Increase Engagement with Real-World Activity Tie-Ins for Literature

One of the obstacles for reluctant learners is that they may fail to see the relevance to their own lives. Writing essays seems unrelated to the types of jobs they expect to have. More so if they don’t expect to go to college. While we know and can attempt to explain how the skills in essay writing are transferable to other types of writing, sometimes it’s valuable to actually use those real-world writing types in response to literature.

Some examples of real-world tasks for literature writing:

Friendly Letter Writing (which, truthfully, should be the guide for many friendly emails): Students will write a letter or two related to the characters or events from the story. This is a shorter activity, and includes the ability to practice addressing envelopes, which are not quite outdated yet.

Police Writing Activity (best for crime stories or stories with a crime): students will dig into the text for details. Good practice for reviewing and reading deep into the text. But also includes organizing thoughts and drawing conclusions.

Create an Infographic: This is a newer media, but continues to have popularity. It is used in marketing, memes, textbooks, and other places to quickly convey information in a fun, visual format. Students can make an infographic about the story or a character. Less emphasis on the writing part, but still includes digging into the text and analysis.

How-To Brochure Activity In: Students will take a component of the story and build a how-to brochure. They may use what the story offers or add on with research or experience. It can be a funny or serious activity. Giving information on how to do something is a common activity, and in many workplaces, writing down the instructions is needed too.

Fiction Analysis and Review Activities: Students often enjoy sharing their opinions– especially if they’re allowed to say something sucks (as long as they provide support!). Students will work to support their opinion with information from the text and analysis. Use in small chunks, with parts of a texts, or to build to a complete essay. This product includes task cards and choice lists for independent reading or whole class options. A final review can be done as a video (like YouTubers) or a writing response, either formal or informal.

Story-Based Research Project: Oftentimes a story includes topics the student may be able to explore further. It might be a small thing (like a reference to a specific type of structure) or a larger thing (historical event). Since it can be intimidating at times to come up with a fresh research topic, this allows students to be sparked by something in the text. To help, students can be informed in advance that they should be looking for something in the text that they might want to learn more about. As we know, research should be encouraged and nurtured beyond school assignments, but this is a start.

KWL Research Project: We have students complete a KWL. They dutifully fill in what they want to learn… and then the assigned reading fails to provide that information. Great. Now they can research it (and get credit in class for it!). This activity helps foster the curiosity of students, and acknowledges that rarely will any single reading on a topic answer all the questions, but that doesn’t mean we should just stop. (And sometimes students lack the drive, tools, or time to continue that research on their own, and that’s fair.) As we know, research should be encouraged and nurtured beyond school assignments, but this is a start.

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Wrap-Up the Year with Real-World Writing

The end of the school year can make it challenging to hold students’ attention. The end is in sight and focus dwindles.

Real-world writing is a great way to keep attention and engagement up. There’s no question of “when will I need this.” It’s not abstract, but concrete writing skills and processes. (This list is based primarily off my experiences in a variety of jobs that I worked around being a part-time teacher for many years.)

Here are some real-world writing activities for the end of the year, or any time:

Complaint letter writing: while students are familiar with complaint letters from an individual perspective, they may not realize that businesses and organizations will also write a complaint letter (or email) when dissatisfied. It’s good written documentation of an attempt at resolution as well. It requires factual, objective, and structured writing, plus some problem-solution writing (identify the complaint, propose a reasonable solution). A variation is to direct their complaints towards standardized testing, which can be a good way to vent.

Plan a Trip: This real world activity focuses on researching a place to visit, such as for a vacation. The same skills in researching location can be applied to researching a new place to live or work. Students will research not just the location, but also distances and costs as part of their project.

Proposal Writing: proposals are very comm  on as they explain what one company offers another, in detail. Proposals are used to sell goods or services (including building, designing, or managing) for another company or organization. They will include detailed information on process and pricing. Proposals include a subtle type of persuasive writing- attempting to convince the prospective client to choose then, but with facts and not emotion.

