Friday, May 20, 2016

Viewing Like a Writer: The Art of the Week

The Common Core State Standards ask students to closely examine multiple types of texts. This includes informational articles and excerpts from literary works, but it can also include visual texts, such as paintings, sculptures, charts, graphs, or infographics (to name a few). I teach students to analyze visual media by incorporating an "Art of the Week" assignment for the final quarter of the school year. Below you will see what my assignment sheet looks like (left) and an example of how to "mark up" (or annotate) an image (right), which I share with my students. 
Original Document (in color) and Annotated Sample for Students (Photocopy). Collage Created with

First, I select works of art that I feel students should know, but may not already be familiar with: Klimt's The Kiss, Fuseli's The Nightmare, Wyeth's Christina's World. (I'm a scholar bowl coach, so I selected several works of art from NAQT's "You Gotta Know" list.) For this assignment, I want students' first impressions. I don't want students to begin the assignment with much background knowledge.

First, I select works of art that I feel students should know, but may not already be familiar with: Klimt's The Kiss, Fuseli's The Nightmare, Wyeth's Christina's World. (I'm a scholar bowl coach, so I selected several works of art from NAQT's "You Gotta Know" list.) For this assignment, I want students' first impressions. I don't want students to begin the assignment with much background knowledge.

I project the image of the artwork on my whiteboard and give students a couple of minutes to take it all in. Then, we begin annotating. I ask them to label what they see: people, objects, colors, and textures. I also ask them to list the emotions that the work evokes. We spend about five minutes just recording our "noticings." Then, I invite students to share as part of a whole group discussion, although this would work well as a Think-Pair-Share activity, too. Students are allowed to "borrow" observations that they like and want to use to supplement their own, as long as they also contribute to the group list. (Think of it as the "Take a Penny-Leave a Penny" jar at a cash register.)

After students are finished with their annotations, then the fun begins: writing! We have a brief discussion regarding inferences and using textual support. Students are given the prompt to write the narrative of the artwork: you have the story in visual form; now translate the story into words. Generally, responses can vary greatly and there is no "wrong" answer, as long as the narrative can be supported by the text.

This is one of those assignments that really polarizes my students: they either love it or hate it. Some students love the chance to be creative, while others beg to have the structure of the nonfiction article of the week return. Student enthusiasm can also vary based on the artwork you provide them with. For the final Art of the Week of the year, I allowed students to choose their own work of art to analyze, and the results were really great! Almost everyone completely the assignment--with great effort--and the results were very entertaining!

Note: Need more 'Core? Add optional language requirements for more rigor: clauses, phrases, semicolons, MLA formatting, etc.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Mini-Lessons with Mega-Information

If you're an English teacher or Media Specialist, you probably already know who John Green is. He's the edgy author of books (some of which have recently been adapted for the big screen) such as Paper Towns, The Fault in Our Stars, and Looking for Alaska. He has a loyal following of teen readers who will share their enthusiasm for his books, given the opportunity--and that is exactly how I fell in love with his stories and his writing style!

What I didn't know until recently, however, is that John Green and his brother host a series of educational videos on their Youtube Channel, Crash Course. Thanks to PBS Learning Media, I discovered this impressive collection of free, beautifully illustrated, and attention-grabbing videos, and they are some of the best resources out there, particularly for providing background knowledge on a topic. And John Green doesn't limit his videos to literature-related topics--although there are plenty of those, to be sure. I was impressed with the breadth of topics covered: world history, science, psychology--even human reproduction (which, to be honest, I would much rather let John Green explain to my students). 

