Now that the new year has started, I thought I would write a short post about the units I’m starting with my juniors and seniors next week.
My junior classes will begin Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea on Wednesday and my senior classes will start Beowulfon the same day. (In addition, my Composition class will begin brainstorming ideas for their I-Search papers on the same day, while my Novels classes begin their independent reading books.)
These lit units are the first ones of the school year for both grades. Last fall, we wrote memoirs, poetry, short story analysis essays, and a variety of pieces for Writer’s Workshop. We also wrote poetry and entered writing contests, such as the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.
Of course, we also read. Between nonfiction articles for Article of the Week assignments and various books we “tasted” on First Chapter Fridays, we did expose ourselves to new reading. Still, in-depth and extended study of selected literature was not on the menu.
I’m excited to experience these literature studies with my students. I’ve read The Old Man and the Sea before, but not Beowulf. And to be honest, I’m a little embarrassed that I haven’t read this foundational text before. In fact, I’m not sure how I missed reading it until now.
I’m fairly well prepared to get started with these new units, but at the same time, I know that teaching them will be challenging and probably dominate my planning time.
It’s quite a handful to create daily lessons for two new texts. Compound that with the fact that at my small rural high school, I’m the only English teacher for juniors and seniors. That has its positives (I have autonomy and choice when planning), but it also has its negatives. For example, while I do have a general curriculum to follow, I do not have unit specific materials beyond the textbooks and novels.
As such, I’ll be creating and designing lessons as I go. Thank goodness for ready-made unit plans, which provide me a basic framework that I can tweak and adjust for the future.
I’ll update you on how these new units progress in some future posts.
Thanks for reading again this week! What are you gearing up for now that the holidays are over? Feel free to leave a comment and follow my blog to catch those follow-up posts.
I wrote the post below the week after the cathedral fire last spring; it pays tribute to the children’s book, Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans. By the way, I still have not located the copy of the book mentioned in the post. Darn.
Thanks for reading! If you’re a Madeline fan, please leave a comment!
The classic children’s book caused me to feel and understand the tragedy of the fire when I wouldn’t have otherwise
Photo: Ldorfman; Ldorfman [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D I don’t possess any personal connection to the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. I’ve never even been to the City of Light. I don’t have a selfie to post or a brochure or keychain from the grand gothic masterpiece that was nearly destroyed by fire last week.
At least, the book supposed to be here. I vaguely remember stowing it away in a box several years back in the attic for safe-keeping with other beloved and well-worn children’s books my daughter and son read with me in recliners and on couches some twenty years ago.
Last summer, my husband and I moved to a new city. Since we had learned about our upcoming move way back in January, I began searching for a new position about a month later. The local school district in our new hometown didn’t have any positions available. As a result, I decided to explore the many small rural school districts in the surrounding area.
One of the very first openings I noticed was at a school district about forty minutes away from our new home. I noticed the listing and checked out the school’s website. It looked like a promising possibility, but the forty-minute commute gave me pause. Still, I made a mental note to keep it in mind as I continued my search.
A couple more openings soon showed up in other schools. One was about thirty minutes away. Another was a tempting fifteen minutes away. Of course, a few more with forty-minute commutes similar to that first listing popped up in my search results as well.
I continued to prepare my resumé, samples of student work, and other materials that I knew I’d need when I would eventually start interviewing. And just about everyday, I logged on the job search website provided by my state’s department of education and looked for openings in the area.
One day about two weeks later, the listing at that first school I noticed was flagged as being recently revised. Hmmm… I wonder what’s changed, I thought.
I clicked the listing. A significant change had been made: the district’s school board had, a few days earlier, approved a four-day week for the 2019-2020 school year.
The four-day week is a relatively new concept that more than 500 districts across the country are exploring. Small schools, especially those in rural areas, can reduce operating costs and, in lieu of higher salaries, better attract and retain teachers by offering a shorter work week instead.
Well, that definitely changes things, I thought.
Without looking further on the site, I quickly assembled a resumé and emailed it to the school’s principal. Within a week, I had an interview scheduled. About an hour after my interview, I received an offer, which I accepted the next morning.
That four-day week stopped my search cold. Yes, it would mean school days that run about thirty minutes longer, but it would also mean one fewer day of making that forty-minute drive each way, which was the main drawback for me since I was transferring from another rural district with a comparable salary schedule. And now, with the prospect of a four-day week, saving time and gas were just the beginning.
After all, what teacher doesn’t fantasize about what an entire extra day each week would mean fortheir life?
