Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Lesson-Up Express: March Maneuvers

From My Side of the Desk:

March is a split personality month.  Is it a Lion or a Lamb? A Comedy or a Tragedy?  Naughty or Nice? Most assuredly, March is a tease, tantalizing us with the caress of warm Southern winds, an avian chorus at dawn, and the visual explosion and sweet scents from gardens ripe with crocus, narcissus and daffodils. Without a hint of regret, though, March will often torment the winter-weary, and this year that encompasses most of us, with a mid-month snow and/or ice event.

In classrooms, teachers and students breathe a sigh of relief when the calendar flips to March because it is a harbinger of the eagerly anticipated Spring Break. During this month, many educators struggle to create lessons that will engage, inspire and motivate their students, some who are still suffering from Apathy Ennui which set in about the end of January and continues to hold them hostage.  

Now that college essays and applications are finished and sent, and most admissions committees, except at those schools with rolling admissions, are finalizing acceptance letters, the dreaded Senior Slump has reached epidemic proportions for the class of ’13. Unfortunately, this SS affect insidiously reverberates through the classes, infecting the minds and motivation of children as young as kindergarten.

What can teachers do to pull straying students back into the academic fold? How do they turn their charges into lambs behaviorally but charging lions, academically? They need to grab a ticket on the Lesson-Up Express and sprint into spring for 31 March Maneuvers. These activities will melt the sooty slush freezing students’ desire to learn with 141 March celebrations ranging from the factual to the frivolous. 

 A full page of Teachers Notes shows the Common Core standards that these activities address as well as the Bloom’s Taxonomy thinking and reasoning skills that students will reveal in their writings.  A Peer Critique Form and an Evaluating My Writing Form will help students analyze what they wrote and how they wrote in their responses for each of the 31 activities offered. Use the activities as 10-15 minute daily warm-ups, for longer writings or for projects. The complete product will explain which ideas work best for shorter pieces, and which for longer.

 Speaking of activities, here are a seven to tempt your planning imaginations:


1.       Even if you don’t know why this topic became a day of celebration, imagine a reason for its existence.  Explain the: Who, what, where, when and why behind its formation. Also discuss any ways people celebrate this day.

2.       Write a persuasive essay that supports either promoting or abolishing this celebration.

4.       Research the real reason this day came to exist. Explain the: Who, what, where, when, why and how behind its formation.  Also discuss any ways people celebrate this day.

6.       Write a scene from a book that creates a word picture of a fervent follower of this holiday. Pretend this person is preparing to celebrate this day. As an omniscient narrator, in your description, show his/her physique, personality quirks, emotions, style of dress, gestures, way of walking, talking,  and anything else you feel clearly shows this person and his/her enthusiasm for this holiday.

7.       Write a scene from a book that creates a word picture of a passionate opponent of this holiday. Pretend this person is preparing to ignore this day. As an omniscient narrator, in your description, show his/her physique, personality quirks, emotions, style of dress, gestures, way of walking, talking,  and anything else you feel clearly shows this person and his/her loathing for this holiday.

9.       *General Writing Activity Project: Following the teacher’s time-frame and specific requirements for this project, create an advertising campaign for this holiday that includes newspaper/magazine, radio and television ads.  For a Warm-up Journal Entry, you could jot down your ideas for the various type of ads and script ideas (including music) for commercials.  During longer periods of class time or at home (whatever the teacher determines) work on all of the aspects of this project. You can create the ads with any art medium that you choose, use computer graphics or select whatever means you need to illustrate the ads. You could even tape the commercials and save them to a DVD to share in class. Create a sturdy presentation visual for the ads by mounting them on poster board. Be sure that they are large enough to be seen from around the classroom. To introduce this ad campaign on the presentation day, explain them objectives that this advertising promotion wants to achieve.

10.   *Create three recipes for this day to share on a Food Network show. They can be appetizers, snacks, main dishes, soups, salads, desserts or sides, but no more than two can be from the same category. Write down the recipes, giving step-by-step How-to directions. Base your recipes on real ones, but adjust the ingredients to fit this holiday. For the presentation day, prepare one of the dishes to share with the class. Make enough copies of the recipe to hand out with the food along with an explanation revealing how this dish is appropriate to celebrate this holiday.

 * project-length ideas

See the complete list of activities (31), detailed Teachers Notes, a Peer Critique Evaluation form, an Evaluating My Writing form and a March calendar with 141 Celebrations when you download this product.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

With all due respect …this Valentine’s for you

 With all due respect …this Valentine’s for you

Usually around the time of commercialized celebrations I rail against how so many people use a holiday to offer words of love, admiration, pleasure, thanks, good will or whatever emotions that day evokes, but which they should be expressing each and every day. This Valentine’s Day, though, I choose to contradict my huffing and puffing to express my utmost appreciation for teachers, parents and administrators: the triple-tined spear that prods children into successful students and life-long lovers of learning.

