New Teachers Niche:
 Ideas for Teachers New to the Craft

THE place for New Teachers to get Great Tips, Techniques, and the Information they didn't teach you in college!

Building Positive Relationships with Your School Secretaries Building Positive Relationships with Your School Custodians Building Positive Relationships with Your School Librarians Building Positive Relationships with Your School Cooks & Food Staff Creating A Class Rules Pamphlet Classroom Wrap Up Ideas
Journal Writing (part 1) Journal Writing (part 2) Designing and Running A Medieval Fair (part 1) Designing and Running A Medieval Fair (part 2) Designing and Running A Medieval Fair (part 3) Revisiting the SQ3R Reading Strategy
Preparing for Your Student Teaching Experience (part 1) Preparing for Your Student Teaching Experience (part 2) Preparing for Your Student Teaching Experience (part 3) Preparing for Emergency Situations Developing An Essay Writing Program Writing Paragraphs
Writing a LEAD to Open Your Writing Student Biographies and Interviewing Writing Every Day in Class Second Day of Class Writing Third Day of Class Writing Assignment Teaching Listening Skills During Presentations
Emergency Lesson Plans Modeling Student Behavior Daily Points in Class Proofreading Paragraphs Using Random Student Cards in Class Learning Pods and Classroom Setup
Randomizing Class Choices Assessing Student Writing Positive Parent Conferences Running Project Centers Effectively Creating an In-Class Cable TV Network Creating Web Pages in Class
The Many Benefits of Sustained Silent Reading Group Work In Class Designing PowerPoint Presentations Give Me Five Sentence Writing Activity Poetry That Can Be Used In Any Class  

Emergency Lesson Plans:
Real Lifesaving Tools

Everyone gets those situations in life where an emergency has come up, and you don't have the time (or sometimes the ability) to get a good lesson plan in to school for your students. Maybe you have a family emergency or a disrupted travel plan and you just cannot get into school to leave detailed lessons. That is why it is essential for you to have an emergency lesson plan available and handy.  

The emergency lesson plan should be able to be used at ANY point in the year. It doesn't have to fit in with what you're currently doing (nor should it - it is to be used when you cannot leave normal sub plans). The lesson should be related to your normal curriculum, but it could be a supplement or an enrichment activity.

Get a folder (or a three-ring binder), and label it appropriately on the outside cover. There are even folders you can purchase (some schools even make these available to teachers) labeled 'sub folder' or 'emergency plans'. Also make sure you have an appropriate spot for your emergency folder on or in your desk area. Some schools will ask you to keep an emergency plan in the office. In either case, make sure it is easily accessible by a substitute teacher.

Think about keeping class activities to 10 to 15 minute increments.  This way the sub will have better control of your kids. Students have difficulties adjusting to changes in their routines, and you don't want to have to return to discipline referrals.

Keep the information organized and easily accessible for a sub. Remember, the sub won't know where you normally keep things, and they can't read your mind. Spell out exactly what you want done, where it can be found, and what you want done with it when they're finished.

Make sure you have made enough copies of any worksheets so the sub doesn't have to. And be sure to leave answer keys. Many subs will actually even grade your assignments for you if you ask them in your plans.

Get this done early in the year, and you can save yourself many headaches later, not to mention worries about what will happen in your room if you are unable to be there.


Language Arts: Include short writing activities involving students opinions. Thus they don't have to have 'background' information, and they can write from their own experiences. Parts of speech review can include mad-libs or easy, fun worksheets.

Math: Leave a calculator activity. These could even be puzzles or partner games. Or give review problems.

Science: Copy a science article and have students read carefully and answer questions. Make speculations and use the scientific method. Or have students create the plans for a lab activity.

Reading: Leave students a copy of a short story or article, and questions to answer. You could even set up a 'test-taking' exercise, and discuss appropriate answers and strategies.

Social Studies: Map activities are great for emergency plans. You can even set up a one-day unit on any area/region of the world, including your own town or city.

Everyone gets those situations in life where an emergency has come up, and you don't have the time (or sometimes the ability) to get a good lesson plan in to school for your students. Maybe you have a family emergency or a disrupted travel plan and you just cannot get into school to leave detailed lessons. That is why it is essential for you to have an emergency lesson plan available and handy.



Writing Every Day in Class


For your students to be good at any skill, they must practice it on a daily basis. This is true for any skill, and writing is an excellent example.

Regardless of whether your goal is to improve your students' abilities, or to raise test scores, you need to structure and designate specific time to practice this skill every day. As the classroom instructor, it must be YOUR goal to have your students practice the skill daily.

Now, you don't have to spend your entire class period on writing. There are many activities you can use that take anywhere from five to ten minutes and will accomplish this goal of writing daily. We should briefly describe the parts of the writing process, so we can then develop activities to improve each step. There are many different terms educators will use to name the parts of the writing process. Undoubtedly you have seen several different ways to name each step. Your school may even have a specific set of terminology you need to use. That's fine, especially if your students are hearing the same terms through different classes and grade levels. However you decide to designate each step of the writing process, there are several distinct parts.

The first is brainstorming and organizing information. This is the 'prewriting', thinking of topics and ideas about which the students will write. The second is drafting, writing out a first copy which we know will not be perfect but will need more work.

The third is revising, adding in more information, changing information around, or removing information not pertinent to the topic. The fourth step is to proofread and edit for surface errors and mistakes. The last step is to rewrite the draft making the corrections from steps three and four. This last step may be another draft, or it may be a finished, published piece. Now, you may want to add more steps to these basic five, and that's up to you. You'll get no resistance from me. The important thing is to fully understand what you're teaching and to make sure your students understand it!

Before we get into activities, you will want to create a special, specific place for the students to keep their work. I choose to keep this work in class so I know it will ALWAYS be there. No more losing it in folders, at home, or in lockers. Each student is provided a hanging file in a cabinet drawer (each class gets its own drawer). If you do not have an extra file cabinet, you can pick up plastic storage crates or boxes fairly cheaply. When I want the students to work with previous writes, they simply need to grab one out of their file. And best of all, the work is already in class.

Ok, so lets examine a few exercises to practice at each step. First for brainstorming and organizing. This is one of the most important steps, and it can be practiced in any subject area. You are going to want to have your students practice this two to three times each week. Have your students brainstorm in lists, in graphic organizers, in webs/maps, and by freewriting. Give them topics and a time limit and turn them loose. Use ideas from your text, from reading activities, and from real life situations that involve your students. You can create games and contests to encourage them to generate long lists.

There are many ways to draft. We've covered several in past newsletters (see the links below for more information on each) including FREEWRITES, JOURNAL WRITES, and PARAGRAPHS. You will probably have other forms and styles to use too. Drafting does not have to take a long time, either. Give your students a specific time limit and the minimums you want them to write. Be very clear about your expectations and rules so the students will have clear understanding of what you're looking for. Feel free to impose minimums such as a time period, length of paper, or number of words. Remind yourself you are working with activities with shorter time slots. You want your students to really push themselves, and you may have to push them at the beginning to get them up to the speed you want!

Editing activities work well when your students already have several pieces finished to look over. You can have students edit their own, or peer edit by trading writings. I usually hold off for a month to collect enough drafts so students can choose their own writing to edit. Normally students like this step the least, and try to resist editing. So you will want to make this a fun activity, and be sure to give it a grade.

I also try to give out extra credit so they will want to do these activities. We practice question writing with our SQ3R reading techniques, and we apply this to editing too. Some of the best editing is done by students posing questions, looking for more information, or needing clarification of ideas. This is not proofreading, remember! We use overheads (again so they can be re-used) with guiding questions and thoughts that will help students generate questions of the writing in front of them.

Undoubtedly you'll have a handful of students who think their first draft is perfect and needs no additional work. And you may even agree that some of these students are very good writers. But don't fall into the trap of letting them avoid editing. Even professional writers go through many stages of editing (as of this time, I've already edited this article four times!). Keep your kids following the writing process - no short cuts! Allowing one or more students to cut corners will lead to more asking, and then hard feelings among classmates ("Why doesn't so-and-so have to edit?") None of your students will be experts, none are perfect, even if you have seniors. There are always things you can adjust, clarify, or add to writings. And all of the students will benefit from good editing activities, whether they like it or not.

Another issue you will deal with at this step is a fragile student ego. Some students will fear having criticism of their work. And there will also be students who fear writing criticism on their classmates' papers. You will have to have some heart-to-heart talks with your students and convince them (or persuade them) that they are helping their classmates and themselves when editing. They're not there to rip on each other, just make everyone better writers.

Having your students write on a daily basis may seem like a homework-checking nightmare waiting to happen. You will need to create an administrative plan to make your life simple. In our class I use the random choices technique (See our website for more details) A white chip indicates we don't grade it, just file it. A blue chip is a peer check and immediate grade. And a red chip is a collection of the papers so I can read and score them. This keeps me from having to read and grade every paper every day. And for paragraph drafts, we use FCAs (focal correction areas) for grades (look for more on FCAs on our writing website) These administrative strategies help keep my sanity while allowing my students to practice a lot of writing on a daily basis.


Modeling Student Behavior

Whether you as a teacher realize it or not, you are the best model of behavior in your classroom. A large part of your proactive behavior plans should include your own behavior you demonstrate to the students every day.

You must set expectations for your students, demonstrate the behaviors, and be vigilant to correct the kids. Don't waver on your expectations; inconsistencies will only confuse the students and cause you more problems.

If you stay calm, collected, and in control, your students will exhibit the same behaviors. The same is true about enthusiasm; if you are excited about your lesson and truly believe in its importance, the kids will respond in kind. Conversely, the kids will know when you are tired, bored, don't want to be there, or are 'winging it.'

If you are late to class, or don't start on time, the kids will pick up on it and be more likely to do the same. The same is true about the way you dress, the way you act, the language you use, and your 'body language'.

If you want your students working from 'coast to coast', or from bell to bell, you need to set the expectation of activity all hour. Start with a warm up, and ensure the kids are doing it. Keep them busy on activities with transitions between each. Don't let there be any down time. Work them to the end of the period, and have them pack up when you say so, not whenever they want to.

