Thursday, May 30, 2013

Write Right with Great Beginnings!

"Finding Forrester" movie cover
In the movie, Finding Forrester,(image from amazon.comSean Connery plays William Forrester, an agoraphobic author.  A Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, he has become a recluse. After a misunderstanding, he mentors a young man from New York's mean streets, Jamal Wallace, played by Rob Brown.  Because of an outstanding test score, Jamal is accepted into a very posh Manhattan private school.  Forrester shows Jamal how to find his voice in his writing and how to develop his confidence in his academic and personal life at Mailor, the private school. Jamal forces Forrester to confront his prejudices and fears so he can live the life he put on hold after a family tragedy.

In one scene that proves to be a pivotal point in the plot, Forrester has Jamal sit at a  typewrite and just start to type while he does the same thing. The aging author begins to type immediately, while Jamal just sits there. When Forrester finally notices that his protege is doing nothing he asks why.  Jamal says that he, "can't think of anything to write." With typical Connery scoffing, Forrester says, "First write from the heart; then write from the head.

This quote became a mantra for my students- creative and expository writers. Over-thinking creates a what they said (writing from the heart) with the how they said it (writing from the head).
Middle and high School ELA Lesson Plan- Finding Voice in Writing
jumbled mess of ideas bouncing around the brain resulting in such an idea mess that Writer's Block sets in. As Forrester said and as I reiterated to my students daily,  "Just write what's in your head, even it it doesn't make sense at first." I  explained  that eventually some sense would come to the piece and the students could cut, paste and revise both the contextual what they said and the grammatical how they said it.

After explaining this to his protege, Forrester grabs a folder of his writing and gives it to Jamal. He tells him to choose one manuscript and to start to type it until his own words begin to flow. The young man does this and ends up with a piece that Forrester claims, "You made this your own."

This Great Beginnings! activity follows this same premise. Students choose one of twenty-five first paragraphs from a variety of published authors, type or write it on their own papers, and then create a complete story from that point. They may just use the author's idea from the hook that they chose and totally change the setting, characters and any other information, or they can use the paragraph verbatim. In either case, they should include a parenthetical citation at the end of the paragraph that they used, before they continue their story, in their own words.

Middle and high School ELA Lesson Plan- Finding Voice in Writing
You choose the minimum length (I suggest 1500 words at the very least) and the maximum. I never gave a maximum, but told students to, "Write until you have finished saying what you need to say." The time frame depends on what else you are covering in class, how much of the class period that you want students to spend on it after the first day and any other parameters that you need to consider.

My creative writing students spent forty-five minutes to an hour (we followed a 90-minute block)  three days every other week (two days on alternate weeks) for a month. Any other time that they needed in order to complete the assignment they had to carve out of their days. My English students spent thirty minutes of the period writing, and completed the rest of their stories outside of class over a one-month span.

Along with the twenty-five Story Starts, students will fill out a 12- point Story Notes sheet to help guide them through their writing and to help them learn how to use each element of literature. Teachers receive a full page of Teacher Notes with  the necessary Common Core
Middle and high School ELA Lesson Plan- Finding Voice in Writing
Standards and Bloom's Taxonomy standards and the who, what, when, why and How for the lesson.

With Great Beginnings! students will expand their understanding of the elements of literature from an author's point of view instead of only the readers' point of view. This knowledge will help them add depth to their reading comprehension as well as to their creative and narrative writing skills.Download it from:

Here is an interesting piece of trivia. Rob Brown (Jamal Wallace) answered a casting call for a walk-on role in this movie. He only wanted to make $100.00 to pay his cell phone bill. The director liked him so much, that he chose Brown for the co-lead. The role made Brown a star. I guess that he never had to worry about paying his cell phone bill again.
Middle and high School ELA Lesson Plan- Finding Voice in Writing

How do you help your students to find their writing voices? Please share some of your writing activities here.

Happy Teaching,

Monday, May 27, 2013

Attention! This is a Test of the American Educational System

"Do Not Disturb" exam sign
April showers might bring May flowers, but these months also drench students, teachers, administrators and parents with a torrent of state standardized testing. School days (and Saturday mornings) are crammed with reviews, work sessions and tutoring for these exams as well as for the SAT, PSAT, ACT, IB, and AP tests. 

Countering this plethora of assessments, are protests against the attitude that testing is be all end all for education.  Like the proverbial squeaky wheel, these protestors are oiling the public’s attention with their arguments. The past few months, every time that I open The Washington Post, read a status report on Facebook or listen to parents, teachers and young people stress, rant and/or rave about this testing fact of life, I can’t help but think:
Spring has sprung, the tests have ‘riz
Who’ll be the winners of this testing biz?

