Engaging Activities for Practicing Literary Analysis

Literary analysis is an important activity, requiring students to dig into the text in a thoughtful way, finding support in the very words and phrases and ideas of the text.  It’s different from research writing or opinion-based papers.  Students, at times, struggle with explaining why they feel the text is saying something– especially if they’ve fallen into a heavily reader-perception based approach to texts.

Repeating literary analysis writing helps reinforce the process of finding support and, well, analyzing the text.  However, students can start to resist completing another literary analysis, or worse, begin to see the task as “busy work.”

Here are some strategies for engaging approaches to the Literary Analysis:

  1. Song Lyric Literary Analysis— students examine a song for use of poetic devices.  Can be done as a whole group, such as with a teacher-selected song.  Students can also work in small groups, each on a different song, teacher and/or student-selected.  Another option is for students to chose their own (school-appropriate) song.  Any song should have enough variety in lyrics to provide opportunity for analysis– very repetitive songs would not be a good choice.  (I have let students choose a song that includes select profanity and let them “bleep” the profanity out in the copy of the lyrics turned in, as well as the analysis.  This allows otherwise good choices for analysis to be used, in spite of the occasional swear word.)
    • This activity also works great around Christmastime, when Christmas carols and winter songs proliferate.  A Christmas Carol Literary Analysis is a fun way to include holiday-themed work even in the secondary classroom.
  2. Movie Literary Analysis— movies share many of the same literary elements as texts do, from characterization and theme to mood and allusion.  Using some or all of a movie is another way to work on literary analysis.  Students examine the movie and use the same sort of support as they would with a poem or (print) story.  There is an added challenge of not having passages of the text to refer to, but instead needing to explain what they are analyzing.  Pixar shorts work very well for this activity.
  3. Have students do a “Write Your Own” story or poem– students examine the text for several literary or poetic devices.  Then, using those same devices, plus a similar theme or main idea, students will create their own version.  This has students apply the literary devices found in the text, for a different sort of higher-level thinking about the text.  Short stories and poems are good choices, such as Casey at the Bat or After Twenty Years.
  4. Literary Essay Writing Printables– break the process into bite-sized pieces with fill-in-the-blank printables.  This can help reinforce the steps of analysis for both strong and weak writers.  Sometimes, taking the emphasis off the essay writing portion is a good approach: instead, students work on just the analysis.  Can also be used to scaffold the process for individual, group, or whole class, focusing on the areas where students need the most support or practice.
  5. Tweet the Text— fun activity that has students examine the use of language by turning a text (passage or poem) into Tweets, like on social media and microblogging.  Students then reflect on the impact, including effect of literary devices in the mediums.  Fun reinforcement, though less in-depth analysis of literary devices than the above options.Literary essays make a great way to wrap up a text.  If you’re looking for other ideas for culminating projects, consider these Retelling Projects and these Creative Culminating Projects for your next text.
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Reasons to (Still) Use the Five Paragraph Essay in High School and Beyond (Even for Advanced Learners)

The five-paragraph essay is a formulaic, bland, rigid model.  But it is also an incredibly structured, challenging guide.  It is a tool that can either stifle a writer or push them towards growth.   I have something of a love-hate relationship with the five-paragraph essay.  Students even can see it as a challenge or busywork, with the quality of essay and opportunity for growth that results.

But how can one little structured essay be all these things?  That relates to why it should still be used in the high school classroom, and beyond.

