Teaching Shakespeare

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My students with their masks, ready for Act 1, scene 5 — the masquerade party when Romeo and Juliet first meet.

Every year, my eighth graders dive into Romeo and Juliet.  Or perhaps a better metaphor is that I throw them into Lake Shakespeare, kicking and screaming.  They are reluctant.  They complain that they can’t understand it.

But we go slowly.  It usually takes me about five or six weeks to get through the play.  I’ve learned to assign each student to a character for the duration.  That helps the kids to keep all the names straight.  They don’t have to work so hard to remember the difference between Benvolio and Mercutio when they know that Kevin played Benvolio (who was always trying to make peace) and Mark played Mercutio (who talked a lot of nonsense and then died dramatically.)  Students fill out reading guides as we go through.  I start out giving them answers, but by Act 5, I’m encouraging them to figure out the answers on their own.  We discuss dramatic irony and why Shakespeare tells us the end of the play in the prologue.  We watch the crazy character shift in Lord Capulet and talk about what is that dude’s deal anyway.  We ponder why Shakespeare made the romance between the star-crossed lovers go so insanely fast – they’re engaged just hours after they meet – and whether the story would have worked if the two had known each other better.  We talk about responsibility.  Who is the most responsible for all the deaths that occur, and why?  Are we responsible only for ourselves, or are we responsible for others as well?  And we talk about Lake Shakespeare.  Should we continue to read the bard in school?  After reading articles on brain research, some are convinced that it’s worth it.  Others disagree.

My assistant principal didn’t really understand why I teach Shakespeare.  He hated it when he had to read it.  While he’d never tell me what to teach, I knew he disagreed with this particular content.  I argued brain research.  I gave examples of how ubiquitous in pop culture are references to the play.  He understood my reasons, but still, I think, wasn’t completely convinced until he observed my class as we read through Act 3, scene 1.  The students, armed with rulers, fought to the death, discussing the play and laughing the whole time, and showing that they were really, truly getting this stuff, with just a little help from me.  My AP later said he got more out of the play in that 45 minutes in my classroom than he ever did in high school.

Eighth grade is pretty early to read Romeo and Juliet.  Most kids don’t do it until at least their freshman year.  But I think my method works, and I think it’s worth it to have them push through really hard things at a young age.

How old were you when you first read Shakespeare?  Did you get it?  Did you like it?


Word Day Wednesdays


Every Wednesday, my classes do vocabulary exercises. I started this a couple of years ago with my honors class.  One student dubbed it “Word Day Wednesday,” so that’s what I call it now.

With the honors class, I’ve been using a specific program of studying Greek and Latin roots — the Word Roots series from the Critical Thinking Company.  They have a lesson a week and a quiz every two lessons.  Most of this is self-directed.  Students complete the exercises alone or in groups, study the Greek and Latin prefixes and roots, and that’s it.  I’ve not had them do much else.

The other classes, however, have had no regular lessons.  We’d learn about 15 vocabulary words for a new unit (the words come from our reading of novels or short stories).  We learn the words together in class, and then students complete a Word Wizard.  This is an activity where they must use some of the vocabulary words correctly in sentences, and have adults other than me (their parents, coaches, teachers, etc.) sign the Word Wizard paper to verify that they’ve done it.

This year, I wanted to add more formal study to the regular classes.  I found a workbook called Red Hot Root Words from Prufrock Press.  Each week, we have new prefixes or roots to study, and there’s a worksheet that students complete alone or in groups.  We still do Word Wizards for various units, too.

For second semester, I’m adding Frayer Models for both classes.  There are several versions of the Frayer Model, but the one I’m using includes the definition of the root (or prefix), example words, using one of the words in an original sentence, and drawing a picture to show understanding.

I’d like to do more with having students apply their learning — especially with the honors class.  I feel like I’m not doing that very well.  First quarter I had the kids do little 5-point quizzes where they’d have to figure out new words based on understanding of the roots and prefixes, but I stopped because I just felt I didn’t have enough time.

And that’s really the big issue for me — time.  There is so much more I’d like to do with vocabulary, but where should it be on my list of priorities when I have so many other things to teach?

If you’ve come up with a great way to emphasize and integrate vocabulary study in your secondary English classes, please let me know in the comments!

Encouraging Revision


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Some of the most important work in writing comes in revision.  As I work on my own novel, I know this now more than ever.  Why, then, have I historically taken students’ first drafts for a grade?

I’m rethinking how I teach writing, and I want to develop a culture of revision in my classroom.  That isn’t easy.  As a middle and high school student, I almost always turned in my first draft as my final draft.  Okay, I’ll be truthful; even in college, that’s what I did.  And my first drafts got A’s.  So I didn’t really learn to revise for a very long time.

It wasn’t until my senior honors thesis that I was really asked to rework what I’d written.  And boy, did I hate it.  I loathed the revision process.  It was so much more work than I’d ever done.  And then I went on to graduate school, and guess what?  First drafts were getting A’s all over again, so serious revision went out the window.

This novel I’m writing is what is really teaching me about the importance and the power of revision.

