Hooray for dialogue journals!

This summer, I listened to an episode from the Cult of Pedagogy podcast in which the host, Jennifer Gonzalez, interviewed veteran teacher Liz Galarza on how she uses dialogue journals in her classroom to build teacher-student relationships.  Essentially, Galarza explained how she keeps a running dialogue with each of her students in the form of letters.  She writes a letter to each student at the beginning of the year, and they respond to her with their own letter.  Then she responds to that letter, and then they respond, and so on and so on.  If a student misspelled a word, Galarza would intentionally use that same word, spelled correctly, in her response; if a student struggled with using commas to separate ideas, Galarza would write a sentence in her letter that modeled that sentence structure.  Finally, she said that she always thanked each student for their letter at the end of her responses.

As I am always looking for ways to build and strengthen relationships with my students, I immediately gravitated towards this idea of using dialogue journals in my 6th grade English Language Arts classroom this year.  Galarza and her students handwrite their dialogue journals, but since my school is 1 to 1 with technology and my handwriting becomes increasingly illegible the more I write over an extended period of time, I decided to house our dialogue journals in a running Google document that I created for each kid.

After three months of writing our dialogue journals on a weekly basis, here is an update of the experience thus far:

First, I am learning WAY more about my students’ interests and personalities than I have in my previous six years of teaching. One of my students practices magic in his free time. Another’s favorite movie is “Nacho Libre”. A girl I teach has more than seven pets, including a three-legged turtle. One boy just recently moved to the school at the end of last year, and he still misses all of his friends and family back east. Another girl has expressed to me how tired she is of living in a small town, and that she cannot wait to move to a big city when she gets older.

Every school year, teachers across the country start the first week with some sort of “getting to know you” activity in which they ask the students to tell them a little about themselves, usually in the form of a letter or poster.  The problem with this, however, is that’s really one of the only times that this type of experience occurs, which leaves teachers and students to build relationships through verbal interactions alone.  For many  students, that is not enough. I’ve had plenty of classes where I may say just a few words to some of my students, especially the ones that tend to be more reserved. These dialogue journals are creating windows for both my students and I to peer into each week, and they’ve taken that token first week of school activity and turned it into a living and breathing thing that is ongoing.

In addition to the relationship-building benefits, I’m seeing significant growth in both my students’ grammar and writing stamina.  Last week, I pointed out to numerous students how much their writing had improved from their first letter to me to the most recent. I’ve had multiple students go from not using a single period in their initial letter to me to being able to write a letter to me that doesn’t contain one run-on sentence.  It’s remarkable, and I know it’s the result of the modeling that I am doing for them in my letters to them, which is such a more engaging way to work on grammar as opposed to a mini lesson on run-on sentences.

My students are also writing more in their letters to me each week (for the most part). Like anything, writing improves with practice, and these journals provide students with low-pressure opportunities to work on their writing craft. By writing more on a regular basis with an authentic audience (me), they are becoming more comfortable at expressing themselves through written word.

Another benefit of the dialogue journals is that most of my students truly enjoy this activity. I set aside the first 15 to 20 minutes of class every Monday for dialogue journals, and students rush to get onto their docs so that they can read my latest letter to them and respond. Even though this has become an entrenched routine in our classroom, I still have students stopping me in the hall on Mondays to confirm that we are in fact doing our dialogue journals.

However, there are definitely a handful of students that need some additional prompting.  In my responses to my students, I try to ask two to three questions about things that they mentioned in their last letter to me so that they have somewhere to start when they write to me next.  I also add a fun question at the end of each letter like “What was the last show you watched on Netflix and why?” or “If you could be any animal, which would you be and why?” in an attempt to stimulate conversation.  Some students, though, either don’t have a lot to say, or they just aren’t that into writing out their responses, and I don’t get much in return from them.  With these kids, I continue to push them to write more by asking them follow-up questions that require them to explain their hobbies or trips to me in more detail, and I implore them to ask me questions as well as a way to promote conversation. Hopefully, we will have a breakthrough at some point this school year.

I should mention, too, that this activity does require some additional time and effort on my part.  In general, it takes me roughly 45 minutes to an hour to respond to dialogue journals for one class of twenty-something students.  Fortunately, I’m teaching in blocks this year in which I have the same group for both ELA and Social Studies, so I have far less students than I have in the past, which makes this less of a burden.  However, I know that many ELA teachers have anywhere from 90 to 150 students on their rosters, and writing weekly responses to each and everyone of them is simply not feasible.  If I had more students overall, like I did at my previous school, I’d probably have the students write in their dialogue journals on a bi-weekly basis.