  1.  It’s very structured.  While the five paragraph essay can be very formulaic, the structure should be considered a positive.  For students who struggle with structure, the five paragraph essay provides additional practice and review of the basic essay structure.  Once this structure is mastered, it’s easier for students to expand the essay– add more body paragraphs using the same focused paragraphs and structure.  On the flip side, for students how are competent at longer essays with regards to content, students may get more lose with the essay and paragraph structure.  A return to the five paragraph essay can help them practice and review organization, with the reminder that the same guidelines of organization are the same, regardless of essay length (intro, focused body paragraphs with topic sentence and link to thesis, plus conclusion that provides no new information.)
  2. It’s very organized.  The five paragraph essay relies on the three pieces of support, along with the details or explanation of that support to form the body paragraphs.  Students who struggle with organization get practice focusing on one topic in their body paragraph, and can work on strengthening their ability to explain and analyze support in the body paragraph.  Most students will benefit from the review of using a main idea to start a paragraph, as well as keeping one topic per paragraph.
  3. It can be used to differentiate the focus for improvement.  No, really, I was surprised as I started working with this format more closely.  Partly because the format is almost fill-in-the-blank, the focus for improvement, or even grading, can be differentiated for students.  For students still working on complete sentences, the low content requirement can help move the focus.  Students can focus on clear, concise, and organized writing, down to sentence-level.  For students who are proficient writers, it can be tempting to just give them a ‘pass’ on the sentence-level development– HOWEVER, one great way to push the at-grade-level and above-grade level writers is to encourage them to add more content without adding more sentences.  This requires using complex and compound-complex sentence structures: longer sentences, but accurately structured and punctuated.  So, for high and low level writers, there is development of structure and mechanics, but differentiated.
  4. They can be quicker to review and grade, for faster feedback.  Feedback on the writing process is important.  More so, if students have the opportunity to see and track recurrent errors and work on them.  A series of short essays can build that portfolio of practice and review.  With short essays, it may be easier to work in workshop on conferencing time– there is less time needed to review the five paragraphs than a longer paper would need.  This allows time for the teacher to help review errors and corrections with more depth than can be done in margin comments.  Or, the short form, I find, works great for quick student conferences in class. 
  5. It’s good practice for demand-writing (and standardized testing.)  The five paragraph essay’s short length makes it quicker to write.  For students, this means they get practice writing texts of different lengths– sometimes I think there is too much focus on longer writing, to the point I’ve seen teachers focus on one or two BIG writing assignments, with little or no structured essay or research writing beyond the Big Writing Assignments.  Shorter writing is a good skill to keep sharp, especially if we recognize that much daily writing for most students will not be long-form research papers, but short, concise and direct.  Demand writing also has the element of limited revision, where students must write accurately the first time– no “sloppy copy” or rough draft where students don’t correct even basic errors they know need fixing.  Standardized testing gives little time for revision, especially if the student struggles with topic development before starting, and it’s good to practice this under-pressure short form to help students see and improve their weak areas long before the test.  We’d do a disservice to not spend some time writing short essays regularly.

One of my favorite tools for working with the Five Paragraph Essay is the use of support documents.  I like the Five-Paragraph Essay Model as a rough draft for students (even the proficient ones) and it’s easy to me to review and give fast feedback.  I’ve also expanded my toolbox for the Five-Paragraph essay materials to include Quick Guides (some may call them “Cheat Sheets” that walk students through process.)

With several levels of support documents, I might require that some groups of below-grade level writers use the models and reference guides, even referring to them myself in conversation.  For at grade level writers, I would provide and encourage the reference guides while working.  Lastly, for above-grade level writers, I might deny them the support guides during the writing process, to push them to independent work, but use them guides to discuss with the student what they achieved and what they did not, as compared to the guides and templates.

The Five Paragraph Essay, in my opinion, should not be left behind as students progress in grades, or even in writing ability.  It is a tool that has a place in any classroom to help review and reteach, but also to challenge and to check.


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Texts and Activities for Women’s History Month

March is Women’s History Month.  The month may also include the end of a marking period (or trimester), state testing, and/ or spring break.

While it may not be possible to dedicate time to a whole unit related to texts about or by women, it’s a good idea to include one or more, perhaps in a mini-unit.  Since women were often forgotten in history, it’s important to me to take at least a little time out to examine women’s issues, with female writers and characters.

Some Texts for and about women:

The Story of an Hour:  by Kate Chopin.  Short story of a woman, with a ‘weak heart.’ facing sudden, but inaccurate, news of her husband’s death, and her unexpected reaction to the information.  This story has great opportunities for a variety of projects, such as alternate ending or prequel writing, along side literary essays and discussions about love, loss, and freedom.