And, yes, testing is a big, Big, BIG business. People get paid substantial bucks to create, to print and to grade these evaluations.  Every year, teachers get paid leave to travel to the state the companies choose to read and rate the essays, as do retired educators or various other assessors. We can’t forget the tutoring companies that promise major gains in scores if kids take their course, the lobbyists who push for federal money to subsidize the costs of the tests-including proctoring- and heaven knows what else that is involved centrally and peripherally with this industry.

For every school district, state or federal agency who bets the educational backs of this county’s children on a test score, especially state mandated tests, a group comprised of a combination of students, parents and teachers protests their existence.

From student Opt Out groups in Oregon to teens dressed like zombies in Providence, Rhode Island; from teachers boycotting standardized tests in Chicago to those doing the same in Seattle; from national and state award-winning teachers to top-notch teachers in the classrooms leaving education because of the emphasis on test-taking and not learning, and from parents opting their elementary-aged children out of the state tests in Virginia and protesting in Texas to a Facebook page,, people invested in America’s schools are crying for a return to learning for knowledge’s sake not for the sake of proficient test scores.

Pro-standardized testing groups say that we need country-wide academic guidelines. I agree. Parents and children need to feel assured that wherever they live a quality education is waiting for them. As Woody Guthrie said in the lyrics to “This Land is Your Land” that he wrote and sang in 1956,
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This school (my paraphrase) was made for you and me.”

On the other hand, teachers, parents and students are right in demanding that education should be about
Testing answer sheet
inspiring children to love learning, to strive for knowledge in all areas, and to cultivate their minds with layer after layer of critical thinking skills. If schools followed these teaching goals, they would arm their students with the understanding and the skills to pass any test shoved at them because they would be able to read proficiently, comprehend intelligently, analyze perceptively and write wisely.

We shouldn't worry about how students in other countries score on some worldwide test because they test selectively and we test ALL of our students.  Our children’s education should always come first.

We shouldn't allow one test that might or might not be in accord with the books and texts used in every school in the state to dictate the future for our students. Our children’s TOTAL education should always come first.

We shouldn't permit lawmakers, politicians and others who have NOT spent time (or if they have, it was years ago) in the trenches caring for and about their kids day after day after day, like teachers and parents, decree educational policy. Our children’s education should always come first.

As with any significant issue, two impassioned flanks exist, each with worthy and valuable arguments.  Both sides need to communicate with each other, because as any English teacher leads students to understand while reading story after story, “The lack of communication leads to tragedy.”  

If we want our children’s academic gardens to thrive and to blossom with a bouquet of knowledge and a love for learning that will benefit them throughout their lives, we must yank out any weeds that threaten to destroy America’s educational system.

Our country’s future rests in the strength of our educational systems. If we are to keep it in peak condition, we must “Teach our children well” (Graham Nash 1970).

Until next week,

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Making Memories-A Yearbook Spread Activity

One of the highlights of the students' school year is receiving their yearbooks. They pore through the pages to see how many times they were mentioned, to groan or giggle about how they and their peers were depicted and to critique the photos, all with the same intensity that we wish they showed for the books they studied that year.

With this Making Memories-A Yearbook Spread Activity, they will be able to combine their understanding of the characters in a book that they studied that year with their ideas for the "Perfect" yearbook spread.

    Not only will they work individually or in pairs to choose a fiction or non-fiction book, but they will also select a Spread Idea such as:
    Middle and High School Yearbook Lesson Plan

    1. Student Life
    2. Community
    3. Clubs and Activities (choose one)
    4. Sports
    5.  Leadership
    as well as a Spread Presentation Theme, such as:

    1. Memories
    2. Last Will and Testament
    3. Senior Superlatives
    4. Movers and Shakers
    5. Theme of their own (with teacher approval).
    These Spread Ideas and Spread Presentation Themes are only a few examples.  Students can create their own for their perfect two-page spread.

    Students can complete this project individually or in pairs. If you want to offer another option, group students in teams of 4-6. After selecting a book that they studied in class this school year, and the characters to depict, each pair in the quartet or sestet will be responsible for one spread and should choose a
    Middle and High School ELA Yearbook Spreadsheet Activity
    Spread Idea and theme. Each pair can add to the same theme or select a different one.

    The characters that each group chooses to depict can be the same,  or a selection from all of those that the author portrayed in the book. Each two-page spread must develop, in pictures and text, four characters, though. Their spread idea is up to them, but they must include all of the ways an author develops a character: 

    •   By what the author says
    •  By what the character says or how he/she acts
    • By what others say about the character
    • How the character thinks/speaks of him/herself. 

    The finished assignment must offer evidence for the choices such as actual quotes from the book or in the student autograph texts that are included on the layout.  The students' reasons for their choices should not appear on the layout, but must be typed in an explanatory paragraph format that will be stapled to the layout.