Company Project (or Build a Business): the core of this project is that students create a company with goods or services and build a poster with short company history, sales pitch, and testimonials. You can also expand the project with complaint letter writing, business letter writing, commercial writing, and flyer design. It’s a flexible project that really gets students involved in several different types of real-world writing. (This is a student favorite, and honestly, one of my favorites as well.)

Plus, these projects are a deviation from “normal” grading, which is a nice bonus for the teacher at the end of the year as well.

Hang in there! The end is in sight!

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Ways to Work Around State Testing and Other Disruptions

State and other testing often means disrupted schedules for a period of time. It may include alternate school days, make-up days, or other issues. This is compounded in multi-grade classrooms. Plus, there is a shift in focus from the current classwork to testing, which can prove challenging for students (and sometimes teachers) to keep track of where they left off.

Here’s some ideas for how to navigate the disruptions and get back on track quickly.

  1. Use short texts, treating each discretely until the end of the unit wraps things up. This might include poems (since April is Poetry Month), short stories, informational text articles, short writing analysis or activities or a mix to create a thematic unit.  By using short text, each text can be completed independently, with the appropriate activities, in a short period of time. Students missing don’t fall behind in a larger text or forget what happened before hand.
  2. Offer a choice of creative projects and activities to help students stay engaged. Testing or other disruptions can affect focus and interest, but allowing both choice and creative projects, it offers a low-energy buy-in to re-engage students.
    • Alternately, include projects that allow for student interest and choice. A Song Lyric Literary Analysis, for example, allows students to chose a song they enjoy to practice literary analysis.

  1. Use projects and flexible timelines which allows students to complete tasks in alternate order to increase completion. Students can ‘eat the frog’ (as the expression goes) and tackle the biggest or most challenging part, or if they’re burned out, distracted, or otherwise struggling, they can work on smaller or more interesting (to them) pieces in order to keep making progress.  Set the due date for all items, but let students chose the order.
    • For example, when assigning the Company Project, I give them all the guidelines and grading for the required parts (poster, letters, advertisement) and they work in whatever order they choose.

  1. End a unit before testing begins. Make sure all is wrapped up. Then start a new unit, project, mini-unit or other flexible activity for covering the time period of the most disruption. Allow time for students who are pulled away (or focused on other things) time to catch up after things settle down.  A lonely Monday or Friday in a week of testing is great for a movie-vs-book comparison, time spend reviewing literary or poetry terms, or a short project, such as one focused on impacts or effects of standardized testing.

Want more ideas for disruptive school weeks? Read about ways to Survive the Days before Thanksgiving Break and Still Engage in Learning

If you’re already looking towards the end of the school year, check out these posts:


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Skip the Romance: Study the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

Valentine’s Day in the secondary classroom is a far cry from candy and card exchanges. The emphasis on romance can put a lot of pressure on students– students in relationships may feel pressure to make the day special and students not in relationships may feel left out or irritated. The romantic aspects can certainly be a distraction.

It can take a powerfully engaging activity to get the attention off romance and on school work. The St. Valentine’s Massacre does a good job of getting students attention– bonus, it fits the holiday theme!

Some activities for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre:

Read the historic New York Times Article about the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre from February 1929. It’s a lengthy article, but fully of good information about the massacre and Capone. Good for informational text reading and can be used with reading questions or graphic organizers.

Evaluate arguments in passages or web pages about Al Capone. An interesting topic can make it easier to engage students in the process of analyzing. The evaluation task is similar to the task seen on standardized tests. I’ve written some Al Capone Informational Text Analysis Activity that include one passage that is slanted towards untrue claims– that can help students practice disagreeing with the author’s argument– and one that is slanted towards generally recognized claims, to help students analyze arguments with an interesting topic.

Complete a web scavenger hunt or research activity. Students look up information about Al Capone and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre using reliable websites. Can be paired with the New York Times Article or can stand-alone. When searching pictures, students can be taught how to cite images (and not just “Google images”.)