The Yellow Wallpaper: by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  Story of a young woman suffering from mental illness (likely postpartum depression) who is locked alone, in isolation, away from her baby as her treatment.  This story raises the question of mental health, but also the question of whether a man would ever be shut-up for days without contact to “treat” mental health issues.  Or even issues of class– would a Black woman or a poor woman have the luxury of suck treatment?  The story also includes a narrator of dubious reliability.  Alternate point of view writing would make a good companion activity.  Dig deeper into the implications of the story by reading more about the impacts of isolation.

A Rose for Emily: by William Faulkner.  A good, creepy story that relies heavily on inference as to what happened with Emily and her lover.  Discussion can include how the story might be different if the main character was a man, rather than Emily.  Would motivation of the main character change if it was a man?  The story also can include discussion of what is romantic… and where is the line between romantic and creepy (or abusive, though that might get heavy, so know your audience.)  Prequel writing would be a good companion activity, as would alternate ending writing.

My Mistresses Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun (Sonnet 130): Shakespeare pokes fun at all the normal romantic ideas, presenting his lover as being anything but beautiful, raising questions of what is beauty and how does love affect perception?  For comparison, Diella Sonnet 3 by Richard Linche is an interesting companion.  Students can write their own poem, or sonnet, about someone or something that they love.


Ain’t I A Woman, speech by Sojourner Truth: short speech shows contrast between white and Black (or colored) women, and the expectations and behaviors of both.  This speech can be challenging to read in dialect, but hearing it can help, such as read by Alice Walker.  It also highlights class differences– how were Black or poor women expected to behave or perform, as compared to their white counterparts.  Pair with the expectations and treatment of the women in The Yellow Wallpaper or The Story of an Hour.  How would those stories be different if expectations of women were different?  Students can discuss or write about what does it mean to be a woman and how does that definition change– in history, or in class or race.  Can make a good topic for a five-paragraph-essay, forcing students to be focused and structured (and thinking hard about what is their best support).  Have students compare their definitions, and consider discussion.  (Can also relate to discussion of what does mean to be a man, or manly, as men also face stereotypes on behavior and expectations that can be damaging.)

Susan B. Anthony’s Speech on Women’s Suffrage: students can be challenged to answer Anthony’s question of whether or not women are a ‘persons’?”  Why would they be defined otherwise?  This would also include discussion of context– and for a long time, women were considered property (either of their father or their husband).  And why would property vote…?  Can also relate to discussion on how ideas and norms change.

Other Activities to examine women and related topics:

Examining Male and Female Specific Products:  Send students (online or as homework) to find examples of products marketed for men and for women– some include pens (such as the Bic for Women), body wash for men, Lego sets for girls, and razors.  Compare ingredients/ features, scents, color, price, and more.  Then report: are they different products?  Does their need to be different versions?  Write a persuasive essay or a real-world business or complaint letter addressing the product choices.

Do Boys Read Female Writers?  When Harry Potter was first published, the author was encouraged to use her initials, because their was concern that boys wouldn’t read a book written by a female writer.  Is this true?  What would a female author write that would be different than a male author (assuming that the protagonist is still a male, like Harry Potter is)?  Good activity for a lead-in to studying female-centric stories or authors.  Can also lead into discussion or literary essay about what topics are more likely to interest male or female readers, and which are more universal.

Women’s History Month Essay: Students might write classifying jobs by gender (like nurse or secretary).  Another option is for students to write a woman marginalized in her work or about a woman that the student admires for her accomplishments.  A narrative essay on a time the student (or someone they know) was dismissed or discounted based on gender.

Research a Woman from History: students dig into a forgotten (or lesser-known) woman from history.  Find research and practice writing a research paper with analysis: why does this woman matter?  Or simply a timely practice of research writing.  Short research writings are good practice of form and structure, as well as a a method of allowing student-direct learning.


High school may not have the time, or interest, in heavily themed months, but there is value in taking the time to include holiday-themed activities.

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Skip the Book Report! Analyze and Create Instead!

After finishing a novel reading, whether whole group or individual, it’s great to have an activity to wrap up.  While book reports and other retelling projects, are a common choice, especially when dealing with multiple or student selected books, they don’t provide the higher level thinking that is preferred in secondary classrooms.  Instead, push students towards going beyond the text to predict, analyze, create and evaluate.