I have several videos that would be perfect for my classroom. Yes, I have some literature-related videos selected (a crash course in Homer's The Odyssey), but I also have some other topics that have piqued my interest (a video on sleep and dreams will fit nicely with my Macbeth unit, especially when combined with a nonfiction text). If you haven't explored the Crash Course videos by John Green yet, what are you waiting for? Go find some multimedia sources to amp up your curriculum!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Interactive Grammar: How I Use Writing Brushstrokes in My Classroom

For me, teaching grammar is a struggle. I know that my students need to know some of the basics if I want them to become better writers, writers who can manipulate clauses and phrases to produce different effects. But I also know that teaching "grammar for grammar's sake" is not an effective approach. Students don't make the connection between endless packets of worksheets--asking them to underline subjects once and verbs twice--and writing. They don't transfer those skills when it comes time to put pen to paper and make some magic. 

So, how do we, as teachers, make that connection visible? That's the question. 

I've been researching books on grammar pedagogy for a few years now, and my personal favorites are Jeff Anderson's Mechanically Inclined, Robert Cahill's Stack the Deck, and Harry Noden's Image Grammar, the latter which I am going to talk about today.

What I really like about Noden's approach is that it is so visual. He draws an analogy between the way a painter paints (using various brush strokes to create interest) and the way a writer writes (using various grammatical structures to create interest). To me, the analogy makes so much sense. After all, aren't we, as writers, trying to help our readers visualize our setting, our characters, our argument?Noden introduces five basic "brush strokes" of writing, which are the foundation of grammar instruction in my classroom: adjectives out-of-order, appositives, absolutes, participial phrases, and vivid action verbs. All of these concepts are mentioned in my grade-level Common Core standards, so Image Grammar is an approach that you can really get behind and get district support for. Also, once you've covered the basics, Noden provides plenty of ways that you can up the rigor and have students super-charge their writing.

Today, I'm sharing my Brush Stroke Notes. (Just click on the hyperlink to access them as a PDF file.) I created them using Power Point. Visually, they are very simple, but they print nice and clean on colored paper, or white paper for students to color or highlight. I print them out with two slides per sheet, and they end up being the perfect size for cutting out and gluing into an interactive notebook! 

Above left, is a copy of the "Vivid Action Verbs" notes printed on purple computer paper and added to a notebook. The empty space below the notes was used for students to list action verbs from a book or short story, and to create their own exemplar sentence using some of the best verbs that they found. Above center, you can see a sample of how to use the "Adjectives out of Order" page. I had students color-code their adjectives and the nouns they modify, in both the sample from the notes and in their own writing sample. Above right, you can see a sample "Absolute Phrase" page, where students learn the basics of building absolutes with a sentence construction chart, before introducing more complex versions of the absolute phrase.

If you already use Noden's Image Grammar, I hope that these will help you and your students. If you don't already know about Noden's approach to grammar, I highly recommend that you go to Amazon and buy Image Grammar right now. It really will transform the way you teach grammar!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

PIC LITS: Interactive Writing & Grammar

One of my absolute favorite websites for creating Language Arts materials is PicLits (Picture  + Literature = PicLit). I'm always trying to emphasize the visual aspects of writing with my students, and this website is a wonderful merging of photography and writing! PicLits is a collection of pictures, where writers can drag and drop words onto the images to create picture-inspired writing (PicLit's slogan)! Here's a screenshot of their homepage:

PicLit's Landing Page
PicLits offers a wide variety of breathtaking photos to choose from, with a huge range of subject matter. The color photos are vivid and the black-and-white photos are dramatic. There is guaranteed to be something to interest every student, and photos are updated regularly. This makes PicLits a great activity for differentiation! If you have access to a computer lab, you can have students pick their own images to work with. I don't always have access to a computer, so I've printed 30 different photos (with their lists of adjectives and adverbs), laminated them, and turned them into "PicLit cards" so that I can reuse them every year. Here's a sample of what my PicLit cards look like:

Before class starts, I tape the PicLit cards to desks and, as students walk into the classroom, I tell them to sit at a desk with a photo that interests them. I vary the directions for the writing prompt, depending on what I want to focus on. (For example, I might have students write 100 word describing the story behind the picture, using 6 of the adjectives and 6 of the adverbs listed.) Students really enjoy the freedom to pick their image, and the word lists provide scaffolding for students who need a little extra help generating ideas for their writing. The end results always turn out fantastic!