Have students make a Wanted Poster for Al Capone. Fill in details about Capone from the New York Times Article or internet search. Students can also create their own wanted poster– works well as a get-to-know you activity for new terms, too.

Have students create their own mob as a tie-in. Students can create a criminal or positive group, with a variety of real-life writing, including public relations, group history, and a poster board. Can be restricted to positive groups if necessary for school climate. Glorification of illegal activity is prohibited in the assignment (mentioning it as fact is different and may be acceptable.)

Complete a Villainous Terms Word search puzzle. Free, fun activity that can go with any bad-guy, or work around assemblies and other activities.  Includes a variety of 39 villainous words from bad to malefactor.

I prefer to keep the romantic stuff in with poetry, anyway, so I that’s a bonus, too.  Not that I particularly like poetry. 

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Culminating Activities For Use With “The Raven”

Culminating projects are a good way to engage students in digging deeper into a text. “The Raven” is a good text for engaging reluctant readers, with the dark tone and descent into madness.

Here are some culminating projects for “The Raven:”

Make a gravestone for Lenore. Include an image or symbol on it, plus an epithet (short comment).  For further textual analysis, have students reflect on what they included, with textual support.

Write an obituary or eulogy for Lenore. This activity combines real-world writing with creative writing and textual evidence. Students might choose the narrator as the point of view for the obituary (written description of the deceased) or the eulogy (speech given at the funeral).

Write an analysis of how the narrator interprets the responses of the Raven. Students can examine how he asks certain questions and how he views those answers.  Students might include how the “conversation” could have gone differently if the narrator asked different questions.

Research Poe’s life and relationships, then compare them with the poem for possible influence. A multimedia project is a nice way to present the research findings, as it can include images of Poe and his life that students find.

Write a prequel to the poem about the relationship with Lenore.  Could be written as a narrative or as rhyming poem in the same format as the original.

These are available as part of the Raven Culminating Projects Set— plus the Prequel is available as a stand-alone project, complete with rubrics.

Read more here about other ideas for teaching “The Raven.”

Check out other Culminating Projects to use with The Raven, or other poe  ms.

Need help teaching poetry? Read about ideas to help teachers and students with poetry

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The Best Part of Back to School

I’ve always looked forward to back to school. From those early school days– including the first day at Kindergarten when I jumped off the bus steps in my joy– to, well, this year.  The classrooms have changed. The students are still students, though there are shifts in the issues and interests.

But back to school is my favorite part of the school year.

There are so many things about back to school that I enjoy:

  1. New school supplies. There’s something magical about new packages of pens and pencils, new notebooks, folders and other odds and ends. Even as I’ve gone more digital in life, I just love getting new pens, with different tips and ink. Fresh notebooks waiting to be filled.
  2. The fresh start for students. The students are (generally), clean, sober, and ready to make it a good year. Attendance is usually good– better than it will be most of the rest of the semester. Students come ready to work (for the most part).  If I can hook the students early with engaging activities, I can build momentum through the first half of the semester. I try to strategically choose which texts and activities will get their interest, while still also holding some of the best stuff for a little bit later– lure them in, so to speak. Also, we get to begin building our classroom atmosphere, learning it’s individual flavor based on it’s occupants as we get to know each other (without ice breakers!). And we all know how two classrooms can be so different based on who is or is not part of it.
  3. New opportunities for the teacher. I can start a new rapport with this batch of students, learning and tweaking how I approach situations, classroom management, and procedure. I am ready to adjust projects and activities to reduce or remove pain-points from last year that interfered with student success. I have new ideas and new energy. I’ve been tweaking and collecting materials over the summer, reflecting on last year’s outcomes, and am ready to tackle things anew. While the craziness of the first week is unusually exhausting, once we start settling into what will be our normal routine, while students are still engaged, it’s like it all comes together. Move-moment teaching– or as close as I’ll get to it.

Back to school is full of possibilities.  New students, new assignments, new year. The chance to be even better than before.


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How to Waste Students’ Time with Binders and Notebooks

Binders, notebooks, interactive notebooks, portfolios and other tools can provide a method to showcase student learning, collect reference materials and teach organization.