That extra day means I can schedule a doctor or dental appointment without taking time off from work (and, by the way, costing the school the wages for a sub).
It means I can do my grocery shopping on a quiet Monday morning instead of a hectic Saturday afternoon when everyone else is roaming the aisles, too.
It means I can hang around the house and redo that cabinet I’ve been needing to paint, but just haven’t found the three or four solid hour it requires.
It means I can burn a pile of leaves if I feel like it.
Or bake a loaf of bread.
Or read a book.
Or write a blog post.
Or yes, even do some grading and lesson planning. (Yeah, it happens.)
And think about what an extra day means to younger teachers with small children. That’s one fewer day of childcare to pay for and one more precious day to spend with their infant or preschooler. As a mother (my kids are grown now), that extra day would have meant the world to me.
And mind you, I don’t have every Monday off at my new school. Of about forty Mondays in the school year, twenty-two are actual “no school” days where both students and teachers stay home. On the remaining sixteen Mondays, only teachers attend school to plan and take part in professional development (PD) activities, such as first aid workshops, a suicide prevention session, and technology training.
Fortunately, my district doesn’t pack these Mondays with PD sessions; I usually have four to five hours of time to spend in my classroom preparing for the weeks ahead. I accomplish so much on those days completing work that I would normally just take home in a bag anyway.
I love the four-day week my new school district voted to adopt last spring. The district plans to evaluate the change next semester to learn how it’s working for students, parents, and school personnel. Everyone’s needs must be considered, for sure, but we must remember that educating students must remain the number one priority.
For me, however, the four-day week means my weekends are long, luxurious, and wonderfully rejuvenating. Yes, I could earn more in a larger, better resourced suburban district closer to my home, but my smaller paycheck is more than offset by that one glorious extra day.
Thanks for reading! Have you heard of any districts in your area considering the switch to a four-day week? What are your thoughts? Let me know with a comment. And don’t forget to become a follower for more ELA posts. Here’s a link to a recent post.
The Write Now! High School Writing Conference at Missouri State University
Shaun Tomson explains his metaphorical “I Will” statement, “I will always paddle back out.”
Here are some quick photos of the high school writing conference hosted by the Missouri State Center for Writing in College, Career and Community. I took these just a few minutes ago during the 2019 Opening Session. World champion South African surfer Shaun Tomson spoke about the power of “I Will” statements, part of his Surfer’s Code, an empowering personal creed that he challenged each student in attendance to write and apply to their own lives.
A student in the audience shouts out his “I Will” code.
Near the end of the session, Tomson asked students to share their “I Will” statements via a texting poll and from their seats in the auditorium inside Plaster Student Union.
I attended the conference with these four fantastic students from my school. They each attended two different creative writing sessions. I am very proud of these girls for taking a chance and attending this conference to grow their writing skills.
I’ll be writing another post about this conference and the specific sessions offered in a future post. I’ll also write about getting to see some former students who met me for a quick photo and catch-up session in the aisle.
In the meantime, the conference is actually just getting started. After lunch, students will attend another session, and then we’ll head back home.
Thanks for reading! Become a follower for more teaching resources and reflection.
My resources, my reservations, and my main reason to teach this book again
Right now, at my new teaching position at a rural high school in Missouri, one of my junior/senior level electives classes is reading The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. If you’re unfamiliar with The Red Badge of Courage, it’a a Civil War novel first published in 1895 that explores the effects of war on a young man named Henry Fleming.
According to this Glencoe Literature Library Study Guide, “The Red Badge of Courage is a profile of an inexperienced young soldier undergoing his first experience of battle. ‘The youth’ in the novel, Henry Fleming, makes a journey of self-discovery. But what he learns, and whether he learns, from his experiences is a point that is still debated.” In other words, The Red Badge of Courage is a novel that focuses on the psychological effects of war as much as it focuses on warring itself.
Before I started the unit, I consulted a private teachers’ Facebook group to get some ideas. Instead, I learned that many teachers aren’t crazy about the book. At all. For example, the sentiments below are actual teacher opinions about Crane’s novel.
I need suggestions for an alternative text to Red Badge of Courage. I tried to read it/listen to it and it was AWFUL.
It is suggested to do Red Badge of Courage, but I tried to read it and listen to it on audio, and I just couldn’t. It is not interesting…
This is the only required reading that I did not complete in high school. I. Could. Not. Stand. It.
Red Badge of Courage. Gag me with a spoon.
“Ouch. Really? Is it that bad?” I thought when I read those comments.