If you want your students to quietly read in class, but you are spending that time working on other things, it sends the message that you don't value the activity personally. Modeling the skill for the kids reinforces your belief that it is important. It show you as a lifelong learner who values the skills you're teaching them.

The same is true for writing. Students rarely have the chance to see real people writing - for many, the only examples (and role models) are their classmates. Work along with your students. Now this doesn't mean you have to do this the entire time. You must also supervise, coach, monitor, and actively support their learning. But you can spend at least a few minutes 'at their level'.

Be a positive role model for your students. Don't just explain and show the behavior; be the example day in and day out.





Randomizing Class Choices:
Breaking Up the Monotony

Much has been said and written lately about providing students with choices. I'm all about any methods which will improve student involvement in class, giving them ownership in their learning. There are many ways to give students choices, options, or just to provide random results and change up the monotony. This article will discuss how to use random results in typical class situations.

One technique I use is drawing from a hat (or mug, box, basket, or other container). You can choose anything to put in the hat, and decide if you or the students will do the drawing. You can draw, or let your students pick. I try to keep the 'hat' above the chooser's head so there is no possible way to cheat on the draw.

In the hat I like to use different colored poker chips: white, red, and blue. We will use these for many applications, or at least any that involve three different outcomes. When grading freewrites, for example, drawing a blue chip means I take an immediate grade on the assignment

A white chip means "thank you for writing today", but we aren't going to grade it, just file the writing into your folder. A red chip indicates I'll collect the papers, read over them, grade them, and select a few to write comments upon. By drawing a chip, the students don't know if the assignment will be graded or not, so they must do their best. However, for the teacher, the students are writing more but you don't have to grade every paper!

We will also use the chips for minor homework assignments. Same idea - white is a no grade, blue goes immediately to the grade book. But on red chips, I'll allow a minute or two to fix mistakes before I collect them. It depends on the situation. It's that simple. And the students never know if the assignment will be graded or not, so they have to do their best just in case. Another technique is to use strips of paper in a coffee mug for completely random choices. This is great for games like charades where students draw random words, topics, or choices.  This could be used to randomly discuss class topics or answer questions.

I like to use this for choosing project topics. Put slips of paper numbered 1 through however many students are in the class. Fold the slips and then have students draw their own place in the waiting line.  Whoever has the slip #1 gets first choice of topics, #2 chooses second, and so forth. No one can claim a biased order of selection!  This is great for research paper topics, where you don't want students choosing the same topics. We will also use small slips of colored paper to form random groups of students. If I want four different groups, figure how many students you want in each group and tear that many small slips of colored construction paper. Do this for each group, using different colors. I find this is a good use for scraps of paper left over after an art project (the thick paper holds up better). Then go around the room and let the students 'choose' their group. Collect the slips back after recording the groups & names so you can re-use the slips again.

You could use all sorts of everyday items to get random choices. Flip a coin in a two-choice situation. A die or pair of dice can give you even more choices. You could even use a deck of playing cards.

To randomly call upon students, we utilize note cards filled out with student names and personal information. At the beginning of the year, students write their name, parents' contact info, text book numbers, hobbies/interests, and other information on a regular 3 x 5 index card. I then collect these and pull them out, shuffle, and select a random card (with the student's name on it.) Voila! Random selection of students.

And if you want to ensure you call upon everyone equally, just don't shuffle the cards, and place the used card at the back of he deck. You can cycle through the card deck over and over, ensuring you're calling upon every student equally.

Cards, dice, coins, poker chips and simple slips of paper can be easily used to make random selections in class. We'd love to hear any other 'random acts' ideas and techniques you may have. We'll add them to this article and post them on our website with credit to you!

Preparing for Emergency Situations in School

We know emergency situations can (and will at some point) happen in your class. It may be minor, such as a student becoming sick in your room, or even a practice event like a fire drill or tornado drill. Hopefully you won't encounter a real life-threatening emergency. But you should always be prepared for such instances.

Fire drills are probably the most common situations you will encounter. The best way to handle these is to teach your students what to do in the event of a drill or an actual evacuation. Yes, you can teach this to your students. Fire drills are to be surprises only WHEN they occur, not a surprise in WHAT to do. It is good practice for your students to know exactly what the procedure to follow is. The most important part is to be sure YOU fully understand the school's fire drill procedure and you can confidently teach it to your students.

Making sure all of your students are accounted for is your main responsibility. Thus, your attendance taking is very important. You want to make sure you have a means of carefully checking attendance when you and your students reach your destination. Have your grade book, attendance sheets, or a class roster easily accessible and always in the same location so you can grab it as you leave the room.  I use the class roster file on my handheld because it's always with me. Teach your students to exit the room carefully yet quickly.  Instruct them in which direction to turn from your doorway, and what exit is to be used. Always have your kids line up and stay organized so you can take attendance easily.

And let them know why it's important to maintain composure and control, not playing or wandering around. If you are new to the building, your students will probably already know where to go! The trick will be getting them there quickly and maintaining order.

You'll want to let the students know how to react to different situations. They may find themselves in the hallway heading back from the library, in the rest room, or involved in a group activity in a far corner of your classroom.

Obviously more urgent matters will constitute true emergencies, and it is very difficult to prepare for these. Hopefully your school has a comprehensive plan to cover bomb threats, intruders, inclement weather, and other emergencies. Take time to carefully read through and understand these procedures, so when an emergency does occur, you can confidently lead your students. The students will respond to you when you give direct, confident directions.

Preparing For Your Student Teaching Experience
(part 1)

This is the first in a series of articles designed for college interns getting ready for their student-teaching experience. Student teaching is the final step for most teaching programs, and having a positive experience is vital for new teachers. This series of articles will provide many ideas, tips, and suggestions for young educators to make the most of the experience.

There are many questions you'll want to pose to yourself far in advance of your student teaching experience. It is important to think carefully about them, as they will help to guide the actions and decisions you make. What kind of teacher do you want to become? Are there other teachers who have been a positive influence on you? Who have been your role models? Are there teachers you've had whose style you want to emulate? Are there teachers you know you don't want to be like? What has worked for some teachers that you want to implement in your own practice?

Who do you see yourself as? What style will you create for your own teaching? How will you balance the subject matter with the care for kids? How do you want the students to see you? How do you want your students to remember you five, ten, or twenty years later on? Will they remember you as a positive influence on them? Could you potentially change their lives?

Create a plan to become your dream. Do it now. Talk with teachers you admire and respect: those you want to model yourself after. Discuss the techniques and ideas that work for them, and use or adapt what you feel is useful. You can also check out the FREE teacher "Who I Want To Be" inventory available on our website. It gives ideas, provides guidance, and helps to create a plan for starting out on your teaching career.

Click here for the "Who I Want To Be" plan:

Meeting your mentor teacher as early as possible is very important.  The two of you must form a bond, a cohesive unit in the classroom.  Your co-op teacher will become the most important contact for this point in your career. They provide you not only with support, guidance, and structure, but also critique. Your co-op teacher's evaluation and recommendation is vital to your resume and to interviewing.

Planning will become very important to every aspect of your life, from school to your personal life. One huge difference is planning for class. Not anymore are you just setting up an activity or a day's lesson plan. Now you must think in terms of the long haul. It becomes a campaign where you must have an overall picture of what you'll cover with your students.

Also within this overall framework, you must have weekly and then daily plans. You'll also have to reflect daily and adjust and (re- adjust) your plans depending upon how each lesson or activity goes (or doesn't go!) The daily grind is often interrupted by school-wide activities, fire drills, and those 'teachable moments' that happen on the spur of the moment. You'll need to be flexible and able to adapt on a daily (or even hourly) basis. But that's a part of teaching!

Another concern many new teachers and student teachers have is becoming involved in extra-curricular activities. There are several ways to look at this. First, it is a good idea to become involved in extra-curriculars at your school. These are good resume' builders, and your involvement shows potential employers you are a team player and willing to go the extra mile for your school and job. Extra curriculars also set you up in a new and different relationship with those students. They are able to see you in a different role too, and many times you're able to create in-roads with students whom you might not otherwise make a connection. Of course, taking part in extra-curriculars means more time and efforts put in, especially when you're already pulled in all directions. However, it is in your best interest to find an activity you can join, even if just as an assistant.

You will also need to carefully plan your personal time while student teaching. In addition to the increased teaching and planning load, your time will be further divided by your college, which undoubtedly has course work or projects for you to accomplish. There are always hoops to jump through. If you have a family, you'll be pulled in even more directions as you find the new balance between home and work.

Our next articles will focus on the duties of student teachers, including observing, team teaching, and flying solo. We'll get you started in becoming accustomed to your class and school, and what specific steps you can take right now and this summer to prepare.

Be sure to check out our website for the FREE teacher Who-I-Want-To- Be plan and other great Freebies for new teachers. Simply click the following link:



Preparing for Your Student Teaching Experience
(part 2)

This is the second in a series of articles by Dr. Peter Manute designed for college interns getting ready for their student-teaching experience. Student teaching is the final step for most teaching programs, and having a positive experience is vital for new teachers. This series of articles will provide many ideas, tips, and suggestions for young educators to make the most of the experience.

Being an intern is an interesting position to be in. The university treats you as a student, making you jump through hoops completing projects and meeting deadlines sometimes seeming totally irrelevant to the internship. The school district you are working in expects you to be a professional educator with all the secrets of innovation and new technologies fresh from the university 'think tank'. Parents think of you as someone who really doesn't know what they are doing yet and don't understand why you are practicing on their kids. They are always quick to point out their perceptions of student teachers when a problem arises about grades or behavior.

Hopefully I will provide you with some practical information presented in a no-nonsense form.

First and foremost, make sure all of your personal chores and plans are in order before you begin your assignment. Once you start it is vital to focus all of your energy and time into your placement.  Secure your housing well in advance and establish a routine of daily tasks. Plan to arrive at school early and plan to stay late. Student teaching is absolutely relentless; you will be exhausted after your first day. The mental and physical strain is unbelievable. Make sure all of your details are taken care of in advance; you don't want anything to interfere with your teaching. Do create some time for yourself or you will self-destruct. You need to keep your mind clear in order to make effective teacher decisions. Plan to have some time each day for your self - it may only be a few minutes, but it is very important. You may think you don't need it, but all veteran teachers will tell you differently.

