First Day Activities: Get-to-Know-You Activity & Room Procedures Scavenger Hunt

Happy back to school season! I am currently feeling that special kind of tired which is end-of-the-first-week-back-at-school-tired. I’m trying out a few different activities this year, including my first breakout escape room game which I purchased from Teachers Pay Teachers.

The typical boring first day routine for me goes: icebreaker, syllabus, procedures, homework/regular teaching. I definitely wanted to change things up this year, but I needed to plan appropriately. For one, my sophomores don’t usually need a normal icebreaker activity. We only have about 50 sophomores so they already know each other, but I need to get to know them.

I came up with an introductory activity that takes about 10 minutes, which lets me get to know them in a not-too-cheesy way.

First of all, I made sure to have lots of pieces of construction paper on hand, as well as many markers. I asked students to draw a large circle in the center of their paper, then a vertical line above and below that circle, as well as a horizontal line to the left and the right.

On a powerpoint, I put the following instructions:

In the top left square: Write a list of strengths that you bring to class. These could be subject-related (i.e. I’m a fast reader) or personality-related (i.e. I’m fairly organized).
In the top right square: Write a list of weaknesses that you bring to class. Again, these could be subject-related (i.e. I really struggle with poetry) or personality-related (i.e. I’m a huge procrastinator).
In the bottom left square: What kind of learner are you?
Visual: You learn through pictures and spatial images
Auditory: You learn through lectures and audiobooks or podcasts
Kinesthetic: You learn through activities and physical      movement
Musical: You learn through songs and music
Artistic: You learn through doodling and sketching
Logical: You tend to learn by applying logic and reason
In the bottom right square: What are some goals you have for this year? These could be English-related or more personal. Try to make your goals specific and measurable.
In the middle circle: Write your name and surround it with images and/or words describing your personality and personal favorites.

As I said, this activity only took about 10 minutes and the students enjoyed it overall. It gave them the option to work together but it wasn’t required. When the students finished we posted them on the whiteboard, but I made sure to take them down at the end of each class. I looked them over to learn about each student and will retain them to reference later when making groups.

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The other activity that I introduced this week was a scavenger hunt guiding students through the procedures and resources in my classroom. It took a lot of prep work but I made sure to keep it organized so it would be all ready for me for the future.

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When students walked into class I asked them to organize themselves in six groups. Before they began, I emphasized the following directions (printed on the front of each envelope):

  1. Read the directions carefully.  
  2. THIS IS NOT A RACE. Points are given for accuracy, and some tasks are worth more than others. If I see you spending too long on a task that isn’t worth it, I will move you along.  
  3. Complete the tasks as a group. Try to work to get everyone involved, and under no circumstances should you split up.
  4. Do not ask other students for help. If you are stumped, ask me and I will help you along.  
  5. Have fun! 

Each task led them to a different resource or routine in my classroom.img_9268.jpg

Task 1: On a sheet of paper, students had to write the classroom number of various teachers common on their schedules. Astute students were able to locate the school fire escape map located in by the door to answer the questions. They then had to submit the sheet into our class’ homework bin (which they also had to find on their own).

Task 2: Students had to find out homework posted on Schoology and write it in a planner or digital calendar program. Then they had to show it to me to get credit.

Task 3: This one was the longest. Students had to write a works cited for three resources stowed in my room: a copy of Animal Farm, the movie 10 Things I Hate About You, and a magazine article about our local area. Students were not allowed to look up citations online (especially on EasyBib!). Instead, they learned that I have MLA formatting and citation styles on my wall all the time. Hello, Credible Hulk! Once again, the works cited had to be submitted to the homework bin. img_9005.jpg

Task 4: We are a Christian school, so we have a class verse posted in my room and we start each day in prayer. For this task students had to pick a topic for prayer (I have a cup of them written on popsicle sticks) and pray as a small group. Then they had to memorize the class verse and recite to me without error.

Task 5: In this task, students had to find the absent folder, where extra handouts are stored for each class. In that folder I had hidden brightly colored paper. The group had to take out 3 sheets of paper and staple them together, then three-hole punch them. On the first page, they had to write the Word of the Week. On the second page, they had to write the day’s learning target. On the third page, they had to write the two schools I attended for my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees (this was mostly to remind students that I kind of know what I’m doing in our classroom). Once again, this was turned into the homework bin.

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Task 6: The final task asked students to examine our syllabus. They had to write various information from our syllabus, including the books we read over the year, the five rules of the classroom, and my email address (with my name spelled correctly!).