No, no, no, the contents of the, not one, but two chocolate caramel-filled hearts from my husband have not catapulted my brain into the land of empty calorie sugar-filled thoughts. These confections have, though, made me cognizant of the fact that everyone needs to feel loved and valued and respected for attempting to make the people who touch their lives feel loved and valued and respected. So today, I send a dozen long-stemmed accolades and an enormous heart-shaped box of chocolate-caramel admiration to each and every person who strives to insure that our students are filled to overflowing with a lifelong love of learning.

Red Rose 1/Candy: Chocolate caramel

Teachers not only hold the key, but they are the keystone of any successful educational program. Classroom instructors need to assess, sometimes instantly, why Johnny isn’t engaged and what type of hook he/she needs to bait to reel him into learning, and, consequently, his success. They aren’t afforded the luxury of a six-month study to make the choices that will build Johnny’s confidence and understanding that, “Yes, he can” read any book, compute any equation, pass any test and write any essay because “Yes he is” smart enough to do so.
Red Rose 2/Candy: Chocolate caramel

Teachers understand that Jane and her 24 plus peers are not balls of clay composed of the same exact ingredients. They totally comprehend, though, that Jane and her peers will be assessed by those non-educators who make the rules as if they were clones of each other. Therefore, teachers know that they need to create lessons that are fast-paced for Jane, hands-on for Joey, auditory-based for Betty and visually-grounded for Bob. The lessons need to be lively for Liz, hushed for Harry, repetitive for Rhonda, yet varied for Victor. Also, they all need to be focused on standards of learning, A.P. exams, and in 45 states, address the Common Core Standards so Jane and her peers earn at least a proficient rating (A.P. test takers aim for scores of 4 and 5 to earn college credit).
Red Rose 3/Candy: Chocolate caramel

Teachers know that the majority of their energy should be spent on their students , planning engaging lessons, assessing students’ progress (or lack thereof) and making adjustments for their charges’ needs… constantly making adjustments for their charges’ needs. But soon after signing their contracts, they understand that in today’s data-driven school systems, most of their energy will be spent on completing administrative directives. At a recent party, I overheard a friend respond, to the comment, “Oh, I hear you are a
teacher,” with, “No, I attend meetings and fill out paperwork. When I can, I teach”.
Red Rose 4/Candy: Chocolate caramel pecan cluster

Teachers know that if their students are to experience success, they must form professional bonds with parents. Parents are more than willing to discuss their children’s’ academic strengths and weaknesses as well as the attitudes and behaviors that could, and most often, do affect their offspring’s’ success. Speaking of parents…

Red Rose 5/Candy: Chocolate caramel

Parents understand that their children need their fierce protection, but know when to allow a teacher’s sincere worries about Johnny or Jane’s lack of success to penetrate this armor. They are open to listening to the instructor’s concerns and to work with the teacher and their child to form an academic plan of action. They do not want Johnny left behind academically, socially or behaviorally. And parents never make excuses or lie for their children’s actions, inaction, or words.
Red Rose 6/Candy: Chocolate caramel

Parents put school first- before jobs. Some kids work to pay for their cars, clothes and extra-curricular activities, but most moms and dads set a reasonable limit to this so school remains a priority. Even parents whose kids work to help pay the rest and food bills push classroom success because they know that financial stability often rests on a solid education.
Red Rose 7/Candy: Chocolate caramel pecan cluster

Parents promote respectful attitudes toward education and teaching at home. They let their kids blow off steam about the dictatorial history teacher, the micromanaging algebra instructor and the never-ending reading and writing assignments from the English educator with a My Class Rules attitude. But…but, they don’t join with their children in denigrating these educationalists. They would never tell their son, “You don’t have to listen to Mrs. C because she is just a teacher,” which their offspring gleefully repeats to Mrs. C the next day.
Red Rose 8/Candy: Chocolate caramel

Parents might disagree with the word picture about their son or daughter that the teacher paints, but they understand that the teachers see a side of their children that they don’t. They know that, like them, their children are multi-faceted, revealing various sides of their personality to teachers, bosses, friends, frenemies, Aunt Marge and Grandpa George, and to them. They realize that those lessons on rounded, dynamic characters they survived in high school English classes are meant for actual living beings, like them and their children, and not just for characters that sprung from a writer’s imagination. They staunchly push this fact to data-driven administrators that their Jane or Johnny is not just a mirror-version lump of clay to any of the 24 plus in each of her or his classes. Speaking of administrators…


Red Rose 9/Candy: Chocolate caramel truffle
Administrators hire teachers that they know will be the best fit at their school, and that bring with them goody bags overflowing with appealing activities, provocative lesson plans and inspiring attitudes. They hire professionals in their fields and never deny them their hard-earned classification.