Or they can be a time-consuming process that fails to do more than provide a sporadic grade.

Here’s how to waste students’ time with binders and notebooks:

  1. Require students to follow a specific format and structure, then provide a grade for organization.  Rather than teach students how to create organization, provide them a set list. This way, they will only know how to organize that class notebook, rather than how to apply organization to their own files and papers beyond that class.
  2. Do not provide, or reinforce, use of the reference materials. Do not create activities or opportunities that require students students to use the reference materials on repeated occasions. This will help show how useless the notebook and its contents are.
  3. Require students to collect past work with an ill-defined or inappropriate purpose. If all assignments are required, penalize students twice– once for missing the assignment submission, and again for it being missing in the binder or notebook. If “Best Work” is to be showcased, then make sure that students are given specific assignments that count as their best work– such as the only writing assignments or projects in the course.
  4. Surprise students with notebook checks to ensure they are lugging the thing to class each day– especially if it’s a massive 4-inch binder or an interactive notebook made fat with added pages that isn’t used daily or regularly for meaningful tasks. When they make the decision to prioritize based on the information (such as not being used), penalized that budding decision-making skills.
  5. If used daily, make sure that most tasks are stand-alone bell-ringers or similar activities that may relate tangentially, at best, to the rest of the day’s tasks. This will reinforce that the notebook is just another receptacle for tasks that could be done on any paper, without the need to carry and keep track of the binder or notebook.
  6. Since you, the teacher, never ever forget anything important, make sure to penalize students if they forget their notebook, even if it’s not being used that day. Do not have back-up or alternate activities to accommodate a student without their notebook.

If those things don’t appeal to you, then consider some of these:

  1. Be clear and consistent on your purpose of the binder and notebook. Make sure that the activities included are meaningful and relate to that purpose. If the purpose includes “teaching organization” then students will need opportunities to learn and practice their own organization rather than follow a checklist.
  2. Ensure that the notebook or binder is used regularly for reference. Recording new information (bell-ringers or daily activities) can be a useful purpose, but there should be some reason why the tasks must be done in the notebook as opposed to on separate paper.
  3. Be realistic. Students are not likely to refer to reference materials in their notebook if they think they already know it, if they find it to be more effort than asking or online or in a printed reference, or if they don’t find the notebook a useful reference (including if they find their own handwriting difficult to read.) Students– people– are unlikely to refer to practice exercises to review a process. Handwriting is rarely as easy to read as printed type, and this is exacerbated by those who read a lot of printed type (as many people do online, on phones, etc.)
  4. Be considerate of student needs when ordering the notebook or binder to be lugged around each day. Even an interactive notebook can get fat with added activities, and can have parts sticking out or off if (folded wrong, or tabs), which can be an irritation to some groups of students. Consider storing in-class if possible, or limiting how much is added to the notebook (goes with the above purpose– can bell-ringers be done on paper if they are daily practice of writing or grammar?)
  5. Have a process to support students who are absent, who have missed an assignment/ activity to be included in the notebook, and who have forgotten their notebook.  Keeping in mind that students are human, and that they have not only their set of classes, but also other priorities and issues at home, with friends, and with any activities they are involved in.

It’s been [redacted] years since I was a high school student, but I still remember resenting those massive binders, and the utter uselessness of them. I had as many as four binders to carry around and keep track of, the purpose of which, if even given beyond “teaching” organization, were rarely matched by the tasks included. As a “good student” I hated losing points for my binder– including for absent work I hadn’t completed or, at least once, that I was told “not to worry about” since it was completed in class. The above lists represent both my student-perspective from high school AND college, plus experience teaching and collaborating with colleagues.

What’s your take on binders and notebooks?

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How to Plan for Back to School… When You Don’t Know What You’re Teaching

Summer is a great opportunity for teachers to rest, relax… and prepare for next year.  The more that can be prepared ahead of time, the more likely class will run smoothly.  There will be less last-minute lesson planning– and more time for appropriate minor tweaks (to meet classroom challenges or needs, for example.)