Overall, this task took about an hour to complete all the way through, so it was a great way to use our block period. After everyone was finished we went through the correct answers together. The activity introduced students to the classroom procedures and helped me correct some common mistakes they make throughout the year, such as turning homework in the wrong spot, not knowing where to access extra materials, or resorting to EasyBib instead of using simple classroom resources to create a citation. Plus, I didn’t have to spend a half an hour giving a boring tour of my classroom!

I don’t have this resource as a downloadable item on TpT because it is so highly customizable to my classroom, but please feel free to adapt and use it in your own teaching!

Reflections & Insights From the 2018 AP Lit Reading

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Last week I spent seven days in Kansas City grading 1325 essays in a giant room that was too cold and filled with over a thousand tired educators. And it was an amazingly wonderful experience.

This is my fifth time scoring AP Lit essays, but I’ve had to miss a few years in the past due to pregnancies and international student trips. While it wasn’t my first year scoring, it was my first year on the prose passage, notoriously known among my students as my least favorite question. Even though I moaned (and groaned and whined) when I saw the big “QUESTION 2” next to my name, the experience was worth it, as I have now scored all three AP Lit questions and feel much more well-rounded in my instruction of AP Lit (going on year 13 now!).

In the interest of being concise, here are some takeaways from this past year’s scoring, plus some that I’ve learned over the years at the scoring table.

  1. This is a big one. CollegeBoard officially announced that they are doing away with the Poetry Compare/Contrast question. In context, the poetry question (Question 1) occasionally takes the form of a compare/contrast question rather than an analysis of a single poem. They haven’t used that format in several years, leading teachers to ask each year if they were ever going to go back to the Compare/Contrast format. This year they officially announced that they are discontinuing that type of essay prompt. I will continue to teach this strategy in my class as I find it valuable, but I’m relieved that I can tell my students with certainty which kind of question they can anticipate for the often-dreaded poetry essay.
  2. CollegeBoard has also hinted that previous questions from the past could be used again in a particular form. While the wording may change, higher-ups reminded teachers this year that many valuable themes were touched on in previous years (even back to the 80’s and 90’s), and some of those themes could be re-visited in future questions. My takeaway for you is that if you aren’t studying previous years open-ended questions in your AP classes, you absolutely need to do so next year. These questions make excellent writing prompts for on-demand essays or larger writing assignments, and they are invaluable for preparing students for question 3.
  3. Students need more help understanding diction and syntax. In my years at the poetry table, I learned quickly that the average AP Lit student does not know how to analyze diction. The sentence, “This poem utilizes diction” is essentially saying, “This poem uses words” (groundbreaking!). But this year in the prose question, I learned that the same is true of syntax. To say that a passage uses syntax is saying that it uses words…that are arranged in a certain way (scandalous!). When teaching these words in your classes, make sure you provide strong examples of how to write about diction and syntax properly, and teach students when it is worth analyzing these terms in the first place.
  4. Too many students feel crippled by the suggested titles in Question 3. Even though the prompt tells students that they can write about any title “of literary merit,” too many students feel obligated to use a title from the list. I even saw essays where students wrote, “I didn’t read any of these books. Sorry!” as their entire response. Please remind students that they do not need to feel obligated to choose from the list. This year’s suggested list of titles included Frankenstein, which Question 3 readers told me was the overwhelmingly popular choice. One ventured to say that she believed 20% of the essays for question 3 were about Frankenstein. This means that a well-written essay that is not about Frankenstein is automatically a welcome sight in the eyes of the reader, who is undoubtedly getting tired of that text (sorry, Mary Shelley). Sometimes thinking outside the box is a good strategy.
  5. Students don’t have to write about a “classic,” but they probably should. There is an ongoing debate on what kinds of books students should write about for Question 3’s open-ended question. Some say that any book (or essay, short story, or even movie) should be given a fair chance, but other readers are more old-school and are undoubtedly biased towards literary classics or newer texts that have won awards (such as the Pulitzer). When it comes to making this decision, I tell students that it is dealer’s choice. More and more readers are being brought in every year and being trained to look at the question in an unbiased way, but it is still a gamble in the end.
  6. Urge students away from writing about books in a series. Similar to choosing an oddball book, there is also an argument about analyzing books in a series, such as The Lord of the Rings series. In my year at Question 3 we had a prompt about a deceptive character and I read an excellent essay analyzing Snape from the Harry Potter series. While the essay was quite good (I believe it earned a 7), it could not possibly get to a 9, because who could properly analyze the entirety of Snape’s deceptiveness in 2 hours, let alone 2 days? The problem with analyzing a series is that there is almost always too much material to sift through, unless you analyze a fringe character.
  7. Poetry needs to be studied in an ongoing way, not as a unit. In my first years as an AP teacher, I taught two poetry units, one called “Intro to Poetry” and the second called “Advanced Poetry.” In each unit we studied poems and wrote about them, both in shortened and long paper formats. And despite my hard work, year after year my students reported feeling least confident about the poetry essay. Furthermore, my end-of-year surveys told me that they needed more work in poetry. Finally I buckled down over a summer and re-read Perinne’s Sound and Sense, as well as several AP Lit blogs, and picked a poem for every week of the year. And every week we studied that poem in class. This was done in addition to our two stand-alone poetry units. Since I’ve made that change my students have felt much more confident for Question 1, and I’ve seen an overall improvement in how they analyze poetry in writing.
  8. Lastly, please know that you AP and English teachers are appreciated. About 50% of the AP readers are college professors, and I worried in my first year at the reading that all I would hear was how we high school teachers didn’t do enough to prepare students for college-level writing. Instead, quite the opposite was true. Everyone was incredibly kind to me, and each year they ask high school teachers to stand and be recognized for our work and sacrifices in high school classrooms. More importantly, each day the readers are reminded that the essays we encounter “belong to some teacher’s student, and some parent’s child.” The leaders remind us that essays scored on day 6 deserve just as much fresh attention as those scored on day 1. Frequent breaks are allowed and plenty of free coffee and snacks are given out to keep us focused. We do everything we can to honor your hard work and give each student’s essay a fair shot.

