Friday, December 18, 2015

Graphic Novels: Teaching Shakespeare in Prep English

It’s definitely challenging teaching a Shakespeare text to a class with such diverse needs and demands. The graphic novel (with its fascinating illustrations) helps students visualize the scenes in the story; since there are so many characters and plot twists, the illustrations help them understand the plot and tone. However, don ’t be fooled by the vivid images; the graphic novel follows the original Shakespearean language, which makes the text that much more complex.

Despite the barriers of Shakespeare’s language and a Middle Ages setting, my co-teacher and I try to create a means for students to apply self-monitoring skills as we read the graphic novel. Nonetheless, we did feel overwhelmed with how much we had to build a schema for our students; some of them had never even heard of Shakespeare. After immense pre-reading and previewing the text, students began to come up with questions, predictions, and comments that reveal their thinking and learning. They have two colored post-its: one is to answer the questions we ask during each scene and the other is used for their own thoughts and observations.

My favorite comment is when a student stated, “Macbeth is so annoying.” Immediately, I became ready to explain once again the importance of reading the story, but then she continued by saying, “He keeps changing his mind. Like one minute he feels guilty, and the next minute he doesn’t.” This comment was a game-changer. The fact that a student was able to make a critical comment with his/her own evaluations about the character made us feel like there was value in this process.

We try to engage our students even if the language itself is unattainable to them. In the end, we are finding that students are still working on the literacy skills that are important and that they critically thinking about the text.

Here are some examples of their work:

For an additional blog post about teaching Shakespeare through standards-based learning, check out this post!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Different Approach to Teaching Grammar

I recently went to a Secondary Reading Conference that talked about how to teach grammar. Traditionally, we have been doing a lot of "editing" skills (think daily warm-ups fixing grammar). This type of lesson works well for students who are reading outside of class because they are reading and seeing good examples of grammar every day.

For our current students (who are not reading a lot outside of class), they need to see good examples of writing before we expect them to be able to edit.

The book "Everday Editing" by Jeff Anderson discusses how to switch our grammar model to help students learn grammar through great writing (I have the book if anybody wants to look at it). The model works like this:

1. Invitation to Notice: Students look a great writing and notice similarities or why the writing is a good example.

2. Invitation to Imitate: Students take the sentences of good writing and replace key components. 

3. Invitation to Revise: Students are invited to rewrite sentences using the concept they are learning.

4. Invitation to Edit: Students now look at poor samples and correct errors.

5. Invitation to Write: Now that students have been through all the steps, they are ready to write their own sentences/paragraphs.

A school district got together and worked on creating grammar units using this model:

Go to any of the grade levels on the right, then click on:

Grade Level Minilessons for Grammar, Mechanics, and Instruction

Each lesson comes with a 5-day lesson overview along with a PowerPoint Presentation.

I have also used this format to teach other skills such as quoting evidence (click here).

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Using Group resources in Schoology for collaboration

by Kirsten Fletcher

While most of our staff are lucky enough to have collaborative course-alike teams, many of our smaller programs have teachers who have no one else in the building to help them plan, write assessments, create activities, etc. This blog post is for all of us loners! (Of course, it is also useful to all PLCs who use Schoology and like to collaborate.)

As a French teacher in a small program, I never have a course-alike team in the building. I have learned to survive by relying on my colleagues throughout the district. Together, we created a Schoology group where we house shared resources. We might not all implement the same plans at the same pace, but we do have an awesome collection of teacher-created resources at the click of a mouse. This has the added benefit of acting as a back-up of important files. The Schoology group is especially helpful when a new colleague joins the team. We don't have to find and share individual files. We just add him or her to the Schoology group and everything is already there.

Here's how it works. Log in to your Schoology account. Create a Schoology group. Have your colleagues join and make everyone an administrator. Then within that group, create a shared resource folder.

Create a Schoology group

Create folders in the group's Resources

Agree on a protocol for organizing your folders. The district French team, for example, created a folder for each level of language (French 1, French 2...). Within each of those folders, we created folders for each unit of instruction. Then we broke down our documents into Vocabulary resources, Grammar, Assignments, Summative Assessments, etc. Once we had a common system of organization, we took the time to upload our favorite materials (in .doc format so colleagues can revise).