But what if you don’t know what you are teaching?  Maybe you are between jobs. Maybe your school doesn’t assign until closer to the school year, for some or all teachers.  Maybe there is rumor of a shake-up that is as-yet unconfirmed, but could move you from what you have taught before.  Whatever the reasons, it certainly puts a wrinkle in preparation time.

That wrinkle can be a bit trickier to navigate if you’re at risk of moving content areas.  I’ve been shuffled to teach History from time to time, along with or instead of English.  The planning can be different, but there are still ways to find some overlap or repurpose materials.

Here are some ways to prepare what you can without minimal risk of lost time:

Gather general use materials and projects.  Writing a research project is a solid stand-alone activity that can be used in most classes, especially ELA, but also in other content areas, if needed.  Personal writing is another area that can either stand-alone or frequently be tied into other texts. Themed essay writing is a short stand-alone option, and can be based around holidays (even in Secondary classes).

For English classes, one area of preparation is to collect projects that can be used for Any Text.  Then tailor the activity or the text to the class once assigned.  Any text can use a Literary Analysis, as can writers of all levels (especially if scaffolded.)   Many types of projects can by used for different texts, especially if the project includes an element of analysis of the original text.

Find Primary Sources and Informational Texts. Many primary sources and informational texts can function in any ELA class, as well as other content areas.  Questions can be tailored to the needs of the class or unit– though most texts can support general reading questions or graphic organizers to help students to focus on reading for content and analysis.  Projects can further tie the text into a theme or unit.

One text that I applied this idea to was materials for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  Originally, the newspaper article and study were part of a history lesson.  Later, it was re-purposed for an English class.  The same text was able to fill both roles with little revision of task and project.

Experiment, explore, and practice with new tools, apps, or programs.  Perhaps it’s a program you’ve used before, but would like to be more comfortable with.  You might try a new task in an old program.  Or test out a new program to become familiar with it before you’re under pressure in the classroom.  If possible, set up sample students– and better, log in as the student to test the process and procedure.  What were difficulties for teacher or student with a program or activity, and how could they be addressed?

One summer, between classes, I spent time exploring the processes in Microsoft Word, particularly the Compare Documents tool.  I practiced how to use the tool to compare what changes were made between versions of a document, a process that I later implemented to check how much revisions students were doing in papers.  I adjusted how I treated– and graded– revisions between draft and final, since it was easy for me (and for students) to see them.

If all else fails, spend time reading.  Reading books about education and social theories, and featuring  culture and lifestyles different from my own, and full of stories and poems and novels you might teach (or not!).  I find that whether reading to develop as a teacher, or reading just because it’s fun (not counting the bonus part of building empathy through fiction reading), I know that my time spent reading is valuable time spent.

But most of all, summer is a good time to spend relaxing and recharging. Especially with those you enjoy.

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Activities to Teach “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka.

It’s a cultural reference.  It relates to a sudden and unexpected change– something teenagers can usually relate to.  It’s an odd and dystopic story.  Any one of these things make “The Metamorphosis” a good choice.  Even if the language is a bit dense and old-fashioned at times, it still holds up well as a teachable text.

Activities for Metamorphosis Kafka 1

Here are some ideas for teaching the story:

Reading questions and Graphic Organizers are a good way to push students into examining the text, helping them to practice reading for content and retention.  It can also be a way to promote accountability– and proof of it– for actually reading the story.  For dense or difficult texts, I like to spend time together in class reading, while students fill in their short answer questions (helping them have a reason to stay awake, too.)  Graphic organizers can be used to reinforce concepts of the story or differentiate for students who prefer more visual formats.

Write Your Own Metamorphosis Story is a fun writing activity to tie into the story.  I like to make students explore the literary devices and then match the original story in theme or main idea.  They get a lot of flexibility, while still examining literary devices and the original text.

Activities for Metamorphosis f Kafka 3


Personal Metamorphosis Writing is a great tie-in activity.  Students in the middle and high school level have usually all gone through some event or situation that related to their own personal growth.  This activity gives several options to reflect and write about those changes.  Works nicely as an anticipatory activity.