Regardless of how many students I have on my rosters in the future, I will certainly still incorporate this activity into my classes because I’m finding it to be invaluable for both the relationship-building and writing benefits that my students are seeing.

 

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The importance of evolving in education

This week my parents introduced me to a new show on Netflix called Ugly Delicious, which stars five-star chef David Chang as he travels the world and introduces the audience to various culture’s foods while simultaneously exploring how those foods can help to connect and bring people together. I’ve only watched two episodes, but from what I’ve seen it’s fantastic.  One of the episodes in particular, “BBQ”, contained a quote from a Tennessee pitmaster that really resonated with me, especially in regards to teaching:

“If you want to be one of the best, then you need to be evolving and understand that you don’t know everything.”

What an incredibly insightful piece of advice that could actually be applied to basically any endeavor. As far as education goes, however, it’s critical that teachers are constantly evolving and honing their craft through trial and error because our students are so dynamic from year to year.  We cannot become complacent and continue to teach in the ways that we always have because that’s what works best for us.  Remember, it’s not about us; it’s about those twenty-something kids sitting in front of you each and every day.

The end of the year is an excellent time for reflection. While we have a breather, it’s important to think about our classes this year and revisit some of our pedagogical decisions. Like many of my colleagues, I am constantly scouring social media for inventive ways to engage students and present new material.  In the spirit of reflection, below are four new strategies that I used this year in the classroom on a semi-regular basis that I thought were the greatest additions to my repertoire:

  1. EdPuzzle

If your students have easy access to computers, or better yet your classroom is 1:1 with technology, then you’ve got to try using EdPuzzle to introduce new information to students. In a nutshell, you can take any video on youtube, load it into Edpuzzle and imbed questions throughout it so that as students are not just watching the video, but they are interacting with it as well. Edpuzzle already has tons of videos that teachers have created on any number of subjects that are currently available for use.  If you have your classes loaded up in Google Classroom, you can push these videos out as assignments and add them in as quick participation grades. The icing on the cake: all of this is free! I primarily used EdPuzzle this year before we began learning new concepts; essentially, I “flipped” my classroom, which really enhanced our discussions during the mini-lessons when we would cover these topics in greater detail because my students were able to bring some background knowledge to the discourse.

2. Co-constructive writing

Co-constructive writing is when the entire class creates a piece of writing together, with the students offering up ideas and the teacher serving simultaneously as both facilitator and typer.  My classes co-constructed argument essays after reading an informational text, and we also rewrote the ending of the Tell-Tale Heart from the perspective of one of the officers. I kept myself out of the writing process completely, and merely typed, revised and retyped what my students were saying, per their direction.  The kids really benefited from hearing their classmates’ thinking during the writing process, and they took full ownership over the task as they told me what to keep and what to get rid of from the writing.  As my students got more comfortable with this method of writing, I allowed them to co-construct pieces of writing in smaller groups.

3. One-minute book talks

While this strategy is incredibly simple, it’s highly effective. Students have one-minute to talk with a partner about a topic.  There are only three rules: 1) students must talk for at least 10 seconds, 2) students cannot talk over a minute, and 3) the partner cannot speak at all during this time.  I generally used this task at the end of our independent reading chunks as a way to help my students internalize what they had just read from their choice reading books, but it could easily be used with any content area. Obviously, it’s always good to give our students opportunities to talk in class, especially on-task talking (especially, especially when they are 7th graders).  But what I really love about this strategy is that it teaches students how to be good listeners, which is a skill that practically everyone needs to work on from time to time.

4. Vocabulary taboo

Vocabulary taboo might have been my favorite 15 minutes of class each week.  I usually used it on a Thursday as a review game since my students typically took vocabulary quizzes on Fridays.  Basically, you take notecards and write the vocabulary words on them in the middle in large print, preferably with a sharpie. Then, using a pencil, write two to three synonyms to that word on the same side of the card.  Explain to the kids that  their goal is to get their classmates to say the word on the card without using ANY of the words on the card.  If they did say one of those words, then their team loses a point. The goal is to get your team to say as many of the words as possible in a minute (I apologize for the redundancy to anyone who has played the game Taboo before).  As the year progressed, I would just keep adding the new word cards to this same stack until we had an impressive collection of words that we could review at any time. Taboo forces students to think outside the box with a sense of urgency.  Not only is this an amazing way to review and refresh academic vocabulary with students, it’s hilarious to observe.