Organized by units of instruction
Types of activities within each unit

Now that the system is in place, we continue to add new materials during workshop time as well as throughout the year. I took a class last summer with a colleague on flipping the classroom and the two of us created Schoology grammar checklists for every unit in first semester of French 2. We shared these with the group so everyone can use them and no one has to duplicate the work. When one of us creates a new formative quiz in Schoology, a writing prompt with a Schoology rubric, or a video for a flipped lesson, we upload it to the appropriate folder and let our colleagues know that there is a cool new resource. This has been such a time saver!
Share anything: files, videos, quizzes, discussions or assignments (with rubrics), test bank questions...
I'd like to offer a quick shout-out to my amazing district French team: Effie Kalkounos (EGHS), Sara Kahle-Ruiz and Sharon Horwath (RMHS), Kathy Wilkens and Jenna Sandstead (PHS), Barbara Meyer and Zaya Denardo (BGHS), Elyse Hoffman (WHS), Betsy Noble and Valerie Miceli (JHHS). They are all amazing and creative educators who inspire me to be a better teacher. Merci, mes amies!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

To Read or Not to Read? Can Shakespeare fit in a Standards-Based English Curriculum?

Recently I have been involved in a lot of conversations about Standards-Based Grading and what that looks like in an English class. These meaningful conversations have also forced me to ask myself a lot of difficult questions. If I am working to implement SBG, does that imply that I should only be teaching skills and not the content? Is the text we are selecting an appropriate vehicle for helping students access, learn, and master the skills? Can the average, non-AP student practice and demonstrate mastery of reading skills while reading Shakespeare?

In having these conversations with colleagues and friends, I have discovered that many schools have removed Shakespeare from their English courses, at least at the regular level. This realization makes me incredibly sad for those students and those teachers. Not only will those students be missing out on the cultural relevancy of Shakespeare’s works, but they are also missing an amazing opportunity to see that reading skills are the necessary key to unlocking and appreciating the true meaning of a text.

We are currently reading Macbeth in my Sophomore World Literature & Composition classes, and I believe that it has been an amazing text to use for a skills-based curriculum. Because the text is difficult and the comprehension does not come easy, students are forced to closely analyze the language, literary devices, word choice, themes, etc. in order to have any real understanding of the play. 

One of my colleagues, Matt Snow, shared with me an entirely skills-based scene analysis activity that he uses at the honors level. Students are required to read for conflict, sequence of events, cause and effect, key quotes, literary terms, symbols, themes, inferences, and predictions. The first time I showed it to my regular students, they were pretty scared. Even though we had practiced all of these skills with other texts, they thought there was no way they could possibly be successful when the same practice was applied to such a difficult text. I am not going to lie, it was not easy for them. I had to do a lot of facilitating and guiding the first time through, but I have gradually been able to pull away and put all of the responsibility on the kids. They really had to work together with their groups and grind through some of the tougher questions, but it was amazing to watch. By repeating this practice with several parts of the play, their mastery of the skills has grown in conjunction with their mastery of the content.

I have rarely seen students as proud of their work as they were with this skills-based activity, and it provided me with some really clear formative feedback on their reading skills. More importantly, it gave my students such a great sense of accomplishment knowing that they could use their reading skills to tackle the subtleties, nuances, and deeper meanings of a text that they could not even begin to comprehend on the first read. There is a reason that Shakespeare has been read in English classes for so long, and I think his plays definitely still have a place in a Standards-Based Grading curriculum. 

Student Samples: 


For an additional blog post about teaching Shakespeare through graphic novels, check out this post!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Too many questions...

By Mark Heintz

I have been asking a few questions lately.  Do we believe all students can learn the course objectives? Many people and myself included respond to that question, if the students are placed correctly.  So my next question is, if all students are placed correctly shouldn't they all get an A's? If we want all students to know our content and master our skills, then shouldn't all students get A's? Can a student pass my class if they don't know ALL the content and master ALL the skills?

Do students only not get A's because they are lazy or improperly placed?  Is it a problem if all students get an A? Have I set up my course so only hard workers or the incredibly bright get A's?

How does a student progress at a normal rate? What is a normal rate?  If you don’t know the normal pacing at a standard, then if you inflate grades to move along a student, then is it a disservice to the students? Does the grade become what I do or what the student can do?  Then, what does a grade represent? Should grades exist? Or should we just report on the standard?

If you feel like you just want to back out of these line of questioning, here is an entertaining video for you.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Standards-Based Grading takeaways

By The DTC Team,

Today the DTC instructional team attended the second in a series of in-person workshops focusing on Standards-based grading as presented by Lee Ann Jung and Thomas Guskey and hosted by IL ASCD and District 214.