This could be used in so many ways: poetry, prose, or grammar exercises. There are SO many possibilities!

Check out my screencast below for a tour of PicLits, and to see how I use PicLits in my classroom.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

ORGANIZATION 101: Student Index Cards

Today, my blog post is a screencast. I love screencasting! (I'll talk more about that in a future post.) Today, I'm sharing one of my favorite tips for getting organized. This screencast requires Java. For best viewing, use Internet Explorer. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Today's post is a screencast tutorial on how to use the website to turn all of your Quizlet flashcard sets into crossword puzzles and word searches. I use this website all the time to create review packets for my students, especially during final exam time! Happy viewing!

This video requires Java. For optimal viewing, do not watch in Google Chrome.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

QUIZLET FLASHCARDS: Studying & Differentiating Made Easy

I love QUIZLET! You love Quizlet! We all love Quizlet! But I'm surprised to find that some teachers (and students) are not aware of all of the amazing features that Quizlet offers. This year, I don't think that I would have survived without Quizlet. It has been my go-to resource for creating study guides and review materials, for differentiating instruction, and for creating multiple versions of tests and quizzes. If you have never used Quizlet before, it's well worth your time to set up an account. It's a website that allows teachers to create sets of flashcards online (it's available as a phone app, too), and then share them with students. It's absolutely free and it will become your best friend! Let me show you my 3 absolute favorite features.

1. Making Practice Tests. I love using Quizlet to create review materials. My honors students begged for study guides as we went through our mythology unit. They were having some difficulties remembering all of those Greek and Roman names and needed multiple exposures to them, so I created sets of flashcards on Quizlet, and then printed multiple (practice) tests in different formats: write response, multiple choice, matching, and true/false. Here is a sample test containing each question type.

A sample test with all four question types

2. Differentiating/Adapting Your Assessments. You can completely customize your test to suit your needs, or the needs of your students. For example, if you want to use a Quizlet-generated test, you might give most of your students a written response test, but print a multiple choice test for students with testing accommodations. I like to give multiple practice tests, starting with something easy (like a true/false test) and then making them progressively more difficult (written response) as a scaffolding technique to prepare students for the actual test. And, each time you click on the "Create New Test" button (shown in the above picture), Quizlet creates a new version of the test, so you can make as many different versions as you need. This year, my student desks were arranged in pairs, so I create two version of everything. Quizlet saved me so much time!

3. Providing Instructional Scaffolding. Quizlet makes it so easy to share materials with students. By clicking on the Share option (shown below), Quizlet creates links for you to share your Quizlet set on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. It also generates a short URL address that you can give to your students (which can be shared through email, posted on a class website, or texted to students and parents via Remind). When you share, you're not just sharing flashcards; you're sharing access to practice tests and review games, too. I once had an honors student who was really struggling on weekly vocabulary quizzes, until he started using my Quizlet sets, and then he aced every single vocab quiz for the rest of the year. He would come in early every morning and play review games until he had mastered the week's vocabulary words. All he needed was access to resources that would empower him to succeed!

The Short URL is perfect for sharing with students.

Do you love Quizlet, too? How do you use Quizlet in your classroom? Tell me about it in the comment section below. Next time, I'll show you how to turn your Quizlet sets into crossword puzzles and word searches!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

BANISH BORING SENTENCES! My Favorite Grammar Exercise

Sometimes I think of grammar as a "necessary evil." It's typically not fun to teach, mostly because students would rather watch paint dry than identify nouns and verbs. I remember spending countless hour in seventh grade diagramming sentences on the board. Luckily, grammar came fairly easily to me, so the grammar unit in every year of school after that was a time that I could sit back and "coast." But I know that I was one of the few. I know plenty of adults who shudder at the thought of subject-verb agreement, or second guess their choice of who verses whom.

I think it's necessary to make grammar relevant.  My preferred method of grammar instruction is to deliver a concentrated dose of grammar in the form of a mini-lesson, followed by writing application. Students might argue that they will never need grammar again, but I haven't had many tell me that they won't need to write well after high school. 

