Saturday, May 14, 2016

Let Your Voice Be Heard: Opinion/Argument Games

Voting from Your Seat and Voting on Your Feet

Voting from Your Seat and Voting on Your Feet are engagement strategies that never fail to get students excited about discussing opinion/argument topics. But at the end of the year – especially during an election year – it’s fun to toss out light-hearted topics and have students act as if they're important.


Voting from Your Seat
Voting Game #1

The first strategy, Voting from Your Seat, is a whole-class activity which requires almost no preparation. It can be used to re-energize sluggish students, to warm up a class, or to segue into an opinion/argument unit.

Here’s how it works:

Step #1:
The teacher makes a statement that is likely to spark disagreements. Then students express their personal positions by…
…remaining in their seats (disagreeing).
…standing up (agreeing).
…putting their hands on their desks (valuing both sides equally or feeling undecided).

Step #2:
The teacher calls on students who represent all three positions, and asks them to share their thinking.

One of the interesting perks of using this strategy is that the students who have placed their hands on their desks quickly realize that if they’re called on to share, they will have to talk about the pros and cons of BOTH sides of that topic. Therefore, they often wind up taking a position for or against topics - by standing or remaining seated - when future questions are posed.

Step #3:
It’s important to make it clear that there are no wrong answers.

In fact, teachers should support and extend the different positions that students take so that students understand 3 things:
1. The thinking and reasoning process is an important part of developing strong arguments.
2.  There are many different viewpoints to explore on any given topic.
3. Opinion-sharing helps participants strengthen positions or change positions.

Step #4: 
Opinion/argument quick drafts should be assigned immediately following this activity while the information is fresh in students’ minds - unless it is simply being used to recharge energy levels.   

Voting on Your Feet
Voting Game #2

Voting on Your Feet is a more active version of Voting from Your Seat. For this exercise, an agreeing poster, a disagreeing poster, and an agreeing and disagreeing poster are posted on three different walls or held by designated students.

As each topic is announced, students move to the posters which support their positions the best. The students gathered by each poster discuss their thoughts with like-minded voters. The teacher then calls on one group member to summarize the opinions of the entire group.

Topics to Test Drive Voting from Your Seat and on Your Feet:

Easy Topics
      1.  It is better to be a kid than an adult.
      2.  Batman is cooler than Superman.
      3.  I’d rather be attractive than smart.

Intermediate Topics
      1.  Money can buy happiness.
      2.  I would rather find true love than find a million dollars.
      3.  Students who break rules should be given a second chance.

Advanced Topics
  1. Competition is better than collaboration.
  2. Girls should be allowed to play on boys’ sports teams.
  3. Students should be able to leave school for lunch.

You can easily make your own cards and questions or you can pick up a premade set on TpT.

Wish Seekers and Decision Makers
Voting Game #3

This wildly popular game expands upon Voting from Your Seat or Voting on Your Feet. 

Once the replies to a vote have been shared aloud, place three chairs in the front of the room, and ask for volunteers to sit in them.  

Tell students to imagine that the people in the chairs are Decision Makers who must be persuaded to grant requests. 

If the vote is about extending the school year, the Decision Makers could be administrators or school board members.  If the vote is about whether someone should be granted true love or a million dollars, they could be genies or fairy godmothers.

These Decision Makers listen to the opposing sides of each Wish Seeker and then decide whether or to authorize a change or grant a wish by holding up a “Granted” or “Denied” score card after each Wish Seeker’s presentation. If both Wish Seekers offer convincing arguments, they could each leave the mock court with their wishes granted. 

The teacher may choose to ask one Decision Maker to explain a particular decision or the Decision Makers may be thanked for their service before they’re replaced by three new volunteers.

If you have an end-of-year strategy that keeps students engaged during the last few weeks of school or one that gets kids excited about opinion/argument writing, please share. I’d love to hear about it.

Until next time…stay committed…teach with passion…and inspire students with who you are.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

How to Create Unforgettable Characters

Free eBook
I used to ask students to describe their characters (real ones and imaginary ones) in a way that would help me picture them in my mind.

Sometimes I would even add, “I want to feel as if I’m watching a movie when I’m reading your descriptions.”  

And I thought that was pretty clear. But draft after draft, I would read yawn-worthy descriptions like these:

"John is 5’5’’ tall with brown hair."

"She was always happy. Everybody liked her."

"Bill is my best friend. He’s funny and popular."

Obviously, my instructions were not clear.

So I tried to think of ways to rephrase my instructions so the next set of papers did not require a pot of coffee and an extra stash of red pens for me to “make it through” my newest stack of middle school writings.