This is a brief summary of some of the topics covered:
  • Inclusive Grading:
    • We explored the differences between accommodations and modifications for assessments.  While many can be sorted into either category, ultimately the questions to ask are what are your standards and and what are you truly assessing?
    • If something that you’re not measuring impacts what you do measure, you no longer have a valid measurement of student learning.
    • The students who need the most feedback about their learning are frequently the ones who receive the least: Artificially inflating grading demotivates students. 
    • Modifications should not be permanent--they may change at any point. 
    • Can you say that a grade is based on modified expectations? Office of Civil Rights: Response Here.
  • Standards and scales:
    • Limit the number of standards students are expected to master.  When determining what to assess, consider what is necessary, fundamental and urgent?
    • Adding a number does not necessarily make a goal measurable. For example, 80% does not necessarily equal mastery. Instead consider a skill along the lines of "student can identify all site words within 2 seconds each."
    •  Intervention planning should be targeted, consistent, regular, and shared by multiple parties who are invested in the student's life.
    •  Teams should identify skills, determining the setting(s), and describe how they will be measured.

More information and resources can be found at

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Why Should We Attend Conferences?

By Kim Miklusak

I am thankful in our district that we have the opportunity to be reimbursed for most--if not all--of the cost of attending some conferences both locally and nationally.  At the end of November I had the opportunity to attend #NCTE15, the Annual Convention for the National Council of Teachers of English.  It was the first time I had attended this conference since I was in college!  Last summer, some of our instructional tech teachers had the opportunity to attend ISTE. Right now, Linda Ashida is attending and presenting at the Learn Forward Conference with Lori Abbott.  These are just a few examples of the many opportunities our teachers have had recently (please share more!).

One thing that struck me most about attending NCTE was the open collaboration and sharing between not only presenters and audiences, but also between people in the audience; connections made between elementary, high school, and university staff; and the people connected on Twitter through the hashtag.  I was able to attend session strands in rhetoric, writing, and social justice--three topics I have been focusing on in my own professional development this year.  Currently I am working on a blog series to summarize and share what I have learned.

Ultimately the goal of attending these conferences doesn't end just at personal professional development, but it then continues to also multiply the learning back at our own school.  I was able to bring materials back to my team and to suggest other ideas for our curriculum and instruction.  I think so often teachers get bogged down with the day-to-day and year-to-year demands of the classroom and lives.  It's vital, I believe, for each of us to--as often as we can--get out, share our ideas, feel affirmation for what we are doing, be challenged by new ideas, and learn in order to grow.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Introducing new vocabulary, concepts

by Kirsten Fletcher

Where would we be in this profession if we didn't have colleagues who shared great ideas? I saw this on Twitter the other day, and it made me feel a little more justified in sharing ideas that weren't mine.

So in the spirit of collaboration, here are two fun ideas that I implemented recently to "hook" students into new material.

I started with a word wall. I saw a word wall hanging in Anna Izzo's classroom a few weeks ago and really liked the visual reminder of advanced vocabulary that her Italian students could use as a reference. When I asked her about it, she said the idea actually came from Mark Heintz. Who knows where he got it? Collaboration!

At any rate, Anna had students brainstorm vocabulary on a topic, look up words they thought would be useful for discussing the topic in Italian, then write them on butcher paper that she posted in the classroom. Sounds simple, right? So last week when I started my new AP theme on science and technology, we began by brainstorming, looking up words that students found useful, and making our class list. The process of writing the list generated some good discussion (and spelling practice for our class secretary).

From here we moved on to the quote activity. I learned this from Dawn Samples, an amazing world language educator and administrator who recently led a workshop at the Fall ICTFL (Illinois Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages) Conference. Basically, the quote activity works like this.
  • I searched for quotes in French pertaining to science and technology. 
  • I printed out enough that I had at least two quotes per student. 
  • I seated students in a circle, and each student started with two quotes. 
  • They read both, then kept the one they liked best / agreed with and passed the other. They continued reading and passing for several minutes. 
  • Next, students paired up and read their quote to their partner. They had to justify why they chose it and make a connection. 
  • They did this with several partners before reporting out to the class. 

I feel like the quote activity allows students to interact with material in so many ways. The reading step not only exposes them to new vocabulary in context, but also encourages them to think critically. You could even use pictures, infographics, cartoons, etc. instead of quotes. The partner sharing gives them the opportunity to articulate their ideas and demonstrate comprehension. It enhances both listening and speaking skills.