Most of my students aren’t the least bit interested in revising.  They want to slap their ideas (or often, my ideas) down on the screen and hit submit as soon as it’s done.  There’s no proofreading, even.  There are sentences that, if students would just read over them one time, would be obvious errors and the students could fix them.  But they don’t want to.

A lot of my students care far less about becoming good at something.  They’d rather just be done with it.

Still, I have some who at least want a better grade.  So this year, for every major writing assignment, I’ve started offering the opportunity for students to revise.  After I grade the work, they have one week to review my comments and improve the writing.  They can earn back up to half the points they missed.  (Why not all the points?  Simply because I think a lot of kids would turn in garbage the first time, just so I will tell them exactly what to do, and then do it for the next grade.  I want them to put in true effort even in the first draft.)

But I want to do more.  I’m constantly scanning Pinterest for suggestions on how I can make revision a bigger part of my classroom.  This post gave me ideas on how to get students to read feedback. (Short summary: make the kids look at the feedback before you tell them the grade, and make them respond to the feedback.)  This post gives me things to think about in order to keep my workload from overwhelming me. (Short summary: assess only one skill at a time in a writing assignment.)  This last one is really hard for me because when I look at an essay, I want to look at it ALL.  I don’t want to ignore the lack of support just because I’m assessing a strong introduction, you know?  But I’m thinking about it.

I have a strong desire to make writing a much bigger part of my classes, and to make revision a much bigger part of writing instruction.

And that’s one thing I’ll be working on over winter break!

Do you have suggestions on how to create a culture of revision?  Hit me up in the comments.

Grammar in Middle School


Often, when I’m on an interview committee at my school to hire an English teacher, I hear the candidate say, “Oh, I teach grammar through writing.”  To me, that says, “I don’t really teach grammar.”  At least at the middle school level, I think you have to be more didactic about teaching grammar.

Admittedly, grammar is always a challenge to teach.  Although I love grammar – the logic!  The puzzle pieces that all fit together to make a sentence!  The diagramming! – a lot of kids don’t.  Not only is it hard to make grammar exciting, but it’s also a challenge to manage all the grading that often comes with repetitive worksheet practice.  Not only that, but grammar is intuitive for me.  I know what is correct or incorrect simply because I know.  So teaching others how to see what comes naturally to me sometimes stumps me.

This year, I decided to try something different.  I started with a plan that every Monday, we would begin with grammar.  We’d review on Tuesday and kids would do practice.  I’d look over what they did, and if they were struggling, we’d go over it again on Friday.

I’ve mostly kept to that plan.  It’s not always easy to make that fit with the other things I have going on in class, especially reading and writing, but by and large, that part is working.  I was starting to get super-overwhelmed with my work load, though, because we don’t have grammar textbooks to use and I was having to type up all the exercises on my own.  As I sat crying in my boss’s office one morning, he encouraged me to find a way to automate the grammar instruction or practice.

One of our new teachers had been using No Red Ink for her grammar instruction at a previous school, so I started to pick her brain about it.  Then I got online and checked it out.  Although NRI does not cover everything I have in my state standards for grammar, it does cover most of it, even in the free version.  I can assign a diagnostic test to see where kids are.  Then I teach the skill or content and give them my own practice to do (either a worksheet I make up, or something taken from an old grammar text in my classroom.)  I might do an exit ticket for students to tell me how they think they are doing.  Then I can assign NRI practice, where students have to keep trying until they get it right.  I might go over it once more, and then give a growth quiz to see how they are doing.  If students are still struggling, I can work with them individually and maybe assign more NRI practice.

It’s great because NRI gives me data charts with which I can justify what I’m doing.  (And education is all about the data!)  Although students groan about doing grammar, I see that they actually like NRI because the program uses names of their friends, pets, and favorite celebrities and book characters in the practice sentences, which are sometimes quite hilarious.

The question is whether my plan really helps students to understand and apply grammar.


A Journey into PBLs and DT

There is a lot of buzz around the world of education about teaching students 21st Century Skills. These skills include collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity.  The trouble is that sometimes, traditional instructional methods don’t teach all of those things.

Educators are realizing that students need to be prepared for a future we can’t even really imagine.  Culture and technology are changing so quickly that the jobs my 8th grade students will have don’t even exist yet.  So I need to be preparing them not just with knowledge, but the skills to learn, to persevere, to think beyond boundaries, and to work with others.

The first time I heard of Project Based Learning was when I was taking courses for licensure in Gifted and Talented Education.  In that class, I had to develop a PBL unit and then implement it in my class.  It was hard.  My own thinking had to change, and the project I gave the students was big and challenging and beyond their comfort zone.

It was great!

For two years, I put PBLs into place in my honors class.  This year, I’m also developing them for my regular level classes.  In fact, our entire school is moving toward a Design Thinking Model — very similar to PBL, but with additional emphasis on empathy and creating prototypes.


This year, every class I teach will do at least one PBL / DT unit.  The honors class will work with our local chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters to develop a advertising campaign for them — aimed at both kids who need Bigs and adults who might be interested in being a Big.

