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Adding All 5 Senses to a Secondary ELA Lesson



I've always been a little jealous of math and science teachers, who can make things explode, move, change colors, and come to life. English teachers have to work a little harder to activate the five senses in a typical lesson.

Some of my best English teachers were the ones who turned a text into a sensory experience. When we read The Devil's Arithmetic in 7th grade, my teacher had us sit, cramped, underneath our desks to empathize with the cramped cattle cars carrying victims to concentration camps.

Most of us are hunting for ways to make our lessons pop: memorable class periods in which students move and really experience the content. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why we see escape rooms, stations, maker spaces, and kinesthetic learning on the rise; these forms of learning make the mind-body connection stronger and help avoid the dangers of sitting for too long.

What secondary teachers sometimes forget is the brain science of activating all of the OTHER senses in addition to active movement. For example, did you know that..

Even if you’re low on time or budget, check out this list of ways to make your next lesson click on all cylinders.

(Psst - make sure you grab the FREE Sensory Lesson Planner to help you make your next class period rock!)


If you ARE allowed to bring in food to the classroom, small snacks have a double advantage: occupying students’ mouths (so they listen instead of talk!) and adding another dimension to what’s being discussed.

For example, I like to teach essays using the extended metaphor that they are like meals: the introduction is like a free sample, the conclusion is like dessert, and so on. Bringing in candy or snacks on these days to “match” the lesson is a HUGE hit! Get the conclusions lesson for FREE here.

I’ve also recently begun exploring the use of CANDY during annotation: specifically, showing students that active reading is like uncovering buried treasure in a text that’s hidden in plain sight. Read more about candy annotation here.

If you’re NOT allowed to feed students (or don’t have the budget for it), you can still activate this sense. Brain science tells us that powerful imagery can still activate your brain in similar ways that actually eating would. SO, use photographs, figurative language, or storytelling to make the visual of tasty foods come to life!



Anchor charts, PowerPoints with killer graphics, interactives, videos, and visually-appealing handouts are a great first step to keep students’ eyes where you want them (instead of, perhaps, on their phones or on each other).

Another option I really like are flipbooks, which are less visually intimidating than a thick packet of information. It also keeps more information at their fingertips, with less time skimming dense text to find an answer. I’ve begun using them as reference tools (like housing vocabulary) as well as teaching a process (like the brainstorm-draft-revise steps of the writing process).

For more ideas about how to make YOUR slideshows better (or how to get STUDENTS to make better visual aids), check out this awesome article by TED!



The go-to for many teachers is putting on Pandora or other soothing music during reading and writing time... but some lessons aren’t conducive to background noise (and, quite frankly, some students find it distracting).

One option is to sneak in “sound” through the use of song lyrics. Many teachers study songs for figurative language, grammatical patterns, or larger ideas like theme.

My favorite use of song lyrics is to use them to make my diagnostic grammar test less boring. By using song lyrics as the example sentences in questions, students end up “singing” different songs in their heads during the test… and suddenly, the assessment is MUCH less boring!

Another idea is to use sound either as a mnemonic device (like a cheer or rap) or to enhance whatever is being taught. (Can you IMAGINE adding sound effects to "I Hear America Singing" and "I, Too, Sing America"?)


This is arguably the hardest sense to incorporate into a lesson; a lot of scents can trigger students’ allergies (or can become a negative distraction if it’s a smell they don’t like).

Instead of using aerosol sprays and/or diffusers (which can be problematic), consider having smells in a jar (that can be opened and closed if individuals WANT to smell it).

In addition to having an actual smell, I tend to make a lot of corny jokes about smell that correspond to the topic. For example…
  • “This sentence smells like a run-on. Do you agree?”
  • (*Audibly sniffing*) “...in fact, I smell about 26 run-on sentences in this room. Y’all better check your drafts again. It stinks in here.”
  • “Hmm, this paragraph smells minty, like theme. Let’s find the theme moment.
My 8th graders and I ended up making an entire LIST of “literary smells” that we “noticed” while reading. Yes, it’s silly, but it adds some cheesy humor to an otherwise dry moment. (Can you tell that I teach middle school?)



