What an English block should look like: Making second-half adjustments

The purpose of this post is to revisit this piece I wrote back in July and reflect on what worked well during the first semester and what needs to be tweaked as we get ready for the second half of the school year.

Going into the year, I had five priorities:

  1. Increase the volume of student reading and writing.
  2. Commit to 20-30 minutes of self-selected, independent reading every class period.
  3. Read and write poetry with students all the time, not just in one April unit.
  4. Implement the “Article of the Week” with fidelity.
  5. Design meaningful grammar/ACT prep.

Here’s how I fared in each area.

Goal #1: Increase the volume of reading and writing in my classroom.semester-i-reflection

How’d it go? I’m extremely proud of the quality and quantity of my students’ reading and writing. I’m a firm believer that students have to read and write a lot (and enjoy both) in order to improve, and they certainly did.

I’m proud that my sophomores were able to write three well-developed essays during the first semester — one explanatory, one argumentative (on the future of self-driving cars), and one narrative (an original short story) – in addition to their Article of the Week responses, poetry, independent reading tasks, and other smaller, less formal pieces.

Students also had multiple opportunities to write for authentic audiences, whether it was their persuasive letters to local businesses asking for their help to eliminate book deserts, or their heartfelt and informed letters to President Obama with their take on the Syrian refugee crisis.

Furthermore, students constantly evaluated and revised their own writing thanks to a) color-coding their work in Google Classroom, b) student-friendly checklists, and c) constant self-reflection.

One area I want to get better at in 2017: allowing students time and space to read one another’s work and offer meaningful peer-to-peer feedback.

Goal #2: Commit to 20-30 minutes of self-selected, independent reading every class period.

How’d it go? For my sophomores (many of whom I have now taught for two or three years), we hit the ground running and never looked back. I provided my students with comfortable seating, choice, and time, and they responded by reading an average of three novels apiece each quarter. (Here are 54 of the books that we enjoyed in 2016). books-read-2016

With my freshmen, the process of nurturing enthusiastic readers has taken a bit longer – as expected. Changing reading attitudes and mindsets doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s a process that I love!

As I got to know my students better, it became easier to match students with just-right books. While we’re not at 100 percent engagement just yet, my students are beginning to embrace our reading routine, and I’m looking forward to seeing things “click” for even more freshmen this semester.

I’ve also had great success with informal book clubs, where groups of students have chosen to read and discuss the same novel. Over the past few years, I’ve been intentional about adding multiple copies of high-interest, diverse books to my classroom library.

Following independent reading, students completed short writing tasks related to their novels. For example, students enjoyed writing:

  • journal entries from the point of view of their favorite characters
  • critical book reviews that analyzed plot, conflict, theme, setting, etc.
  • letters to the author (that many were actually able to email to the authors)

I have found that creative writing tasks like the ones above, as opposed to reading logs or worksheets, are a great way to a) check for student comprehension, b) teach or re-teach important reading and writing standards, and c) increase engagement and appreciation for reading.

Goal #3: Read and write poetry all the time, not just in one unit.poem

How’d it go? This one was hit and miss. Again, the process of writing and sharing poetry with my sophomores was much easier. Each sophomore wrote at least seven original poems, and we plan to publish an anthology in the spring. I can’t wait to share them all with you – they’re outstanding.

As for my freshmen, I think I underestimated how much relationships matter when it comes to poetry. In order for students to open up and be vulnerable, they need to have complete trust in their teacher and classmates – and that takes time. I need to be better about creating that environment in the new year.

Here’s the first step: I plan to read Kwame Alexander’s Crossover with all of my classes in January as part of Project LIT Community’s first book club. I’m willing to bet that a number of students will love poetry by the end of the month.

Furthermore, I’m looking to dedicate at least 10-15 minutes each week to poetry – this will include sharing a “Poem of the Week” and giving students quiet time to write their own.

Goal #4: Implement “Article of the Week” with fidelity

How’d it go? Thank you, Kelly Gallagher! The AoW has been one of the best additions to my classroom, and I highly suggest all secondary English and History teachers find a way to make it work with their students.

Here’s a look at what we’ve read and discussed this semester thanks to the AoW:

  • “A Survivor Remembers 9/11”
  • “Obama says Colin Kaepernick is exercising his constitutional right”
  • “Anne Frank is the new Syrian girl”
  • “The travesty of book deserts”
  • “The dark side of going for gold”
  • “An Ethiopian medalist just led a protest that could land him in jail”
  • “The significance of Simone Manuel’s swim is clear if you know Jim Crow”
  • “Too much TV and chill could reduce brain power over time”
  • “Here’s how much your HS grades predict your salary”
  • “NBA superstars give powerful speech at ESPY Awards”
  • “Reading books can help you live longer”
  • “Future of self-driving cars”
  • “Trump elected 45th president of United States”
  • “Cleveland’s Unthinking Racism”
  • “Teen pregnancy on the decline”kaep-1

Usually, I’ll have students read and annotate the article (usually between 600 and 1,000 words), and then write a 2-paragraph response. The first paragraph is a well-written, objective summary. The second is an opportunity for students to share their thoughts, make connections, and ask questions.

When the topic is particularly intriguing or controversial, we’ll extend the assignment further and engage in a class debate/discussion and conduct further research on the topic. I loved the fact that a few of these articles naturally evolved into 1-2 week mini-units.

Two other assignments that my students enjoyed related to the AoW:

  1. Our final essay of the first quarter asked students to identify a common theme in three of the texts we read. As a result, students ended up writing about the hypocrisy of America, the bravery and heroism of athletes, and the power of reading, among other topics.
  2. Recently, students summarized the top news stories of 2016 to write a “Year in Review” poem or rap. Highly recommend it.

Goal #5: Design meaningful grammar/ACT prep

How’d it go? This year, I tried to focus on one or two specific skills each week. As a result, by the end of the semester, my students were much more comfortable identifying dependent and independent clauses, combining sentences, fixing run-ons, using proper subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent agreement, incorporating commas, semi-colons, and colons correctly, and citing quotes from the text.

By committing to 20-30 minutes per week of targeted grammar instruction and practice, my students’ writing and ACT English scores improved, and I plan to continue with this approach (with different skills) in 2017.

What changes do I plan to make this semester?

Based on student feedback from December, here’s what my classroom will look like in 2017:

  • Daily independent reading, including our monthly book club selection
  • Even more student choice and opportunities for creative writing, including poetry and short stories, and self-selected research assignments
  • Continue assigning Articles of the Week that expose students to current events, world problems, and technological debates
  • Additional opportunities for class debate and discussion
  • Better peer review protocols
  • Meaningful, targeted ACT/grammar practice

What am I missing? What does your English block look like? I’d love to hear your feedback. Wishing you and your students all the best in 2017!