Red Rose 10/Candy: Chocolate caramel

Administrators understand the importance of data in the quest for AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress), but also know that each child carries to class a backpack filled with feelings and fears, the reality of life situations and the effects of prior academic circumstances. Respecting the fact that they hired professionals, they allow their teachers the space and time to help their students to jump any hurdles that could keep them from being successful test takers, but most importantly-lifelong lovers of learning.

Red Rose 11/Candy: Chocolate caramel nut
Administrators will respectfully listen to any complaint against one of their teachers, but will not make any judgment at that time. Like parents with their children, they will close ranks around their staff member until they have collected all pertinent information from whatever source necessary. They will never take a parent’s side over the teacher’s, or cave to parents’ threats to ”make this public,” “sue,” or “go to the superintendent” before they have gathered all of the facts. Only then, armed with this information, will they make a decision and privately inform all involved parties, hopefully in person.

Red Rose 12/Candy: Chocolate caramel
Administrators will never forget the rigors of the classroom that their teachers face daily. Because of this, they will never turn a deaf ear to any staff member, parent, student or citizen of their district. They hold firm to the knowledge that a solid curriculum will stand up to any test, any scrutiny and any non-educator’s one size fits all dictate.

To teachers, parents and administrators known and unknown, I send this valentine of appreciation, today and every day. For you struggle constantly against a tide of criticism, society’s love-hate relationship with all things educational, and every politician, aspiring or sitting, who thinks the/she has the cure for America’s academic woes... and you shine on and on and on.
Now, sit back and smell the roses while you enjoy a chocolate caramel…or two.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

The past two Valentine’s Days I haven’t spent in a classroom and I have been feeling a bit off because of it. Considering that this day where Cupid is King is harder to teach than the first day of school, harder to keep the kids on task than the day before any long break and even harder to quell the chaos than the last day of school, I’ve had to ask myself, “Why?”.
Did I miss the normal teenage hormone-infused highs fueled by a day-long dose of chocolate? Did I miss the kids skidding into the classroom in a tangle of heart-shaped balloons, stuffed animals and red roses just as the tardy bell rang? Did I miss all of the “Happy Valentine’s Day, Mrs. C.” wishes accompanied by a few Hershey’s kisses surreptitiously slipped onto my desk or the Godiva Chocolate Raspberry Bar handed to me with a flourish and a shy grin? No, no, and no.
Well, maybe the chocolate.
I realized that on this day where love was supposed to permeate every wisp of air, my memory banks chose to play and replay the faces of so many sad-eyed, somber-spirited teenagers who rarely felt loved or loveable on any given day. And they haunted me.
I thought of David, whose father held him captive in his home at gunpoint during a hostage situation, the result of a custody battle. He escaped unharmed, physically but spent a year in the institution for emotionally disturbed adolescents, where I was teaching, after his mother abandoned him when she took off with hubby number two.  I thought of beautiful Kara, a fragile blond ballerina who told me that she was tested for aids once a month because of her propensity for dating much older men in her quest to find someone to love her. I thought of Julio, a former gangbanger who hid his fear of his peers still involved in gangs behind a wall of arrogance and a sneer of disdain.
And I was reminded of Jennifer, the catalyst for my book on teen dating abuse, A Fine Line, who slipped into my room, her black and blue bruised arms hidden under a jacket until the steamy June day forced her to take it off. “My boyfriend and I had a fight,” she whispered in answer to my question, “Good heavens, Jennifer, what happened?” And then she murmured five words that broke my heart, “But it was my fault.”
These are just a few examples of the many kids I grew to know who dreaded Valentine’s Day more than they feared the disappointment in the eyes of their parents when their SAT scores weren’t as high as expected, who became totally engrossed in the difficult syntax of Franz Kafka’s sentences in The Metamorphosis every time another balloon bounced by their desks, or who feigned sleep when the bag of Candygrams were delivered to my room for me to hand out to those teens who enjoyed a BFF or two, or three..
Today, I was once again reminded that teaching is not just about turning students on to the love of learning, whatever the class. It also means giving up part of a free period to listen, just listen, to a detailed account about the loss of a once Best Friend Forever, or of Mr./Ms. Right. It means offering welcoming smiles to every young person, even…especially those who offered only discourteous defenses in return because they expected to be ignored, since they usually were. It means nagging and pushing and challenging students to try, try, try until they finally achieve even a modicum of success, but a megadose of “Yes, I can.”
Most importantly, it means finding the “Me Nobody Knows” buried inside all young people and making sure that they feel loved and loveable by accepting their weaknesses as well as their strengths, thereby taking the lonely sting out of not only Valentine’s Day, but their every day.
What’s love got to do with it? Everything. For every student. Every day.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Oh, for the love of writing!