Escape rooms are currently popular for many reasons - they’re optimal kinesthetic experiences. Rotating through stations and doing scavenger hunts also allow students to move; my stations for “The Raven” helped break down a difficult poem and made it much more accessible to students who weren’t getting it.

However, even simpler trivia or review can get students on their feet. A popular game we played last year was Grammar Quidditch (read the full instructions for free in this blog post). I used it as a playful review game before final exams, but you can adapt it for any non-grammar topic (and also adapt it to fit in a smaller “field”, like your classroom, if you can’t go outside).

If you don’t have the time to craft an elaborate setup, don’t forget to try…
  • Snowball discussions
  • Four Corners debates/discussions
  • Gallery walks (for peer sharing and feedback)

You might also like these sensory resources:

What else can we do to create multisensory lessons?
Tell us in the comments!

Teaching the Harlem Renaissance with Intention

Teaching the Harlem Renaissance


Jazz, poetry, painting, and dancing. What could be more exciting than that? I’ve always loved the allure and razzle dazzle of the 20’s and 30’s, and I always knew my students would relish learning about this time period. As a new teacher in 2012, I really looked forward to teaching the Harlem Renaissance since I knew that it was a way to share a passion for poetry with my students. I did in February, since, you know—it was Black History Month.

It went okay.

Actually, it went really well. One of my toughest classes read The Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes, and the students transformed before my eyes. They were engaged and sharing stories from their own lives. I felt that I had finally connected with that class—mostly students of color from the low-income neighborhood the school was in. One of my favorite days of my first year of teaching was our Poetry Slam. Here’s the poem I shared:




Dorky, I know, but it gave voice to some of my insecurities from that time period. But as I reflected on that year and grew as a teacher, I wondered if I had really given them my “all”. As I began to get better informed, I wondered if I was guilty of glitzing up an era without addressing any of the systemic racism that spurred the Harlem Renaissance.

Fast forward to this year as I’m planning how to bring the Harlem Renaissance to life for a new batch of students. I’m inviting you, Coffee Shop friends, to come along on the journey with me today as I figure out how to serve my students better during Black History Month and every month.




I’m older now, and wiser. What can I do for my students to elicit conversation? I want to provide rigorous lessons and resources that don’t present just the “glossy images” or a list of inventors. I want to share real stories, real struggle, and real success with my students. I see this as my biggest responsibility in being an honest educator. As TNTP Bridge Fellow Zay Collier puts it, “Our kids are missing stories that can inspire them and remind them of who and what they can be.” Without hearing crucial voices, our students of every color won’t get a full picture of what it means to be an American.

I decided to build an Escape Room to introduce the Harlem Renaissance, and I thought long and hard about how to draw in elements for later, deeper discussions with students. I spent weeks on this, doing careful research and drawing in authentic source material. The result is one of my favorite Escape Rooms yet! I didn’t want to minimize any struggle by gamifying the introduction—that would be a gross injustice on my part as the teacher. Instead, I worked to achieve a balance between rigor and fun that would still be truthful in every aspect.



It’s time to get real with students, all year round. How can we teach Black History in a meaningful way, now and every day? Here are some steps I took, and some resources I used to get informed.

1.       Acknowledge the hard road.


As English teachers, it’s easy to focus on the teaching the Harlem Renaissance as just a series of awesome products [poems, art, literature]. Leave it to the Social Studies teachers to talk about the justice issues leading up to the art, right? Wrong. When teaching the Harlem Renaissance, it’s important to recognize that this outburst of expression was the waters breaking through the dam of oppression. This artistic era was a weapon against centuries of silencing and abuse.

The Goin’ North Project by West Chester University is a collection of oral histories from people who came to Philadelphia in the Great Migration. You can share snippets of these with your students (the full interviews are about an hour apiece) and discuss what people were living through in the Jim Crow South. Students can work in pairs and present one of the histories to another group or to the whole class. This is an excellent primary source for helping students understand the background for the Harlem Renaissance.

2.       Acknowledge the barriers.


As part of my research for developing my Escape Room, I read and learned much more about the Cotton Club and other speakeasies than I’d ever known. As a first-year teacher, I’m not sure I dug much deeper than “this place was where Duke Ellington got his start.” Now, I know I’d be remiss not to let students discover the barriers that existed, even as Black artists took the stage. It wasn’t until Duke Ellington had a hundred successful songs that he was able to convince the club to admit Black patrons (instead of just profiting from Black performers)!