Here are some fun, flexible projects to use:

  1. Write Friendly-Letter(s): Students write a friendly letter from a character in the story.  Expand the activity by having students respond to the letter, either responding to their own letter or to a classmates.  Students can explore and address characterization, explore point of view, and evaluate importance of events.
  2. Design a Tattoo or Tee Shirt: students examine the story for theme or other literary elements and design a tattoo or tee shirt to depict it.  Draw free-hand or provide templates.
  3. Create a How-to Brochure: students will analyze a task or lesson from the story. Then, using details from the text, they will create a how-to brochure.  Good way to evaluate one or more choices of characters, as well as re-read the text for information. 
  4. Write a Sequel: Students predict what could happen next based on details of the original text.  Challenge students to keep true to the original characters to practice point of view exploration.
  5. Write a Prequel: Students examine key events and characterization of the story in order to write a prequel.  Prequels explain why the character or events in the original text are they way they are.  It’s a fun creative endeavor that’s rooted in details of the original text.
  6. Design a Book Cover: students examine the text for images, symbols, and motifs to design a catchy book cover.  Fun creative project that doesn’t take much time.
  7. Design a Movie Poster: This project addresses application of medium– in this case film– as compared to text.  Students consider how to depict the concept of the story in visual format, including images or symbols.  Students can research actors and actress to play the roles, requiring examination of the characters and their roles.
  8. Create a Soundtrack for the Text: Students will find (or write!) songs to fit select parts of the story.  Music in a soundtrack reflects or enhances the mood of the scene, so students will need to analyze the mood of the scene and of the music selected.
  9. Write Your Own: this project has students identify themes and major elements of the story to apply to their own version.  Students will be challenged to not just retell the story, but to create a new version.  Similar, in a way, to how Hollywood may “re-imagine” a classic story, with a new twist. 
  10. Write an Alternate Ending: Students apply understanding of elements of the story, including conflict and characterization.  They’ll predict and explore the effects a change at a key event of the story.  Student- or Teacher-selected event is chosen as the point to change, and students write a new ending.

Because the projects vary in content, they may not fit all books chosen.  This issue can be addressed by offering students a choice in their project.  I like to offer a variety of projects and let students chose– this may be accomplished with task cards, choice boards, or the old-school method of laying out stacks of photocopied assignment guidelines for students to choose from.  Student choice is a great way to increase engagement, which is helpful in pushing students into that higher-level thinking.

Plus, if you ask me, it’s a lot more fun, as a teacher, to grade the different creative projects than to read multiple regurgitation of the novel.  I’m frequently amazed and impressed by the creativity AND the level of depth I see in student projects.  It’d make me all warm and fuzzy, if I was that sort of person.

That said, the Literary Analysis Essay is always a fitting approach to any story, as it requires analysis (it’s in the name, after all) and students can be directed to select their own topic.

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Skip the Book Report: Try these Creative Projects Instead

Book Reports area  common sight, still, in many classrooms, including secondary classes.  They’re easy to implement, for both whole-class reading, but also for the increase in small-group or individual book choice selections.

In fact, book reports (and their close cousin, the book review) are an answer to the challenge of allowing group or individual book choice selections.  How to have students demonstrate understanding of all the different texts?  Book reports are easily used with any book to (hopefully) have students demonstrate that they have read it.

At it’s a core, a book report is largely a retelling of the book.  One of the problems with book reports at the higher grades is that it’s quite easy to scavenge enough information about the book online, without having read it.  More so, they don’t include much analysis, if any.  Even a review may only require a cursory opinion with nominal support beyond, “I liked it!”  Assuming students don’t pretend they’re trying to avoid spoilers.

Luckily, there are several creative project choices that require students to not just retell the text, but process and manipulate it.


