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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Culminating Project Ideas for A Christmas Carol


A Christmas Carol is a timely text for Christmastime, though it can work in other places as well– especially given Scrooge’s new-found desire to “Keep Christmas all year.”  There are lots of options for related culminating projects to expand on or analyze the text.


Here are several Culminating Project ideas to use with A Christmas Carol:

  1.  Scrooge makes reference to the workhouses as an option for the poor.  Students can research workhouses and poverty.  In addition, students can analyze the impact of poverty on the story.  Another research topic is Dickens’ own past and how that may have influenced the story.    slide3
  2. Create a wreath or other Christmas symbol and decorate or incorporate key quotes from the story.
  3. Compare A Christmas Carol with How the Grinch Stole Christmas (either movie or book work well).  How are they similar?  Why is this theme of a grouch getting reformed at Christmas so appealing?  Create a multi-media project with screenshots or movie clips.
  4. Examine the idea of “Keeping Christmas all year” (Or a similar belief from another religion or belief system.)  What does that mean?  How would it be shown or done?  Create a poster or PowerPoint.slide2
  5. Retell the story as a children’s story.  How would it be adjusted for the younger audience while still keeping the main ideas?  Illustrate it.


Each of these projects, plus more, is included in the A Christmas Carol Culminating Projects resource– with options for Task Cards, Choice Boards, or Student Menu for deployment.  Rubrics provided as well.  Assign select projects or let students self-select from the full set of 16 projects or from a condensed 12 project set.

Culminating projects can be a great way to warp up a text with tasks like researching, retelling, reflecting, examining or going beyond the story.  Projects also provide hands-on learning, and can be student-directed, with options like Choice Boards or Task Cards.  Plus, they can help stretch time and budget by spanning several days.

Check out Activities for Teaching a Christmas Carol or Winter Reading for the Secondary Classroom for more ideas.

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5 Ideas for Christmastime in the Secondary ELA Classroom

December is a challenging month.  Even in the secondary classroom.  There are only a few weeks, sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas (Winter) Breaks.  Thanksgiving causes disruptions with a short week, or even a whole week off.  Then there are a few “normal” weeks before the allure of Winter Break– along with holidays, travel, and just time off– distract students again.

One way to engage is to use Holiday-themed materials— a strategy that is fun and effective for students and teachers.


Here are some Holiday themed materials and ideas for those fleeting weeks in December:

1. Read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.  In the story, Christmas is treated almost entirely as a secular celebration.  Research workhouses and discuss Scrooge’s position on workhouses or why Scrooge was, well, a Scrooge.  Or compare one or the film or play versions with the original text– which is a great way to spend the last day or so before break actually begins.  Depending on the classroom, you can discuss ideas about “The Christmas Spirit” and what that means.  Culminating projects can work nicely around holiday parties or general distraction.  Not time to read the story?  View one of the movie versions for discussion or analysis– or have students write a literary analysis on the film same as they would a text.


2. Create a multi-media project about their Christmas/ Holiday time traditions.  Students can share their experiences.  They can discuss the similarities and differences between their traditions and that of their classmates.  This is a positive activity in diverse classrooms; in addition, it can work well in classrooms that appear more homogeneous as it helps students see that we all have differences and similarities.

3. Read “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” and analyze the poetic devices.  Have students write a persuasive essay on whether–or not– children should be told about Santa Claus. Students can write their own Night Before Christmas poem, imitating the elements of the original, then share with the class.

4. Practice Literary Analysis by examining a Christmas Carol (or Winter song) for literary and poetic devices.  Christmas and Winter songs take over the radio stations, store muzak, and even show up in Christmas commercials.  This activity is a fun way to use that seasonal sound.


5. Create literary character Christmas lists or New Year’s Resolutions.  Choose one or more characters from texts read in class.  Students can write a Christmas list for the character based on details from the text.  Alternately, students can create a Wish List if they or the character do not celebrate Christmas.  Another option is to write New Year’s resolutions for the character.  Include reflection for students to explain their choices and thought process, and help in objective grading.

Done with Christmas?  Check out some Winter themed texts and ideas!

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5 Ways to Survive the Days Before Thanksgiving Break (And Still Engage in Learning)

Maybe you’ve managed to keep the momentum of learning and engagement up to this point.  You may have even survived Halloween— perhaps with some timely creepy stories.  But now, it’s November.  And there are breaks around the corner, tempting students with distraction.