Also, I want to students to recognize that Black artists still face many similar struggles as those in the Harlem Renaissance. We still see instances of industry racism and cultural appropriation. Now, I’ll tie in pop culture and non-fiction as we discuss connections to today’s music and art scene. One instance I’ll bring up is Katy Perry’s own bouts of appropriation, as discussed in this Huffington Post article.

3.       Discuss in-fighting and disagreements.


As teachers, we face a constant shortage of time. As a consequence, we can paint eras with a broad brush. This would be a huge mistake when teaching the Harlem Renaissance since so many artists and activists disagreed! Whereas some artists saw any publicity as good publicity (e.g., The Cotton Club), others did not. Langston Hughes gave a harsh critique of the environment he saw at The Cotton Club (remember, white patrons coming to watch Black artists), saying “strangers were given the best ringside tables to sit and stare at the Negro customers—like amusing animals in a zoo.” He would have preferred musicians not to perform at all rather than at the Cotton Club.

Black leaders had different ideas about the future of race relations in the United States. This article provides some great context for the competing visions of Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, and Marcus Garvey for civil rights.

You can download this free Close Reading passage about the Cotton Club and Prohibition to get these conversations started with your students.


4.       Celebrate the art and progress.


Once you’ve provided your students with context and some lenses through which to view the era, teaching the Harlem Renaissance can definitely include a celebration. There was definitely glitz and glam and music and dance, and you should celebrate those things! I did a lot of swing dancing in college, so I love sharing dance moves with students. We watch some videos of pros [this video of some vintage Lindy Hop is AWESOME] and then we get up and do a few steps together.

And then, of course, we dig deep into some poetry and literature. I like to have my students do a short biographical research project about the Harlem Renaissance and present a clip of a song or read some poetry out loud for the class.

5.       Extend and enhance your thinking.


We continue to read The Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes as a class read aloud. I did a whole unit with my 8th graders back in 2012, but I like to at least read the novel with older students. It’s a short book, so we can get through it quickly, even if we read it all together.

A teacher friend also directed me to an online archive of W. E. B. DuBois’ magazine, The Crisis. She uses an article from the September 1917 issue to talk about the Red Summer with students. This source, contemporary to the events described, is priceless.

And even as you extend your own unit, challenge yourself to learn more. What books and articles are you reading to help you integrate history in your English classroom? How are you growing as an advocate for all students and their stories?

You can also grab a free QR Reference Sheet with Discussion & Research Questions for you and your students. 



Final words


And so, friends, as I think about my young teacher self from 2012, I try to have a little grace with her. However you’ve celebrated Black History Month in the past, have some grace with yourself. Celebrate your victories, and aim to improve the weaker elements. And even as we talk about teaching the Harlem Renaissance in February, recognize that we can amplify voices of people of color all year-round.




Further reading:

*Why Cultural Competence? (Article from the NEA)
*Dos and Don’ts of Teaching Black History (Article from Tolerance.org)


8 Valentine's Day Activities For English


Incorporating the holidays without sacrificing content can be a challenge in middle and high school, but there are lots of fun ways to bring Valentine’s Day into your classroom while still covering outcomes!   Read below to find 8 Valentine’s Day activities that you can use in your classroom:

Try an anti-Valentine’s Day twist by having your students write the perfect break-up letter or text message.  After I give students information on what should be included in the perfect break-up letter, I have them develop two fictional characters and create a deal-breaking issue in their relationship.  Have students do some pre-writing to develop the couple’s relationship, personality traits, and past relationships.  Then, after they create an outline for the letter or text message, they can start writing the heartbreaking message. Try the activity here: WRITING A BREAK-UP LETTER

Use the holiday as a springboard for improving research and writing skills by having students examine how Valentine’s Day (or other love-related holidays) are observed in other countries.  Students can choose their own countries, but one of my favorites to have students examine is South Korea who has unofficial holidays on the 14th of every month. Some of these days include White Day, Black Day, Kissing Day, Rose Day, and Green Day.  Other holidays that are great to research are the Qixi Festival in China, Dragobete in Romania, and Dia dos Namorado in Brazil. 