This year’s reading was incredibly fun, as it was my first year scoring since our subject moved to Kansas City. Here are a few pictures from the trip (taken from outside the scoring room, as there are strict regulations on taking photos around official essays or scoring materials).

This is a rare plea for readership, but please pass this information on to any AP Lit teacher you know, as this information is very valuable for year-long planning. Many AP teachers have no idea how the essays they teach are even scored, which I believe is incredibly unfair. I love to share the information that I am permitted to pass on!

Final news: I’ve created a professional Instagram at aplitandmore, so please follow me for updates on TpT products, my professional life, and the inside track on future TpT sales and discounts!

My Journey Toward a Writing Center – Part Three

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After four months of observation, preparation, and prayer, the day arrived to open our school’s writing center. And despite our modest beginnings, we had six different visitors on our first day alone!

We opened at the beginning of January, and in the four months we’ve been open we have had over 150 different appointments. For a school with only 325 secondary students, that is astounding!

Here are some pics of our coaches in action.

 

So much of our success is due to our amazing faculty members. Several teachers have offered extra credit for visiting the writing center, which is a wonderful promotion, as long as we know ahead of time! We learned quickly that when students are given this incentive oftentimes we have more visitors than writing coaches. But if I know to expect many students ahead of schedule, I am able to schedule extra coaches on for that day, and everyone is taken care of. So far this semester we have had 3 different “all-staff” days, where almost every coach was utilized due to our flood of traffic.

Some ways I’ve kept the writing center a well-oiled machine are through organized binders containing writing resources.

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I have a file box containing writing handouts given out in our school’s ELA classrooms, including quote integration, italicization vs. quotation marks, MLA formatting, and more. When a writing coach is stumped or I see them struggling to remember a concept, I can easily grab a handout from this box and bring it over to them. Receptionists often do this on their shifts as well.

 

All of our writing center resources are contained in these two locations: a shelf at the entrance of my room and a wooden organizer on a table near the entrance. The shelf holds the writing resource box (see above), binders containing assignment details and rubrics, sample essays, dictionaries, thesauruses, and other resources. Oftentimes the receptionist on shift will distribute these resources once visitors are checked in, and they know to re-file them when students leave.

The other container holds highlighters, post-it notes, a list of all writing coaches and skills (for receptionist use), scratch paper, and most importantly, the tutoring session form.

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This document is the most important in Writing Center success, in my opinion. It tells me what brought a student into the writing center, and gives feedback on each individual experience. The coach notes at the bottom are also very valuable. For example, one visitor gave positive feedback, but the writing coach noted that the student sat back and seemed to expect the writing coach to make all of the changes for her, which directly contradicts our policy. She even became angry when asked to do the work herself. This feedback was very useful to share with the assigning teacher, who was able to speak to the student directly about taking more initiative over her own assignment, rather than asking others to do the work for her.