Secondly, be a sponge. You are new to the profession and regardless of how well your university has prepared you, nothing measures up to being on your own in a classroom. When the door shuts for the first time you will know what I am talking about. Glean as much from your mentor and other teachers as possible, and by all means, don't come across as an expert.

You have not paid your dues and therefore you are really not an expert at anything. Learn from your observations and reflections; don't be afraid to make mistakes. As you progress and you become more effective, take risks and try different methodologies and teaching strategies. By all means keep in close contact with your mentor and always remember - no surprises. Ask questions before you do something; your mentor knows the ropes and will offer excellent advice. Make it your responsibility to learn the routines and specifics of the district and building you are working in. Don't rely on someone to tell you; find out on your own, take the initiative.  You can learn many things from both effective and ineffective teachers. Unless asked, keep your opinions to yourself, being new and having all the energy of youth will be a threat to some, so tread lightly.

If there is any down time in your room, ask your mentor for tasks to accomplish. Help out anywhere you can. Ask to take on something difficult and work with your mentor to accomplish it. Save as many artifacts as possible and use them in your professional portfolio. Creative lesson plans and examples of student work are excellent things to have. Ask for feedback and listen and process. Create an open dialog with your mentor; remember that is the person who will be called first when a district wants to know about you. Your mentor will be able to talk about strengths and weaknesses, so what do you want to them to say about you?

Finally, enter the internship with the idea there will be a teaching opening that you will be qualified for in the very building you are student teaching. Create positive relationships with staff, parents, and students. You do that by demonstrating professional behavior. When your internship is completed you want everyone to say - "We would really like to have you become part of our team!" Prove to people that you are the type of teacher that would be a perfect fit for their district.

School districts are looking for candidates who are 'low maintenance' teachers who can come into their buildings and have an immediate impact. Confidence, solid work ethic, and exemplary professional dispositions are words you want people to use to describe you. Your internship is an excellent place to begin!

Be sure to check out our website for the FREE teacher Who-I-Want-To-Be plan. Simply click the following link:

Learning Pods and Classroom Setup

Setting up small learning groups, or communities, in your class requires planning, not just in your instruction, but also in the physical space of your room.

 When I decided to change my teaching style from a teacher-centered, lecture format to a student-centered, project format, I had to seriously contemplate how my room and its instructional resources were arranged.

I knew I wanted to set up student 'pods' of four to five students.  Four makes a great sized group, but five is starting to push it. These sizes also fit with the number of computers I had available. Each pod needed one computer for the group to use, as well as workspace, achieved by placing desks next to each other forming a table.

I placed the pods at the outside walls for a few important reasons.  First was to get some elbow space between students and groups. I wanted to eliminate interaction between groups so students could concentrate on their own group's activities. Secondly, this arrangement allowed me to monitor the computers at all times. Third, this setup created better traffic flow through the room, since students would often need to move back and forth to the central resource center.

I've set up the resource and presentation center in the center of the classroom. This is where I keep student file cabinets (the short types), dictionaries & thesauri, school supplies, and art-type supplies. I've combined this storage area with my podium, overhead projector, and the other tech equipment like vcr or dvd players, digital projectors, and the like. This allows for easy student access to all resources, and I can effectively use all of my wall space when I need to present material.

The 'traditional' classroom and the 'student-centered' classroom are very different both in philosophy and in the application. The basics of setting up your classroom to reflect the learning environment you've envisioned must be thought through carefully before jumping right into the pods.

Having previously taught in the traditional manner, I've found the pod setup, or student-centered class, to be both a challenge and a benefit to student learning. Now that I've had a chance to compare them, my students and I prefer the pods.

Using Random Student Cards in Class

 Much has been said and written lately about providing students with choices. I'm all about any methods which will improve student involvement in class, giving them ownership in their learning. There are many ways to give students choices, options, or just to provide random results and change up the monotony. This article will discuss how to use random results in typical class situations.

Ever wonder if you choose certain students more (or less) often in class than others? Or would you like to be able to completely call on students at random?

A great technique is to make and use an index card deck with your students' names on the cards. On the first day of any of my classes, I pass out blank lined index cards (we use the 3 x 5 size) to all the students. I then have them fill these out with information we can use later on in class. Then I collect them and keep them separated by class with a rubber band. Then I can quickly access the names of all of my students. This helps for learning their names quickly too.

The random calling technique will increase your students' attention, since any one of them could be chosen at any time without you playing favorites or ignoring anyone. Always try to choose several students each time you use the cards, and everyone will quickly understand that they may be the next person called. No student wants to be embarrassed, so they will all formulate some type of response to give in case their card is drawn next. What information needs to be on the cards? That depends on what you want to know about your students.  I ask for at least their names, parent's names, and phone contact numbers.

In one upper corner, write in the student's hour (I also like to circle the number) so you can sort them out easily later. Other useful information could include text book or calculator numbers, birth dates, and even students' interests or hobbies. How often do I use the cards? Several times each hour! We use the cards in warm ups so everyone has a random chance of being picked. The cards are used for choosing random teams or groups. They are great for class discussions, since students cannot just be quiet and disappear; every discussion question can be answered by several students in succession, who must either build on previous information given or generate a new line of thinking. I also use them to ask questions before students are dismissed. If the question is answered correctly, I let that student leave early.

The cards can be shuffled each time you use them, or you can leave the order and pick up there again later, ensuring you've called on every student before repeating.

Now, can you stack the deck? Of course! Because you hold the cards, only you know if you've chosen truly at random. This is useful when you just know a student isn't paying attention, or if you want to check understanding by a specific student.

Should you worry about students who still seem to never be called upon? That does happen, but it will even out as the year goes by. I've had the opposite happen too, where a student was actually chosen three times in a row, even though I shuffled the deck each time!

Student hobbies or activities can be great for making connections to class material. As a warm up or sponge activity, for example, use your cards to randomly call on students to state how what they learned in class could be applied to or connected to their hobby. The cards are great for choosing students to read aloud in class. And as the teacher, you can still stack the deck to match up appropriate students with a paragraph's difficulty level. I also try to assess student's reading ability by choosing particular passages I want them to read aloud. Then I make sure the student's card is chosen.

Designing And Running A Medieval Fair
(part 1)

 Running large events, such as a medieval fair, at school is often too much for most teachers to attempt. However, with careful planning, and some well directed help, you can orchestrate a successful, educational, and memorable experience for your students.

The key to any event is your personnel. As a leader, choosing your team is the single most important piece of the puzzle. If you are already working on a teaching team, you have a great start. But you will undoubtedly need to enlist the help of others to pull off the event.

The medieval fair concept (at our seventh grade level) was born several years ago. In an effort to make better connections between our classes, we as a teaching team decided we should have projects involving two (or more) subject areas. As we became better at working together and team teaching, our projects became more and more involved and elaborate. Papers became stories, which became presentations, which then grew into multi-class hands-on experiences.

We used our school social studies curriculum as a starting point for projects. The first marking period of the year we connected to Africa. The second marking period was spent studying Asia. And our third marking period was spent in historical Europe.

The medieval European time period lent itself to creative ideas in all classes. We tried to make English-class connections with fairy tales and legends from various European cultures. Science and math classes studied explorers, inventors, and inventions. We also had the students write children's storybooks describing a drop of water traveling through the water cycle (it of course was set in the middle ages and included medieval details.)

After a few years of perfecting our projects, we started thinking of creating culminating activities to wrap up the unit for our students.  During the study of Africa, we create travel brochures and have small groups of students try to promote and 'sell' an African region as a great place to visit, work, or live. The Asia unit culminates with the presentation of a student-created magazine which includes articles on Asian stories, countries, and natural disasters (we even recently did this project during our Europe study, except our magazines were written on parchment or in monk manuscript form).

The idea for a Medieval Fair was first brought up by our (now retired) art teacher.  She had been contributing art projects to all of our units through the years. She had our students creating Adrinka cloths, and masks for the Africa unit. And our students wrote calligraphy-styled Japanese letters for haiku poems, Mandala paintings, and paint stamps (the fish stamp was quite interesting) during our study of Asia.

You'll want to develop your activity event around your interests and your particular curriculum. If you and your students are excited about the topic and really interested in it, you'll make it fun and fantastic! The biggest key is to have fun!

Start small. Our first Medieval Fair was a fun time, but lacked enough activities to keep the students occupied. We as teachers had to run the various activities, as well as monitor the older students who were helping to run booths. It made for a fun, yet hectic afternoon. Looking back, there was far too much 'administration and orchestration' for us to do BESIDES the running of events. We needed more planning and prep time, and more help.

Reflection was important. We met as a team right after the event and discussed what went well and what needed to be improved. Items we needed to fix are shown in the list below. We also set up meetings through the year to start working on our list. Planning ahead of time proved to be the best adjustment we could have made.

* more hands-on activities for the kids
* free up the teachers to facilitate
* sponge activities for extra time
* match boy-only activities with girl-only activities at the same
* more and better prep time on decorations
* set up the gym & activity areas at least a day early
* coordinate a 'true' medieval lunch menu that our school cooks could
* bring in outside expertise
* better preparation of knowledge base

However, we were gung-ho about the event, and we enjoyed it so much that we decided to start our planning much earlier. We also knew we needed some outside help. We wanted (and needed) to be free to move about the event, providing help and assistance, and monitoring the students. And we couldn't do that if we were tied down with running our own activities or groups.

We also experienced a tremendous influx of students (and teachers) from many other grade levels who wanted to see what we were doing.  This, however, had to change, as we spent too much time chasing off other students.

Look for more in the next segment!

Designing And Running A Medieval Fair
(part 2)


Running large events, such as a medieval fair, at school is often too much for most teachers to attempt. However, with careful planning, and some well directed help, you can orchestrate a successful, educational, and memorable experience for your students. This article, second in the series, describes how you can utilize the help of outsize sources.

Bringing in outside help required making contacts with locals who had the skills we needed. We found the leader of the local archery group who volunteered to bring in bows, arrows, and targets. Our local scoutmaster was pleased to show and model primitive cooking techniques (most camp cookery isn't much different than the medieval methods.) A local church choir agreed to come in and sing and perform a medieval skit. And several parents who belong to craft groups were honored to be able to share their skills with the kids.