Here are 6 Creative culminating projects that build on retelling:

  1. Write a Newspaper Article: retell a major event of the story through the medium of a newspaper article.  For added depth, students can use standard newspaper article structure, too.  Can be expanded to cover all of a short story or a series of articles for several major events.  Students can also be challenged to consider what information would a journalist or reporter know from the text, and what information would be unknown– just as with other point of view examination.
  2. Create an Infographic: students retell the major events, characters, and themes in the form of an infographic, using images and limited text to convey the information.  Challenges students to consider organization and used of symbols and imagery. Use online infographic makers, PowerPoint, or paper and collage images.slide2
  3. Write from an Alternate Point of View: students retell the story through the point of view of another major character.  Challenge students to match mood while retelling the major events.  However, the change in point of view can affect what information is known or how it is learned, so students will have to analyze the element of point of view.
  4. Modernize It! Great to use with many classic stories as students examine the impact of one or more modern technology items (like the cell phone or GPS) to the events of the story.  How would the major events, themes, and ideas be represented in a modern retelling.
  5. Recreate in a different medium: students will ‘translate’ the story into another medium, such as film, stage play, graphic novel, or audio book.  Students have to dig into the text and evaluate how the selected medium would convey information, and even what would be included versus left out.
  6. Retell in a Rap or Rhyme: students will turn the events, characters, and themes into a catchy rap (or rhyme).  How will they make the lines rhyme? How will they convey the information succinctly, but accurately?  Great to put on poster board and hang in the hallway!  slide3

Offering one of these fun project options will increase engagement as students dig into the text and analyze the elements to create their specific project.  In addition, several projects can be offered for student choice, such as with task cards, choice board, student menu, or other methods (like having the separate requirement sheets available.)

Literary essays are another sound choice for the classroom.  Read more about how to Differentiate With Literary Essay Writing, making it accessible to all students and all texts.

Another option, though, is to get away from retelling, and instead, challenge students to Analyze and Create.

Posted in Secondary Education, Teaching, Teaching Ideas, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Ways to Group Students (and when to use which)

Group work is a regular activity in many secondary classrooms.  It offers many benefits, including collaboration and cooperation.  Students show increased learning in well-structured group work, related to the discussion of content and problem-solving.  There are also benefits in division of tasks into parts, time management, and general communication skills.

Group work, because it includes the need for additional communication and coordination of ideas can take longer to complete than individual work.  As such, it’s important to consider how the structure or design of a project, and the desired end goal.  Plus, different assignments of group members can affect the success of the project, and the learning for students.


There are many ways to group students to help achieve the goals of group work, or to accommodate individual student needs.

  1. Random or patterned grouping.  Students are assigned a group based on where they sit or their alphabetical position in the class.  Perhaps the teacher numbers off: 1, 2, 3, 4 and all the students who were numbered a 1 gather to form a more or less random group.
    • PROS: Quick and easy.  Allows students to work with new individuals that they may not have worked with before.
    • CONS: Does not take into account ability, interpersonal relationships, or student interest
  2. Student-selected groups for same content work.  Students pick their group members, selecting those they want to work with.
    • PROS: Students will likely have already established positive communication with their group, lowering the barrier.  They may be familiar with each others work preferences and easily assign roles they’re ready to complete.
    • CONS: Students may have trouble staying on topic.  Students may not move out of their comfort-zone to take new positions, unless pushed.  May result in uneven groupings or teacher-assigned filler members in groups, resulting in some happy groups and some enthused groups.
  3. Students select the topic or content of the group.  Students are assigned the group based on interest, which may be set-up before hand with rated-choices or assigned on the fly.
    • PROS: Students may be engaged with content that is of interest to them, and work with other students who share that interest.
    • CONS: Students may try to game the results to end up with friends.  Students who have only one favorite may end up in a group that is not of much interest, thus negating the advantage of having choice.  Lacks ability grouping.slide2
  4. Ability Grouping: After review of the grade book or selected assessments, students are placed in ability groups with similarly leveled students.  Project requirements or roles would be differentiated to ensure each group is challenged appropriately at their level.
    • PROS: Students are appropriately challenged with modified group work and requirements, which may increase on-task work for high-achievers taking advantage of the challenge.
    • CONS: Additional time required for differentiation of materials and tasks.  Final projects not uniform during presentation, with a risk of struggling student groups appearing to be “easy work” and high-achieving students having “busy work.”
  5. Mixed-Ability Grouping: After review of the grade book or selected assessments, students are put into groups with students of different levels, usually high-achieving students placed with struggling students, with the goal of the high-achieving student supporting the struggling student.
    • PROS: the struggling student may get additional, individualized support from their classmate.  The high-achieving student may benefit from review and teaching the content to a classmate.
    • CONS: If used regularly, the high-achieving student(s) may feel stifled.  Rather than getting to be challenged and explore, they are placed in a teaching role they may not want or care for.  Condescension or frustration may hamper collaboration.  The high achieving student may take over parts of the project to just get them done to their standard.slide3
  6. Group of One: Select students may be permitted to work solo while the rest of class is assigned in groups.
    • PROS: Supports students with barriers to successful group work.  Barriers may include: attendance issues, anxiety issues, bullying or other contentious relationships, or ability well beyond classroom range (very high or very low compared to other students).
    • CONS: Student lacks the opportunities for collaboration or communication growth (assuming they would not be excluded or bullied in a group).  Should be used sparingly, but considered as a valid option.

