elizabethan England. It’s another thing to read Romeo and Juliet and to talk about some of those higher level themes and then to make connections between Romeo and Juliet and something I saw on television or something that’s going on in my own life. Now, I own that information, because I can manipulate it and use it to meet my own needs versus I've memorized that information, it’s stored in my head, but I can only access it when we’re talking about Romeo and Juliet." 

And that's what rigorous learning material helps kids learn how to do. If I can get my 6th graders anywhere near this understanding, I'll have achieved something worthwhile this year.

Writer Workshop & Block Schedule (The Question)

The school I've recently joined has been using the Lucy Calkins Units of Study. The wordiness and overly-scripted plans feel prescriptive rather than guiding, although I acknowledge they are not meant to be so. This has encouraged me to look at how others (such as Kasey Kiehl) are doing it, and dip in and out of Calkins as needed for my 6th Grade students. Furthermore, my positive experiences with PBL have encouraged me to have a 'real world' goal at the end, rather than their writing ending up in a rarely-shared portfolio.
So far, the setting up of the workshop has been OK. I talked to them about publishing a book at the end of the year containing the best of their writing, but they have to go through a panel to be accepted; only their best work will do! They were pretty excited at the prospect and turned to their notebooks with great enthusiasm. Problem was, there was a weekend plus another 3 days until they got to tackle their challenge again. We alternate between writing workshop and literature circles, so seeing them every other day means ELA twice or thrice a week maximum.
At the moment, that is my challenge - trying to maintain the pace and interest in writing with such long gaps between. Add to that the reduced contact time with the students because of other (useful) interruptions to the curriculum, and it feels like it's taking a long time to really get into that all-important flow.
I could - as my predecessors did - do writing every time we meet, but the admitted result was a marginalisation of reading. And let's face it - whatever curriculum you follow, ELA is not just about reading and writing, especially these days with ever-expanding definitions of reading, writing, media and communication in general.
Anyway, it'll be time to re-assess at the end of the quarter which is far closer than I'd like to think given how little I feel we've done, but I guess I need to remember it's quality not quantity, and for sure we've established some important norms. These norms are centered around building an environment of trust among peers, so we can support each other on our writerly journey.
I'm optimistic the pace will pick up as the year continues, and I am very much looking forward to seeing how my Grade 6 students grow in their writing. I guess patience has never been a strong suit of mine, and never moreso than when I'm excited to see the fruits of our labour!

Update October 2015: A follow-up to this post can be read here.