5 Reasons to Assign Collaborative Writing

5 reasons to assign collaborative writing in the middle school and high school English language arts classroom
As a high school English teacher, I assign my students a quite a bit of writing assignments over the course of the year. Some assignments are quick 3-sentence responses, some are literary analysis paragraphs, some are narrative responses, and some are complete, multi-paragraph essays. In addition to assigning and assessing individual writing, I also assign several collaborative writing projects throughout the year.

While it is essential to assess student writing on an individual level, collaborative writing projects are extremely beneficial for students...and even teachers.

1. Built-in peer editing
When students work together to produce one well-written piece of writing, they take each other's’ best ideas and incorporate them into the final piece. Not only do students have two (or more) sets of eyes looking at the paper, but students also draft and revise as they go.

2. Less grading
When students partner up to produce one paragraph or one essay, that reduces the grading load in half! As an English teacher, I easily get more than 150 papers to grade at a time. When that workload is drastically cut in half, I can provide meaningful feedback to my students much quicker!

5 reasons to assign collaborative writing in the middle school and high school English language arts classroom
3. Students learn from one another
Teachers are not the only ones doing the teaching in a classroom. Students also teach one another, especially with group work. Assigning a collaborative writing assignment is a great way to help students learn from their peers.

4. Learn to collaborate
As much as some students loathe group work, it is a necessity. Many careers and jobs require people to work together. Assigning a partner essay provides students with another opportunity to learn how to collaborate to produce the best work possible. A collaborative writing assignment is another opportunity for students to learn to work together.

5. More individualized time
When students write collaboratively, teachers have more time in class to provide meaningful and individualized instruction. As students write their papers in class, there are fewer papers to read during those precious instructional minutes. This leaves you with more time to help students improve their drafts as they write.

3 Poems Every English Class Should Analyze

Much like short stories, poems are great analysis fodder because they can usually be read within one sitting and there is often a surprising amount of meaning hidden within a few scant words. Written below are three poems which I believe every English class should analyze.

Each and All by Ralph Waldo Emerson
The speaker of this poem observes both society and nature and realizes the truth that, “Nothing is fair or good alone.” The speaker supports this conclusion by reminiscing about how the sparrow’s singing and the delicate seashells he found by the shore were beautiful in nature yet seemed to lose their immaculateness when he took them home, away from their original context. Within the final stanzas of the poem, the speaker relents that logic and experience are not enough to understand nature and yields that true beauty can only be found within the “perfect whole.”

Because I Could Not Stop for Death by Emily Dickinson
The speaker of this poem embarks on a coach ride with a personification of death as the horses slowly take the speaker “towards eternity.” Dickinson uses balanced imagery to paint an almost comforting representation of death although one stanza in particular could be considered foreboding as it refers to the speaker’s house as a “Swelling of the Ground--.” What is particularly useful about this poem is how open it is to interpretation and is sure to elicit varied responses from students in regards to Dickinson’s personal interpretation of the nature of death.

In Just by E.E. Cummings
This poem is just plain fun to teach because it shows how literary devices extend beyond just metaphors and similes. Cummings stimulates the senses through the structure of his poem such as creating the effect of the actual sound and range of a whistle with the line, “whistles          far           and wee.” Despite how short this poem is, students might take a whole session just to discuss all ways the poem’s irregular structure work towards its and the reader’s understanding of the scene which Cummings masterfully and jubilantly displays for the readers.

Here are some resources to help you teach poetry:
Annotating Poetry
SMARTePlans Digital Poetry Interactive Notebook
Academic Vocabulary: Words About Poetry
FREE Blank Verse Poetry Project
FREE Universal Theme Analysis Poetry Project

3 Tips for Teaching Editing

3 Tips for Teaching Editing in the Secondary English Language Arts Classroom
As an English teacher, I find few things more cringe-worthy than looking over a student’s paper and seeing they’ve made easily avoidable mistakes. Such errors might include forgetting to capitalize a name, using “your” when they meant “you’re”, or even misspelling the title of the book they spent several days reading. I feel that the reason that most of these problems arise is that students place all their energies in getting the assignment finished and avoid investing time in the art of revising.

Here are three tips I hope you will pass along to your students on how to become better editors and turn in more polished papers.