Ultimately, no one grouping strategy should be used for all group work.  As with other education choices, the type of group should align with the outcomes and activity.


Speaking of Group Work, one of my favorite real-world writing activities is the group Company Project.  Great fun, and requires the sort of collaboration that any business would need.  (And since we’re on the subject, for this project, I usually allow self-selected student groups.  One of the few times they get to!)


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5 Activities for Studying Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” Speech

Most secondary students are familiar with the speech, or at least the main idea, by the time they are in a secondary ELA classroom.  And that’s actually an advantage.  That means that additional study can scaffold on what they already know, or think they know, about the speech.  Plus, secondary students can examine the speech in several ways, from medium to message, which adds depth and higher level thinking.


Here are some activities, including some short ones, great for working in study of the speech even if otherwise juggling exams or semester change:


  1.  Analyze the Analogies in the Speech: works great also as general practice for studying analogies and meaning.  Students explain the phrases in their own words and consider the impact of the use of the analogy.  Can be done in a single class period.(Available as a free item!)
  2. Graphic organizers are a great way to dig into the text without taking a lot of time.  One engaging activity that is short but useful is to map the locations mentioned in the speech.  Diagramming the key ideas in the speech is also a good way to review the content.  And, since it is a speech commonly referred to in early grades, a KWL can be an engaging way to get into the text. slide2
  3. What if the speech had been delivered on YouTube?  Or posted on Twitter?  Media can have a profound impact on message.  Students, who are used to online media, can really get into examining and considering how the different media would impact the message, such as in the speech.  Include conclusion analysis for students to practice providing support for their reasons.
  4. Tweet the speech. Students will retell the speech in Tweets of 140 characters or less, then analyze how that impacted the message.  Good way to introduce exploration of media or works as a stand-alone project and discussion.slide3
  5. Critical Thinking questions: students examine the text, take a position and write short responses.  Practicing with short responses, over essays, can help them refine and focus their argument on a topic. This skills can be carried over to focused essay paragraphs.  Plus, using a short response can help fit in the activity in a short time span. I noticed an improvement in simple paragraph writing with regular use of short paragraph responses and the paragraph model (required at first, then just heavily encouraged.)

Studying the “I Have a Dream” speech is a good way to include analysis of non-fiction and informational text.  Another good option is to read about the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre!  Or check out my list of Winter Reading for some additional non-fiction ideas.


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A Fresh Start for Second Semester (for year-long or new classes)

Second semester is a dividing point in many secondary classrooms.  More so if the second semester class is separate from first semester.  Maybe you have new students from schedule changes or adjustments around semester-based classes.  Maybe it’s a whole new class– which is what I’ve dealt with all my years.  (With frequently transient populations, making even ‘year long’ classes set up on a semester-basis helps juggle the changing schedules.)

In some ways, second semester is like a new first day of class.  But, not really.  It’s very different in that students have already established themselves for the school year.  They’re not fresh from the growth and changes of summer.  They’re not necessarily clean, focused, and sober– ready to tackle the new year with optimism and eagerness.  (Or some teenage-tempered version thereof.)

But, I find that the breaking point between terms (semesters, or even trimesters) provides a nice chance for a clean start.  And more so, that students often appreciate a chance to start fresh.