On this day, we ended the activity by adding any new words we learned from the quotes to our word wall. Since then, we have continued to refer back to the word wall with any new reading or listening activity to keep the vocabulary relevant. We have added many useful words that I would never have thought to put on a vocab list. Since the word wall is hanging in the room, I have referred to it in lower levels as well. It's never too early to expand our vocabulary!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Getting Formative Feedback as a Teacher

By: Rachel Barry

Formative Assessment has been a focus of our Leader Learners, PLT, and Collab Lab meetings this year.  We have been discussing the importance of providing students written feedback and how that means more to students than a grade in the grade book.  In some of my graduate school courses, we discussed the importance of student input in their education.  When thinking about these two ideas, I realized that I need to ask my students for formative feedback in order to best meet their needs.

To obtain this feedback, I created a Google Form consisting of 5 open-ended response questions, with each question required to be answered.  I didn't take down their names so that students would feel comfortable in being honest with their answers.  Here is a list of the questions that I asked:

1.  What is your favorite part of math class?

2.  What do you dislike about math class?

3.  What motivates you in school?

4.  What are your feelings towards grades? (Are you more inclined to work hard? Do they discourage you? Would you rather not have a gradebook?)

5. Do you like working at your own pace? (Or would you rather the whole class move at the same pace, even if it means it is too fast for some and too slow for others?)

The question that I was most curious about was Question 5, as this is a new way of learning for many students.  You can learn about this individualized learning model that I have been implementing in this previous blog post.  I will be honest that I was apprehensive of this process, and I was nervous that students would vocalize their dislike of the model.  Upon looking at the data, 73 of my 90 students completed the Google Form.  Of the 73 students that completed the form, 51 responded positively to working at their own pace, 15 responded negatively, and 7 were indifferent.  

So, what should I do with this information?  Going forward, I have decided to find a happy medium.  For students that are comfortable working at their own pace, they can continue to do so, as the resources are available to them on Schoology.  For the students who would prefer to work as a class, I will pull them aside in small groups to go over the notes.  This hybrid format may work out positively for both groups of students.  My hesitation is that it may take too much time away from my answering of students' questions.  I am going to see how this works in the next unit and reevaluate then!

Friday, December 4, 2015

Getting an Outsider's Perspective

Written by Quinn Loch

At the last EGLLT meeting one of our focuses was on setting clear targets for our students. We saw lots of examples of how teachers communicate their learning targets to their students and it's always great to see how other teachers in the school do things in their classrooms. Sometimes I feel trapped in a bubble and it is inspiring to see things from another angle.

It got me wondering if my students could understand the learning targets that I provided them. This understanding is crucial for the student. If students don't know what they're aiming for, how can they succeed and meet the goals that you set for them? It can be difficult to step back and get an objective look at your own learning targets, so I turned to my colleagues from other content areas for feedback. If my colleagues couldn't follow or understand the learning targets, how could my students?

Inspired by Mark Heintz, I printed the learning targets for one of the freshman biology units along with some of the assessments, skills practice, and readings for the unit and taped them up to the whiteboard wall in the Collab Lab.

Over the next couple of days, some of the DTC's made comments and asked some questions. It was apparent that not everything was clear. There are areas where I am lacking specificity and some of the language isn't very student-friendly, especially for a freshman student. Of course I want my students to know words and descriptors like "differentiate", but I can communicate things in a more straightforward and unambiguous manner that would lead to less confusion.

Some of the changes are easy fixes, but should go a long way in leading my students' to success. The feedback that I received gave me a fresh perspective and would encourage my colleagues to do the same. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Comprehensible input for everyone

by Kirsten Fletcher

What resources do you use in your classroom? Are they at the appropriate level for your students? If not, how can you modify your instruction so that all students can master content?  Reading Mark Heintz's blog post on ditching the textbook yesterday made me think of the principle of comprehensible input.
In world language instruction, comprehensible input is a key concept based on the research of Stephen Krashen. It basically states that students learn best when the language they hear is just above their current level of comprehension. In other words, they are given just enough new information to challenge them to build upon their background knowledge, but not so much that they become discouraged and give up.