    Criteria for grading are clarified on the Project Grading Rubric which is included on both the Teachers Notes page and the Student Directions page. Students will share their spreads in five-minute oral presentations
    Middle and High School Yearbook Activity
    where they will address their Spread Topic and Spread Presentation Theme, the characters as well as  how they depicted them, and the reasons for their choices and representations. After each presentation, have students staple their spreads to a bulletin board.

    Keep your students motivated, inspired and on-task with this engaging end-of-the-year activity that is aligned with Common Core Standards and Bloom's Taxonomy. Download it from:

    Happy Teaching,

    Sunday, May 19, 2013

    Teachers' dreams will never be deferred. How priceless!

    Connie grading papers at her desk in Rm 216
    Teaching was not my first choice for a career.  My adolescent dream featured me as a journalist, and not just any anchorwoman, but the female counterpart to Peter Jennings, the object of my major celebrity crush. When I realized that I could never, ever be able to probe someone’s feelings/ responses at the onset of a devastating tragedy, or push to the front of a media mass to gain a coveted interview with a star from any walk of life,  even though my role model did both with compassion and grace, I decided to slip through the side door of education and become a teacher.

    The mores of my era (women were pushed to become teachers, librarians, secretaries, nurses or flight attendants), my passion for books and my love for writing led me to the teaching path. A bit of a nudge from my father’s admonition, “You need something to fall back on if something ever happens to your husband,” propelled me toward my teaching certificate, too.

    Never mind that I was a junior in high school and much more interested in the dating pool than the teachers’ lounge.  Fathers’ career choices weren't challenged that often in small town America in the early ‘60s, and I wasn't the person to start a revolution.  Plus, while researching a degree in Library Science, I had fallen asleep reading about the classes on the Dewey Decimal System.  I knew that I had to find another way to indulge my bookaholic addiction.

    By the time that I sailed out of my Teaching of English class a few years later, my father’s pressuring for my  career path, even though his reasons were wrong, was spot on correct. My mind overflowed with lesson
    Indiana University of Pennsylvania emblem
     ideas that would motivate and inspire students.  They would wave their hands in the air calling for, “More, please, Teacher” instead of passing notes about who was doing what with whom, sleeping  or daydreaming.
    I was free now, to plan units for novels that I was eager to share with teenagers, for preparing lessons on how to write right and how to fall in love with words.  Oh, I realized that I would have a program of studies to follow, but that was just a skeleton of ideas that I would be free to flesh out.  Naturally, I would be allowed my autonomy.  Right?

    Designs for setting up my classroom -linear rows vs. small groupings- in a modern school building where the sun always smiled and where students yearned to learn danced like sugarplums through my head. My mother insisted that teaching was my calling. And it didn't take too many lessons where I witnessed the, “I get it!” spark in the eyes of students for me to agree with her.

    Then I crashed into the Reality Wall, that invisible force field that surrounds every K-12 school-public or private.  My teaching career flight- not a non-stop trip-took off in a highly regulated boys’ reform school, touched down in a facility for adolescents with emotional issues, stopped briefly at a school for between-the-cracks students who weren't succeeding due to personal issues, and finally landed in the realm of public education.

    At each stop, parents wore the “You don’t have to listen to her, she’s just a teacher” attitude on their sleeve.  Administrators micromanaged their staff’s every lesson and pushed for synchronized plans and teaching methodology instead of respecting the knowledge and professionalism of the teachers that they hired. They all tried to poke holes in that euphoria bubble that enveloped me that long ago day when I skipped down the steps of Leonard Hall after my Teaching of English class.

    They failed to puncture my passion for creating lifelong learners, though.  Instead they kindled my teaching fire.

    As the ‘60s moved into the ‘70s and ‘80s, free-flowing classrooms where students could study The Literary Value of Comic Books, and where John Wayne movies edged out Ernest Hemingway novels ruled. Teachers were friends instead of leaders or mentors. This bandwagon broke a wheel, though, giving way to the ‘90s and the new millennium’s rise of state and then national education standards. Decision makers on the Federal, state and local levels started pushing for a one size fits all academic framework. 

    “Who cares about right brain-left brain-whole brain research or theorists who have reliably proved that teaching and learning styles are as varied as the flavors of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream?” these bureaucrats scoffed when teachers, parents and students cried out their dismay. “We must all be on the same page!”

    These educrats still failed to puncture my passion for creating lifelong learners.

    Teacher Education
    They are succeeding, though, in sucking the air out of those who dream about leading a classroom one day, young people who don’t work for superficial accolades but would appreciate some sincere compliments for their career choice and not have to hear, “You want to be a what?”