Oh, for the love of writing!
The other day, Megan, my college roommate, and I were chatting about whatever school-related topic jumped into our brains. We tossed around ideas about how to turn on reluctant students to reading and writing when she said, “Kids see writing as punishment.”

As I dusted off my despair at her exclamation, I knew that I had no choice but to agree with her. More often than not, by the time students swing open the doors to middle school their desire to express their thoughts on paper has been squashed. Compulsory insipid prompts, micromanaged writing formats and feelings of failure caused by minute line-by-line edits are three of the causes.

In the movie Finding Forrester, Sean Connery’s character, William Forrester, shared his philosophy on writing with Jamal Wallace who was struggling to create his opening free-writing sentence when he said, “First write from the heart, then from the head”. Those few words that I paraphrased became my classroom mantra every year, every time my students wrote, be it free writing or an assignment, and every time they wrestled with pulling out those thoughts and ideas, wedged like impacted wisdom teeth in the crevices of their brains.

Although the How Students Say It (spelling, grammar and usage, punctuation, sentence structure, etc.) is quite important, it should be secondary to the What They Say. Writers will always have time to clarify, focus and spellcheck their thoughts, but they have to get them on paper, first.

Writing is a way for children to show ownership of their thoughts, their ideas, and their own
Oh, for the love of writing!
unique voices. 

Students should not smother writing from the heart with the misconception that finely-honed writing skills are so important than ideas.

Students’ writing proficiency and the underlying bureaucratic threat behind their not reaching this benchmark should not become the means and the end to writing lessons.

Students should not be told, “No that isn’t right,” because their thoughts differ from their teachers' interpretations.

Instead, teachers should instill confidence in their students:

by explaining that every opportunity they have to express their thoughts and ideas in their pieces, they will learn what works and what doesn't.

by offered a minimum of six choices as well as a choose-your-own-topic option for every analytic writing.

by focusing their editing on three to four content and grammar areas only, not every single misplaced comma, misspelled word, etc.

by answering questions about the length with words such as, "Write until you have fully explained your idea."

(Note: a minimum length should be required, but never a maximum. Teachers may address students writing verbosity during conferences.)

Whether in the classroom or at home, children need to write for fun. When they enjoy writing, students will increase their proficiency, thereby meeting academic benchmarks. They can create Madlibs, write scripts for ICarly, Victorious, or Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide to act out, or pretend they are on ESPN and prepare, perform and record interviews or sports commentaries. They can create song lyrics and write in journals that they are confident will be read by their eyes only. They can combine drawing and painting with writing by creating storybooks that they share with neighborhood children or at local libraries during book reading times.

Oh, for the love of writing!Are they stuck on Downton Abbey or another television show? If so, parents, ask their children open-ended questions that would generate a discussion about plot, characters, filming techniques, and casting, just to name a few conversation starters. Why talk about a TV program? Because with every tête-à-tête, young people are learning how to express their thoughts clearly. They will remember this and use these same techniques when they have to write a critique or an analysis of a literary piece.

This will ward off the Dreaded Literary Demons, too. If academic dialogs evolve from engaging discussions where students and teachers reveal elements that intrigue them or where they feel free to explain why the author’s words move them or how they create word pictures, students will learn how to write with the same passion and technical prowess that they use verbally. They will develop the faith that they can proficiently identify and evaluate, in writing, examples of themes, figurative language, or any other literary facet they may be asked to explain.

Young adults should not be forced on the prison march of writing about a topic for which

they have virtually no feeling. They should not be mandated to format their thoughts into five paragraphs only, or ordered to copy, “I will not…” sentences in their notebooks 500 times. They should not be required to complete essay quizzes as a penalty because teachers are miffed that they aren’t responding in class discussions or not completing the reading assignments. They should not face overly-edited papers that make them cringe instead of conjuring up an, “I can do this" attitude in their minds for the next writing mission.

Oh, for the love of writing:

Children should be given a multitude of chances to write from the heart without worrying about being told their ideas are wrong, their writing style has no style, or their spelling is atrocious.

Children should be allowed to feel the flush of excitement when they string plain words into Kodak moment word pictures.

Children should be allowed to hold onto that love for writing they had when they were eight and the thoughts bubbled from the word fountain in their souls so they can open the floodgates to this very same passion when they are eighteen.

Oh, for the love of writing.

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