Monday, January 27, 2014

Valentine's Day Activities Duet - "Characters + Conflict = Comprehension"

Love may be entwined hands, an arm in arm stroll on a sunlit beach or a conversation showing forgiveness.
The desire for love might fan the flames of revenge, loneliness or fury.

With this Valentine's Day duet of activities, students will bolster their reading comprehension by analyzing character and conflict in the literature that they have studied in school.

Activity: Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match

 For this Valentine's Day Freebie, students will choose the Best Couple of the Year from characters in any book or story that they have read for a class assignment over the years. At least one woman and one man must be from the piece that they are currently reading in class. 

Students complete an About Me card for each character they choose by using facts from the stories and by making inferences using the information that they have gathered from the books they read. Next, they analyze their answers and choose who would make the best match with the greatest chance of forming a permanent relationship. Finally, they defend their choices by explaining their decision. 

This is a fun way for students from grades 5-12 to show their reading comprehension and critical thinking skills.

Total Pages 3  Answer Key  N/A  Teaching Duration  1 hour

Activity: Valentine's Day- You Sent What??? Cards

Valentine’s Day isn’t always an occasion showcased by happy hearts, aromatic bouquets of flowers and luscious boxes of chocolates. Because of various conflicts, peoples’ words and actions might be prompted by feelings of revenge, sadness and selfishness instead of forgiveness, joy and giving. 

In this activity, Valentine's Day You Sent What??? Cards, students must consider the characters and their conflicts in the fiction or non-fiction work they are currently reading or in any other literature that they have read this year in school (teacher’s choice). 
Their finished project will show how these characters would handle Valentine’s Day.

A Teachers Notes page lists the Common Core Standards that fit this activity, as well as the Bloom's Taxonomy terms students will utilize to complete the project.  A Student Directions page details the assignment.Valentine's Day You Sent What??? Cards allows students to increase their comprehension levels by combining their understanding of the character and conflict elements of literature with higher level thinking skills.

This engaging activity will appeal to a wide cross-section of students, from grades 5-12.

Total Pages 4  Answer Key N/A Teaching Duration2 Days

These two activities will increase students' comprehension homes, will keep them loving learning and will create smile after smile for teachers and students.

Happy Teaching,

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Engage Students' Inner Critic with the Academic Awards for Literature

Academic Awards for Literature Student Directions
People love to play critic, no matter the entertainment venue. From Broadway to live concerts, or from the TV screen to the Silver Screen, everyone loves to chime in the conversation with their personal Rants and Raves. The 2014 Golden Globes are history and the Gammy's are primed for airing on January 26th. With the Academy Awards nominations announced, movie lovers now have until March 2nd to make a case for their favorite thespians and movies.

On that note, who are some of teachers most ardent critics?  Adolescents. True, they rant about books they designate as, "Boring," but they also rave about a story or a character that they love. This is the perfect time for students to channel their Inner Critics so they can complete the Academic Awards for Literature. In this lesson, their mission is to choose the best literature, from both fiction and narrative non-fiction that they have read as the recipients for this year’s honors.

The categories for the awards are based on the elements of literature: Characters, Settings, Plots/Conflicts, Symbols, Themes and Point of View). Students may consider only books-fiction or nonfiction- that they have read for academic study or for individual reading since the beginning the current school year. 

NOTE: If teachers want to add a Selected Short Subject category for essays and other short non-fiction such as journalism pieces, this will address a school district's non-fiction requirements in regard to Common Core criteria. For this award, students will need to evaluate the piece for how well it meets the criteria for a particular type of writing, i.e. Descriptive, Informative, Cause and Effect, Persuasive.

Here is a condensed form of the directions. More detailed guidelines are presented on the Teacher Notes and with the Student Directions included in this 5-page activity. 

Student Directions:

  1. Write the Category title and your Choice for the Best in that category in the given spaces on the certificate.
  2. Under that information on the awards certificate, explain and support your choice in a short paragraph while following the points under Writing Criteria. 
  3. Make sure that your writing specifically details the criteria for each category. 
  4. After the writing segment is finished, you will defend one or more of your selections during a class discussion.
The criteria for Fiction and Narrative Non-fiction offers students points to ponder about each element of literature as they consider how to explain the who, what, where, when and why behind their choices. Example: Characters (Types of characters are in the parentheses): Does the character grow and change (dynamic), show different sides to his/her personality (round), stay one-dimensional in his/her personality (flat) or show no mental/emotional and/or spiritual growth (static)? Is the character: major, minor, the protagonist or the antagonist? Are the characters believable and or sympathetic? Do you care what happens to them?
Academic Awards for Literature certificate

After they choose their recipients for each award, students are to fill in the certificates. Here are six of the twenty categories
  • Best Fictional Female Character
  • Best Fictional Male Character
  • Best Supporting Fictional Female Character
  • Best Supporting Fictional Male Character
  • Best Non- Fictional Female Character
  • Best Non-Fictional Male Character

For their explanation paragraphs, students must state the award recipient as well as the title and author of the text. To defend their choices, each of their explanations must include three examples along with supporting details that justify the choice and that add clarity to the student's reasoning.