    They are succeeding in driving away young people with the fervent desire to help students the way teachers inspired them, but are uncertain if the future of education will endorse synchronized teaching over a respect for their knowledge and skills and for choosing the right curriculum and best methodology for their students.

    They are succeeding in causing doubts in the minds of future instructors who choose teaching, even though they fully understand that the pay is not even close to the time and energy they will spend for their jobs, but don’t welcome the comments that they might as well have lit a match to their tuition checks for all the remuneration they’ll receive in academia.

    The realities about their profession that educators face do threaten to strangle the zealous visions of those who dream of someday stating with pride, “I am a teacher”.  Thankfully, though, the Nicoles and the Jennies and the Dans and the Matts understand that the, “I get it” light is priceless. They are the force of the future. They will rekindle the esteem and deference once afforded to teachers in this country and that still is prevalent beyond our shores.

    Their dreams will not be deferred- by anyone, anywhere, any time. And, oh, that is priceless.

    Until next week,


    Thursday, May 16, 2013

    Five Ways Writers May Customize Character

    Back in 1964, Barbra Streisand sang, "People, People who need people, are the luckiest people in the world," for the musical, Funny Girl. Although she was addressing how much humans need companionship from other humans in her iconic song, she could  just as well have been singing to writers, too.

    Obviously fiction authors need people. Where would Moby Dick be without Ishmael, The Shining without Jack, The Color Purple without Celie or Othello without Iago? Non-fiction writers' stories
    Middle and High School ELA Lesson Plans- Customizing Character
    would be drab and lifeless without people to create word pictures from the writers' thoughts and opinions.

    The conundrum questioning whether Characters were created before Plot is as strong a controversy for writers as the Chicken vs. Egg argument is for any enquiring minds.

    My story ideas have always germinated with a person, one involved in a contentious situation for sure, but still, a person. A Fine Line, my young adult novel about teen dating abuse was the result of one too many adolescent girls showing up for class with bruises. When I asked Jennifer,  a fifteen-year-old with deep purple-green-yellow bruises stair-stepping up her arms what happened, she said, "My boyfriend and I had a fight... but it was my fault."

    "Hold it right there," I said as I held up my hand, palm out, to ward off any more attempts she might offer to excuse her boyfriend's actions.  Over the next few weeks, as we discussed teen dating abuse and possessive, obsessive relationships, my story was born.  But first, first I needed a person to showcase.

    This person would show herself through her thoughts, words and actions, which would be seen, heard and analyzed by the other people in the story, ergo, I needed rising action and a climax and falling
    Middle and High School ELA Lesson Plans: Customizing Character
    action and a resolution. Yes, I had to have a plot, too. Without one how would the character reveal the "me nobody knows" hiding beneath her bruised skin or behind her sad eyes?

    And so the conundrum continues. The only way that I know to answer it is, "Character and Plot are separate by definition but so tightly meshed in action that one could not exist without the other". Like a phoenix from the ashes, a character emerges from the plot, but a plot wouldn't subsist without people to bring on the conflict.

    For this post, I want to deal with the separate, but all-important development of Character. Students need to learn how to develop a character in a series of word pictures-Kodak moments- so to speak. They can do this by exploring the person forming in the attic of their brains. They need to not only be able to describe how the person looks (physical being) but to dissect their person just like marketers do. Why for example, does Person A like Crest toothpaste and person B like Aqua Fresh?  What does this selection show about each individual? Why does Jill love dogs, the bigger the better, and Jack adore furry angora cats?

    Middle and High School Lesson Plans: Customizing Character
    And if...if students are to create these Kodak moments in readers' heads, than they must learn how to Show, not Tell. Few people like to be told anything; they want to toss around the facts, details and opinions shown to them and come to their own conclusions.

    I used to give students a few words and they had to show this person, such as: woman and park bench. Students new to this ultra-important Show not Tell writing commandment would respond with something like, "The old woman sat on the bench in the park." Now that was a complete sentence, but what did the reader see? Was the woman old, young, rich, poor?  Was she thrilled with life or beaten down by it?

    Veteran writers would pen, "Mabel clutched the iron arm of the splintered bench with her gnarled hand for support and winced as her hips creaked into a sitting position. Tears wound through the wrinkles creasing her face as she eased a stained envelope from the torn pocket of her grey sweater."

    Yes, this example uses over 4 times as many words, but it creates a clearer word picture. After the author would read it  aloud and write it on the board, I would ask my students to copy it down, to close their eyes and allow a picture of this woman to form in their heads, and then to write 2-3 sentence Showing more about her: Why was she so sad?  Did she live alone? Where? What kind of a place? Who was the letter from? Did she cherish it or did its words fill her with dread?