Overall, the experience was grueling but incredibly rewarding. Our attendance is strong and so much of the work is done to implement an even stronger writing center program next year.

One benefit of going through this process is the ability to share what I’ve learned. I am so grateful to anyone who has taken the time to read this, especially if you read all three posts! To any teachers or administrators interested in forming their own writing center I have bundled all of my resources for training and running our writing center into a Writing Center Starter Kit, available at my Teachers Pay Teachers store.

Click here to read Part One or Part Two of this post series. Special shout-out to Nicole Case for some of the photography in this post 🙂

My Journey Toward a Writing Center – Part Two

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So to recap from Part One of this posting, I had become overwhelmed by the needs of my students when it came to one-on-one writing help. I was inspired by a wonderful Writing Center at a nearby public school. I was quickly approved by my administrator to start a center at our own school and word began to go out. The Writing Center was a go!

But I had no budget. No stipend. And no idea where to start.

Ok, I wasn’t completely clueless. But I was definitely feeling overwhelmed. Luckily, around the same time as my observation at Minnetonka, I began drafting a survey to give out to the student body on how (and if) they would use the Writing Center. I didn’t want to be completely disappointed if we opened and no one showed up.

Here are main results of my survey, and thanks to Survey Monkey for their free survey tools to help me in this process!

 

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The first question showed that over 80% of those surveyed would attend the Writing Center at least once, and more than 30% would be repeat visitors. That was great news for me!
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This question was to help me decide how to train my staff and to give me an idea of how students felt about writing at our school. Being the department head, this information was useful on many levels.

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We had several write-ins for this question, many being requests for help with lab reports. It turns out many students need help writing about science. I never knew!
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So far our staff hasn’t been able to help with any college prep sessions, but the Writing Center staff at the school I observed puts on regular coaching sessions in preparation for the ACT. It is a goal of mine to integrate these sessions in the next few years.
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This was to answer my biggest question: How on earth could I convince students to spend their precious free time tutoring other students, when I can’t really offer them anything? Naturally, several students suggested we pay them, but as I wasn’t getting paid that was definitely not an option. I was surprised at how many students were willing to do it for the sake of volunteer work and service hours. It really reaffirmed that we have such great kids at my school!

After the data was in, I was convinced: our school was ready for a Writing Center, and I was pretty sure our students would use it.

I also created a faculty survey to assess what kinds of writing was being assigned, and how many “big” projects we needed to prepare for. Later I presented the Writing Center concept to the staff at a faculty meeting and explained how they could help get the word out in preparation for our opening. I love my colleagues, and they were obviously very supportive.

Now on to the next step: finding a staff.

After talking with our guidance counselors, I decided that to start out the Writing Center in our “beta-testing mode,” the best staff would be comprised of our National Honors Society students. The NHS students are generally among the most gifted writers and are usually student leaders at the school, which might make them natural writing coaches. They also have a tutoring requirement, which the guidance counselors were actually struggling to meet for each tutor. I sent out some e-mails, scheduled a training, and boom, I had a staff!

Over Christmas break, I was tasked to create the training in preparation for a 3-hour session on the third day of the second semester. The writing coordinator at Minnetonka had sent me with a few articles to help me train the staff, so I figured that wouldn’t be too hard to sort out. I spent the majority of my time shopping for supplies and researching best practices in Writing Centers (both in high school and college).

As it usually does, Christmas break was over instantaneously, and before I knew it the training was upon me. The night before, I set out to finalize the powerpoint and organize the training presentation. At least, that was the goal. For almost an hour I simply moved papers around and stared at a blank screen.

My husband walked past me, making an innocuous comment on what was on tv. His presence was enough to push me over the edge and I broke out in ridiculous, almost infantile sobs. As my husband rushed over, I repeated over and over, “I can’t do this.”

It wasn’t that I couldn’t create the training. I knew I could, and I had the materials to do so. What seemed impossible to me was the actual likelihood that I would be able to get such a big program off the ground, and in just a short amount of time. Also, I was doing this almost entirely by myself.

I’ve had a lot of experience leading things, but never ideas that were 100% my own. I’ve led drama productions before, but usually in an assistant role. The best part about being an assistant is that when something goes wrong, the “blame” is never on me. But this Writing Center was my baby. I had the idea, I sought out the answers, I created the workspace, I organized the staff and the training, and I was responsible for the results.