Depending on your school schedule, Thanksgiving Break may present an additional challenge.  All the schools I have attended and worked at had a partial week the week of Thanksgiving.  Classes were held Monday and Tuesday, sometimes Wednesday as well, before the long weekend.  While engagement may be tentatively possible, concentration remains an issue.  (Throw in any holiday parties, and you might be down to just Monday for attempted instruction!)

Of course, we want to make the mots of our instructional time.  But sometimes, I think, it’s good to pull a few tricks from the bag.


Here are 5 ways to Survive the days before Thanksgiving Break (and still engage in learning.)

1 . Show a movie and treat it as another text to practice and reinforce literary analysis.  Students can examine literary elements as used in the movie, including symbolism, mood, foreshadowing, and character development.  They can even write a literary analysis essay about the movie, same as they would a novel, short story, or poem.  Remind them to focus on the literary elements.  A scene from a movie can work, as can a short film, such as any of the Pixar shorts or others like “The Present“.


2.  Show a movie or part of a movie adaptation of a story read in class to compare movie vs. book.  Students can watch and record difference between the two.  Conclude with higher-level thinking, by having students evaluate which version was better.  Have students focus on the events or include medium in the discussion.

3.   Since Thanksgiving often includes travel of some distance to visit family, have students work on real-world writing by Planning an Exciting Trip.  Students research and plan a trip (tourist visit), either in their town or another location.  Make it Thanksgiving themed, by having students plan a trip related to their family’s travel, or leave the project open ended.  They can research locations and prices, plus make a real itinerary.  Real-world writing can help with engagement, even in challenging times.


4. Put students to work writing about Thanksgiving with a fun, creative writing activity.  Students write Thanksgiving Rap or Rhyme which can include personal writing about what Thanksgiving means to the student and/ or it can be done as a more general, expository writing.  But in rap or rhyme format (I use both terms, because many of my students would work on a rap, but balk at “rhyming.”  Marketing is a thing….)  It’s a change of pace, but also requires a lot of thought to present their ideas in a rhyme.  Also can include discussion of different rhymes, along with end-rhymes.  In addition, students can present to their rap or rhyme to the class, like an open mic or poetry slam.  Presentations work well around holiday parties and other food.

5. Practice thanksgiving themed demand writing.  Push students to focus for a short chunk of time– consider a challenge like a 30 minute prompt to push them through.  This works well for a single day activity.  Students generally can focus their attention– even just before break– on a short burst of activity, like a demand writing.  Remaining class time can be used for students to review their essay to reflect out loud or in writing on how to improve their timed prompt.  Or take the time to discuss the topics they wrote about in groups or class.  Provide topics for the students, brainstorm ideas together, or let students loose with the theme of Thanksgiving (which may include gratitude, Black Friday, family visits, and more.)

Of course, once you get through Thanksgiving Break, it’s time to deal with Christmas/ Winter Break looming over the horizon!  Remember, holiday-themed materials can work well at the secondary level, too.

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Best of the Best: Real World Writing with the Company Project

Students are all types.  Some are into reading, others like to analyze and use that to get through literature.  Some are college bound and understand the concept of being “well-rounded.”  Then there are the others.  They may be college-bound, but in science or tech fields.  Or they may not be interested in college at all.  These students may struggle with engagement in the secondary English classroom.  They’re the ones that ask, “When am I going to need this again?”

Oh sure, we can talk about the value of being able to read critically or support your argument.  But students can’t always see that those are the core tasks they can use anywhere buried in pages of stuffy old books or tedious essay writings or insipid creative writing.  If we’re lucky, they tolerate those things just to get credit and move on.

One way to engage even reluctant learners is through authentic learning– activities clearly based in the real world.  Even better if the activity includes student interest.  There are many benefits to such authentic real-world-based tasks.


One of my most successful real-world projects is the Company Project (or Build a Business.)  Many students can relate to having an idea for a company, product or service.  In creating a company for their project, I can harness their interest in this business venture and channel it into authentic, real-world writing tasks.

What sort of writing could a person starting a business use?

  • Company History (narrative writing)
  • Business Letter (for common communication– plus envelope!)
  • Response to a Complaint (also includes complaint letter writing, a useful skill)
  • Advertising (a specific form of persuasive writing)
  • Script writing (for a commercial)
  • Business Card (design and text)
  • Poster display (such as might be a conference, convention or expo)

With several distinct and separate parts, the project is quite flexible for different amounts of time or tasks.  If time is short, complete the poster showcasing the company only.  Or add on the other parts to fill additional time.