I figured if I’m going to spend hours reading papers, doggone it (Grandma's go-to phrase for showing frustration without taking the name of the Lord in vain), I wanted to be entertained!

So I came up with a bunch of Get ‘em moving – then get ‘em writing mini-lessons to demonstrate exactly what I was wanted them to do before I asked them to write a single word.

 And guess what?   They. Worked. Every. Time.

These exercises not only made the minutes during class fly by, but I was able to ditch the extra red pens and, depending on the hour, pour myself a glass of red wine (the red kind is healthy, right?) and enjoy the pictures running through my mind as I read my students' papers.

I just uploaded my first eBook (It's free.) which describes the strategies I used to banish boring character descriptions for good. 

If you give a couple of them a try, I'd love to know how you used them in your classroom.

Until next time…stay committed…teach with passion…and inspire students with who you are.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Jimmy Fallon Guide to Test Prep (Part 3): Idiom Catch Phrase

Jimmy Fallon loves to host mini game-show segments on The Tonight Show which entertain his audiences and reveal the playful natures of his guests.

Sometimes he creates an original game like Word Sneak (A game in which guests are asked to weave random words into casual conversations), and sometimes he plays a traditional game like Catch Phrase (A timed game requiring guests to concoct clues to help team members guess familiar words and phrases.).

Watch Jimmy and his guests (Jim Parsons, Miles Teller and Wiz Khalifa) playing the Tonight Show version of Hasbro’s Catch Phrase.

Catch Phrase Demo

As I watched this segment, I couldn’t help thinking that this Catch Phrase format would be a perfect way to review idioms.

All I had to do is grab a set of idiom cards and a timer (I used a round timer to make it look more like Jimmy's.) - and a display the rules.

What could be easier?

How to Play Idiom Catch Phrase 

Setting Up the Game
Catch Phrase is played by dividing a class into two different teams and having two student representatives from each team gather around a table in the front of the room. (Students from the same team face each other.)

On the table, students will find a set of idiom cards and a timer.

Playing the Game
Each player takes turns trying to get his or her teammate to guess each idiom while holding onto a timer. 

When the idiom is guessed, the timer is passed to the next player. When the timer goes off, the opposing team is awarded 10 points for that round.

Winning the Game
After 3-5 one-minute rounds, the team with the most points wins the game. 

Being a fast talker, a good guesser, and a quick passer are all helpful skills that will help participants succeed at Catch Phrase!

Use your favorite set of idioms or pick up a pre-made set like this one here:
This is the last of the Jimmy Fallon Guide to Test Prep series. 

If you tried any of the featured review games, I'd love to hear about it.

And if you missed the other two Jimmy Fallon-style, test prep posts, you can "blog hop" here:

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That's it for now, so until next time…stay committed…teach with passion…and inspire students with who you are.

More Fun ELA Instructional Videos:

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Jimmy Fallon Guide to Test Prep (Part 2): Word Sneak Vocabulary Review

One of Jimmy Fallon’s favorite games to play with his guests is Word Sneak.

The rules are pretty simple: Players receive a random set of words, and are instructed to sneak them into a casual conversation or story.

What makes this segment so interesting is that since the words have no connection to one another, a casual conversation is next to impossible to pull off. So these impromptu dialogues are entertaining, absurd, and sometimes downright hilarious. 

Watch Jimmy Fallon and Steve Carell attempt to have a casual conversation using words given to them by the director in this Word Sneak  video clip.

Tonight Show Clip

Word Sneak is a fun way for students to apply and review vocabulary words in any subject area. What students are actually being asked to do is use their vocabulary words in sentences - but since Word Sneak is being presented in a game format, it doesn’t feel like a traditional use-the-words-in-sentences exercise.  

Sometimes, I have students practice in pairs before I ask for volunteers to present publicly, but most of the time I ask for volunteers to play Word Sneak extemporaneously in the style of the Jimmy and Steve video clip.

On the Tonight Show, guests are each given 5 words. In the classroom, 3 words work best. Weaving 6 words into a conversation or storyline is far more manageable than 10, and more students get a chance to participate that way, too!

I use playing cards as game cards because they give the activity more of a game show feel - and because they make it easy for students to keep the cards in order (e.g. Jack, Queen, King). 

Verb Word Sneak 
Since kids tend to shuffle the cards as soon as they receive them, playing cards help them to reorder the cards once the activity starts. I also put the words and the definitions on the students’ cards so players can concentrate on their story ideas instead of having to recall the definitions first.  The audience members, however, simply see the words projected on the screen as the players are using them.