A great share of the details were researched on-line. Authentic costumes and dress were developed by looking at examples on the internet. Banners and heraldry, customs, meal etiquette and menus, weapons and armor, and peasant life were all thoroughly researched online by our students.

Well before the fair, our students worked through the curriculum. The social studies class completed their chapters on the medieval European time period. English class read exerpts from the tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood (you can find many printable copies online). Both classes practiced SQ3R reading skills on several handouts dealing with medieval culture and civilization. Science class completed their reports on historic European inventors. Even our math class supplemented story problems with medieval aspects. Art class created the students' costumes and medallions, and built the castle backdrops and scenery.

Our food menu was developed after carefully researching on-line. We first checked on foods that wouldn't be available, either because they hadn't been developed yet, or they were native to the new world and hadn't been discovered during medieval times. We then checked out recipes and dishes that we could realistically prepare. See the links below for more information.

We did have to make a few concessions, based on what we could get.  Even though we weren't completely authentic, we were very close. For example, instead of meat pies, our cafeteria food supplier had pasties. Instead of fruit pastries and turnovers, we ordered fruit pies. We avoided the necessary foods. We also found several side dish recipes for students to make at home. The parents brought in the dishes in the morning, and our kitchen staff kept them warm until lunch. In the overall scheme of the day, we provided an excellent balanced meal based on medieval traditions. You can see the entire menu at the end of this article.

But the biggest change in personnel was the contact we made with a group of medieval re-enactors. It took several phone calls and emails to finally locate a couple who were interested in meeting with us.  They listened to our plans and ideas, and not only made suggestions, but also volunteered to visit school several times during the marking period. They taught our students about heraldry, symbols, and medieval weapons, food, and dress. They also worked with the students on creating appropriate clothing. They suggested making simple 'tabards', loose-fitting over shirts that acted like combination vest and cape. Hanging to just above the knees, the tabards were tied with twine around the waist. The girls made simple headbands with flowing material over simple dresses.

The students also needed an insignia, a heraldry symbol on a colored background. Our elementary art teacher was kind enough to offer clay and glazing for our students to make pottery goblets and insignia to wear around their necks. This was a fun diversion over several Friday afternoons, our students working with elementary students and their kiln.

In the art classes, students made banners and tapestries, displaying aluminum punched and decorated shields. Students also created background elements to hang on the gym walls, transforming boring painted cement walls into an old-fashioned castle wall made of various sized and colored rocks.

Donated appliance boxes from a local warehouse store were transformed into castle walls and towers by painting stone blocks, windows, doorways, and battlements on them. Students used gray paint to create the stone and black paint for the chinking. Visual elements such as archways made of curved blocks and cracked or broken sections of stone added to the reality of windows and doorways.

These boxes were then placed around the gym in strategic locations (for example to cover up the baskets and volleyball equipment). Boxes that were still sturdy and intact could be built up one atop another to form towers and give the illusion of height. You need not cover every square inch to give the illusion of being in a castle; spread the decorations around and let your students' minds do the rest.

Another project we do is to create tapestries to hang as dividers between stations. Students bring in old bed sheets and our best artists paint castle scenes on them. We've collected half a dozen of these tapestries over the past few years, trying to add a few each year. The nice thing about this is you can fold them up and save them for future events. Some tapestries show suits of armor, treasure chests, castle walls and windows to the medieval world.

Set up the site the day or two before, and have a plan for decorating and traffic flow. We divided up our students into equal groups and developed a traffic flow pattern so they rotated to each group in an orderly fashion. We wanted a central location for our feast, right in front of the acting/presentation area (since feasts were accompanied by songs and music, dancing, skits and plays, and other forms of merriment). For us, we wanted to be in front of our stage, located on the long side of our gym. Since we were using our middle school gym, we had to reserve it several months ahead to avoid conflict with sports practices. In general it was not a problem, as long as coaches and janitors knew well ahead of time.

Look for more in the next segment!

Designing And Running A Medieval Fair
(part 3)

 Running large events, such as a medieval fair, at school is often too much for most teachers to attempt. However, with careful planning, and some well directed help, you can orchestrate a successful, educational, and memorable experience for your students. This article, second in the series, describes how you can utilize the help of outsize sources.

Once the day is underway, your job becomes that of a facilitator.  You'll want to move about checking on your students at each group or station. You'll also need to be available to help and support your guests with their needs. For example, our calligraphy station ran out of practice writing sheets, so one of the teachers had to go make copies. Be flexible, and always remember you're setting up a grand experience for the students. This becomes an example of servant leadership, where you and your fellow teachers are enabling the groups to succeed so the students succeed.

During the morning, we met our helpers and re-enactors and got them in place. Students were instructed ahead of time here they would go first, and what their rotation was. Once the day is underway, the teachers are free to move about, monitor the students and groups, and participate alongside the kids.

A little before lunch, one of our teachers began working with the school cooks to coordinate lunch. Our feast is always held in our gym alongside the activities. We try to plan a whole group activity (singing, dancing, games, etc.) in the 10-15 minutes before lunch so our stations can clean up and we can set up our feast tables.

Depending on our overall set up, our feast is set up either in a long line or a traditional horseshoe shape. Set this up (in the background) while the students are engaged in another activity. This will keep them in the same train of thought and in the same location (it's not really authentic to immerse the kids in the middle ages only to bring them back to a modern day lunchroom).

You'll want a plan for your lunch line. We always make a point of feeding our volunteers first, followed by the girls (carefully observe the ideals of chivalry), and lastly the boys. We teachers eat once everyone has gone through the line.

After students are finished eating, we have another short sponge activity (dancing, singing, games, etc.) while we clean up the lunch tables and return the foodstuffs and equipment to the kitchen. This way again the students stay immersed in the activity while re-arrangement and cleaning occurs in the background.

Our afternoon resumes with more medieval festivities. Finish up your stations if necessary. This past year we had a community acting group put on a presentation of Robin Hood, and we invited our 5th and 6th graders to watch. This also gave the youngsters just a small teaser of what fun they'll have when they reach seventh grade.

All in all, a large scale event can appear to be too much work, and for an individual teacher, this may be accurate. However, for you brave souls who want to give your students an experience they'll remember forever, a lot of careful planning and a good team will enable you to pull off a first-class day. When we talk to former students, they rarely can tell us what they learned in any one of our class, but they remember in great detail the activities they participated in during the Medieval Fair. And those memories will be with them the rest of their lives.

Links you can use for more information:
The book of Goode Cookery:
Myths and legends:
Building a castle:
Medieval jobs:

Simple medieval foods and recipes (found in the Book of Goode Cookery):
Blankmonger (also blanck-mong or blowmanger) - This is a creamy rice dish that can take on a number of flavors depending on the recipe you use (there are several).
Fruays -Apple/fruit fritters
Mackeroons - noodles and cheese. This is truly a precursor to modern day macaroni and cheese, and students love to make it and eat it.
Medieval gingerbread - made with highly seasoned bread crumbs and honey
Baked pears and fruits - its been the same for hundreds (or even thousands) of years

Revisiting the SQ3R Reading Strategy

 Many teachers have used the SQ3R reading strategy successfully for years. For new teachers, this can have a positive impact on whatever class, grade, or subject you are teaching. Reading is a vital skill in every class and every subject area, and a strategy to improve students' reading while working on specific class material is extremely beneficial.

SQ3R is an instructional strategy for improving reading comprehension.  It is an acronym for Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review. Each of these activities focuses on a technique integral to the reading process. The uses in the language arts seem rather obvious, but SQ3R is great for other areas too. This can be used in social studies classes when reading through a new section of the textbook. Science teachers use it to kick off new units and in new labs. Math teachers can even use it to teach students to take notes from their books.  Possibilities are endless.

Like any other technique, you will want to teach this carefully to your students and discuss each part together in class. While there are many ways of interpreting and using the SQ3R strategy, in this article I'll be sharing how we use it in our classroom.

'Survey' refers to skimming the reading quickly. Students look for items that catch their eyes - titles, headlines, photos, pictures, graphs, bold-faced or italicized words. Sometimes I refer to them as 'sticky words' since the reader's eyes tend to stick to them. After the quick scan, students write down the first six items their eyes 'catch' upon. Just a word or short phrase is fine, as we want to keep this part short and sweet.

'Question' is the part where students make predictions and pose questions about what they've surveyed. We have students create and write down three questions in complete sentences based on what they surveyed.

Complete sentences requires students to think carefully about the info they skimmed, and put it into a logical organized form. Early on, students may pose rather simple questions. We do not allow easy yes/no questions, those with one word answers, or questions they already know the answers to. We even spend class time discussing what makes 'good' questions.

Once the pre-reading is finished, the 'Read' part is just that - the students now read carefully through the section, paying attention to everything on the page. It's important to find the answers to their questions. We have the students then answer their posed questions in complete sentences. Sometimes students may have posed questions that are unanswerable or not found in the reading. We do allow students to state that the answer was not found in the reading. That's ok, as long as they don't make a habit of it. If such a habit does form, simply require students to state where they could find the answer.

'Recite' refers to putting the data from the reading into a new use.  We often create short freewrites to discuss the implications of the reading, or its applications. You can also create writing topics for students to respond to.

'Review' is, again, self-explanatory, as students review the material.  We have students create quiz questions based on the reading, just as if they were the teacher. However, they are not allowed to use their questions posed previously! Students can create ten multiple choice or true/false questions. Sometimes we assign creating fill-in-the banks statements, or even have students make their own essay questions or writing topics. You could even have them create crosswords or other word puzzles.

To make the SQ3R technique easy to do and grade, we've created a form that is used through our school. It is specific enough to cover all of the areas, and yet general enough to allow individual teachers to adapt and customize this strategy to their class, students, or current assignments.

You can download a free copy of our SQ3R worksheet on our website by clicking the link below:

The SQ3R technique is easy to use and adapt yourself, once you and your students are comfortable with its components. We've used it as a warm-up activity, as a closing activity, and as a sponge. It is also useful when you need easy-to-follow plans for a substitute. Most importantly, this is a powerful, yet simple, tool you can use in any class to improve students' reading skills.