Yes, it is dry and monotonous at times. Those chapters where Fleming waits for directions, waits for battle, waits for any indication of progress in the war, do get long. However, as we learn from Fleming, that’s part of the war experience. The Civil War experience, to be exact. And yes, the Civil War was a long time ago, so maybe the book’s monotonous chapters and the book’s antiquated language and style (it was first published in 1895, after all) turns off these teachers.
And those teachers can have their opinions, for sure. But this little book–there are 24 chapters each about five pages in length–has merit if you look for it.
After all, there’s a reason it’s never been out of print: the book is not merely an account of war, but an account of how untested people deal with self-doubt, confidence, fear, and ultimately, courage.
Since this is the first time I’ve taught the novel, I realize I’m just “feeling my way.” In other words, I don’t pretend to have this figured out. In fact, my first experience with teaching the novel leaves much to be desired. However, I thought I would still share the handful of resources I’m currently using or plan to use in the next couple of weeks or so. Plus, I’m secretly hoping that, if you’ve taught this novel before, you’ll share some tips and ideas in the comments below! (See what I did there?!) Here are the resources I’m using, listed in no particular order:
I currently use these writing prompts as bell work assignments. Journal prompts can become tiresome, though, so we don’t do these everyday. Students respond by writing a paragraph. We discuss them briefly as a warm-up to listening to the next two chapters of the book.
This unit plan is a fairly standard one and is aligned with Common Core State Standards. The focus is definitely on reading comprehension and vocabulary building. Writing exercises are scant and only require limited creative or analytical thinking. Although this unit plan is a full 67 pages long, I’ve only used about ten of those so far. I will, however, use its summative activities as part of a final assessment, to which I’ll add a reflective essay requirement.
Taking Fire is the definitive collection of modern war stories, told by the men and women who fought on the front lines of Afghanistan. Illustrated with real combat footage shot on helmet cameras and handy cams, this series plunges viewers into the heart of the action, giving a visceral experience not witnessed in news reports or traditional documentary portrayals of war.
Taking Fire follows the experiences of rookie recruits of the 101st Airborne division. Shot with helmet cams and other video cameras, viewers watch the daily activities—from mundane chores to real-life skirmishes—of these young men. It’s not difficult to see that these activities are similar to the experiences of Fleming, referred to as “the youth” in Crane’s book.
As we watch Taking Fire, it’s easy to appreciate a modern-day connection to The Red Badge of Courage. The soldiers in Afghanistan looking for land mines, waiting for action, and fighting boredom share the same concerns and emotions as Fleming does in the novel. They experience the same fears, the same guilt, the same self-doubts that Henry does. I love how Taking Fire has given The Red Badge of Courage a shove into current day concerns and emotions.
Stephen Crane’s characterization of Henry, the young recruit, rings as true today as it did during the Civil War —and we have Stephen Crane and the Discovery Channel, as well— to thank for that. Because it relates so naturally to The Red Badge of Courage, I have decided to watch twenty minutes of a Taking Fire episode about every other day in class…after we listen to our audiobook. (Let’s be real: saving the video for after the book is also partly a reward for digging into the book and its antiquated language and verbose descriptions.)
I also like the idea of comparing a TV series to a book… an important learning standard that requires students to access literature through various media. Noticing similarities and differences between the written page from more than a century ago to a contemporary high-tech televised war experience should lead to some rich discussions and critical thinking opportunities.
And yes, there is The Red Badge of Courage, the movie. It was made in 1951 and was filmed in black and white. I’m not planning on showing it because Taking Fire seems a better, more relevant fit.
Yes, I have occasionally read chapters aloud and have asked students to do a sort of reader’s theater activity while I read (where certain students read especially memorable lines). However, most of the class seems to enjoy the audiobook version more. Here’s the link to the audiobook on Youtube.
I hope to design an activity where students, at the completion of our reading the novel, explore the diary of an actual Civil War soldier. This will be a good opportunity for students to access and use primary sources, as well give them additional insights into the lives of young soldiers. Perhaps these diaries can be correlated to the experiences of Fleming as an additional part of a reflective summative assessment. There are numerous websites for this type of work. I plan to explore these other sites as well to find more diaries and journals:
I have a membership to LitCharts, and printed out the study guide to the novel at the beginning of the unit. The study guide includes a plot summary, detailed analysis, theme discussions, quotes, and character notes. Having this on my desk as we read, listen, and discuss helps me teach better and with more confidence. That’s because I occasionally struggle with comprehending as we listen, since I must also be continually surveying the room, making sure people are following along, staying off their phones, and participating. Having my LitCharts study guide handy is a good thing.