It's easy to make your own Word Sneak game by attaching vocabulary labels to a deck of playing cards. If you want a shrink-wrapped verb deck/game you can find one on Amazon, or you can download a set of Verb Playing Cards featuring a Verb Word Sneak game display on TpT.

Are you a Jimmy Fallon fan? Check out this content review game called, The Jimmy Fallon Guide to Test Prep (Part 1): Random Object Shootout, and the classroom version of  Hasbro's Catch Phrase in The Jimmy Fallon Guide to Test Prep (Part 3): Idiom Catch Phrase.

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That's it for now, so until next time...stay committed...teach with passion...and inspire students with who you are. 

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Best Teaching Advice I've Ever Gotten

When I first started teaching, I designed every lesson with the if-you-build it-they-will-come mindset. I figured if I could build a lesson I was excited about, my enthusiasm would be so contagious that every student would come to class eager to learn. 

So I spent hours creating anticipatory sets, content memory hooks, and if-you-thought-today-was-great-wait-until-tomorrow endings.

Sometimes it worked. 

But sometimes it didn’t.

The tragic part, though, was that my joy was linked to my students’ reactions to each lesson.

My Worst Nightmare

The possibility of looking at a sea of frozen faces and glassy eyes staring at random spaces behind me was my greatest fear.

Whenever this happened, voices in my head talked to me.

One voice would say, “You’re doing fine. They just came back from lunch so, of course, they’re feeling a little lethargic. Besides, everything can’t be fun.”

At the same time another voice (a much louder one) would shout, “Hello! Look at them. They may not have drifted off into dreamland yet, but this lesson is putting them to sleep faster than a lullaby.”

A Dream Come True (No Genie Lamp Required)

What I didn’t know then and what I do know now is that if I continued on with a lesson while student energy levels were low, any words of wisdom I was hoping to deliver would be rejected.

So what kind of lucky break or magic trick can turn a lifeless lesson into a memorable one?

The truth is that it isn’t about luck or magic any more than making a dream come true is about rubbing a lamp and having a genie grant it on the spot.

The key to getting kids to focus and participate…is the ability to BE FLEXIBLE.

So whenever I sense that an important lesson is bombing, I STOP THE LESSON.

Sometimes I’m slick about it, but sometimes I just stop mid-sentence and pull out Plan B…or C…or D - any plan that will prevent the lesson (and me) from crashing and burning.

The best part is I only need a few go-to lesson savers, to make sure my worst nightmare doesn't turn into a recurring dream.

Energy-Changing Backup Plans

Here are three backup plans which have helped me transform a classroom of apathetic students into enthusiastic ones - often before they realized they were zoning out:

#1 Make a No-Speech Speech

4-Minute Podcast with Step-by-Step Instructions

Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Walk to the front of the room, stand behind a podium or table and say, "Good morning."

Step 2: Then look directly at someone in the class and count to 3 in your head. Look at a second student and count to 3 in your head. Look at one more student, count to 3 in your head, and say, "Thank you very much."

Step 3: Walk back to your chair and sit down.

Have each student try this No-Speech Speech while fellow classmates observe. 

* This exercise never fails to stir up curiosity and reset engagement levels. As an added bonus, it gives students a non-threatening way to practice public speaking.

Check out this entire no-prep strategy and suggested follow-up lessons on YouTube.

#2 Vote From Your Seat

Here’s how it works:

Step 1:  Make a claim and ask students to express their opinions by…

staying seated if they disagree,

standing up if they agree, or

placing their hands on their desks if they believe both sides have merit.

Sample school-related claims: 1) I believe school should start at 11:00 AM and end at 5:00 PM.  2) 50% of required classes should be given online.  3) The school year should be longer 4) I like gym class. 5) I like to read. 6) I think all classes should be pass/fail.

Step 2:  Call on several students to defend their opinions.

* Since students find out quickly that they might be asked to defend their positions at any time, they get their answers ready - just in case the teacher picks on them to share that day.

#3 Create Alphabet Scripts

Sentence Variety: 90 Second Alphabet

Here’s how it works:

Step 1:  Show students a "90-Second Alphabet" Whose Line Is It Anyway? video clip.

Step 2:  Have students write down 7 letters in alphabetical order. Skip three lines between each letter or use this free template.

Step 3:  Announce a setting. 

Sample settings: Six Flags, a cafeteria, McDonalds, a bowling alley, K-Mart, a beach, Chuckie Cheese

Step 4:  Have student pairs take turns writing every other line of a seven line script. For example, if the letters are A-G, one person writes the lines beginning with A, C, E and G while the other person writes the lines beginning with B, D and F.