Developing an Essay Writing Program

 Recently we have upgraded our middle school writing program to expand the basic paragraphs our students are writing into multiple paragraph essays. We came to make this change after reviewing the released essays from our MEAP test (Michigan's high stakes test). The MEAP showed multiple paragraph essays scoring higher than single paragraph essays. We decided there and then to adjust our program. We also discussed his change with our high school teachers. They use and teach up to five paragraph essays, so we figured we ought to change a bit of what we do to better prepare our students for the rigors of high school. This is a time consuming process which is taking time to develop and teach to students. The first thing is to get all the writing teachers on board.

When our middle school teachers got together, there were a variety of viewpoints and ideas to consider. After much debate and development, a plan was put in place. The plan has two parts, one dealing with individual paragraph development, and the other in developing an essay format using several paragraphs linked well together.

Our plan for teaching the writing of individual paragraphs progresses each year. At the eighth grade level, students are expected to write paragraphs of at least eight sentences and 125 words. Each paragraph must have a topic sentence, at least three supports, a personal life experience, and a clincher statement.

At the seventh grade, students' paragraphs must have eight sentences, but only a minimum of 100 words. Each must also have a topic sentence (T.S.), at least three supports, a P.L.E., and a clincher statement (C.S).

In the sixth grade, paragraphs are to be at least six sentences long and at least 80 words long. Included in the paragraph are a T.S., three supports, a P.L.E., and a C.S.

The fifth grade (the youngest in our building) will concentrate on sentence structure and build up to a detailed paragraph. This will be at last five sentences long and at least 60 words in length. This paragraph will include a T.S., three supports, and a clincher or a personal life experience to wrap up.

Part two of the middle school plan is the development of an essay from these basic paragraph structures. Since the fifth graders are only concentrating on sentences and the development of a single paragraph, the essay development is slated for sixth grade through eighth grade.

Essays at the sixth grade will be at least two paragraphs and 160 words, each paragraph having 80 or more words. These are great for compare / contrast essays where two different sides are discussed.

Seventh grade essays will build up to three or more paragraphs, and 200 or more words (100 words per paragraph). Here we're looking for more thorough development of the topic and relevant details and examples. And in the eighth grade, essays will extend up to four paragraphs, and a whopping 600 words (125 per paragraph.)

We will teach the development of a topic sentence in the first paragraph for the entire essay. It will HOOK the reader and introduce the overall topic of the essay. We will also teach the creation of a clincher statement in the last paragraph that wraps up and summarizes the paragraphs while providing a THEME (a life lesson to be learned by the reader).

Main points of the topic each have their own paragraph, so a three paragraph essay will have three main points. Supports for each main point will be organized in a logical fashion and spread through each respected paragraph. Then relative details and examples will be used to exemplify each support.

Eighth graders will also develop a LEAD, a personal life experience or story at the very beginning of the first paragraph. This acts as a HOOK to capture the reader's attention while making a personal connection with the reader.

There is still much to do, and we know this implementation will take time. And we know there will be changes along the way. One area we've already encountered is the use of figurative language in the examples and personal experiences of the students. We are already planning on adding this later on this year. If your school is in the stages of updating your writing program, remember to keep a positive attitude, look carefully at good examples released by your state, and develop a strong program that everyone can buy into.

Writing a LEAD to Open Your Writing

 The LEAD is an advanced writing technique we work on extensively with our students.  It can be used for writing in any subject area.

The lead may even be an excerpt or scene from a story, book, movie, or TV show. These are good because your reader may have read or watched the scene already. This creates a connection, a bond, between the reader and the writing by sharing common ground.

The key to a lead is to provide a short story your audience can relate to the subject of your writing, or to the mood or tone you wish to establish. You may want the reader somber, compassionate, joyous, or expectant.

The lead does act as an attention getter, drawing your readers into the writing. It also connects the reader's personal experience to the writing. The quicker and more deeply you can connect to the reader, the greater the chance your writing will be read and your message will be remembered.

However, the lead is different from your topic sentence. A topic sentence introduces the subject of the writing, and sets up the structure of the paragraph. The lead, on the other hand, is independent of the content of the paragraph. It could be removed from the writing without affecting the overall message (it could be totally deleted and the paragraph would still maintain its integrity). It is used to set the mood or tone in the reader, or to elicit a response toward the overall subject.

The leads may be as short as a sentence fragment, or as long as several sentences (maybe even a paragraph) in length. Sometimes we require specific lead lengths, and other times we leave it open to the students to decide.

The lead must be extremely vivid, using specific actions and descriptive words to effectively paint a picture in the reader's mind. You cannot use enough adjectives. The lead should also leave the reader wanting more. We sometimes use fragments to leave the reader hanging. This is accomplished by an ellipsis ( ... ) after the last word of the fragment.

The lead is an advanced technique in writing, and its proper use shows a maturity in the author's style. We strongly encourage you and your students to practice story telling and narrative forms of writing.

Have students start small, using single sentences and fragments, and then working up to more complex leads. This, we've found, also impresses the scorers on those high stakes state/national tests.  You'll find your students writing becoming more rich and complex as they master this technique.

Here are a couple of leads: "The gigantic, drooling hound snarled and barked as it backed me up against the rough bark of the oak tree." (descriptive essay on fear)

"The dark, angry clouds pushed their way across the gray sky as the crisp wind bit into my skin." (survival story)

"As I ran, gasping for breath, through the midnight blackness of the eerie forest, I could hear the snapping and cracking of branches as my pursuer closed the distance ... "(scary narrative)


Student Biographies And Interviewing

 Our biography project begins with careful planning long before the actual class implementation. The first step is to set up the access to information. We arrange our time with our local librarian so she's well aware of the project expectations. She always thinks of details we need, and she's really good about setting out autobiography/biography books and materials for us.

The students each check out an autobiography/biography book from the library. I require teacher's permission and approval before check out. I do allow students to use outside books, but they must still be brought in to be approved.

We allow students to 'test drive' the books for a one-week span. If the subject is just too boring or awful for the student, I do allow them to change books (though the due date stays the same!) The most important aspect to me is the reading of the book; we'll take time every day during the project to quiet read in the classroom. I want to stress the importance of the reading of biographical text, since it's much different than the fictional works they normally read.

You can also skip ahead of the reading of the book and move right into the fact finding session. If you have internet access and an updated encyclopedia you can find most or even all of the facts about your subject. But make sure your students are reading the books too.  This is important to get an overall, rounded-view of their character.  Be careful that your students have chosen biographies and not historical fiction or the various 'diary' books out there now!

This next step is to identify what information you want your students to find about their subject. We call this our 'fact-finding' stage.  We complete a note taking sheet which organizes the students' research. You can find a copy of our 'fact-finding' worksheet on our website. There are basic facts to find such as personal and family information, employment, and education.

Then there are the facts which must be uncovered, such as mentors they had, who they have influenced, their impact on society, and why they'll be remembered in history. Lastly, I'll have students complete several short writing assignments extending the new knowledge.  Sometimes students create interview questions and formulate fictional answers based on what they think the person would say. Another idea is to create a fictional conversation with that person which is held around a dinner table or around a campfire. There are many applications you can create to use the students' facts.

Finally, you need to consider what the students will do with their completed research. We have had students create PowerPoint documents and give in-class presentations. We have had them create posters to display their findings. This year we're putting our research onto each student's website along with any multi-media that is available to us (such as clip art, photos, audio and/or video clips).

Most years, we will have students pair up and interview each other.  Students find out personal information about each other, such as basic family and friends, schools and education, and where they've lived. They pose questions on likes/dislikes, favorites, and goals for the future. You can go ahead and create a short sheet of sample questions, then allow students to create their own as the interview goes on (also check out our website for a FREE printable copy of the interview sheet we use in class). Allow each student about 10-15 minutes to ask questions and write down answers, then have students trade roles.

Now you have enough information to create student biographies (or give the data sheets to the owners and have students create autobiographies). We will write these up in a narrative form to tell a life story, but we've also done projects like PowerPoints, web pages, and posters. One favorite is cutting out t-shirt shapes out of paper and having students write on them and decorate them with photos, drawings, and clip art. These are then presented to the class and hung in the hallways.

The biography project is not only required in our curriculum, but it is also fun for the students. It is also a great means of incorporating an informational text (non-fiction) into your class curriculum.

Daily Points in Class

 Starting your class on the right foot each day is very important to both you and the students. There are certain expectations you will have, be they required materials (texts, folders, gym clothes), basic supplies (pencils/paper), or behaviors (on time, in seats, working on opening activities). You are going to want these expectations met every day.

We designed a simple set of 5 rules to start out every class. These are easy to remember and easy to keep track of. Several of our teachers use a variation of the 5 rules to start their classes, and you may feel free to adapt these to your class. These are the rules I use in English class:

Rule 1: Students must be in their seats when class begins. In some schools, classes begin (and are dismissed) by a bell. Some classes begin at a specific time. Still other classes are started by a particular signal from the teacher.

Rule 2: Students must have a writing instrument. Again, different teachers have different expectations, be it pencil or pen or whatever.  For me, it doesn't matter as long as it s dark enough to read. I only balk at silver, gold, white, or any other light or fluorescent color (hot pink or yellow for example).

Rule 3: Students must have their folder out on their desk. Each of our classes requires students to keep important papers, notes, and other course artifacts. Some teachers allow students to keep these, and others provide a location in the room for folders.

Rule 4: Students must have all required materials for class that day.  To reduce the number of times students ask me about what they need for the day's class, I will either write the materials list on the board or put it on the class announcements on our TV (watch for the article on creating a class cable TV network our upcoming March issue).

Rule 5: Students must be working on the class warm up activity. In English class, students write out Daily Oral Language (DOL) sentences, practicing proofreading skills. On the edge of each day's entry are the numbers 1 through 5, making it easy to grade. All you have to do is circle the appropriate number.

Again, we give each student a daily grade of points (1-5). Some teachers have only four rules and one rule is worth 2 points. You can change up and set your own rules and create an easy to grade set of points to fit your own classroom.

After a few weeks of practice, the checking of daily points becomes a student job. One student from each group (the RECORDER) gets the weekly responsibility to check the students' daily points and circle the proper number. The teacher is freed up for other activities, and you only need to spot check through the room. This way I can record the daily points only once every two weeks and they are already tallied up for me.