There is definitely more to Stephen Krashen's hypothesis, but my focus here is on how to make all learning comprehensible to students. Why do we continue to assign reading passages to students that are so far above their ability level? If the material is too easy, they gain nothing. The same is true if it is too difficult; they can not access the content and therefore can not link it to prior knowledge. Of course, we can try to bridge the gap by providing visuals, graphic organizers, examples, etc. However, it might be worth our time to re-evaluate the input itself.
I recently attended the ICTFL (Illinois Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) conference where I participated in a session led by Emily Walk. She taught strategies for presenting new information through comprehensible input. While many of the tips were specific to language, here are some suggestions from that session that are universal. Many of these are not new, but they are good reminders of how to make content more comprehensible to our students. Hopefully you'll find these useful:
  • Always make content meaningful and relevant.
  • Always incorporate multiple learning modes in direct instruction (visual, audio, kinesthetic).
  • Instead of memorizing vocab lists, have students order and/or rank concepts and justify their reasoning.
  • Instead of starting with the vocab list and then giving fill-in activities, start with vocabulary embedded in reading. An easy way to do this is to fill in those blanks for students to see if they can understand terms from context before even studying them.
  • Conduct class surveys about concepts and have students create graphs to explain / summarize.
  • Break up sentences into two parts where students match the first half with the second half (i.e. cause - effect).
  • Before fill-ins, try matching opposites, true/false or logical/illogical exercises.
  • Have students illustrate concepts they have read.
  • Pick a side: have students take a stand by moving to one side of the room or the other.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A(P) World without a textbook

By Mark Heintz

Let me preface this blog post by stating that I had one of my most successful years in my AP World History course as measured by pass rate and the number of students who took the exam.  Despite that success rate, some things nagged at me.  I assigned a lot of work. Most of it was very targeted, I could tell if the students completed it, and it prompted them with feedback to help them move forward in the learning process. However, it was a lot of work, and I don't feel that a student should spend that much time outside of class.  So, every time I asked my students how much time they spent on the course, their responses wounded me.

Here is what I wrote about the textbook last spring: The book our district adopted is a challenge.  To be fair, I was on the textbook adoption committee and approved the book. But, I digress.  First, the book is at a college reading level.  Second, the book assumes the students have a great deal of background knowledge.  The book is great for students who know a lot of history, but almost all of my students are taking their first world history course. The students spend a lot of time outside of class trying to decode the text book.  No matter what pre-reading strategies are done in the classroom, it is still very difficult for my students to comprehend the material.

Last year, my attempt to help students centered around creating materials to help them with understanding the textbook, but I didn't feel good about that. Why was I doing all of this creation and instruction around reading a textbook? I would rather have spent time on primary sources or targeted feedback.  This year, I took a hard look at the AP World course guide. 

Furthering the issue, this year my students have a lower average on their Plan reading score and Plan composite scores by over one point compared to last year. So, the book is a major challenge and often pushes kids to believe they cannot achieve. First quarter has been a struggle. To say the least, the first two unit exams did not go well at all. 

In response to those poor test scores, I broke down each objective for the students.  It was very tedious, but incredibly rewarding. I found I taught too many things and neglected others.  But, more importantly, I now know what exactly I want the students to know. In a class that is meant to cover the entire history of the world in one year, it is easier when you know what you want your students to know. 

It is not easy to decipher what the College Board is looking for. Here is what the College Board provides.
I broke it down by the following:

I then have the students complete objective checks in class from time to time to see if they need more instruction on the topic. Here is what that quiz looks like:

I got the idea from the science department. They have been doing some fantastic work with breaking down what they want their students to know.  I give the students the objectives and as we go through the lessons, we fill out the answers. Then they just simply have to repeat. The problem with the course is that there is a lot of information to digest. So, it is a cumulative effect. The best part is, the students have a self-reflection built right into the objective check. Do you know it or do you not know it? The kids then know which objective they need to go back and study for the next check. 

I posted earlier about Schoology checklists and how to leverage them. I created 10-20 questions for each objective. So, the one above really has two objectives, and I created 14 questions for the Byzantine and 12 questions for the Sui, Tang and Song.  These quizzes serve as their homework. The quizzes provide instant feedback and a short reading that can redirect them to the correct answer.  

I have ditched the textbook as the core homework. I do use it as a resource from time to time in class, and it is always available to students if they want to read it.  My students are now reading more primary sources. I still employ pre-reading strategies to have the students access the primary sources. My students are writing more than they ever have before.  They are writing their understandings of the content. They are analyzing prompts more frequently.  They are doing the work.  

The big question is, does it work? I have given three summative unit exams with 50 questions each this year: River Valleys, Classical, and Post-Classical.  The average on the River Valley test was 31/50.  The average on the Classical test was 32.89.  After which I made all of the changes described above.  The success...the class average on the Post-Classical test was 40.6.  My students are doing less and getting more out of it.