You could choose to have students write a comparative or informative essay, or you could even have them develop a presentation to teach the class about what they learned in their research. 

Another way to bring Valentine’s Day in is to introduce students to quotes that give advice or make a statement about love.  These quotes can be used as a springboard for writing or discussion.  

A really fun way to engage with love-inspired quotes is to have students imagine that they are a psychologist, and the ONLY advice they can give their client is the love quote you provide them. Have them write a paragraph from the perspective of the client coming in to the office. They will have to consider what advice the quote of is giving and think of what the client might be like if he/she is not following that advice.  Grab this free activity: LOVE QUOTE ADVICE 

      Another option for using love-inspired quotes is to have students discuss/write about what the quote means in their own words, how it applies to their own life, and whether or not they agree with the words. You could also have students make two columns and describe the personality and habits of a person who follows the advice of the quote and a person who does not follow the advice.

Host a classroom debate on the topic: Should Valentine’s Day be celebrated?   It seems like such a simple topic, but there are lots of arguments for both sides.  The debate can get quite intense with some arguing that Valentine’s Day is a time to celebrate love, kindness, and friendship and others arguing that it is only a materialistic and commercial holiday.
  

Have students write a film review on their favorite movie that incorporates some element of romance.  When I have students write a movie review, this is the process/organizational structure I have them follow:



Paragraph one contains the title of the film, the director, genre, setting, and a basic overview of the plot (that doesn’t spoil the ending). 

Paragraph two focusses on the characters.  Students can discuss important roles in the film and evaluate the characterization by considering important moments from the characters and whether or not the actors are suited for their role.

Paragraph three focusses on evaluating one element of the filming.  This could include music, sound effects, camera work, costumes, set, direction, or special effects.

Paragraph four focusses on examining the theme of the film and how it develops or is expressed.  I also have students provide their personal opinion and recommendation in this paragraph.




Let’s be honest, grammar is not the most exciting topic for middle and high schoolers.  I try to make it more fun during Valentine’s Day by having students correct Cupid’s social media posts.  Students read the post, find the errors, correct them, and give reasons for their corrections.  Try this activity here: CORRECTING CUPID'S SOCIAL MEDIA
    

  It’s amazing how much more engaged students can be in finding errors by simply adding a twist to the context.  I use them in task card format for a station or writing center, but you could also easily use one a day as a bell-ringer for the whole class on the days leading up to Valentine’s Day.


A tumblr account called PopSonnet by Erik Didriksen includes a collection of 100 pop songs rewritten as Shakespearean sonnets!  He also sells an eBook and Hardcover copy of Pop Sonnets: Shakespearean Spins on Your Favorite Songs.  This would be an amazing contribution to your class library!  The website where the book is sold also has a free Teacher's Guide with lots of amazing suggestions for implementation.  Check out the rewritten version of Ed Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud" below! 


The sonnets are perfect for middle and high school students to examine Shakespearean sonnet structure in a fun and modern way.  Here are a few things you could do with these poems:

      1.      Give students the poems without the titles and have them try to rewrite the words into modern English then attempt to guess the song the sonnet was based on.
      2.     Have students examine the poetic structure to see if it follows the typical Shakespearean sonnet (iambic pentameter, rhyme scheme etc.)
      3.     Have students write their own sonnet based on a song of their choice!


Six-Word Memoirs were introduced by Smith Magazine when they asked readers to tell their life story in just six words. This request was inspired by the literary legend that Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a short story in only six words.  His story read: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”  The Six-Word Memoir official website has a section with submissions related to love and heartbreak which would be perfect to use around Valentine’s Day!  They also have a book that includes all of the best ones which would make a great addition to your classroom library.   

The website also includes resources for teachers, including a blog all about how teachers bring Six-Word Memoirs into their classroom.   You can also follow them on Twitter @sixwords and on Instagram at @six.words.memoirs.

Here are a couple of quick suggestions for using this around Valentine's Day

      1.      Have students use one of the submissions as a prompt to write an extended short story.
      2.     Have students write a Six-Word Memoir for a famous love story (movie, novel etc.)