Running Project Centers Effectively

 Project centers or stations can be a great way to have your students working independently (or as a team) on a number of assignments.  These centers have been used successfully by elementary teachers, gym teachers, and coaches for many years. And this technique can be utilized by middle school teachers too. In fact, writer's workshops and science labs are really not too far from this style of teaching.  Basically you divide up your students into several groups, and each group of students moves from one project area to the next, doing work at each station.

Some teachers have specific centers or stations they use each week during the year. They have certain skills they want their students to practice through the year. Some stations may change or be adjusted as the year goes on. Other teachers use groups as needed in particular units or for extra practice. These are geared toward specific objectives in a unit or they may be determined by testing and assessment of students progress (or lack of progress).

Dividing up the students will be determined in large part by the resources you have to work with and the types of assignments you want the kids to do. For example, in my class I want my students using technology in real-life applications. Thus, we need every computer put to use every hour. Now, we're quite lucky to have a bank of eMacs updated with new software right in our room. Because of this, we have students working on projects like PowerPoints, web pages, newsletters, and the like. Each week the students have a large project similar to these to work on. Sometimes these are individual activities, and other times the group of students must work together.  This is one example of the resources in your room dictating the group size; there are five computers, so I can have groups of five students.

There are a number of ways to designate your groups. You might have preformed groups, either choosing them yourself or allowing students to have input. One teacher at our school has the kids write down one student they work well with and one student they cannot work with at all. She then uses this to form groups. Another teacher uses his knowledge of the students' leadership skills and academic performance to form groups. In my room, students are already at tables, and each table is labeled with a different symbol (star, heart, square, triangle, & circle). This makes it easy for me to just write the symbol on the board next to each group, and I can rewrite them each day. One teacher in our elementary has a permanent chart on his wall and uses velcro (you could use magnets if you have a white board) to affix small signs to designate each group. Then changing groups each day is quick and easy.

You have to be ready for and expect a certain noise level when your students are in groups or project centers. But as always, there is 'productive' noise and then there is 'off-task' talking. Keep yourself free to move about the room, monitoring students and checking their progress.

Monitor the groups carefully and keep the kids on task, especially the first few times you try centers. Once your students understand your expectations, you'll be freed up more to help individually. I like to include normal classroom activities and assignments as part of the centers. After we've practiced this skill or activity and the students know how to do it, they are more likely to successfully accomplish a similar task in group.

This is one great advantage of the groups - you can move from group to group working with kids. Each project center has an activity for the kids so they are on task. And since these are much smaller groups of students, you can work closely with them, discussing and answering questions. And you can check for understanding faster, easier, and more thoroughly.

Choose meaningful activities at each station. In our English class, students need at least one reading and one writing activity each week. These may take various forms, and I try to mix it up a bit.  Then I also try to make use of the technology with computer projects.  Each activity has meaning and many provide good practice on skills.

After a few rotations, the students get the hang of it. I'll give them a two-minute warning, and we put a 30 second timer on the switch between groups. This keeps them hopping and eliminates the down time. They do get much faster the more you practice.

My students have responded favorably to the groups. They enjoy switching gears once or twice each class period. This fits with their attention spans too. I like it too, because the kids are split up around the room and they're on task. And I'm able to interact more closely with the students. It frees me up to walk around and work individually or conference with a student if I wish. I'm not sure this is the only way to teach effectively, but it is an excellent teaching tool to keep in your toolbox.

Creating Web Pages in Class

 Web pages can become a great means of displaying and publishing student work. There are millions of people online every moment of every day. Our students are fully accustomed to using the web for everything from research to communication to shopping. Web pages are the language in which they are both comfortable and competent.

Creating student web pages provides a great in-road for teachers to reach students on their terms. Though there are many simple programs to use, many students (even very young elementary students) who can fluently speak `html' and code and decode scripts. This is truly their `native language', as is the ability to multi-task (which often gives us `aliens' headaches!). Take the initiative and create projects for your students to show off their skills.

There are several concerns to think about before beginning such a project.

One concern to be aware of is your school or district's Internet use policy. You may need parental permission to allow students to put their work, name, or pictures on the net. I would always caution you about including a student's full name on a web site that is available to the general public. There are also cautions about putting personal photographs online. Usually whole class, group, or team photos are ok. Always check first. If your school is not exactly at the forefront of technology, don't be afraid of blazing a trail for your colleagues to follow. Your work may become the basis for others in your school to make positive change.

Remember to also create an etiquette policy about creative license (or use one already developed by your school). Obviously you want students to be creative, but you also don't want them to be outlandish or off of the topic of your assignment. Students are funny in that way. If they are just writing a paper, its the same old same old. However, once they realize they are going public, many become stringent about what they want to show the general public. Many will try to make their own 'statement' or 'presence' and disregard the rules of etiquette you've set up. Hold your ground. You do have the right to control what the students can put onto a school site.

Where to host your sites is another concern you'll have to deal with right away. At the present, we have our students' sites on our own server at school. It is great if your school can accommodate your class. You will need a web editor such as Microsoft FrontPage or one of the many free down-loadable editors from the net. But what if your school is unable (or unwilling) to fully accommodate you? There are many free sites online that can help you out. In the past, we used the commercial site GeoCities. This is a nice, free site that even includes a free web/html editor and basic tutorials to guide students through the steps of design. It is very easy to use and students can access it from any computer in the world that has an internet connection.

We started out simply, having students type in their name and school as headers. Then we split up the page into sections for math, social studies, science, and English. At this point, the page can hold assignments from any class, so any teacher in the grade can give web page assignments.

We practiced creating links to our school homepage and our 7th grade page. We also added links to our homework assignment calendar, our pages of vocabulary, and to Google for net searches.

We also talked at length about page layout. Unlike programs like PowerPoint where you can place anything wherever you want it on the page, html requires codes called tables to set up items horizontally. We teach the students about tables and cells so they can divide up the page in whatever fashion they wish.

Students' personal preferences and creativity are also taken into consideration. We show them the basics of formatting text, changing fonts, sizes, colors, and styles. Students are also allowed to change page attributes such as the colors of the background and links. We even show them how to add different background pictures from files.

The first assignment to be placed on the students' websites was our biography project. Our English curriculum includes reading a biography and writing a report on that person. We adapted this to publish the report online, with the information, pictures, and clip art placed on the web page. Look for more details on the biography- web page project in an upcoming issue.

There are many options your class can do with the websites. You can teach the students to code in html, or work with the structures of a web page (such as tables, formats, links, and additional pages). You might have students explore new technologies to embed in the pages, such as PowerPoints, blogs, videos (streaming) or audio (podcasting). You may wish to connect with other students around the world (e-pals). You and fellow teachers may want to collaborate on projects.

There are many directions these projects can take your class. The key is for you as the teacher to be open to using new technologies and ready to go out and learn about them. You can learn a lot from the students; you don't have to know it all. But you must be ready to provide support to them when needed.

The Many Benefits of Sustained Silent Reading

 The benefits of classroom reading are many. Children (especially young children) have a natural love of reading. However, we at the middle school often see students who either struggle with texts or are turned off to reading. A great way of regenerating that interest is through sustained silent reading in your classroom.

This topic has been hotly debated recently in the International Reading Association newsletter. I'm not trying to enter this debate.  This article will simply describe what we in our school have observed and detail what we've done in our classes that has worked for our students.

First off, let your students choose what they read, whether it is a book, magazine, or whatever. It makes a huge difference in peaking their interest. Teachers already give (and require) plenty of specific readings through activities, literature, and in textbooks.  Students need the opportunity to read about what interests them, and this can occur when you allow them to choose what they want to read.  By all means, continue with your regular activities, but find a way to give your students time (in class is best) to read on their own.

It is very important for you as the teacher to model reading to your students. Read the entire time your students are reading too. Don't let this time be wasted on grading papers, checking email, or doing any other administrivia. If you want your students to take the time seriously, show them you are taking the time yourself and are enjoying the activity. Regardless of what the kids may say to you, they will imitate your behaviors in your class. You have this great opportunity to be a positive role model!

Just as in practicing writing and their skills through the week, you as the teacher need to schedule in time for sustained silent reading.  When I'm covering a piece of literature, for example, my class may read in a variety of ways. We may read aloud, I may read to the class, or we may play 'popcorn' around the room as students choose others. You probably have other out-loud reading activities you use too. These are great, and I always recommend them. But you should always give students time to read silently too. It doesn't have to be a lot, but I do recommend at least ten minutes, though not more than twenty. Think in terms of attention spans: plenty of time to become engaged in the text, read for a bit, and yet stay focused. Obviously some students could lose themselves in a book for hours on end, but not all kids have such a long attention span. Start with ten minutes and work upward, adding a few minutes each time.

In addition to literature we all cover in class, I also set up a regular library time so students can select their own books. We'll stay in the library for, again, about twenty minutes. I give students between ten and fifteen minutes to look over the shelves and 'try on' a book. Its like trying on clothing. This trial version is very important so students can start deciding if this is the book for them.  If it doesn't hook them in the first ten minutes, I suggest they try again. I'll try to make suggestions based on what I think the students' interests are. Sometimes we talk about what they like, what their interests are. Students are not required to check out a book, but they must 'try out' at least one book at each visit.

We designate each Friday after our vocabulary quiz for sustained silent reading. Students may read their library book, another book of their choice, or even a magazine from the rack in my room (I typically collect old magazines from everywhere and keep them in a large rack in class). Old magazines include the old stand bys - Reader's Digest, National Geographic, and Sports Illustrated. But I also gather Teen magazines, food and cooking, gardening, hunting and fishing, and video game magazines, among others. This way there are a large variety of topics for students to choose from.

The bookshelves in my room also have old reference materials and some outdated textbooks I've scrounged from other teachers. Some of your students will enjoy looking through drafting texts, recipe books, or science books, and you'd be surprised at the number of kids who love maps in social studies, history, or geography text books.