When you teach a novel for the first time
It’s always difficult to teach a novel for the first time, and as I wrote earlier, I don’t claim to be an expert on The Red Badge of Courage. In fact, for me, the most difficult aspect of teaching a novel for the first time is facilitating whole-class discussions. It takes me at least two to three teachings before I am able to spur meaningful discussions that blossom organically during a class period. This is my main deficiency with this particular text, at this point, and I’m aware of it. But I trust that better discussions will evolve with time. Next semester’s class will definitely have a better Red Badge of Courage experience.
To sum up this post, despite the fact that The Red Badge of Courage doesn’t receive much attention or respect from some teachers, and despite the fact that it’s my first time teaching it, I think I’ll stick with this book. It’s one I want to spend more time learning how to teach. I believe this book’s exploration of self-doubt, confidence, fears, and courage merit readers’ attention.
Thanks for reading again this week! I’ve taught Chasing Lincoln’s Killer in the past, so I’m game for Civil War-era books, but have you ever taught The Red Badge of Courage? Got any tips or ideas? I’m game for your thoughts. Follow my blog, like this post and leave a comment about your experiences with this novel.
Note: I published this post about a year ago when I first attempted an after-school NaNoWriMo program. This year, I have recently moved and am now teaching high school. I hope to eventually host a similar after-school NaNoWriMo program in my new district, but for now, I’ll just look back fondly on last year’s endeavor.
I’m finally doing NaNoWriMo with my students. Well, sort of.
All during November, about fifteen students ranging from fifth- through eighth-grade arrive in my room after school and write for forty-five minutes. I only know a little about what they’re writing. That’s because I’m busy working, too, on my own project… what I call my “historical memoir project thing.” Yes, you heard right. I’m doing NaNoWriMo and I’m not even writing a novel. Oh, well. You gotta start somewhere.
No, the NaNoWriMo in my classroom is not a full-blown NaNoWriMo experience. I don’t have the official posters, or the workbooks, or the full curriculum. But we’re still having a good time getting together after school and just writing.
From some conversations I’ve overheard around my classroom, I know some kids are writing fantasy stories. Some are writing sci-fi. One kid is writing about a worm. Regardless, each student is writing for themselves and that’s the key.
In case you’re unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo, it stands for National Novel Writing Month, when writers around the country write a first draft of a 50,000-word novel. There’s a youth version of this challenge, where students set personal goals to accomplish the first drafts of their own novels, and that’s what we are attempting in my classroom every day after school all November long.
I’ve thought about doing NaNoWriMo for a few years, and finally, last summer, I decided I would stop waiting to do it “right” and, in a nod to Nike, “just do it.” So, in June, I tested the idea with my students with a teaser post on my private class Instagram. Several were interested, including some recently graduated students who were disappointed that I hadn’t tried it when they were in middle school.
Jump forward to last Monday, Nov. 5, the first day on my calendar that we could meet. At the end of the day, when I was tired and definitely ready to lay out my plans for Tuesday and head for home, I asked myself Why did I ever decide to do this?!
However, now with that first week behind me, I’m so glad I “just did it” because my lame version of NaNoWriMo is already illuminating two truths that are easy to forget:
It’s amazing how dedicated kids can be when they’re personally motivated. The mood in my classroom during NaNoWriMo is quite different from my regular classroom, which always contains a few students with little desire to pursue writing. They distract others. They sharpen their pencils four times an hour. They need drinks and bathroom breaks. But after school during NaNoWriMo, it’s a different world. These kids are choosing to write, imagine, create, produce, and they go at it earnestly and with enthusiasm.
Some kids have writing lives outside of school. It’s gratifying to know that there are several students who are writing on their own, at home in notebooks, and online. They “own” these works… no teacher has asked them to outline their ideas, no teacher has asked them to turn in a synopsis or a summary.
Plus, these kids are excited to get to work. I’m amazed that—after eight hours of classes, mind you— my NaNoWriMo kids willingly (with smiles on their faces!) walk into my room with their coats and binders, drop them into a chair, get a laptop from the computer cart, sit down, and write. And think. And quietly chat with others at their table.
It’s a social get-together, after all. I bring snacks of some kind on Mondays, but for the rest of the week, the kids bring their own if they need to. Some bring an orange, some a small bag of chips or crackers, but most don’t bring food.
What they do bring is their imaginations, their productivity, and their determination to get something down on paper. I’ve made sure to tell them that NANOWRIMO is the time to shut off their “inner editor” and just get words on the page. Revision can happen later.