    A word picture will make readers ask, "More, please." It will pull them into the lives of the characters and the plot/conflict.  It will make them wonder, to be thrilled or saddened or angered. It won't make them shrug with indifference and respond, "So?" as a telling sentence like, "The old woman sat on the bench in the park" does.

    Today's FREE activity allows writers to unlock the secrets that make their characters unique individuals. With the five Warm-Up topics, students will learn how to customize each character with  specific, focused word selection and to create word pictures by Showing, not Telling. It is aligned with Common Core Standards and Bloom's Taxonomy, and comes with a detailed page of Teacher Notes as well as a suggestion on how to use this product with literature that you are studying in class. Download it from:
    Middle and High School Lesson Plans-Customizing Character
    How do you help students to develop character in their writing?  Please share your ideas here.

    Happy Teaching and Writing,

    Tuesday, May 14, 2013

    Building Strong Comprehension Bones-It's Elemental

    Classroom Freebies Manic Monday

    Anyone who knows me as a teacher, understands how passionate I am about verbs being the backbone of creating word pictures, but that's a Thursday blog topic. Today is Elements of Literature Day on Teach it Write.

    My feelings about how the elements of literature form the structure of any piece of literature-fiction and narrative non-fiction- are equally as fervent, though. Oh, each module can be a stand-alone entity, but one that would topple over with anything more than a wisp of air. Together, though... together these elements form a resilient structure that will support any in-depth study of literature and withstand the huffing and puffing from any skeptical wolf, no matter his or her costume.

    Middle and High School ELA Lesson Plans-Analyzing Novels PowerPoint
    Years before my book, The House of Comprehension was even a seed in my brain, or had taken root in my publisher's garden of teachers' resources (, I created  a  presentation called, The Elements of Literature Power Point. This morning, I revised, clarified and updated this slide show. Not only is it now more visually pleasing for teachers and students, offering clearer content that teachers can use as their lessons' starting blocks, but it is also FREE.

    English Language Arts teachers can utilize this slide show with their literature studies in a variety of ways. Here are two:

    1. Present the whole show at once  as an introduction to the elements, or
    2. Present each slide when its concept is the topic of the lesson.

    Taught together with the text they are studying, teachers will help their students build  personal houses of comprehension by showing them how to expand their knowledge, to enhance their perception of the
    Middle and High School ELA Lesson Plans-Character PowerPoint slide
     structure of texts, and to develop strong reading skills that will last them a lifetime. Students will become experts in analyzing:

    1. The complexity and quality of the literary structure 
    2. The importance of the setting to the story
    3. The way characters mesh and clash to form the plot
    4. The story's flow and the possibility for the characters' growth, and
    5. How the tone,  theme,  symbols and point of view enhance the story, creating the subtext necessary for depth and meaning. 

    This FREE ten-slide presentation enables teachers to help students to analyze literature in depth. Each slide
    Middle and High School ELA Lesson Plans-Plot PowerPoint slide
    offers a visual lesson for Setting, Characters, Plot, Conflict, The World the Author Creates, Theme, Symbols, Tone and Literary Terms.

    Teachers can show it as an overview or reinforcement lesson before analyzing a short story, a novel, narrative non-fiction, or as each element is introduced. I used this in English classes as well as Creative Writing classes when students were writing fiction.

    By coordinating this FREE presentation with any literature study, teachers are ensuring that students are building strong houses of comprehension. This slide presentation addresses the Common Core Anchor Standards for Literature (R 1, 2,3, 5, 6 and 10) and Bloom's
    Middle and High School ELA Lesson Plans- Author's World PowerPoint slide
    Taxonomy's Remember/Understand, Apply, Analyze and Evaluate thinking skills.

    Download this Free PowerPoint from: and start a whole town of durable comprehension houses, with each structure revealing character, strong design elements and depth.

    Happy Teaching,

    Sunday, May 12, 2013

    Ten Beach Bag Books and Games for Teachers

    Dear Surfin’  Santa,

    Surfin' Santa Claus

    Teachers have been working hard all year to make learning challenging, exciting and fun for their students. Although they are awesome at planning lessons to meet the needs of their charges, the standards set by their school districts and the requests of parents, they could use a few presents. This is where you come in, you jolly surfin’ elf.

    You see, as educators, their salaries only stretch so far. Please give some serious thought to this list and fill their beach bags with these gifts so they can recharge their creative inspiration while they dig their toes into the sand.  Not only will you be supporting their teaching endeavors, but you will also have a hand in helping today’s youth stretch their brains and increase their comprehension, thinking and writing skills. You can find these on, in Target and in bookstores, just to name a few places, Surfin’ Santa.

    Also, Santa, parents, and teachers who are parents, would love it if you filled children’s beach bags with any (or all) of the first five ideas. Not only do teachers want these games for their classrooms, but they know that these delightful diversions will occupy anyone from 6-66 during long summer plane, train or automobile trips. No more “How much longer?” pleas or adult migraines will whine with the winds when bored minds are motivated to win the gaming challenge.