The Teacher Notes page lists the Common Core Standards that pertain to this activity as well as the Bloom's Taxonomy terms students will utilize.

Download this offering: Presenting the Academic Awards for Literature, from Although it costs $2.00, this activity will engage students for as long as teachers give them to complete the assignment. As another benefit, students must show what they remember as well as how to analyze, evaluate and apply their knowledge to an original creation. Their comprehension, writing and reasoning skills will enjoy a win-win-win situation.

Trivia Question: What was the origination for the term, Grammy?  Include it in your comment. I had no idea until I looked it up this morning.

Happy Teaching,

Monday, January 13, 2014

Score With the Literature Super Bowl

Score With the Literature Super Bowl Cover
After a weekend of football playoff games, I woke up this morning with Pigskin Fever, so I decided that I would offer you my literature review product,   Score With the Literature Super Bowl.  I originally created this review activity that will fit virtually any text-fiction or literary nonfiction in 2012. 

When Compass Publishing contacted me to write my book, The House of Comprehension, we decided to include it in Chapter 5 Decorating: Putting it all Together . Since it tied together all of the elements of literature and how they form the structure of any literary test, we tweaked it, so now it can be found on pages 160-165.

I am offering it in this post because I absolutely love how it engages and energizes students to review the novel or narrative nonfiction book that they have been studying. This novel analysis activity not only checks students’ comprehension of facts, ideas and details, but it also assesses their analytic and interpretive comprehension, ergo, it develops their higher level thinking skills. Score With the Literature Super Bowl includes specific directions for creating and playing the game, and all game pieces-football cards for the point values and questions, a spinner, and a score sheet.

With this teamed activity, students will quit playing their off-task Desktop Football with that folded triangular paper football that they flick toward their index finger goal posts.  If your desk is anything like mine used to be, you probably have a drawer full of these.  Instead, they will be singing,
                “I've been waiting all week for this review
The tough get rough when they’ve gotta’ clue. 
The last one standing gets an A for the game
After this day you’ll remember my name.”

(adapted from the song, “I’ve Been Waiting All Day For Sunday Night” sung by Carrie Underwood
and set to the tune” I Hate Myself for Loving You” by Joan Jett).

Score With the Literature Super Bowl Spinner
To begin, create questions about the novel. Gather the material that you want to review from study questions/guides, activities used during the study of the book, discussions, quizzes, and the final test, and from whatever other lessons from the unit . Make a numbered master list of your questions and a separate answer key, including each questions point value. See the Teacher’s Directions page for the rest of the specific directions for how to prepare and then play the game.  Download and laminate the spinner and the football cards.

Add to the Super Bowl atmosphere by asking the students to wear a jersey of a favorite team or player, by starting the review playing the Sunday Night Football theme song, and by offering snacks, i.e. popcorn, football-shaped cookies, etc, if this doesn’t interfere with school policy.  Hint- ask the students to bring the snacks. For closure, have Literature Super Bowl Winners certificates.

Download this FREEBIE from   .  For more activities that teach students the importance of the elements of literature in creating a durable story structure, check out the preview for The House of Comprehension  on  or on the publisher’s TpT site: Digital
The House of Comprehension Cover

Meanwhile, enjoy this activity.

Happy Teaching, 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Stephen Joseph's book, The Me Nobody Knows, still powers students' writing

The Me Nobody Knows book cover

Recently, Kim T, a teacher, posted a request in a NCTE LinkedIn group for ideas that she could use with her urban students who hate to write. Kim is trying to morph her charges from reluctant writers to authors eager to do the keyboard dance, or to put pen to paper. Her plight reminds me of my first teaching experience in a boys reform school. Like her, four+ decades ago, I also faced adolescents who were below average in academic skills but highly proficient in their animosity for writing.

My lifesaver for reaching the students in my care who were loath to learning came in a blurb about a book, The Me Nobody Knows, by Stephen Joseph, a New York City public school teacher. I found it in a student newsletter from Scholastic- Scholastic Scope or Scholastic Action?  After so many years, I can’t remember which periodical it was.  What remains important is the fact that this book, a compilation of essays Mr. Joseph collected from his poverty-stricken inner-city students who exuded anger and alienation from the world around them, opened my eyes to a way I could empower my equally alienated students to want to write.

And write they did. Joe explained how he never had a meaningful male role model in his essay on fathers when he said, “How could I respect someone who only came around to take my Mama’s money on Welfare check day?”

William, AKA Cool, purportedly the most street-smart boy in the program, actually cried when he wrote about his fears for the day the courts would return him to the streets. “I’ve changed since I’ve been here. But the boys on the street would rather see me dead than changed.”

How can this book, one that was turned into a Broadway rock-musical which won an Obie in 1970, a book over 50 years old, be a catalyst for reluctant writers today?

Because all teenagers-no matter their economic, geographic or social backgrounds-wrap their anger, their angst, their sorrows and apprehensions in thin cloaks of hope and optimism.