At the end of the hour, we fill out our word-count goal chart. On this chart, we’ve each listed our names with our word-count goal for the month at the far right. If a student reaches their word-count goal for the day (the monthly goal divided by the number of days in the month), they put an X on the chart in that day’s column.
We’ve kept our goals reasonable. Next year, we may be more ambitious. This is not a real NaNoWriMo after all. However, it’s a start. We each have a word-count goal. We each have a project to work on and the dedicated time to work on it.
Who would have thought that I would have accomplished real progress on my “historical memoir project thing” in just forty-five minutes a day… at the end of a busy school day… with twelve to fifteen middle schoolers in the same room?
Thanks for reading! Have you ever tried NaNoWriMo? How was your experience? Did you participate with your students or was it just a personal challenge?
I would love to try NaNoWriMo with my new high school students eventually, but first things first. This year definitely presents a learning curve for me with adjusting to older, more reserved older students.
I’m trying these four short vocabulary bell-work tasks to help kids better learn new words
I recently signed up to receive weekly email updates from the Sadlier School. As part of the email, I receive a free “Power Word of the Week” email from the Vocab Gal’s blog. I’ve been using these “slides” in my classes as a vocabulary bell-work activity. I’m trying four different activities with each new Power Word, so for each day of our week, we can spend a few more minutes to learn the word better. (Yes, you read that right. This year, our district has switched to a four-day week. I’ll let you know how that’s going in an upcoming post.)
The Power Word of the Week slide defines the word, uses it in a sentence, and then asks students to write their own sentence using the word.
Here’s an example of the slides:
We follow the slide exactly and students write a sentence using the new word. Sometimes, depending on the new word, I’ll ask a volunteer to think of a random word (popsicle? frog? hockey?) to throw into the sentence, so the sentences they write will contain both the new word and the random word. It adds more interest to the standard “write a sentence” activity.
The next day, I put the same slide back on the screen and ask students to review the definition and then use it in another sentence. However, this time they must use the word in a sentence about a topic covered in a recent Article of the Week assignment. We recently used the word “gossamer” in a sentence about California’s Fair Pay to Play Act; we also used the word “paragon” in a sentence about robotic bee engineering in the Netherlands.
Here are some student-written examples:
California’s reasons for paying athlete’s for endorsement deals were like gossamer in the eyes of the NCAA.
Scientists from Delft University are working to engineer robotic bees that, if forced to do the work of real bees, will be paragons of nature.
I’ve also asked students to write sentences using the Power Word plus a Power Word from a previous week. This keep the new words in our working vocabularies and increases the chances that these new words will be retained.
On this day, I ask students to make more connections. We take the Power Word and invent an app that is called the word. For example, imagine there’s an app called “Paragon,” then…
Write two to three sentences that describe the features of the app. What would an app called Paragon do?
Write a user review of the app that shows knowledge of the word.
If you have time, ask students to create a logo for the app. This is key if you do this add-on: ask students to make sure the logo illustrates in some way the word’s meaning.
Here are two examples of the Create-an-App activity completed as bell-work:
Two other student examples:
The Perpetuate App…This app helps you find out who your ancestors are. It does that so you can perpetuate their customs.
Use the app Perpetuate… to make any moment in life permanent or long-lasting. Make great life moments last forever.
On this day, I ask students to write a haiku poem. (Many students tell me they haven’t written a haiku since third or fourth grade!) I write one of my own as an example and post it on the board. Students then get started on their own. The requirements: 1) their haiku must be three lines long and contain five syllables in the first and last lines and seven in the second; 2) The poem must contain the Power Word; 3) The poem must be nature-related, in keeping with traditional haiku poetry.
Here’s an example I recently used in class with “fend” as the Power Word:
Soar above, pointing south to
Fend off winter’s wrath
I love words, but I’ve always been perplexed by the best way to increase students’ vocabularies. Rote memorization doesn’t work. Neither does working with a new word every day for that day only. On the other hand, spending five to ten minutes over the course of four days to explore a new word seems, so far anyway, to be a viable option… at least one worth testing out.
When we’ve covered ten or so new Power Words, I’ll assess students to see how well they’ve retained knowledge of the words. I’ll let you know how that goes.
Thanks for reading again this week! In my previous teaching position, my students practiced their cursive writing everyday for bell-work. Since my new students haven’t written in cursive in years, I decided to not fight the cursive battle, and have them learn some new vocabulary instead. So far, I think it’s working.
Stay tuned (in other words, follow my blog!) to receive the follow-up post where I’ll report on a summative assessment.