Grete’s Transformation is another area to explore.  While the story, in it’s painfully matter-of-fact manner, spends most of the time on Gregor’s metamorphosis, in the background, Grete is transforming into a young woman.  Students can dig through the story for evidence to write an essay or story about how Grete is changing.

Clerk’s Report Activity is a fun short writing activity that is great for middle of the text.  That poor clerk from Gregor’s employer has to go back to the boss with an absurd report.  How does he even tell it?  Students might practice dialogue writing, point of view writing, or even formal, objective writing.  Not gonna lie, these are usually fun to read, too– bonus!Activities for Metamorphosis f Kafka 2

Because it’s an older text, it’s often helpful to spend some time studying the vocabulary. I like doing vocab first, so students have, essentially, a personal dictionary for that story– in order of the text– that they can use to look up words while reading.  Sometimes, they actually do, so that’s nice.

Looking for other stories to pair with “The Metamorphosis”, consider “The Birthmark” (Nathanial Hawthorne) as it deals with changing a person, and “The story of an Hour” (Chopin) which, taking a different approach, is another character who is victim of their circumstance.

Buy all of the activities listed here, plus more, in the money saving Metamorphosis Activity Bundle at my Teachers Pay Teachers Store.

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Useful End of the Year Activities

The end of the year can bring special challenges.  Students are wearing down, distracted by summer, or pulled away by testing or other special events.  Seniors may get out early, which can disrupt any class with a senior.  It may be a time of heavy review and wrap-up in some classes, which can also make it hard for students to remain engaged (such as if they think they already “got it”).  It can be tough to keep students on task and make the most of that valuable class time.

Here are some ways to make the most of the end of the year class time:

  • (Linked resources are specifically ELA, but the ideas can be applied in other subjects, too.)

  1.  Create a company.  This real-world activity is highly engaging.  Students in groups or individually can design a company, with goods and/ or services.  Use different real-world writing, and practice ‘selling’ the company.  (Subject areas may challenge students to make a specific subject-themed business, like environmentalism or math-based services.)  This project can be offered as a poster displaying the company, goods/services, and information for small scale, or add additional activities, such as business-letter writing, commercial creation, flyers and more.  Minimize for students with less class time due to activities or early-release, build up for others.
  2. Have fun with review.  Challenge students to create review posters and documents for important concepts.  Maybe include a contest over the best poster or memory device.  Using crosswords and word searches are good ways to reinforce concepts, like literary terms, science vocabulary, or history events.  Review games are good, and you can even have students create their own games to review as well (keep the good ones to use again.)
  3. Challenge students to a retro-active culminating project. They must return to a previous story or concept and create a project about it.  It forces students to return to an earlier part of the course to review and refresh.  Allow them to design their own culminating project, or choose from a set appropriate for the story or poem or concept.
  4. Have students do a short research project on a concept or idea from earlier in the course that they want to learn more about.  It can be a person, author, or even a reference from a story.  Consider taking some of the pressure off the research by relaxing some of the normal requirements– such as number of sources, length of written response, or even format, with allowing their preferred format (including PowerPoint or photo essay.)  Using templates for guidance and scaffolding is another way to practice, even at the end of the year.
  5. Have students Plan a Trip for their summer.  Do some real-world research.  Subject areas can even add the requirement of making it subject-related (nature related for sciences, for example, or history related for social studies.)  This can be a fun way to work in research, as well as writing and presentation of ideas while they create their brochure.

Keeping students busy seems to help the days go by smoother for them, and me.  Plus, using projects allows me a lot of flexibility as students are pulled.  I’ve even allowed students to spend some of that project time on missing work– for my class, or other classes– if they need to prop up their grade.  And, bonus, while they work, I can steal some time to keep up on grading, so that I’m prepared for the end of the school year as well.

What are your favorite strategies and activities for the end of the school year?

And if you’re teaching summer school, check out my summer school strategies.

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