I’ll be using these aforementioned strategies next year as well, but as the BBQ pitmaster from Tennessee indicated, I must continue to evolve, so I’ll have to find some new ways in which to engage my students with content.

What about everyone else? What were some innovative methods that you incorporated into your lessons this year for the first time?

Trying something new in the classroom

My students and I have been co-constructing a lot of our writing lately.  Essentially, I act as a facilitator, and the students brainstorm out loud and tell me what to type on the whiteboard.  So far, we’ve co-constructed multiple reading response paragraphs, an essay arguing for later school start times, and as of this week, a narrative. Up to this point, we’ve been embarking upon our co-construction as a whole group.  For the most part, it’s been a success.  Sure, only about half the kids in each class offer up ideas and sentences for me to type, but I know that the others are benefiting from hearing their peers and seeing how their thoughts transform into written words.

This week, however, I wanted to put more of the onus of the co-construction on my students.  On Thursday, we read “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe. For anyone who’s never read it, here’s the basic plot: a man kills the old man he is taking care of, hides the body in the floorboards and eventually confesses to the police when he becomes so overridden with a combination of paranoia and guilt that he “hears” the dead man’s heart in his head.

The prompt I gave my kids: Rewrite the ending of the story from the point of view of one of the police officers. 

As a class, we broke this section of the story down into three main events:

  1. The police arrive at the house of the victim.
  2. The suspect shows them around the house.
  3. The suspect confesses to the police.

Then I split the students up into groups, and each group was assigned a portion of the story to write. This was my first time letting go of the reigns in regards to the co-construction process. Was I nervous? Sure.  My biggest fear was that students wouldn’t agree on how to move the narrative along since this task did require a certain level of creativity on their part.  I thought that some groups would struggle to produce.

I was completely wrong. Not only were the kids highly-engaged in the assignment, but they did an amazing idea of working together and sharing ideas. The narratives that they produced contained descriptive language, sensory details and small amounts of dialogue. At the end of the class, a member from each group came to the front of the room to read their portion, and sequentially we heard the entire story that my students had created.  This could not have gone better.

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Co-construction in regards to writing is something that I have just started doing with my students this year.  To be clear, co-constructive writing is not something that I came up with on my own; I learned of it during a professional learning day at my school.  The key, however, is that this tool did not stay in our training room.  I took the concept and tried it in the classroom, despite my fears of whether it would work or not with my students.

As teachers, we must be willing to try new things in our classrooms even if it takes us out of our comfort zones.  Our students are dynamic, and we must be, too.  We regularly ask our students to try new things: genres of books, writing styles and educational apps. We put them in groups with people they may not know that well and expect them to discuss concepts from our class. When our cafeteria serves hummus, I encourage my students to try it.  If I’m going to ask them to try all these new things, then I have to be willing to take risks as well when it comes to planning lessons and activities for our classroom.

Will trying new things always work out well?  Of course not.  Sometimes, lessons are going to flop. The first time I had my students read in pairs 6 years ago, it was a disaster. I didn’t group them strategically.  I didn’t model what I expected paired reading to look like, so my students had no idea for how long they were supposed to read before they switched; they also didn’t know what their role was while their partner was reading.

When my students read in pairs now, it runs smoothly and the kids have engaging discussions with their partners while they read. This transformation did not occur magically.  I reflected on why my initial attempts at pair reading failed, and I researched ways to improve. But none of these changes would have ever occurred if I hadn’t taken a gamble and attempted to do something in my class in a new way.

Teachers owe it to their students to continuously find ways to keep the content fresh, and we must be willing to take risks in our classrooms from time to time for the kids’ benefit.

 

 

Making evaluating arguments fun for middle schoolers

Pedagogical highlight of the week:

Last week, we worked on analyzing and evaluating the effectiveness of written arguments.  We discussed what makes an argument strong (facts and evidence), and what weakens an argument (unsupported opinions).  The kids underlined and annotated multiple written arguments, identifying important elements like the author’s claim, thesis, reasons and evidence.  Eventually, my students will begin crafting written arguments of their own, so it’s critical that they be exposed to exemplars so that they have models to draw from when they begin writing.

While highly important, examining written arguments may not be considered the most engaging classwork to the average 13-year-old.  I’m a realist. I know that my students are not jumping out of bed and rushing to school with the hopes that I will have an essay for them to annotate. Most of my students are really into their independent reading books, and they are enjoying our class novel as well.  Argumentative writing is taking time away from both of those activities, which means it has the potential to be met with some resistance.