One of my favorite mini-lessons involves replacing forms of the verb "to be" with more specific action verbs. I have a set of "boring sentence" cards that I made, printed, and laminated. (You can grab them in my Teachers Pay Teachers store.) I pass them out to students and then I ask them to show, rather than tell what the card is saying. For example, one of my favorite cards is "The chihuahua was scary."

I point out that the sentence contains a form of to be: was. It would be a much more interesting read if we were showed the dog was scary, rather than just being told. (After all, if someone told me they saw a scary chihuahua, I would want proof!) As a class, we brainstorm details that would show us that the chihuahua is scary: Are his eyes bulging? Is he foaming at the mouth? Did he just chase off the Mastiff down the street? Once students have the hang of it, I turn them loose to expand their one-liners into detail-oriented paragraphs. If we have time, we share some of our paragraphs. Students like trying to guess the original sentence each of their classmates was given.

What is your favorite grammar lesson? Leave your answer in the comments!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

BOOST PARENT CONTACT WITH REMIND's landing page (as of this posting)
One of my very favorite online tools in I discovered Remind a couple of years ago when I was looking for ways to increase my parent contact. As a secondary teacher with 100-150 students each year, I wanted a quick and easy way to reach out to parents and let them know about upcoming events and deadlines (tests, projects, etc.) makes this incredibly easy and completely free!

Remind lets teachers send text or email reminders to parents (and to students) while keeping everyone's personal information safe and private; I can text students about the date of the next test while respecting each other's privacy: they never have access to my phone number and I never have access to theirs. It's an opt-in service, so parents who do not want to receive notifications won't receive them. It only goes to the people who choose to sign up for it. That way, the people who want or need that extra reminder get it, but people who don't want it aren't bombarded with emails or texts.

Sign-up is incredibly easy. Once you create an account and create a class, Remind will generate an invitation that you can print and distribute to students and parents. I allow students to take out their phones on the first day of class to sign up for Remind. I also send hard copies home to parents. They make great handouts for Open House and Parent-Teacher Conferences. If your school uses the Danielson Framework for teacher evaluation, using Remind is a great artifact for Domain 4!

Sample Printable Invitation to Remind
Once you have students and parents signed up, you can begin sending reminders. You can even schedule reminders to be sent at a later time. Recently, Remind also made it possible to attach documents to your messages, so you can send study guides, permission slips, etc. You can also send links to websites. Take a look at this handout from Remind's website:

Another recent addition is that you can now enable "chats," which means that parents and students can chat with you (still protecting your privacy by not sharing either party's personal contact information). This seems like it would be great if I only taught a few students, but I think that I'll stick with email if I need a back-and-forth conversation with specific parents. I don't want to offer immediate access to me (through chat mode) and then disappoint people if I can't respond right away.

Overall, I think that Remind is a great service and I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to increase parent contact (or student contact)! I'm looking forward to using the new attachment feature next year. If you're using Remind, please let me know about your experience in the comments.

Thursday, May 14, 2015


On my Me and My Laptop blog, my most popular post by far was my original visual of Bloom's Taxonomy, with the HOTS (higher order thinking skills) on top in warm tones, and the LOTS (lower order thinking skills) on the bottom in cool tones. I added a brief explanation  (in simple terms) of what each level is asking the student to do, and simplified action verbs. I had tried explaining the pyramid to my students before, but often the verbs were too complex for them to really grasp, so I knew I needed a more accessible visual (one not just for education students) and I knew that I'd probably have to make it myself if I wanted it to fit my specifications. Right now, I have this as a poster hanging on my classroom wall. Next year, I plan to spend the first week of school explaining Bloom's Taxonomy to my English I Honors class, explaining that, as honors students, our class will spend the majority of class time focusing on the HOTS. If you would like to use my visual, please feel free, but I'd appreciate it if you give me credit or link to either this blog post or the original post.