      Rory's Story Cubes
    1.  Rory’s Story Cubes  (Gamewright)This is so cool, Santa! Each side of the dice has a picture and  students can play alone or in groups to create terrific stories. What is so great, is they think that they are just playing a game , but they are actually jump-starting their gray matter with some really creative ideas. You know that often kids say, “I don’t know what to write.” These cubes will wipe that thought from their brains. Plus, Santa, it’s only $6.86.
    2.  Rory’s Story Cubes-Actions  (Gamewright) Santa, every English/Language Arts teacher knows
      Rory's Story Cubes-Actions
      that the backbone of good writing is VERBS! Not only do they show the action of a character, but also the emotions of that person. Without strong, active verbs, students’ writing would collapse, just like a spineless amoeba. I mean, Surfin' Santa, you don’t
      walk into a room! How boring would that be? You glide  over the waves with grace and joy.  Help a teacher out with this $9.99 game.
    3.  Banish Boring Words!: Dozens of Reproducible Word Lists for Helping Students Choose Just-Right Words to Strengthen Their Writin(Leilen Shelton)  All writers, from children to
      Banish Boring Words
      adults, often suffer vapor lock of the brain when mining the depths of their brains for that perfect word. This book will eradicate that dreaded attack, Santa. It offers super synonyms, words to describe any sensory image, and so many more ways to use words wisely, it will most assuredly transform ho hum writing into HO HO HO stories, essays and narratives. Just think how much fun you’ll have reading all of those lists next December, Santa, after millions of children are turned on to these ideas. For $6.49, it’s a great deal!
    4. Bananagrams (Bananagrams) $14.65. Bananagrams takes Words With Friends to the next level  as players form crossword grids with their tiles instead of a single word. Each player must use all of the tiles before time runs out. A heads-up on the Amazon reviews says to be careful you are not
      getting a knockoff by buying from Bananagrams or at a local bookstore where you can check out the quality of the product. 
    5.  Pairsinpears (Bananagrams) $14.95 In this game, players try to make 3-letter word sets around a center vowel. Older players can try to form longer words while still matching the pattern.

    The rest of this letter, Surfin’ Santa, will list planning resource books teachers would love to find next to their hammocks or on their patio tables. Teachers will kick back and sigh contentedly because they understand that these flexible resources hit a home run by guaranteeing shorter planning times, by helping them create inspired lessons, by meeting Common Core Standards and district dictates, and, most importantly, by allowing them more time to relax, unwind and recharge their teaching batteries.
    1. Hot Fudge Monday: Tasty Ways to Teach Parts of Speech to Students Who Have a Hard Time Swallowing Anything to Do With Grammar  (Randy Larson)  $15.61. 
      Hot Fudge Monday-Parts of Speech teacher resource
      This resource is written by an English teacher who truly understands how to merge students’ needs within the strictures of a program of studies and the dictates of administrators. Students will learn the basic foundation of grammar-the parts of speech-  through completing quirky handouts, writing assignments and Internet activities. Larson found the grin and not the grim in teaching grammar with this book.
    2. Surviving Last Period on Fridays  (Cheryl Miller Thurston) $10.84. This is a secondary teacher’s go to book on Fridays, the days leading up to vacations and those times when they are acting like
      Surviving Last Period on Friday teacher resource
      impacted wisdom teeth and need to be yanked back to task. Many of this totally engaging activities are ready to be copied and used, while others are easily adaptable with your comprehension, writing and literature plans. A great book to pull out when your rising frustration levels are drowning your creative ideas and patience.
    3. Laura Candler's Power Reading Workshop: A Step-by-Step Guide (Compass) $16.95. Although many reading workshop systems exist, Power Reading Workshop is the cream rising to the top for those who teach 2nd-6th graders.
      Power Reading Workshop teacher resource
      This step-by-step guide turns students in life-long readers by allowing them to 
      take ownership for what they read during independent reading times. The book reaches out to all types of learners-visual, auditory and kinesthetic-while leading them to a lifetime love affair with literature.
    4. The Issy Books (Compass)  ($39.95) Pat Calfee, a former teacher and current educational consultant and her 5-year old granddaughter, Isybilla Gee, joined their talents to create these absolutely marvelous books for children just learning how to read. I bought them for my youngest granddaughter, a kindergartner, and she couldn’t put them down.
      The Issy Books-emerging readers books
      Not only did the carefully chosen vocabulary solidify Hannah’s reading confidence level, but the books fit comfortably in her hands because of their size (5.5” x 5.5”).  Eleven books are included in the combination Set 1 and Set 2 pack.