So, there a some things to consider for making a fresh start in second semester:

Start fresh with students.  Even if there is overlap, make it clear that this is a new semester, a new class.  This allows students a chance to turn over a new leaf, without grades or even choices from the previous semester affecting them.  I find this is important in supporting students who want to try again or make improvements, to give them another chance. High expectations from a teacher— such as expecting a change, rather than expecting more of the same– can be motivating for students.  I’ve certainly seen it work where, finally, that student turns over a new leaf– though it does happen that they turned over the same old leaf instead!  (In my experience with at-risk learners, sometimes that second, or even third chance, is so important.  Because sometimes, that’s the one the ‘sticks’ and results in lasting change!)

Take some time to do beginning of the year and getting to know you activities.  But keep them brief, and really try to tie them into the content.  Concept review or jumping into a short story are good ideas so the time is more meaningful.  Students are generally already into the swing of things, and if you have overlap the get-to-know you’s may not reveal much about students.  Content-based or personal writing, however, can pull double-duty, and may even tie into the first text(s) for the class.  I’d skip “ice-breakers” though (I mean, even aside from the fact that I refuse to use them anyway!)

Take a bit of time to focus on specific class rules and routines, though students may feel that they already “know the drill.”  However, it can be useful to instead take the time to review routines and procedures as needed, rather than the first day.  Another benefit here is  a chance to discuss with the class what you, as a teacher, found didn’t work well.  This is a great opportunity to improve any particular procedure or routine, as well as admit that you made a mistake or even that you’ve just reflected on ways to improve.

Start the grade book fresh (if possible).  If it’s not possible to start fresh in the grade book– policy, perhaps– consider ways to not further penalize students for mistakes in first semester.  Weight first semester less, perhaps.  Or allow late submission of first semester projects (possibly only accepting work of a certain caliber to avoid shoddy, last minute work).

While it can be a little stressful to face a room full of students, again, like the first day of class, again, it’s also a possibility for a fresh start, which doesn’t just have to come with a new school year.

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The Value of Teacher Mistakes

Growth mindset.  It’s okay to fail.  Grit.  There’s a lot of talk these days about helping students to make mistakes, to try things and fail, to persevere.  And these are definitely important lessons for our students.

But they’re also important lessons for us, as teachers.

We all remember the teacher(s) who were “never wrong.”  The ones who would never conceded a student was right or that they had made a mistake.

Of course, we’re not like that.  We accept our mistakes… right?  We should.  We should also take these learning opportunities to model growth mindset, failure, and grit for our students.


Here is the value of teacher mistakes:

  1.  It reinforces the concept that it’s okay to fail.  Even teachers, with all our knowledge and expertise, even we can make mistakes.   Big and little ones.  Typos, forgotten tasks, or things (lessons even) that just don’t turn out how we expect them to.  And that’s okay.  Which goes with the next point…slide3
  2. It can provide an opportunity to problem solve.  I have invited students to discuss why they think a planned lesson or activity went awry.  They tend to enjoy having a voice (sounds a little like some Danielson sort of thing with student involvement) and getting to share their thoughts.  And quite often, they can see factors that I may not have in implementation or even classroom dynamics.  In addition, the process of discussing it is modeling problem-solving and reflection.
  3. We can model for students ways to accept mistakes in healthy and appropriate ways.  We can show how to use humor and laugh at our selves, like with typos on a lesson not carefully proofread, not that I do THIS regularly! More importantly, we can model for students how to accept responsibility for choices and consequences.  For a starter phrase, I have come to like the phrase, “My bad.”  It accepts responsibility (it is mine) but doesn’t have to dwell on it (which can help with some saving of face or pride issues.)  Or we can address it simply, “I am late because I couldn’t find my phone.  I should be more careful where I put it while getting ready for work.”  It addresses the problem and notes a reflective solution, showing students the way.  We don’t have to dwell on it– and if you have one of those students who tries to, a curt reminder that we have moved on can be effective (as can ignoring.)  slide2
  4. We can also show how to apologize for sub-par performance or results, such as telling students, “I’m sorry.  This lesson was supposed to this other way, but it didn’t work out as I had planned.  Thank you for your understanding.”  It’s useful to acknowledge high expectations, of our selves and of our position.  You can even note to students that, chances are, they will too, in a job, fail to meet expectations, and it’s nice to be prepared with language to appropriately handle it.  (This can also be helpful for students who struggle with perfectionism– by giving them some rudimentary tools for addressing failure to meet high expectations.)  In an era full of celebrity non-apologies (that are more like “I’m sorry I was caught” than “I’m sorry I made poor choices and hurt people”), we can model another option, with more integrity.
  5. Lastly, it can help show that teachers are human.  While many of us are better at this than teachers we recall from our formative years, it’s still an important factor.  Not just that we smile before Christmas or have interests or a sense of humor.  But that we make mistakes, dust ourselves off, and continue on.