Looking for other resources to use around Valentine's Day?  The ladies of the Secondary English Coffee Shop have you covered!  Click the links below.

Valentine's Day Escape Room by The Classroom Sparrow
An Interview With Cupid by Addie Williams 
Valentine's Day Grammar Worksheets by The Daring English Teacher
Valentine's Day Writing Choice Menu by Secondary Sara
Valentine's Day Figurative Language Activities by Stacey Lloyd
Valentine's Day Challenges by Room 213

Games & Challenges for Secondary English Classes


There is no doubt about it: students will learn more when they are intrinsically motivated, when they see a purpose beyond a test and a grade, or when they get a sense of enjoyment out of the activity. One thing that is sure to motivate your students is a sense of fun and play, something that we don't spend enough time on in the secondary classroom. We often see a game as an activity you do when the work is done, as a reward. However, what if we could use fun and games to support and enhance learning instead?

We can. In fact, using games and challenges in the secondary classroom will definitely enhance student learning. Here's why and how:







Games and challenges should not just be "fillers": instead, they should be used to zero in on an important skill you want your students to hone. In a sense, you "trick" them into learning. This works because when the students see the activity as "only a game" -- that it's about winning or losing a challenge rather than getting a grade -- they may be more apt to engage and take risks than they are when a grade is at stake. 


So how do you come up with a  challenge or game that does this?  First, decide on a skill that your students need to learn or practice. For example, most English students need to work on the art of writing strong thesis statements--something that can be a little dry and boring to the average teenager. However, if you try something like Caitlin Tucker's Thesis Throwdown, complete with motivational music in the background, all of a sudden, creating a strong argument becomes a fun challenge -- and the thesis statements get better. They really do.

When I saw my students struggling with creating their own metaphors, I designed a metaphor challenge to get them to practice. The activity was so successful, we extended it to other forms of figurative language. The kids had lots of fun and became much better at understanding how authors use these devices. They also started using them more often in their own writing. 








Games and challenges are the perfect way to teach communication skills too. Speaking and listening is an important part of all language arts courses, as is critical thinking. There is nothing like giving groups a challenge to get them communicating with each other to solve a problem. Weaker students can also use these opportunities to learn strategies from stronger students, strategies they can use later when they need to do similar problems on their own.

You can turn anything that you want your kids to work on into a group challenge. Do they need to practice certain writing skills? Get your students to work on them together with a short group writing competition. Do they need to improve their ability to choose effective quotations to back up their ideas? Challenge groups to find the most quotes to illustrate the development of a major character in a text they are studying. When they're done, you can have a class debate about which ones are most effective. 

You can also use a group challenge to have your students find examples of good writing in the texts they read. Have them use their class text or independent novels to find different types of sentences or an author's use of simile or metaphor. Regardless of the task, students will need to not only work on the skill but also discuss each person's choices and come to a consensus about which ones to use. (Try this yourself, by grabbing this Literary Challenge freebie).





The most rewarding part of using games and challenges in your classroom is that your students will begin to see learning as fun. They will be more likely to persist at the task and will feel great satisfaction when they are successful.

Take vocabulary building, for example. Learning new words and parroting back definitions in a traditional assignment isn't that exciting, but if you turn it into a gamethen learning those new words becomes far more interesting. You may even find that students can't wait to get to your class to see what they're going to learn next!




In the next few weeks I'm going to be introducing my new tenth grade students to the various forms of writing they can use to explore an idea. We'll also be working on team building since it'll be early in the new semester. In order to do that, I created a Valentine's Challenge that will accomplish both tasks. My IB class, that I've had since September, needs to build their vocabulary, so they'll be doing a challenge for that every Friday. They love to compete with each other, so I know it'll be a win-win situation of fun and learning.

Can English class be all fun and games? Probably not. But, with a little creative thought, you can find ways to build more learning challenges into your lesson plans. Go ahead: I challenge you.


My friends at the coffee shop also have some creative ways to challenge students. Check them out here:


Presto Plans: Growth Mindset Classroom Challenge

Nouvelle ELA: Harlem Renaissance Escape Room
The SuperHERO Teacher: Board Game for Any Novel
The Daring English Teacher: Test Prep Vocabulary Escape Room





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