Three Books Shaping the Way I Teach – January Edition

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As an English teacher and self-proclaimed bibliophile, I am constantly on the prowl for new books to consume that will challenge and inspire me, and this past month – riddled with endless snow days – provided me with the opportunity to dig into some really excellent ones that have been shaping the way I “do” education in the classroom.

Book #1: Talk Like TED by Carmine Gallow4148mpr8dhl

I picked up this book on a whim when I decided I wanted to give my Honors English 9 students another speaking assignment. They had just completed their fifth presentation of the year in January and they had grown significantly, but there were still some common presentation skills I felt that we could improve on, like making more eye contact and relying less on notecards when they give a speech.

I chose this book because my 9 Honors students love TED Talks. Earlier this year, we watched the videos “Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator” by Tim Urban and “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie. Each talk couldn’t be more different in content and style, but they had both resonated with my students and because of this I had been tossing around the idea of having my students create a TED-style talk and present it to their peers.

Talk Like TED was very insightful and helpful in planning my upcoming unit. Not only did it hone in on using ethos, pathos, and logos to engage an audience, but it gave practical tips for helping students brainstorm, practice, and fix presentation issues. It’s also just a fascinating read. I would recommend it for everyone.

Book #2: The Differentiated Classroom by Carol Ann Tomlinson

51h1rcxsixl-_sx397_bo1204203200_I feel like I’m partially cheating by including this book here because it’s actually one of my textbooks for an online class I’m taking through UVA, but this book is such an insightful piece of writing about what it means to truly meet the needs of all learners.

Tomlinson is up front that “teachers need not differentiate all elements in all possible ways in each unit,” but that purposeful differentiation is an essential part of teaching and meeting the needs of all learners (19). She talks about the various ways teachers can help both struggling and gifted students to succeed, while at the same time not “pigeonholing” them as one type of student or another. She discusses the value of growth vs. fixed mindsets in the classroom and some of the unforeseen consequences of sorting students by ability levels. It’s a challenging, but important book.

Book #3: The Writing Revolution by Judith C. Hochman

51f4qf-hc2bl-_sx389_bo1204203200_If you’re like me and you teach a wide range of learners with an even larger spread of abilities than this book is for you! I picked up this book when looking for some strategies for reaching some of my 9th graders who struggle with writing, but I found some strategies that are helpful for all students, including those in my English 9, 9 Honors, and AP Literature courses.

Hochman argues that in order for students to be proficient in writing essays, they must first be skilled in writing effective paragraphs, and that before they can write effective paragraphs, they must be able to write effective, complex, and varied sentences.

She starts by digging into syntax and then moves from paragraphs into the entirety of the paper. What I liked about this book is that it provided specific, differentiated activities and ideas for teaching each concept effectively to all children, wherever they might be in their writing development. If you’re a grammar nerd like me, it’s a really interesting read — I read the entirety of this book during a five hour drive across the state; if you’re not really into grammar, it does a great job breaking down each of the concepts and teaching ways to integrate writing and grammar into the curriculum without it feeling like a chore.

Things that go bump in the night: Creepy Stories and Student Engagement

Creepy Old HouseMonsters that lurk in the shadows, things that go bump in the night, tales that keep your head spinning through the late hours of the night… these are some of the stories that engage high school students.

This summer, I eagerly assembled a list of short stories that I wanted to teach. On the list were some of my old favorites: “The Small Assassin” by Ray Bradbury, “The Cask of Amontillado” and “Black Cat” by Poe, and “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl. I wanted to come up with a project that would engage my students in the literature immediately and these creepy, unusual tales were sure to peak their interest. I introduced these stories as a model for their own writing, having them critically investigate how Poe, Dahl, and Bradbury created suspense through setting, characters, tone, and literary devices. This project turned my some of my more reluctant readers into engaged writers on a mission and provided them a better lens through which they could evaluate literature.

How I Set It Up

The Project Launch: The first day of the project took my students by surprise. My classroom was transformed. They came to class and the lights were dim; a creepy writing prompt was projected on the board and they had ten minutes to write. Once they finished, I projected the video of a crackling fire behind them, gave them a flashlight and had them present their own short stories as if they were around a campfire telling eery tales. Afterwards, I gave them the calendar for the unit and had them dig into the story “The Feather Pillow” with their group and analyze it.

The Project Itself: For the project I was giving my students, they had a choice of three possible end products: a comic book, a short story, or a podcast. Students knew that as we read we would be modeling our short stories off of the techniques we were studying in class, and I interspersed creative writing opportunities at every turn.

As we read through the stories, I introduced literature circles into the classroom, allowing students to become critical questioners of the texts. We worked on our first literary analysis paper and we had multiple delightful conversations about what makes a story truly scary.

Next week, we will have our story presentation day where students will present their work to the class. I have already had handfuls of students share with me the stories they’ve begun in their free time and ask how they can improve.

Giving students a project like this, where they have a purpose for reading and writing, is so exciting. It allows students to authentically tap into what makes literature great and strengthen their writing abilities… and it also allows them to tap into some creepy stories in the meantime.