        5. The House of Comprehension (Compass) ($24.95)

    The House of Comprehension teacher resourceHere are the publisher’s words about my teacher resource, The House of Comprehension. “Just like the Three Little Pigs, students need to know how to build strong “houses of comprehension” that expand their knowledge, enhance their perception of the structure of texts, and  develop strong reading skills that will last a lifetime. No Big Bad Wolf can blow down a student’s house of comprehension once a teacher uses the ideas laid out in this book!” 

    You can see by this list,  Santa, that teachers just want to help their students to comprehend cogently, to think intensely, to speak effectively and to write dynamically. Over the years they have amassed stacks and stacks of impressive plans, but they always want to add to their repertoire.  Their beach bags are ready and waiting for some of your fascinating summer sizzle, Santa. Surf's Up! 

    And to English Language Arts teachers everywhere, I wish you all super summer.

    Until next week,


    Thursday, May 9, 2013

    Students Won't Grumble over These Grammar Grapplers

    Just the mere mention of the word grammar causes students’ eyes to glaze over and English teachers to argue methodology.  In fact, until the Virginia Standards of Learning were adopted, most county administrators frowned upon the teaching of grammar, usage and mechanics solely as separate entities.

    When preparing for the Standards of Learning  assessment, they took heed of the warnings from district English teachers regarding students lack of understanding of  basic grammar and usage concepts. The leaders  rescinded their previous viewpoint. 

    Those of us leading classrooms know that students won't understand a comment on a paper that states, "Verbs must agree with their subjects in number" unless they know what a verb is, as well as its subject, and understand what number means in relation to this part of speech. Expecting them to do so reminds me of the time my neighborhood car mechanic growled at me about all of the dirt clogging my oil filter. Oil filter? What was that? I knew my car needed oil...where...I didn't know. And it was filtered?  Chalk up another, "I didn't know that even existed," for me.

    Middle and High School ELA Lesson Plans Grammar Grapplers
    I strongly feel that students need to see the connection between the “what they say” and the “how they say it” aspects of their writing.  Combined with my philosophy that learning can be fun, I attempt to eradicate the consternation associated with the study of the English language. So do my grammar go to make-believe teenagers, Bubba and Zelda.  Readers have met these two in the Troublesome Words Power Point ( and the Prepositions Power Point (, both of which are also FREE. They are back to engage students grammatically by sharing some of their antics.

    The key word, when planning for a grammar segment, is interaction.  Just the other day, a BFF from shortly after we were born and I laughed about the hours and hours that we spent at the blackboard in high school diagramming sentences. Did we learn?  Yes, but at the price of sheer, teeth-grinding boredom. After years in the classroom, we know that lifelong learners emerge from lessons that inspire students with engaging and fun activities.Therefore, it is vital that students do more than work through the exercises in a grammar book.
    Middle and High School ELA Lesson Plans- Parts of Speech activity

    In fact, other than using a text to clarify the definitions of the work under study, I only utilized our adopted book for defining the grammar concept and for learning and reinforcing the rules associated with its usage. Every introductory lesson for a concept should start with the students writing original sentences on the board. Next, the teacher should guide them to
    1. find the errors (when choosing the sentences to use, I made sure that I selected examples that exhibited the concept that I wanted students to grasp).
    2. name the concept.
    3. review the concept’s rules with students coming to the board and writing original sentence that show the principle.
    4. connect the concept with one of its rules.
     The study of the concept in question continues with as much student involvement as time allows, utilizing both small and large group instruction. The following  FREE 36 pages of worksheets, tests and answer keys (Yes, 36 FREE pages) are by no means conclusive, but are a sampling of how form and function can combine to increase students’ understanding of English usage.  I compiled many of them after selecting prevalent usage errors from students' essays. In others, I use characters that I have created who are the Composites of Students Past (Zelda and Bubba). I found that students displayed more enthusiasm in completing the worksheets when they  related to the thoughts, actions and reactions of the young people wired to their likes and dislikes. You will, too. Download this Freebie from my TpT store:

    Middle and High School ELA Lesson Plans: Active Voice Activity

    I copied the various grammatical definitions from: Kinneavy, James L, and Warriner, John E. Elements of Writing : Complete Course. Austin: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1998.

    NOTE: Regarding the Active Voice Rules activity on pages 27-28, I sell a  corresponding Power Point that teaches this concept and that uses these sentences:

    Happy Teaching,

    Tuesday, May 7, 2013

    Keeping the Learning Fire Lit-Two FREE Activities

    During the last few days I've read posts by colleagues across the country and beyond our borders who are wrapping up their 2012-2013 school year. "In early May,how lucky," I thought with envy as I remembered how my days in Room 216 didn't close until the third week of June.  My teaching friends in this school district will still roll into their various parking lots between 6:30 and 8:30 AM for the next 5+ weeks. When I talk with them, I hear the exhaustion in their voices.They stifle yawns as they question where they will dig up any  inspiring lessons that will keep their students actively learning during these winding down days.

