Every summer I reflect on the successes and challenges of the past year, and decide what’s worth continuing, abandoning, and adding. However, I always seem to run into the same problem: there’s not enough time to do it all!
In Nashville, our high schools run on a block schedule, which means that I teach my English I and II students for 90 minutes every other day (an average of 225 minutes per week). That number will drop to around 200 minutes per week if we incorporate a daily 45-minute intervention period as expected.
What, then, should an 80-to-90-minute English block look like at the high school or middle school level? In my opinion, that depends on two things: a) the purpose of your class, and b) the needs of your students. For me, the two go hand-in-hand.
My goal is to inspire my students to see the lifelong value of reading and writing, and to ensure that they have the literacy skills needed to choose any path upon graduation. Ultimately, there are no magic formulas or shortcuts to success. I know that my students must read and write a lot (and enjoy both) in order to improve. They also need consistent feedback and encouragement from me, so here’s what I prioritize:
Daily Independent Reading Time: The first 20 to 30 minutes of my block is dedicated to independent reading of self-selected books, and my students and I wish it could be even longer. Students quickly learn to come in quietly with their book, find a comfortable place to sit, and begin reading. By providing my students with consistent time and choice, I have seen their reading attitude & ability improve dramatically.
This structure also helps minimize many of the challenges that my students face as readers, such as their cell phone addiction, short attention spans, and lack of interest or motivation, and inspires students to read more outside of school than they otherwise would.
During this time, I am conferencing with students about their books, making recommendations, giving short book talks, motivating reluctant readers, providing positive reinforcement, and often, simply finding a spot in the room to read alongside them. English teachers – heck, all teachers – need to be reading role models if we want to create a strong literacy culture in our schools.
Last year, I experienced some success with literature circles, where groups of students read the same novel & then came together to discuss it, and plan to implement them more consistently in 2016-17.
Independent Reading Response: Following their independent reading, students complete a short task (usually no more than five or 10 minutes) related to their novel. Whether it’s writing a poem or diary entry from the point of view of a character, penning a letter to the author (that students can actually send via email), illustrating a key scene or character, or writing an objective summary, the goal is to reinforce a particular literature or writing standard without “killing” the students’ love of their novel.
Poetry: I am not going to make the mistake of waiting until National Poetry Month to introduce poetry again. In fact, I think I am going to eliminate my “poetry unit” altogether. Instead, my goal is for students to read, perform, analyze, discuss and write poetry all the time.
Why poetry? This article provides five reasons for poetry: “1) It helps us know each other and build community, 2) It’s the most kinesthetic of all literature, activating our heart and soul, 3) Poetry opens venues for speaking and listening, which are often neglected, 4) Poetry is universal and can be easily scaffolded to reach all learners, and 5) Poetry fosters Social and Emotional Learning.” I’d add that poetry is a great way to teach important skills and concepts, such as theme, point of view, word choice, style, structure, mood, tone, and figurative language.
Article of the Week: I am huge fan of Kelly Gallagher’s “Article of the Week,” and plan to continue assigning it this year. Here are the articles Mr. Gallagher assigned every Monday morning during the 2015-16 school year in order to broaden his students’ knowledge of the world.
My plan is to introduce the article during the first class of the week (usually Monday/Tuesday). Rather than simply assigning the AoW for homework, I will spend time during that period activating or building students’ prior knowledge and generating interest & curiosity about the topic. We will analyze & discuss images and/or video clips related to the article, and preview the text together (scanning the headline, sub-headings, photos/captions, 3-5 teacher-bolded vocabulary words, etc.).
During the first quarter, I will continually model the reading & annotation process, so students are clear about their expectations for the assignment. I will also scaffold the writing process, making sure that students can successfully summarize non-fiction texts (in a sentence and paragraph) before pushing them to write longer and more nuanced reflections. Then, after students have written about the AoW, we will spend 10 to 15 minutes later in the week (usually Thursday/Friday) looking at exemplar student responses and engaging in a spirited discussion/debate about the text.
While Gallagher’s AoWs cover a variety of topics, I plan to select texts that center on a similar theme. During the first semester, our focus will be on social justice and the upcoming presidential election (so feel free to pass along any articles that you think are worth reading!)
Writing Workshop: The rest of the block is usually dedicated to writing workshop, where students are writing for a variety of purposes and audiences, and I am modeling the writing process, presenting targeted mini-lessons and providing one-on-one and small group feedback.
Students are constantly evaluating and improving their own writing (color-coding their work and self-assessing according to student-friendly checklists and rubrics have been extremely effective strategies), although I definitely need to improve my peer editing protocols so that students can better help one another.
This year, I also want to incorporate more of Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This, which identifies six major writing categories: express/reflect, inform/explain, evaluate/judge, inquire/explore, analyze/interpret, take a stand/propose a solution. I plan to provide students with multiple opportunities to write for each of these purposes over the course of the year.
What’s missing? What gets left out?
We know that student engagement and achievement increases when a) teachers spend less time lecturing or talking at students, and b) students spend more time actively engaged in learning. Therefore, I try to maximize the time students spend reading, writing, thinking and communicating.
Given that independent reading, poetry, AoWs, and our writing workshop takes up the majority of the block, I don’t have as much time as I would like to provide students with purposeful grammar and vocabulary instruction, although I try to embed both into our AoWs and writing workshop.
Additionally, I’d love to dedicate more time to the research process. While our students may be “digital natives,” the reality is that we need to teach them how to evaluate the credibility of sources, narrow a topic, cite evidence, and organize information.
English teachers, I’d love your feedback: How do you structure your English block? What am I missing or forgetting? What do you prioritize? What questions or suggestions do you have? Thanks!