3 Tips for Teaching Editing in the Secondary English Language Arts Classroom1. Read for a specific error
I speak from personal experience from back when I was a student that a lot of grammatical errors are overlooked because students only reread their writing once. They place too much trust in themselves that they can find every error in a single scan. While it is likely they will find the majority of errors that first time, it is equally likely that several mistakes will fly under their radar and lower their grade. To avoid missing out on easy points , students should reread their papers at least three times, each time looking for a specific error. For example, the first read could be for punctuation, the next one for grammar, and a third time for checking that the assignment answers the prompt without tangents. By looking for specific errors, a student’s editing will be more focused and thus more likely to catch simple mistakes.

2. Get a fresh pair of eyes
I remember writing once for a school assignment -much to my embarrassment- “must of” when I meant “must’ve.” The biggest pitfall with self-editing is that our brains trick us into believing we wrote what we meant to write, essentially making our errors invisible to us. It can be helpful to ask someone you trust to take a look at your paper after you carefully self-edited. It is also beneficial to ask your reader if he/she could follow your line of thinking in answering the assignment prompt and readability. This is where peer editing helps students produce better writing.

3. Read your paper out loud
Earlier I mentioned how self-editing can be tricky because our brains have the tendency to read what we meant to write. To avoid such editorial entanglements, instruct students to read their papers aloud to themselves. When a student verbalizes their writing, they are more likely to catch grammatical errors because they won’t sound right when spoken. It might even be beneficial to students to present their essay to the class in the form of a speech as part of an in-class editing session.

Three Short Stories Every High Schooler Should Read

3 short stories every high school student should read
Whoever coined the term, “Brevity is the the soul of wit” must have had short stories in mind. I love teaching and reading short stories in class because talented authors can create truly powerful messages and themes in just a few scant pages, all of which can be read and discussed within a single class period. Here are three short stories which I believe every high schooler should read.
3 short stories every high school student should read
Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’ Connor
This short story revolves around a recent college graduate, Julian, who is escorting his mother to her exercise classes because she is too afraid to take the bus alone after integration of African Americans into white society. O’Connor masterfully portrays the perspectives of the two generations: the mother’s blatant racism and how her views are stuck in the past and Julian’s more progressive, yet still superficial rationalization of reality. What makes this story so compelling is how it reveals to the reader how liking or “respecting” someone simply for their appearance is not much better than hating them for it and how prejudice is not always blatantly recognizable.
3 short stories every high school student should read
There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury
It is difficult to pick one gem out of the treasure trove that is the collection of short stories by Ray Bradbury, but I found this story especially powerful as well as haunting. The story involves a fully-automated house which goes about its daily duties despite having no inhabitants to tend to. It is slowly revealed through post-apocalyptic imagery that the house, and in fact, the whole neighborhood, was decimated by nuclear war leaving nothing behind but charred remains and a radioactive glow. Come evening time, the house performs a reading of one of its former  inhabitants favorite poems, There Will Come Soft Rains, which describes how nature will continue on even after mankind has killed itself off. The story is a vivid reminder of how mankind’s legacy is sure to outlive us all, which might not necessarily be a good thing.

I use this There Will Come Soft Rains Short Story Activities resource in my classroom when I teach the story. I also use these Ray Bradbury Bell Ringers to get my students thinking about the themes and motifs he includes in his writing.

The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant
Much like the previously mentioned Flannery O’Connor story, The Necklace expounds on the theme of judging by appearances as well as warning against the pitfalls of seeking happiness in material wealth. The story revolves around Mathilde Loisel, a woman who constantly bemoans her lowly economic status as she believes her charm and beauty are more deserving of the upper echelons of high society. When her overly-accommodating husband manages to gain an invitation to a formal ball, Mathilde splurges on a dress and borrows a piece of jewelry from one of her wealthy friends: a beautiful diamond necklace. The necklace proves to be the central symbol surrounding the story’s theme as well as Mathilde’s downfall.

Here is my Activities Bundle for The Necklace.

Lord of the Flies Map Project

Lord of the Flies map project with close reading and analysis.
I recently assigned my students a project for Lord of the Flies where they had to compile evidence from the novel to create a map of the island setting within the novel, and it was one of the most magical days in my classroom so far this year.

I gave my students only one day to complete this map project in class, and every single student was participating, thinking critically, and looking for clues within the text to help with the project.

