Saturday, October 1, 2016

How to Write a Scary Story that Readers Will Love: Get 'Em Moving - Then Get 'Em Writing

Scary Story Writing 101

The truth is: Every story that contains a compelling conflict contains elements of a scary story. 

But when it comes to writing a story that compels readers to stick around and find out whether the main characters end up as victors or victims - the mood-setting elements in the horror story genre become master manipulators of readers' emotions.  

Setting the Stage

One of the most effective ways to demonstrate how to create conflicts-that-readers-gobble-up is to read scary stories aloud to students.  

Three of my go-to mentor texts that work with students of all ages include: Share a Scare, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings, and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Scary Story Mentor Texts

Share a Scare by Nancy Loewen - This book not only offers every reader a series of cringe-worthy moments, but it walks readers step-by-step through the process the author used to create them.

The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings by Jan Harold Brunvand - The short, classic urban legends in this collection are perfect for conducting mini-lessons that never fail to captivate audiences - young and old.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz The chilling short stories in this trilogy only take a few minutes to read, and the stories are categorized by the type of "scare" they offer. (This link goes to the 2011 boxed set, but if you can find the 1981 version, the creepy illustrations in that set add to the spookiness of the tales.)

Scary Story Elements

It doesn’t matter if students are in third grade or if they’re seniors in high school - almost everybody loves a good scare.

Classic horror stories, urban legends, and ghost stories, however, amp up the fear factor by adding a few extra cringe-worthy elements like…

… a Something’s Not Right Character,

... an “Uh-Oh” Moment, and

… Darkness that Foreshadows an Unknown Danger.   

And more often than not, characters get into terrifying situations after 
  • Breaking a rule,
  • Ignoring a warning,
  • Making a bad decision, or
  • Trusting a stranger.
But regardless of how they got themselves into a scary situation in the first place, the magic happens as they go about trying to make a situation right that has gone terribly wrong. 

Unfortunately, one of the tragic parts of this genre is that many of these characters don’t ever get to learn from their mistakes. The only silver lining is that maybe we, the readers, can.

The easiest way to get students started writing scary stories is to (1) read them a few of your favorite spooky tales, (2) hang scary, captioned pics around the room so groups of students can rotate through them and brainstorm story ideas (e.g. Gab & Go Stations), (3) post the scary story elements on the board, and (4) have students free-write for 12 minutes.
Sample Photo Prompt for a Gab & Go Station

If you'd like to pick up a set of captioned photo prompts with step-by-step plans to use in mini-lessons or at learning centers, they're available here:

Scary Story Writing 101
The next blog post in this active student engagement series is How to Host a Character MeetUp.

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

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

How to Host a Book Tasting Event in Your Classroom: Get 'Em Moving - Then Get 'Em Writing

Video Demo: How to Host a Book Tasting Event

It’s the beginning of another school year and you’re fired up. A new group of students is headed your way. You’re ready to motivate them, stir their curiosity, and entice even your most introverted students to actively participate. 

You have one goal: You want everyone in your care to know they're in a safe, creative place so you can help them grow. And if you teach English Language Arts, part of that job is to make sure your students grow as readers and writers.

So where do you start?

You start by having students take part in reading, writing and discussion activities that guarantee success. 
And one of the best ways I know of to get students reading, writing, and discussing in a no-fail environment is to host Book Tasting events.

Book Tasting Pay Offs and Set Up

Book Tastings are popular with kids and teachers.

They're easy to set up. 

They engage everyone. 

And they show students that they might be in for a few surprises when they step into ELA class this year.

To get started, all you need is a class set of menus, plates, and books. Then, you'll assign a task.

Fiction Task

Before a fiction event you might say something like, “For the next 20 minutes, you will be reading four books for five minutes each. When time is called, you'll rate each one using 1-5 stars and then jot down a reason for your rating.”

What I like about this particular task is that it exposes students to several different genres (I usually include fantasy, adventure, sports fiction, mystery, and humor.), and students often get hooked on books they would never have picked up on their own.

Note: If you repeat this activity several times throughout the year, this critique and rating task also serves as a handy reading wish list.

Nonfiction Task

Here's a sample intro script for nonfiction: “For the next 12 minutes or so, you will be given a few minutes to read as much of each of these four articles as you can. When time is called, your job will be to record one thing you remember from an article before passing it to another student."

During this event (I sometimes call nonfiction sessions “Text Tastings.”), students break up into groups of four.  All students will read the same set of articles. 

This exercise may be followed by a whole-class discussion about the takeaways they recorded -- or students may share which facts were directly quoted, paraphrased, or summarized. 

Impromptu Tastings

Book Tastings may also be conducted using a single book.

Some of my best scavenger-hunt-style Book Tastings have been conducted right after a mini-lesson. I simply ask students to open their books and tag parts of the text which demonstrate the skill covered in the lesson.

Some of these skills include:
  • grammar techniques, 
  • supporting evidence, 
  • sentence structure, and 
  • author’s craft. 

I love to teach a skill and then have students look for examples of it in books they’ve selected themselves.

Follow Up

Sometimes, I collect student responses and use them as exit tickets or as assessment pieces. But most of the time, I just have students keep the menu covers so they can add inserts for future Book and Text Tastings. That way, students are able to use the completed inserts throughout the year as reference tools or as writing springboards. 

I call the Book Tasting event one of my Magic Lessons because this simple strategy never fails to surprise and delight students year after year.
Book Tasting Menus are available here.
Next blog post in this active engagement series: How to Write a Scary Story Readers Will Love

A special thanks to ELA Buffet and Desktop Learning Adventure for hosting this blog hop event.

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

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Voting from Your Seat and on Your Feet Sharepoints: Get 'Em Moving - Then Get 'Em Writing

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.

The next blog post in this active student engagement series is How to Run a Book Tasting Event.

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:

Would you like to receive our monthly newsletter? Click here.

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.