Because prompts written by adults more interested in how kids write than what they write don’t offer the necessary emotional hook. They will never cause students to cry, “Oh, please. Let me write.”

Because adolescents need to experience the catharsis that comes from writing from the heart- from the “me nobody knows but I wish they did”.

Like the teens whose work appears in this book, all adolescents love to
  • Talk about themselves
  • Persuade others to their way of thinking/believing
  • Argue about anything that touches or that could touch their lives
  • Express their opinions on pretty much any aspect of life
  • Analyze the weaknesses, foibles, faults of schools, parents, families, politics, communities- pretty much any aspect of their lives.

Hmm, don’t these goals match up with any basic writing program? I think so. That’s why books like The Me Nobody Knows are relevant and viable in today’s standards-based schools. Be they follow Common Core or state mandated writing programs, teachers don’t have to be concerned that topics like those offered in this essay compilation will only lead only to personal narratives.

After Contemporary Joe expresses his anger for the lack of a strong father figure in his life, his teacher could lead him to research and write about programs in his area that addresses this need. Maybe Contemporary Joe won’t find one that he feels is realistic. In that case his teacher may then guide him to use his research to create one that he feels is workable, one which he can present to community officials.

Today’s Coolest guy on campus could compare and contrast his experiences with peers (and adults) who fear change with a few characters from stories he has read. He might want to write an argument on why some people find change so hard to accept, with factual research to support his points.

No matter how often students shove away anyone who tries to scratch the surface of their protective shields, and who might repudiate any assignment that smacks of writing, every adolescent desires the chance to show the world, the “me I want you to know”.

The Me Nobody Knows album cover
Many teachers have compiled books that showcase their students' writing. If you cannot find them, check out for The Me Nobody Knows: Children's Voices from the Ghetto by Stephen Joseph. The writers that Joseph included in his book are probably in their 6th decade today. That won't matter to todays' youth. The thoughts in these young writers hearts are timeless and universal. Any adolescent will identify with their writing.

I say this because Joseph's book remained a prime resource for me in my 30+ years of teaching, from the first two years when I taught in the reform school to the almost three decades that I led a classroom in suburban schools. In all of these academic venues, the adolescent voices in this book spoke to my students who came from all types of economic and geographic environments, and who revealed academic skills from below average to highly proficient. 

As for how this type of narrative writing will lead to standards proficiency, given time and opportunity, the what will always lead to the how. As William Forrester said in Finding Forrester, and I paraphrase, “First write from the heart- then from the head.”

Maybe your compilation of your students’ writing will become this generation’s, The Me Nobody Knows.

NOTE: If you choose to purchase this book, make sure that you buy The Me Nobody Knows by Stephen Joseph.

Happy Teaching,

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Start Strong!

Start Strong
Any point in the school year, but especially from January to the end of the academic year, is a perfect time for students to review their past few months' writing accomplishments and to analyze areas where they can strengthen their work.

Start Strong! offers teachers three activities that they can use when they want their students to proofread their writing, and to revise and rewrite segments with a specific goal in mind. The objective of each of these activities is to Start Strong! in any of their writing.

Activity topics include:
  1. Vary Sentence Beginnings
  2. Booming Beginnings vs. Fizzling Beginnings, and
  3. Reel Them In!
In Vary Sentence Beginnings, students choose the first twenty sentences from one of their papers and
Vary Sentence Beginnings
number each sentence. On the activity sheet, they write the first word of each sentence on the line by the corresponding numbers. If any two consecutive sentences begin with the same word, they are to revise one of them so it begins with a different word. Finally, they must write their revised sentence on the line beside the word that they changed.

Booming Beginnings vs. Fizzled Beginnings

Booming Beginnings vs. Fizzled Beginning, the second activity, asks students to look through their papers for places where they started sentences with and, but, so, then or well. This exercise reminds them that in some casual writing, such as blogs, tweets and status updates, using these words is acceptable, but not in most other pieces.  After that, they are to find examples in their writing portfolio where they have used these sentence joiners as sentence starters, and then revise them so their sentences begin with a boom, not a fizzle.

Finally, in Reel Them In!, students are reminded that good writers know that they must snag readers with the
Reel Them In!
first few sentences. If they don’t, chances are the piece will sink into oblivion. When they think of the lead sentences as a fishing hook, and every word that forms each sentence as the bait, their writing will lure readers to the writer’s world. Readers are more apt to keep reading if the writer grabs their attention.
Note-the first two pages with this FREE activity are from my book, The House of Comprehension (37-39).  To read about the whole teaching program this book offers, and to get the Reel Them In! activity (The House of Comprehension 40), see 

Aligned with Common Core Standards and Bloom's Taxonomy, this trio empowers students to assess their pieces while using their higher level thinking skills with the goal of strengthening their writing beginnings. Download this FREE product from

Happy Teaching,

P.S. Because I try to follow the same criteria that I ask my students to do, I proofread and revised this post so each of the 20 sentences in it begin with a different word.  Talk about a challenge!

How do your expectations for your students test your skills?