I’ve found the combination of high-interest and engaging-activities to make this project fill well just about any time of the year.  Use before or around school breaks or other schedule disruptions.  Or use after standardized testing for a change of pace.

One of the drawbacks of authentic learning is the process to set up the resources and grading.  The Company Project includes all the materials you need to put your students to work creating their own company, and all the related writings.  (And you can point out that a small business very well might do all of the different writing tasks when starting out.)    Plus, it’s on sale Nov 1 and 2nd to celebrate the blog hop!

Thanks for stopping by on the blog hop!  And here’s a free Business Envelope Handout (also included in the Company Project):

(Right click to save the image to your computer)


Part of the Best of the Best Blog Hop

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6 Strategies to Survive Teaching Poetry

I’m not a big poetry fan.  Just like I’m not a big fan of fantasy novels, professional basketball games or anything coconut.  But as an English teacher, it’s kind of expected to include teaching poetry somewhere in the curriculum.  I had to figure out one or more ways to address the problems I had with poetry.

Some problems I had with poetry related to how much I dreaded the study of poetry as a student (which is basically where the 5 ways to make students hate poetry post came from.)

Other problems I had with poetry related to teaching and grading poetry in my own classroom.  Here’s what I came up with– 5 6 strategies that help me survive teaching poetry:



Grading Student Understanding of the Poem.  Do they “get” it?  The biggest issue with grading is how poetry is approached in the first place.  In my days as a student, much of the emphasis of poetry was on the “meaning”– which we could “get” through feelings and understanding and other apparently ethereal methods.  This doesn’t work out so well on multiple choice questions.  Worse since I’m really not one of those touch-feely people anyway.  So either I would get the meaning “wrong” or my understanding of the poem was wrong.


  1. The first is to grade students largely on understanding, identifying, and examining use of poetry devices.  These are generally objective standards– if a student identifies personification in the text, they are either right or wrong on it.  This can be part of larger analysis, with weight on accurate identification– the objective grade item.

2. Another approach is to rely on textual support (combined with sound arguments.)  Students defend their position using appropriate textual support.  The support can be evaluated on how well it is used and how well it provides support.  A well-supported argument may or many not match other students, readers, or teachers’ understanding of the poem (including any so-called “right” meanings.)  Textual support can also be the basis of activities that make connections— such as text-to-text or text-self.

Note: some poems and texts may have commonly understood meanings– while grading and discussion may be on student understanding, it is important to recognize any commonly understood ideas about texts. 



Writing poems may or may not follow any of the rules or conventions of poetry.  Would you mark down young e.e. cummings for capitalization or punctuation use?  Would a hurriedly grading teacher recognize the import of Emily Dickinson’s dashes if she was just a student in class?  I’m not convinced I would recognize the next convention-breaking genius as different from the student who has little concern or understanding of punctuation in poetry.  I wouldn’t want to crush a budding poet by marking down their convention-defiance.  So what to grade on?


  1. Grade on student reflection.  Poems would be noted as completed and the weight of grade would be on the student’s reflection.  Reflection items would include accurately identifying poetic devices used in the poem, along with examination of what the effect of those devices is in the student’s poem.  And even if they thought it was effective or not.

2. Students have set requirements for one or more poems.  In a portfolio of several poems, students might be assigned different poem types or use of different literary devices, and graded on those items, while other elements are left as ‘art’ or completion scores only.

3. The Write Your Own: Poetry Imitation project where students will imitate a model poem.  The model poem provides a source of literary analysis, including theme and select poetic devices.  Then students include the theme, topic, and select literary devices in their own poem.  Inclusion of those items provides a solid basis of generally objective grade items.



Having to slog through day after day, week after week of studying poetry– the analysis of devices, digging into meaning, parsing odd phrases and laden word choices.



  1. Rather than create one several week long grueling slog through the study of different poems and poetry, create thematic units that include fiction and poetry.  Study the role of dreams such as with short stories like “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and pair it with a poem like “Dream within a Dream.”  Study  Snow Poetry, like “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” with the snowy setting in “To Build a Fire” an analyze the way snow is used in the settings.  Treat poems as just another text, rather than set off in a special unit.  Then it’s a day or so of poetry study in the context of a larger idea, broader theme.
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