In an effort to spice things up a bit, I felt like I had to get away from just identifying the key components of an argumentative essay and having the students answer questions about the essays they were reading.  I wanted them to produce something to show me that they understood the validity of the argument.

So I had them create an advertising campaign for an essay that they read about the dangers of using a cell phone while driving.  Here’s how I mapped it out:

  1. They read the essay on their own and underlined the author’s claim and any supporting evidence.
  2. In groups of three, students compared their findings and decided which evidence was the strongest.
  3. We reconvened as a class and discussed the claim of the essay and any relevant evidence or statistics that the author used to strengthen her position.
  4. I showed my students the following anti-smoking advertisements.  We first identified each ad’s claim and the facts that were included as well.  I also asked the kids to notice how the campaign had cleverly used images that were interwoven into the ad’s perspective and supporting evidence.

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5. Students were challenged to create an advertisement against cell phone usage while driving, and they had to use information from the Hang Up and Drive essay to help them design their ad.

Here are a few of the more creative finished products:

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Both of these students made the artful decision to put the text evidence inside the phone screen in their advertisement.  I told each student that I thought that their idea could easily be a real ad a magazine.

If time permits, I generally ask students what they think about lessons, especially when I try something new like this.  Overall, the feedback was pretty positive on this one. Most of the students enjoyed the opportunity to produce something other than a standard written response.  I really value the feedback that I get from these quick conversations, and I would definitely encourage teachers to solicit comments from students regarding instruction whenever possible.

This week, my classes will be co-constructing argumentative essays using evidence from an NPR article on school start times.  This will be the first time that I’ve constructed an essay with the entire class, and I’m very curious to see how it plays out.  I’ll have to report back next Sunday with a full analysis of the pros and cons of co-constructing an argumentative essay with 20-something 7th graders at the same time.  What could possibly go wrong, right?

Heart-warming moment of the week:

I have three boys in my 2nd period that have formed a quasi-book club that kind of organically arose from our independent reading time.  First, they all read Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds.  Then they read Solo by Kwame Alexander.  When I took their class to the library this week, I overheard the three of them deciding upon the next book that they would read.  They wanted another book written in poetic form.  They also needed a title with three available copies in the library.  They settled on Nikki Grimes’s Planet Middle School, the coming-of-age story of self-proclaimed tomboy Joylin Johnson and her journey into adolescence and eventually her first crush.  I cannot wait to hear their in-class discussions on this book, and I LOVE that they are reading a book told from the perspective of a female protagonist, since so much of what they have been reading has been told from a male’s point of view.

 

Helping students master argumentative writing

On Friday I was in a professional development session, and the speaker asked us to go around the room and introduce ourselves by saying our name, what book we are currently reading and a recent success from the classroom.  I shared that this quarter my students are working on argumentative writing, and I have been pleased with the progress that they are making in being able to explain their reasoning when using text evidence and details their responses.

By the time the students get to me in 7th grade, they are decent enough at finding relevant text evidence when I present them with a text-dependent question.  Where they struggle is being able to explain to the reader how their evidence relates to their ideas.  At the beginning of the year, most of the responses that I get from students on questions that require text evidence usually JUST include the quote from the book or article that we are reading; for the most part, they do not make an attempt to connect that evidence to their topic sentence or claim.

However, my students are now working through that step, and they are showing me in their writing that they understand why they are using the evidence or details that they have selected, and how that evidence supports their ideas and thought process.

I use an argumentative writing model called CSET that I learned in a professional development training at the beginning of the previous school year.  The (C) stands for the claim that that student is trying to make.  The set-up (S) shows the reader where the information is coming from, whether it’s a book, article, movie, etc.  Examples of set ups that I provide my students are:

  • “Article Title” says that…
  • <Author> said that…
  • <Author> reveals that…

The evidence (E) is just that, evidence that the student is using to support his or her claim in the topic sentence.  The last part, the tie-in (T), is the hardest piece for students to master.  This is the part of the paragraph where students have to show me that they understand how their evidence connects and supports their reason(s).  I usually give the kids the following sentence frames to use in their tie-in sentences:

  • Generally, when people…
  • Usually, when people…
  • If people…

I instruct them to use this sentence to show how their evidence supports their claim, and how this is true not just in this one instance, but across a broader societal spectrum.