The bottom line was this: If this Writing Center failed, it meant that I failed. 

After a good cry and some bucking up from my husband, I finally (somehow) finished preparing the training. The next morning I got some help from some students I had identified as my best leaders in the Writing Center and we began.

Our short training consisted of the following agenda:
– Purpose and Functions of the Writing Center
– Coaching Training (tips on peer reviewing, step-by-step guide for conferencing)
– MLA Research Review
– Sophomore paper brainstorming

During the MLA review, half of the students were taken aside and asked to fill out some writing coach biography cards I had created, which are available for download on my TpT store (they’re free!). Our photography teacher was also gracious enough to take quick headshots of each coach to accompany the cards.

The last thing we did was go into my sophomore English classes and work on coaching. I wanted students to learn how to conference about writing, in a way that was beyond simple peer review. My students were just beginning writing a pretty extensive research project called position papers, and they had just chosen their topics. The great thing about having upperclassmen writing coaches is that every student had written this paper before. This meant that they were able to relate to the journey the sophomores were beginning and could give tips from experience as well as general writing advice. The sophomores reported later that this conference was very useful, as it made them talk through their choice of topic and bounce ideas off of another student.

The Writing Center was set to open in just a week and there were two things left to do: prepare our workspace and inform the school community.

I’ll be honest, the decorating was my favorite part. Because we had literally zero budget, the Writing Center would be operating out of my classroom. But I still wanted it to have a special space that we could call our own. Over break I had bought a chalkboard calendar, a corner bookshelf, and some desktop organizers. With the coach bio cards finished and the headshots printed, I decorated the entryway of my classroom and organized some writing resources for coaches to access. It didn’t take long for our Writing Center to look cute, even though it wasn’t technically a “center.”

 

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I put out some e-mails to the faculty and made some postings on Schoology to get the word out. I had also asked a student to design a logo for us (see below) and I blew it up and had it posted on my door. It also serves as our watermark and logo on our paperwork.

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Finally, I had to face it: there was nothing left to do. It was time to see if the Writing Center would be successful.

Here’s a quick recap of the process to opening a Writing Center, for anyone else interested in starting one at their own school. Feel free to message me for resources and training materials mentioned in this post.

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This is the second post in a three-part series. Stay tuned for the final installment on how I integrated a Writing Center at my school.

My Journey Toward a Writing Center

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Let me start by saying this story has a happy ending. But it begins in a very stressful way.

The school year began like any other. I was blessed with an amazing group of sophomores to teach this year. They are kind, funny, and hard-working students. Unfortunately, they also qualify as the most anxious group of students I’ve ever taught. Nearly every homework assignment was resulting in at least one panicked e-mail, student visit, and even an Instagram DM asking questions.

Fast forward a month into the school year to our first big writing assignment. Even though we spent several class periods going over proper MLA citations and research integration, I found myself swamped with students seeking help. At one point there was a literal line of students holding laptops which led out my door.

Exasperated, I sought the advice of my work-life partner and classroom neighbor, Sydney. Syd commiserated and felt my pain, as she had seen similar dilemmas in teaching writing with her own students. Unfortunately, like me, she had no idea how to help students other than being available almost all the time.

Annoyed, I said aloud, “I wish we had a writing center like we had in college.”

The comment stayed with me and later that night I researched ways to improve writing in schools beyond the English classroom. My research led me to discover the Minnetonka Public High School Writing Center, a nationally renowned writing center staffed and designed for high school students.

In November I was able to schedule a time to check out the center and meet with the coordinator. To be honest, I wanted to cry. The idea that there was a space designed for students to seek help with writing outside of class time seemed too good to be true. And even better, the writing help was being given by other students. This created a community-building mentorship opportunity that I hadn’t conceived of before.

I was so impressed with my visit to the Minnetonka Writing Center and became obsessed with forming a writing center at my own school. I’ve included some pictures of Minnetonka’s Writing Center below.

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After my visit (ok, I’ll be honest, it was during my visit) I texted my principal begging for a meeting to pitch the Writing Center. Long story short, we met, he fell in love with the idea too, and the Writing Center was officially approved.

Which led me to the next step: choosing and training a staff. And I had absolutely no idea where to begin.

This post is the first in a three-part series about our school’s Writing Center. Please follow me for more blog posts about our Writing Center, English teaching ideas, and successful resources from my TpT store.