Lord of the Flies map project with close reading and analysis.
In order to create such a successful day in the classroom, I front-loaded this activity quite extensively. About a week and a half before the map making activity, I instructed my students to record quotations about the setting and layout of the island. They recorded quotes and page numbers, and they also sketched out some of the setting as we read. As a bell-ringer on one of the days before the assignment, I assigned a couple pages from the novel as close reading and had my students write down two examples of imagery that vividly described the setting. At the end of the bell-ringer, several students shared their findings with the class.

We completed this assignment after reading the first three chapters of the novel. I wanted to assign this project early enough that it would help students understand the layout of the island, but I also wanted to make sure that they had enough text to work with.

Before actually assigning the map project, I made sure that my students were ready for the assignment and that they had enough details. Since so many maps of the island are available online, I wanted to make this an assignment that was solely based on textual evidence, and the only way to ensure that students didn’t look at examples online was to have this project be an in-class, one-day assignment.
My class worked in small groups of four to six students. In addition to producing a colorful and textually-accurate map, each group also had to complete a chart with properly cited quotes, and then match up those quotes to the details on the map.

At any given time in the class, there was always something to do. Students could look for details in the text, or they could write the quotes on the chart, or they could draw details on the map, or they could color the map. Every student was engaged, actively participating, and interacting with the text.

After the assignment was over, I used the maps and the masks my students created as another project to create a bulletin board for the rest of the unit of study. You can download the FREE Lord of the Flies bulletin board letters for your classroom HERE. Both the Lord of the Flies Map Project and Mask Project are included in my Lord of the Flies Teaching Unit.

The Most Confusing Punctuation and How to Use Them

The Most Confusing Punctuation and How to Use Them
After reading thousands of essays, quick writes, and classroom assignments throughout my teaching career, I’ve noticed a trend in student writing: students have a difficult time with properly punctuation their papers. This is especially true for punctuation that goes beyond end marks and commas. Here are the most commonly misused forms of punctuation I have found while reading student papers along with suggestions for how to best use them.

Colons :

Colons can do so much more than separate hours from minutes. They bring emphasis to a word or phrase while cutting down on clutter. As an example I could write:

There was only one thing that could make Mary happy today: a tub of Ben and Jerry’s slathered with chocolate syrup.

The colon makes the reader take notice of what comes next and even helps keep down my word count by taking place of the word “namely” or similar transitional phrases.  But it can still do more: it can separate a title from a subtitle, it can provide emphasis for a word or phrase; it can present a quotation, but most commonly, it is used to introduce lists, as I have just done.

Dashes -

The dash is much like a colon in that it brings emphasis to what follows. Most grammarians state that the dash’s power to provide emphasis is one step above a comma while still a step below a colon. Dashes are best used for embedding a thought in the middle of a sentence:

Mary’s children - all ten of them - struggled to find a place to sit in the back of the cramped minivan.

Or for providing a conclusion to a sentence:

Mary took a deep breath, opened her eyes, and stared down at the pregnancy test - positive.

Semicolons ;

The semicolon, best known for its role in the winky emoticon, ;-) , is probably the most misused form of punctuation by students, and honestly I can’t blame them. The semicolon is tricky because it is literally both a period and a comma at the same time, making a casual writer question if it is supposed to serve as a short breath between thoughts or a complete stop.

From my own writing experience, I like to think of the semicolon as a stronger version of the comma. I use the semicolon to link two independent clauses, thoughts that can stand as their own sentences, to show a close relationship between the two ideas. For example:

Some people think that the semicolon is esoteric and pretentious; I think it is versatile.

Semicolons are also useful for avoiding confusion in lists that use a lot of commas:

Most people today think the semicolon is either outdated, confusing, or useless; but others, mostly English teachers, still see its value.

For aesthetic reasons, the semicolon can also be used for preventing the overuse of commas in a paragraph or sentence. Have your students play around with this piece of punctuation to see how it can help spice up their writing.

Thankful to be a Teacher

Reasons why I am Thankful to be a Teacher
When I was younger, I never thought I would be a teacher. Sure, I used to play school with my younger cousins and siblings when I was younger. I would even draw out worksheets and write questions for them to answer about books I read or PBS shows I taped on a VHS cassette especially for my “school”, but I never gave a thought to teaching as a profession. Not once in high school, or college, or even in my first couple years after college did I ever think I would be a teacher.

Reasons why I am Thankful to be a Teacher
I wanted to work in media and communications, and I began my professional career in public relations working the high-tech circuit. I had many big-name tech companies as clients. I wrote press releases and organized media tours. I even traveled throughout the US and abroad assisting my clients in their media need. I loved working in this demanding field, but it didn’t fulfill me in the way that I always dreamt a career should.