The first time I teach the kids CSET, I use the following cartoon:

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My students and I will co-construct a CSET that answers the following question: How does Slylock know that Shady Shrew is lying? 

I have done this activity with students several times now, so I cannot remember the exact CSET that my students and I put together this year, but it generally looks something like this:

(C) Shady Shrew is definitely lying.  (S) In the cartoon, (E) there is water on the table from a glass that got knocked over. (T) If someone had been gone for three weeks, then that water would have already evaporated; he couldn’t have been away on vacation that long because the water is still there.

Once the kids have the model above to reference, I have them create another CSET using a really short passage.  My students were not amazing CSET writers right off the bat.  They struggled with the tie-in piece because it forces them to think critically about why they are using the evidence that they are using.  But through repetition and practice, they are getting better and so is their writing.

As my students master this concept, I can push them to include multiple pieces of evidence in a paragraph.  Or, if I want them to produce a longer piece of writing – I just tell them to come up with several reasons and write multiple CSETs.

Argumentative writing can be tricky for our students, especially that critical portion where they have to connect the evidence they are using to their claims.  The CSET format gives students a model that helps them convey their thought process and reasoning in an academic fashion.

Reflecting with 7th graders

 

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the the word reflect as “to think quietly and calmly”.  I’d go a step further and add that reflecting also involves some analysis of the topic: what went well? What didn’t? How could we improve?  Reflection is the process of taking a critical look at the things that we do and deciding if what we are doing is working or not.

As teachers, reflection is key to determining how successful we are at reaching our students both as learners and as people.  Are the students grasping concepts? Are they inspired to push topics further on their own? Are we presenting the material to them in an engaging manner? Are we building meaningful relationships with the kids in our room?  These are questions that I cycle through on a daily basis: during lessons, after lessons, between lessons, in the car, while running, while hiking, while sleeping.  Reflection is a sign that we are invested in learning how to get better at the things that we endeavor in.

As we approach the impending winter break, I wanted my students to engage in some reflective writing.  In English classes, we regularly reflect on books, essays and current events, but we rarely ask the students to reflect on themselves and the lives they are living.  On Friday, I had each of my Language Arts classes begin class with 5 minutes of reflective writing on the following topic:

“Think about the year 2017: what did you do or accomplish that you are most proud of? What could you have done better? What did you want to accomplish, but couldn’t? Finally, what is something that you want to achieve in 2018?”

In an attempt to show solidarity and take part in the activity as well, I told each of my classes that I summited three 14ers (14,000 foot peaks) last year while hiking in Colorado, and my goal this year was to do five or more.  Most of my students have never been hiking in the wilderness, so my response of course led into a longer-than-intended discussion about steepness, elevation and the time it takes to summit a mountain.  Also, a lot of kids wanted an explanation as to why anyone would WANT to hike a 14er.

Eventually I got them back on track and writing about the aforementioned topic, and I allowed students the opportunity to share their reflections. The overwhelming majority of the responses were things like:

“I made A/B Honor Roll.”

“I made better grades this year.”

“I improved my behavior.”

“I want to make all A’s next year.”

“I want to get in less trouble.”

Other than a few kids who mentioned goals related to sports, almost all of my students focused their reflections around issues concerning school.  I was a little surprised.  I suppose I had forgotten that a 12 or 13 year-old’s world is still relatively small.  The main focus of their lives at this point is school.  Because of their age, many of them haven’t yet developed outside interests like traveling, running, hiking, biking, sewing, cooking, dancing, yoga-ing and all the other things that we (adults) aspire to do during our free time.

As they grow older, my students will hopefully find time to explore hobbies and interests that will help make them more well-rounded people.  But right now, at this moment, school is their main squeeze.  And I have to remember that.  Teachers have to remember that.  For these kids – whether we like it or not – we play a significant part in their lives.  They are awake for 12 to 14 hours a day (hopefully not too much more than that), and we get to see them for 8 more hours of that time frame.  While I have a number of outside interests and personal goals aligned with them that I want to achieve, I have to remember that my students aren’t there yet. They have dreams and goals and aspirations, and they depend on my colleagues and I to help them reach them.

I realize it’s cliche, but this week reminded me of just how important teachers are to their students.  I know as teachers we all have crowded classrooms packed full of students, but we must not forget that they have only one of us.

As I look forward to 2018, my students’ reflections have led me to reflect, and I now have another resolution to add to my list for the upcoming year: be mindful every day of the role you play in the lives of all of your students.