    Here are two learning ideas that should fit their needs. One, Activity: In Honor of Soldiers-Every One: A Veteran's or Memorial Day Project will carry them from now into June, if they require students to present their projects.

    1. Activity:  In Honor of Soldiers-Every One: A Veteran's or Memorial Day Project

    Middle and High School ELA Lesson Plans- Memorial and Veteran's Day Activity
    This is an activity to honor and remember all military personnel who died in battle (Memorial Day), and all men and women, living or deceased who served in the military (Veteran’s Day). Students select afiction or n on-fiction  book to read from the list provided, or one that they choose about American men and women who have served the United States by fighting in any war from the Civil War to Afghanistan and Iraq. When they are finished, they are to complete the following two assignments:
       Middle and High School ELA Lesson Plans-"In Honor of Soldiers-Every One"
    1. Prepare a project relating their knowledge and understanding of the story. This can follow any format. Here are a few ideas:  A poster, painting, sculpture, photographic collage, video, skit, song, book report, or project of your choice. For the latter, they must get your approval. These will be due on the date you specify. This is a visual assignment. IThe only writing I required were the students' notes and ideas sheet included in the packet.
    2. Students are also to write a letter to a soldier. Here are two places to find soldiers’ names, to get ideas about what to write and to learn how to address the letters: and This is a writing assignment. 
    On the due date, students must show the letter and addressed envelope to you  before they mail them. Do remind them to include their email or snail mail address if they want a response. If  you want, have each student present either Project 1 or 2.

    Teachers can also use the activities in this posting if they are reading a military-based book as a class  unit (example: All Quiet on the Western Front-Remarque, The Red Badge of Courage-Crane, or The Things They Carried- O'Brien).

    2. Printables: A Summer Bucket List
    Project two, Printables: A Summer Bucket List is a result of years of hearing my now adult children whining about how bored they were about three weeks into summer vacation.  In the last eighteen years, I've listened to my friends with school-age children sigh as they rolled their eyes and muttered the complaint that has dwelt in parents' hearts and minds since the first one-room schoolhouse opened their doors to summer vacation, "Another 7 weeks of, 'I am so-o-o-o bored". These words usually swirl into the night air with the cordite smell from the 4th of July firework finale.

     Middle and High School ELA Lesson Plans-A Summer Bucket List
    This handout insures that children will keep their minds and bodies active and alert during their summer vacation. The plus is- they won’t feel like they are completing an assignment or doing a task related to school while they keep their comprehension and their analytic and creative thinking and writing skills fresh. Although this list is best suited for children in grades 5-12, third and fourth graders will find activities that fit their abilities and skill levels, too. Many 6-10 year-olds I know blow me away with their ability to text, use a computer or a digital or Smartphone camera, play an instrument and cook, so they will find a number of suggestions to choose from. Ideas 8, 10 and 11 are more fitted to older children, though. Idea 13 is great for kids in grades 1-8. Using simple household supplies they can have fun with science experiments while learning chemistry, biology, physics and much more. Some parental guidance will probably be necessary with the younger kids. Tell the children and parents about this terrific book to use: The Everything Kids Science Experiments Book by Tom Robinson for $8.95 ($6.12 Kindle edition). They don’t have to spend money on a book unless they want to, though. They can probably find similar books at the library. Best of all, they will find activities on-line using the search terms: kids science experiments.

    Some friends and neighbors have taped this list to their refrigerators and have seen remarkable success. Pet sitting,  baby-sitting and lawn services have popped up to the delight of our community. Two pre-teens started a Summer Reading Hour for the 4-6 year-olds in their near-by development. My own grand daughters LOVE the science experiments (Hint: Starbucks Frappuccino bottles work best for the egg in a bottle activity). Two former students, home from college saw this list when I was working on it. One chose to keep  a social media file and the other decided to create a photo journal.  The possibilities and variations are endless.
    Middle and High School ELA Lesson Plans-"A Summer Bucket List"

    Be sure to give the handout to students at the end of the year. Maybe, follow this up with an email to parents to explain how they can tackle the, “Mom, I’m bored,” grumblings or to show their children how they can use their various devices to inspire instead of tire them.

    This list insures that young people will have a lot to show and talk about in September when their next year’s teachers ask, “What did you do this summer.”

    As the school year winds down and after the initial excitement of summer falls victim to the Ennui Epidemic, thinking, reading and writing can still flame instead of fizzle-whether in the classroom or in the family room. These two activities offer that much-desired antidote.

    Happy Teaching,