I've noticed a difference, especially in the attitudes of my students toward reading. Students given choices through the year were more engaged in the assigned readings through the year. Often, students (especially struggling students or low readers) have told me they enjoy reading, or they've found a topic or author they want to read more about, or the readings I did assign were some of the only ones they actually read (that year or in several years). Comments like that last one are bittersweet, because though I'm glad the student has regained the interest in reading, I'm sorry it took so long and the student was turned off in the first place. Sustained silent reading and allowing students to choose their own texts can be very powerful and beneficial to your students. You can be the teacher who makes a difference to your students.


Group Work In Class

 The business world tells us that they want people who are good at collaboration. Being that our job is to prepare the students for the future, this skill should become part of what we teach in the classroom.

Planning and preparation are key to getting your groups underway. The first thing to do as you prepare to use group work as part of the learning process is to setup your groups. Never allow the students to set up the groups; you are only inviting disaster. There are many ways to set up groups. I like to spread the abilities out among the groups.  The smartest student isn't always the one who can lead the group
through to a conclusion. I also like to mix boys and girls up in the groups. They tackle problems from different ways, so it enhances the learning taking place. Also, change the groups after every section, so they learn to work with different people. This makes it a more real world experience.

Size of the group is another part of the equation. A lot depends on the lesson being used. Two person groups are fine for a short-term group that lasts one day. If you are going to have it go longer, the group should be at least three to four students. The reason for this is the fact that what is the group going to do if the next day one of the students isn't there? With three or four students you will at least have a group of two or three to continue on if someone is missing.

As you begin the groups, realize the students may not know how to work in a group. This is something that we as teachers shouldn't take for granted. Talk about using listening skills, the fact that only one person is speaking at a time. Explain that arguing doesn't solve anything. They must learn, when there are differences of opinion, to share why they feel the way they do and support it with reasons. We also talk about the importance that everyone be a participant in the group process. Another thing I tell the groups is that they are not to ask me, the teacher, a question until they've talked about it in the group. If the group can't answer the question, then I will gladly help them out as a group. This fosters dependence on their group.  Focus is the most important part of using groups as a tool for learning. If you as a teacher don't provide a structure within the lesson, you will lose the students.

I like to call this the "Driving Question". This is what they are to be focusing on as they work together. Decide what you want them to learn, set the goals, and then communicate to the students your expectations.

In conclusion, from observation and research that collaboration (group work) when used properly can be an excellent learning tool. I hope you will find using this learning tool as stimulating and rewarding as I have, both for the students and yourself.

Designing PowerPoint Presentations

 PowerPoint is a fantastic program that can make your classroom presentations come alive. It is at a basic level an interactive slide show. For advanced users, it can include timed transitions, video clips, and audio elements. A digital projector and a computer can enliven your presentations and make note taking easier. The use of technology also captures and keeps the students (or your audience's) attention.

PowerPoint (or a comparable software product) allows information to be displayed in a fun, interactive manner. It ties text, graphics, and animation seamlessly in an easy to use format. You have total control, from choosing text sizes, fonts, and colors, to creating graphics of all shapes and colors, and even to adding pictures, clip art, sounds, and animations. You also determine the page layout by simply moving any item wherever you want on the slide.

You begin with a blank slide on which you will arrange your data, whether it be text or graphical elements.

Having used PowerPoint for many years, I have some suggestions for you.  

1. Use at least size 16 font, and think seriously about size 20 or 24 font. This is so your words and letters are large enough to see from everywhere in your room.
2. Be careful with color schemes. A creative slide may actually be hard to see when projected. Use light colored (white/yellow) text and graphics on a dark background, and use dark text and graphics on a light background. Avoid red/blue combinations, and others like these that tend to blend into each other. Always test your presentation before giving it so you can ensure it will be seen properly.
3. Don't bother using sound unless you have a good set of speakers. The audio will use up valuable memory and is useless unless you have speakers. And many times the novelty wears off and your audience will tire of the repetitive sounds.
4. When your students are using graphics and photos, check that the sizes are appropriate. Expanding (enlarging) a photo can reduce its resolution, making it grainy and hard to see clearly.
5. Animations and slide transitions are neat and fun, but don't overdo them. Choose one slide transition to use throughout the presentation so your audience knows the next slide is here. The same goes with animations: keep them simple and appropriate. You want to impress the audience with your information, not the 'gadgets' you use to soup up the PowerPoint.

The program also includes several templates where you can just click and insert the text or graphics you want. The best way of gaining proficiency is to play with the program. That's right, pretend you're a kid and try everything out. There's no way you can break it. Check out all of the menus and buttons. If you do become confused, find a third grader who can help you out (at that age, many kids are already proficient and still love to show you how to do it). There are many tricks, shortcuts, options, and neat ideas you can try. You'll find ones you like and that fit your personality or your presentation.

Most of the 'equivalent' programs for various platforms (Mac/W0indows/Linux) are close enough for you or your students to be proficient on any machine. At our school, we regularly switch between Macs and Linux computers, and our students have quickly mastered both the basics and more advanced techniques. Remember, you as the teacher don't need to know exactly every detail of the program. You can rely on (or challenge) your students to find the little intricacies of the program. The big thing is for you to have your students use the program, and you'll learn alongside the kids.

PowerPoint is very easy to use. With just a little bit of computer familiarity, you can be creating professional and creative presentations.


Give Me Five Sentence Writing Activity

 This is a great writing activity that can be used in any class, any subject, or any grade level.

We've created another variation of the context sentences activity which we call 'Give-Me-Five'. It is similar in that you create a matrix of words, vocabulary, or terms from which your students will write unique, interesting, complete sentences. And students should be given the opportunity to share their unique sentence creations with the class.

The original context sentences activity had a matrix of nine total words, three across by three down. Students then created a sentence for each line across, down, and diagonal, writing a total of nine sentences. Give-Me-Five builds on this, but expands the matrix to five words across by five words down, twenty-five words in all.

Now the lines down, across, and diagonal will include five words that you have designated. That gives you and the students twelve different lines of word combinations to choose from. We like to have the students choose five (or more) such lines from this 5x5 matrix. The students then must fit all five words from their line into a sentence. The students are getting practice in spelling and using the words correctly, as well as writing complete sentences.

One of the great aspects of this activity is its durability. I like to create several matrices and type them out on an overhead sheet so I can use them over each hour and I can file them for year after year. We make up specific sets of words to match certain stories, lessons, or units, and we also use them with random words just to have fun.

Always give the students the opportunity to share their creations with the class. This reinforces the correct use of the vocab or terms, gives students practice reading and listening to properly written sentences, and creates an opportunity for students to present in front of their peers, a skill that always needs practice.  This also makes a great lesson to leave for a substitute teacher, or to put in your emergency plans. Make sure you have fully explained this activity and your students have practiced it a few times under your guidance before leaving it as an activity for your sub.

This activity (as well as the context sentences activity) is great for utilizing vocabulary in foreign language classes, as it forces students to spell and use words properly while writing sentences. It is also good for any class or subject that has specific vocabulary students need to familiarize themselves with. This works well for social studies and science classes, and it makes an easy writing assignment for music, art, p.e, and other elective-type classes where the teacher may be required to add writing activities, even if he or she isn't highly trained in writing.

This is especially good for English teachers if you're covering compound or complex sentence structures, as you can specify particular types of sentences to have students write. Simply set up your matrix so there are two or more nouns or verbs in a line. You might even add a conjunction to the line!

Now of course you might want to adjust this activity to meet the needs and level of your students. This could include changing the number of lines you require students to make sentences out of. You might have students choose fewer lines and create different unique sentences from the same five words. You might have students choose two or three lines and take all ten or fifteen words and create a story paragraph. There are many possibilities you can develop. If you create any really interesting variations, let us know and we'll feature you in an upcoming issue of our newsletter.

Poetry That Can Be Used In Any Class

 Poetry need not be confined to the realms of the dust-covered tomes of your high school English department. And you need not be afraid or intimidated by poetry; anybody can write fun (and yet educational) poems. As the following activity will show, this form of writing can bring an invigorating style to your ordinary classroom activities, regardless of your subject area or your students' grade level.

Poetry, for those not totally familiar with the conventions of the language-arts classes, is a generic term for forms of writing using highly specific words and phrases to instill images in the reader's mind. Some poetry follows particular forms and patterns, and other types of poetry can be free flowing. Poetry can be simply individual (though connected) words or phrases, or found in complete sentences.  As you can see, there is no limit to the types of poetry that can be created.

Short, simple poems require a great deal of student thought, because the kids must carefully choose the best words to fit the poem. These can be fun for students to write as reviews for tests or the end of chapters. You could also use them to in place of your normal writing assignments to add variety.

Feel free to change the poem form to suit your activity or class. For example, you may want to change the number of details or examples, or the number of lines. If you have creative (or advanced) students, you may even want to require the lines to rhyme.

Here's a short, simple poem form:
Name the topic
List three details, facts, or examples
Creatively describe each
Restate the topic in a new way

A Poem for Science:
The Water Cycle:
Water molecules, H-2-0,
Down goes Rain, Hail, Snow,
Raised up to the sky by the sun,
In clouds they gather for fun,
Ready to drop once more,
Changes in matter are a chore!

A Poem for P.E.:
Gym Class:
Run, jump, play!
We exercise every day.
Indoors or out,
We love to yell and shout!
Phys-ed is our favorite class.

Here's another simple form for those of you with language-arts savvy:
1 Noun (your TOPIC)
2 adjectives that describe your Noun
3 verbs (your Noun in action)
1 adverb for each verb (describe each action)
A real-life example of your Noun, a simile or metaphor, or a synonym
for your first Noun

Green, Old
Walking, eating, swimming
Slowly, peacefully, gracefully
Nature's little armored car

Slim, Bright
Growing, sprouting, flowering
Upward, outward, gently
A little sun on the Earth

Have your students add hand-drawn pictures to accompany the poems, and you've got authentic, artful work that is ready to put up in your room or hallway for parent-teacher conferences.

Proofreading Paragraphs

 This basic skill is useful in every subject area where students must produce written work.  The emphasis on writing we see so often these days forces teachers of every discipline to become familiar with some basic components of writing and proofreading.