Step 5:  Give all students a few minutes to practice. Then ask for volunteers to act out their scripts.

* This is a great sentence variety exercise disguised as a brain break. 

Watch a demo of this fun activity on YouTube. 

Flexibility Payoffs

Abandoning great content because students do not seem interested in it is never wise. But neither is attempting to deliver great content to a lethargic or resistant class.

The fact is that good teachers know how to read students and how to adjust energy levels throughout a lesson.

Mastering this skill is a game changer - because once teacher’s and the students’ energy levels are back in sync, that’s when it’s time to go back to the original plan and start again. 

If I had learned this lesson earlier in my career, it would have made consistently delivering meaningful and memorable lessons a whole lot easier!

Thanks to ELA Buffet and Desktop Learning Adventures for hosting this blog hop. Be sure to check out more best-teaching-advice posts below.

Until next time…stay committed…teach with passion…and inspire students with who you are.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Short Story Recommendation: The Chaser

If you like story lines filled with mystery, manipulation, and magic, you’ll love The Chaser by John Collier.

This little story poses big questions like...
…what constitutes criminal intent?
…what qualifies someone as a victim?
…what types of decisions (if any) determine destiny? 

As the story unfolds, Collier compels every reader to wonder, “What would I be willing to do to gratify my deepest desires?” 

This well-crafted story is guaranteed to inspire lively (and sometimes heated) discussions in middle/secondary classrooms.

Check out The Chaser online or in Milton Crane's 50 Great Short Stories.

Close reading activities, step by step plans, and task cards are also available here:

Single Story

That's it for now, so until next time…stay committed…teach with passion…and inspire students with who you are.

Friday, January 15, 2016

ELA Substitute Plans to the Rescue

One thing I've learned (the hard way) is that 3 critical elements must be included in emergency plans if my classes are going to run smoothly when I’m absent. 

This is my go-to formula for creating super sub plans:
  • The instructions must be simple (so they’re understood by students and substitutes).
  • The tasks must be relevant (so students know that their work will be revisited or assessed).
  • The lessons must be fun (so that even the most resistant learner will want to do the assignments). 

Simply put: Poorly planned lessons + a day with a substitute = Epic Fail. 

So what kinds of assignments set students and guest teachers up for success?

Here are 3 my favorite activities to leave as emergency plans so the substitute is delivering worthy lessons, the students are enjoying high-interest assignments, and I am feeling guilt-free about missing a day of school:

Activity #1:  Hink Pink Warm Up (5 minutes)

12 Hink Pink cards are included in the Emergency ELA Sub Plans freebie.

Hink Pinks are designed to be used as teacher-led sessions in which students call out single-syllable rhyming answers. 

Example 1: When the teacher announces the clue set, “ARTIFICIAL REPTILE,” a student or students will call out, “FAKE SNAKE!”

Example 2: When the teacher announces the clue set, “BRIEF GRUNT,” a student or students will call out, “SHORT SNORT!”

Activity #2:  Point of View Writing (30-40 minutes)

Pick up these interactive point of view sheets in the Emergency ELA Sub Plans freebie.

The title of this lesson is Make Your Characters Jump Off the PageStudents will receive one Slide and Stop direction card and one 60-80 Word Dash task sheet. 

The substitute will instruct students to drop their fingers into column #1 and slide their fingers up and down the column (without looking) until they hear the word STOP. This will tell the students what their personality types are. Then onto column #2 to find out who they will become for the writing assignment. And finally, the last slide-and-stop (column #3) will identify their setting. 

Students will then write their Slide and Stop combinations on the 60-80 Word Dash task sheets. 

If time allows, students get into pairs and ask each other questions. Note: The most important part of this task is that students must answer questions as if they are the characters they selected. 

Then students will give us a little peek into their new lives by writing a 60-80 word snapshot. This activity is always a hit with substitutes and students.

 Activity #3:  Research Simulation Task (40 minutes)

Simulated Research Notes and a Ben Franklin biography frame are included in the Emergency ELA Sub Plans freebie.

Biography Research Frames help students realize how fascinating research can be by giving them nonthreatening paragraph frames that make research projects easy to do and enjoyable to present.

In this final assignment, student pairs will jigsaw information about Benjamin Franklin and come to consensus about what information should be included in the paragraph frame.

Students will present their paragraphs when I return.

You can pick up a set of ELA substitute plans here:

Thanks to ELA Buffet and Desktop Learning Adventures for hosting this blog hop.

That's it for now, so until next time…stay committed…teach with passion…and inspire students with who you are.