Of course, we should still strive for those high expectations and work to minimize preventable errors (like those silly typos…), but there’s great value in the teachable moments when we do make a mistake.  And we all make mistakes.

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Using the Grade Book for Data-Based Teacher Reflection {with Freebie}

The end of a term is a good place to pause and reflect as a teacher.  Maybe it’s the end of the semester, trimester, or even marking period.  Maybe you have most or all of the students again the next term, or maybe you get a fresh batch.  Regardless, the term provides a good reflection point.

If you’re entering student grades for progress reports, report cards, or otherwise catching up on grading, it’s also a good point to take a closer look at the grade book to get some data for your reflection.

Data and evidence are big trends in education right now.  And there’s something to be said about having numbers (to back up what we as teachers already know.)  The grade book shows us how many students successfully submitted an assignment and how well, overall, students scored on an assignment.  So, taking a pause to look at specific assignments by the numbers can provide some data worth reflecting on.


What grade book items should you look at?  Here are a couple ideas, with reflection questions:

  1. Grade book item with the MOST successful submissions.  This is the item that most students were able to submit, but also to complete successfully.  Looking at scores, most students would have at least a passing score, but you may even see most students in the A or B range.
    • Reflections: what was different about this assignment as compared to other, less successful assignments?  What support did students have in completing the assignment? What may account for high levels of engagement?  Looking at the submissions, were there any pain points?  In particular, you may see the pain points mainly on the lower scoring submissions.  And what can you take away from the success of this item that could be applied to other activities and assignments?
  2. Grade book item with the lowest grades/ most low grades.  This is the item that had the lowest scores from the most students that submitted.  It may be that many students submitted, but scores were overall lower than normal or even lower than expected.
    • Reflections: what were the pain points?  Where were students stuck or confused?  What question or part was skipped or incorrect most often?  What support would students need that they did not have in completing the assignment?  Was there a prior knowledge issue?  Was time, schedule, or interruptions as factor– short week, snow day, substitute teacher, local or school even affecting focus and community? Was there confusion in assignment requirements– possibly noted by students clearly trying, but missing the mark?  (For example, is students are answering a question on central idea by explaining theme– that might indicate a reteaching or prior knowledge issue.  If they demonstrating a misunderstanding of a text, that might indicate more time, scaffolding, or support in reading and analyze the text in class.)
  3. Grade book item with the MOST MISSING submissions.  This is one where students are not even turning anything in!  It’s not that they are getting low scores, but they are not even submitting the work.
    • Reflections: Is there an issue with students getting started?  Perhaps they get overwhelmed with the requirements and would benefit from chunking of the activity, or additional scaffolding. Are they lacking the prior knowledge needed, including but not limited to understanding how to complete the task?  (I saw an assignment where students were supposed to correct the errors in a passage, but they didn’t understand how to do so– in this case, demonstrating the task improved outcomes).  Are the instructions lengthy and students are not taking the time to read them?  Is there a ‘late penalty’ issue that may have discouraged students from submitting– perhaps related to a schedule or distraction issue?  If not too late, can students be offered an immunity to increase submission?

Looking for a resource to guide your data collection and reflection?  The Teacher Grade Book Reflection includes 2 pre-printed pages with guided reflection, plus and open sheet.  Fully editable. slide2

Other factors to consider:  Where was the assignment from (home created, found or purchased online, school provided, curriculum vendor)?  Can you create or find similar items OR should you do your best to avoid?  Is revision necessary?  Would scaffolding be more effective?


Done reflecting and ready for the next semester?  Check out these resources for Start of the Year (or Semester) Get-to-Know-You Activities.  Plus, check out tips on how to make students HATE poetry and how to survive teaching it!

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