We like to have the students create a Grammar Handbook where they can write in the various rules we discuss during the year. Never assume your students know and understand the rules you'll cover during the year. We do review the various parts of speech, though we won't spend much time on those. Through the course of the year, students will continually add rules and examples to their handbooks. Some of these are from notes I provide students, and others are from the discussions we have in class. I also allow the students to use these Grammar Handbooks on quizzes and tests, and they are always available when students write in class.

Our students complete Daily Oral Language (DOL) activities for proofreading practice. The DOL is an on-going activity where students practice editing and proofreading sentences or paragraphs. Put up one or two sentences that have several mistakes in spelling, grammar, or mechanics. Have students correct these using proofreader's marks and discuss the changes as a class. There are a number of companies out there that have workbooks and overhead sheets with plenty of these warm up activities. But you can also put together your own exercises very easily. Find a few sentences from the literature or stories you're reading and type them out, making a few 'mistakes' for the kids to find and fix. Use size 16 or 18 font so they're easy to see, and copy onto an overhead sheet so you can re-use these again. Have a paper copy of the 'answers', the corrected sentences, and be sure to have your students add the new rules to their Grammar Handbook.

Another related activity is the DOL Paragraph. Once or twice a week, we give the students an entire paragraph to correct. This will have the same grammar, spelling, mechanics, and usage mistakes the students had seen during the week.

These three activities, practiced on a daily or weekly basis, can really help your students to learn the various rules of grammar, usage, and mechanics. You can even create paragraph or essay topics to have students explain the various rules they've learned. You'll find a few examples below:

"Describe what a CONJUNCTION is, and describe how it is used."
1. (2 points) Topic Restated in the Topic Sentence
2. (3 points) Define a 'Conjunction'
3. (3 points) Three supports (examples)
4. (3 points) Use THREE conjunctions properly
5. (3 points) Personal Life Experience
6. (4 points) Topic Restated in the Clincher
7. (2 points) Title at the Bottom
20 points total

"Describe and give examples of THREE ways a COMMA can be used."
1. (2 points) Topic Restated in the Topic Sentence
2. (3 points) Define a 'Comma'
3. (3 points) Three examples of comma use
4. (3 points) Use THREE commas properly, one for each rule
5. (3 points) Personal Life Experience
6. (4 points) Topic Restated in the Clincher
7. (2 points) Title at the Bottom 
20 points total

Proofreading is a skill students can become good at, just like any other skill that must be practiced. Similar to the editing procedures, we like to have students 'proof on the fly' when they are retyping their second drafts. This is making the corrections as students are typing. Now granted, many computer programs will actually tell students when a mistake has been made. That does make it easier for students. But there are times when the computers can be mistaken. Homophones are one prime example. I don't worry too much about the computer corrections, because our students are getting so much practice with proofreading. And when the computer displays a mistake, the students still have to know how to make the correction.

Editing and Proofreading are both important skills for your students.  But never forget your focus. The best way to improve the students writing is by drafting, writing as much as possible, even on a daily basis if at all possible.

Assessing Student Writing

 Assessing student work is vital to determining if students have attained important skills and knowledge. This is especially true for writing because this is both knowledge and skill based. But many teachers are still using antiquated means of assessing their students' writing. You don't have to stay up late into the night swathing each paper in red ink. There are better and more efficient ways to assess your students writing.

An important thing to keep in mind is that students are practicing the writing process. We cannot expect them to be experts, and we certainly can't expect to grade each writing assignment as if it's a finished piece of writing.

One easy way to assess and grade works in process is to use FCAs, focal correction areas. Now, I'm sure your local or state rubrics will demand particular aspects of the writing, from organizing to fluency to voice to conventions and of course to many other areas.  These are all important assessment tools for pre- and post-testing, because they give an overall picture of students' knowledge and skill. But you wont want to use this rubric every time you grade a set of papers. You're going to want to focus in on individual skills for most of your students' writings.

Lets face it, we want our students to write well and write a lot. But the stacks of paperwork can be awfully intimidating. It is often this mound of essays that keeps teachers from assigning writing assignments on a regular basis. Its ok to be honest, grading the stacks of papers, especially if you have several classes worth, interferes with your personal life and keeps you up late forcing you to get them all done so students can receive feedback on their skill.  And looking at this from a logical stand, I want the kids to be working their butts off, not me; I want them exhausted after my class is over, I don't want to be exhausted in the mornings because I was up late grading essays!

A comparison can be made to sports. When basketball season begins, players aren't expected to perform at game level. They first practice for many sessions over many weeks before they are assessed in a game situation. The coach first drills the players in fundamentals, the basic skills that are required for the sport. Next comes the advanced techniques, moves that combine several skills, and the implementation of plays. Finally players practice the whole of these skills in controlled scrimmages where the coach can evaluate them through guided practice.

The same is true for writing. Why would we want to grade a beginner or practitioner as we would a master of the craft? True, we will eventually grade a final writing piece, just as basketball player must eventually play a game against real opponents. But we want our writing students to practice a lot of the fundamentals, skills, and the more advanced techniques before we use the state's rubric, which assesses everything. And it is the daily practice on these little skills and fundamentals where the greatest improvements can occur.

So how do we assess the improvement in these daily lessons? First of all we must acknowledge the fact that we cannot grade everything every time, and students can't possibly focus on improving each area of writing on each activity. Thus, we need to breakdown the overall rubrics into manageable pieces. These are the FCAs. We choose just a few FCAs to concentrate on for each activity or assignment. We partner these FCAs with short mini lessons and activities to teach and reinforce the skill. And these FCAs will change as students master those skills.

The most basic FCAs to start with are for form and format. Teach the kids how you want their writings to look. This includes the student name and topic at the top of the page (along with whatever else you require). Then we move into the format of the sentences, paragraph, or essay. For our kids, we require brainstorming & organizing, complete sentences, topic sentences, supports, and clinchers in each paragraph. Students work on these aspects until they are automatic parts of the writing. Provide interesting yet easy topics and give plenty of activities to practice these skills. And resist the temptation to grade everything. The students' writing may not be good yet; don't worry about it. Fix and correct one thing at a time so the kids (and you too) aren't overwhelmed. Give the kids a lot of practice and they'll improve. Trust in the system; the FCAs will come through for you. Make your students good at form and format, and when they are doing these skills well, then move to the next area.

Save yourself a lot of work by having students identify particular sections of their work for you before they hand it in. Then your job of grading is much easier. If the FCAs include topic sentences or clinchers, have students underline those sentences. If you require three supports, have students number them in the margin. If you want students to use particular vocabulary or terms, have them circle these for you (these last two are especially good for teachers in areas other than English). Let the kids do the work for you! I even have the students score their papers and add up the points they earned on their FCAs. This acts as a checklist, ensuring they actually covered all of the assignment's requirements. And since they wrote the paper, the students know where each item is in the paper (or if its not there!), saving you time you'd otherwise spend identifying each item and then adding them up. Now granted, you'll have to spot check the papers, and there are always a few students whose work you have to look over more carefully. We all have those students! But for the most part, this will save you hours of checking time and allow you to provide many more writing activities on a daily basis. Get those kids writing more, and save yourself the work!

I like to grade an essay in formal final copy once each marking period. By that time the students have amassed a large number of second drafts and rewrites. I'll give them the opportunity to make corrections and then type the essay out so its easy to read. Also have students do the underlining, circling, numbering, and other markings for you. This gives your students the chance to select from a number of their rough drafts and choose their best one to fix up and hand in.

And just like the team that continues to practice between games through the season, you'll have your students continue to practice fundamentals and individual skills between formal writing assessments. Use the formal assessments you give a few times each year to see gaps in the students' learned skills.

Creating an In-Class Cable TV Network

 Ever wonder if you and your students could create your own TV news show? Would you like to have announcements and school/class information available to students all class long? Would you like to avoid those students who were absent constantly asking you, "What did we do in class yesterday?" It isn't only possible to do, but with a few pieces of equipment, it's easy to set up and run.

You, of course will need several pieces of hardware, including a TV or (digital projector) and a computer. You will also need the proper cables to connect the two. We've discovered that sometimes the resolution on some computers needs to be adjusted or changed, so check your monitors setting. You might even need a scan-converter if all else fails. Such a TV network can also be simply set up on a computer monitor which is turned to face the students.

Your computer will also need PowerPoint (or an equivalent presentation software). We've used such programs effectively on Macs, as well as Linux and Windows machines, and they all work well for this application.

PowerPoint has the feature of progressing through information or slides by either clicking your mouse, or by setting up timings between every action. Thus, you can have each word, line, paragraph, or even graphic animated automatically. You can change up the settings for different bits of info you have. Check the top menu for 'slide show', and follow down the menu to 'custom animation' (or look for a similar command). Once there, you can select each element to animate, the type of transition to occur, any sound you want associated with it, and also the timing (automatic, not on a mouse click). You will want to practice a few times until your timing is good, and there are enough seconds to see or read each element before the next animation or transition. Even your slides can be changed automatically. Go to the 'slide show' menu and select 'slide transition' or 'set up show'. From there, you can choose the type of transition, and even its speed of animation.

You may wish to check your computer's settings so the machine doesn't go to sleep on you, or change to a screen saver. That would definitely defeat your purpose!

Now that you know how to set up a show, you have to decide what material or information to put out on display. I put up basic information such as the lunch menu, school or class announcements, and homework assignments. I will also post a class schedule and switch times if the daily schedule is altered. For the students who were absent, we also display class notes from previous classes. Now there is no excuse for students missing assignments or class information!  And this saves you from having to deal with every returning student asking what was missed and where to find it.

If you are brave and want to create a great class project, have your students run your daily announcements. You could partner them up and have your first class of the day create the announcements. Another project is to have your students create storyboards, where a short story is broken up among a number of slides, each slide including pictures, clip art, or graphics to illustrate the story. You can find many good images online or in the clip art of your program. If you have access to a digital camera, you can even have students take their own pictures and insert them.

Yet another project we've done is to create a PowerPoint to summarize one class or a week's worth of class info. This becomes an animated newsletter or magazine. Again, assign a student to take photos on a digital camera during the class and combine these with articles on the various activities you've done. You might want to include students' work as examples.

There are also advanced techniques you can experiment with as you get better with the program. Sound can be added, such as background music, songs, or voice recordings. There are also ways to include video.  Become an expert with the basics, and you'll be ready for these advanced techniques.







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