After working for a few years in the private sector, I decided to make a change in my life. I decided to become a teacher. I went back to school and earned my teaching credential (in California, you must earn this after completing your baccalaureate degree) and my Master’s in Education during the middle of a recession. Teaching jobs were scarce, but I was very fortunate and I was hired to begin work the very next school year.

Several years have passed since my first year as a high school English teacher. I remember all of the struggles that came with being a first, a second, and even a third-year teacher. But even in those first few, and quite challenging, years, I remember how lucky and grateful I was for having the wonderful opportunity to be a teacher -especially a teacher in a low socioeconomic area where the odds were stacked against my students. I was thankful for the opportunity to make a difference and contribute something positive to society.

So this Thanksgiving break I am reflecting on everything for which I am thankful. And I must say, we teachers sure have a lot to be thankful for. Yes, the job can be challenging and stressful and downright tedious at time, but reaching just one child and making a true difference in just one child’s life makes all of the stress worthwhile.

  • I am thankful for my students who teach me new things every day.
  • I am thankful for my students because they make me laugh.
  • I am thankful for being challenged every day.
  • I am thankful for being able to share beautiful stories and poems with a new generation.
  • I am thankful that I have the opportunity to give back to communities.
  • I am thankful that I work in a great district that supports all students and teachers.
  • I am thankful that I can build a positive rapport with students.
  • I am thankful that I can teach kindness, forgiveness, and acceptance.
  • I am thankful for all of the wonderful parents who support my decisions in the classroom.
  • I am thankful for the opportunity to see 150 beautiful, smiling faces each day and call them my kids.
Reasons why I am Thankful to be a Teacher
There are so many things to be thankful for this Thanksgiving holiday, and being a teacher is definitely one of them.

4 Simple Tips to Improve Student Writing

4 ways to help high school and middle school students improve their writing.
Although what is considered to be “good” writing is lofty and subjective, we wouldn’t be English teachers if we didn’t try to improve our students’ writing skills. Here are some general tips and suggestions that can help polish any paper.

1. Use just and that sparingly
Most writers have words which they repeat without noticing throughout a paper, much like how some teenagers will say ‘like’ every other word or how an inexperienced public speaker will pepper their speeches with ‘um’s. For students, I find the most common, ineffective words they repeat are just and that. You might suggest your students do a ctrl + f  search for these words on their computers before they turn in a piece of writing and weed out as many of them as they can.

4 ways to help high school and middle school students improve their writing.
2. Place emphatic words near the beginning and at the end of the sentence
The eyes of readers tend to be drawn towards the white space at the beginning as well as at  the end of a sentence. As such, it is natural that the most exciting, crucial words are placed strategically in these positions. It takes a lot of practice and reading to get a natural feel for what makes a word emphatic, but generally, they’re the words which describe the most important aspects of the sentence and what it is trying to get across.

For example: “I have a dream,” said Dr. King, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” In this sentence, emphasis is placed on Dr. King’s hope, his dream, that people of color would one day be treated as human beings, judged solely on the content of their character - a beautiful sentiment and alliteration. Dr. King’s strong sense of emphasis can be found throughout his speeches and are a big part of what made him such an effective orator.

3. Use adverbs to modify
The problem with adverbs is that most students use them to state the obvious, as in: “She whispered quietly.” A reader can already assume that if someone is whispering, they’re doing it quietly and therefore the writer has wasted precious space. However, if someone were to go against my expectations and whisper loudly, that is something I would want to know. In short, try to use adverbs to modify the reader’s perspective of the verb rather than state what we can already assume. This type of descriptive writing enhances one's writing.

4. When to be passive and when to be active
When a subject is active, it acts, as in: “Jimmy ran for his life.” In this sentence the verb, ran, was performed by Jimmy, the subject. When a subject is passive, it is acted upon, as in: “The students were taught.” Both the active and passive voice have their uses. In general, students should use the active voice because it helps make writing more concise and speeds a narrative along. However, passive voice helps bring attention to the receivers of actions. For instance, if I wanted to write about how lazy students get near the end of the year, the passive voice can emphasize how the students are acted upon rather than acting themselves. For example: “The students were reluctant to start.” Both types of voices have a purpose in a paper, but it takes a lot of patience and practice to learn how to use both effectively.