My eighth grade class is working on re-designing my 7th grade course.  They have to come up with books I can teach that will be interesting to the students in my class.  (In the photo, my eighth graders are interviewing fifth graders to find out what kinds of books they like.  This is part of the Empathize step of DT.)


And my seventh grade class will think about what makes a classroom a good learning environment — especially what kind of seating is best.  (Flexible?  Traditional?  I’m still making that decision myself, so they are going to come up with prototypes!)

The longer I teach, the more I realize that learning never ends.  I must continue to learn and adapt in order to bring my students the best education I can.  This is part of my journey.

Being Flexible

There’s a trend in education right now.  Flexible seating.  All the cool teachers are doing it, and if you spend any time on Pinterest, you can see dozens of beautifully decorated classrooms sporting wobble stools, standing desks, plastic rocker chairs, and inflatable seat pads.  These teachers swear that the kids are happier and more focused because they have more choices in their seating and because they get to move around more.

The classrooms look less like this:


and more like this:


(Okay, that last image might be a bit of an exaggeration.)

For a minute, I was sold.  I started looking for grants to purchase all this nifty seating and began planning for what I would buy and how I would arrange it.

And then I thought a minute.  Was I basing my idea to change my entire classroom on a bunch of snazzy photos and some blog posts?  Where was the research to back this up?

To be honest, I hadn’t seen any.  Even now, when I go to Google Scholar to look for research on flexible seating in education, there don’t seem to be a lot of research studies there.  This isn’t to say that anecdotal evidence is no good.  But when I have a classroom that functions pretty well, why do I want to mess with it just because some pretty pictures got me all twitterpated?

I needed to rethink.

Already in my middle school classroom, I do what I can to get kids up and moving.  On most days, half way through the 55-minute class period, I make the kids stand up and get out their wiggles.  I’ll have them stretch, march, take a lap around the room, or try some coordination activities (like rubbing your tummy while patting your head, but more advanced).  When students are reading on their own or working on writing assignments, I allow them to move around the room.  I have three comfy chairs they can use, and many of them like to sit on the floor.

All of this seems to work pretty well.  Why am I eager to ditch my desks?

Admittedly, my kids don’t love the student seating I have in my room.  The chair is attached to the desk on the right side, and left-handed kids hate it because when they write, their left arm is unsupported unless they twist themselves into a strange position in the seat.  If the short kids drop a pencil or book on the right side, someone next to them has to pick it up because the bar prevents them from reaching it.  The desks are small, and you can’t put them in pods because the writing surface is slanted and they aren’t flush when you push them together.

Still, is this a reason to toss them out entirely and replace them all with squashy couches and giant exercise balls?

The science classroom down the hall is getting lab tables to replace the desk and chair sets there.  Then, I’ll get those sets, which are nicer than mine; the desks are bigger and they aren’t attached to the chairs.  I can try pods and other groupings instead of the rows that seem to be the only workable solution in my class.  And as always, I’ll keep doing “brain breaks” to get my kids up and moving.

But until I see some really strong research supporting flexible seating, I’m keeping my standard furniture.

What do you think?  Am I crazy?  Stuck in the dark ages?



I used to be a huge stickler on late work.  When I first started teaching, I didn’t accept late work at all.  If you didn’t turn it in on time, I didn’t accept it.

After a year or so, I relaxed ever so slightly.  Work turned in one day late would be accepted for half credit.  After that, work was not accepted for credit.

I stuck with that rule for a long time.  Other teachers in my school had the same rule, so it seemed reasonable.

But then last year happened.

Last year, my seventh and eighth grade honors English class taught me a lot about stress and about what things really matter.  They taught me about being a middle school student in the 21st century in a small school in East Central Indiana.

I had about a half dozen seventh graders who were gigantic balls of stress.  And they had reason to be.  They were involved in volleyball, basketball, student council, 4-H, Future Problem Solvers, dance teams, and academic teams.  On top of that, most of them were taking at least one high school class, so even as seventh graders, they were worrying about maintaining a particular GPA for their college transcripts.

And I’m a tough teacher.  I have high expectations and a lot of rigor in my classroom.

Unfortunately, this was driving those students to the edge.  I needed to rethink some things.

I started to relax some of my rules.  Not the important ones, not the ones that maintain order in the classroom.  But the ones that, especially in middle school, really don’t matter.  And late work was one policy I really started to think about changing.

It started small.  I would tell a particular stressed out student, or a student who was struggling to finish a paper or understand a concept, to just take one more day.  “Just turn it in by tomorrow,” I’d say.  “I’ll still give you full credit.”  And that seemed to be okay.  It was a case by case basis, and no one took advantage of it.

By third quarter, I was thinking of changing my late work policy altogether.  Under the recommendation of my principal, I changed it with only my eighth grade classes.  That way, if it didn’t work, the seventh graders, whom I would still have in class the next year, wouldn’t know any different.  So for fourth quarter last year, I gave each student three late passes.  For the last nine weeks of school, they had three opportunities to turn in work one day late with no penalty at all.

This made me insane.  I would give a lot of time for a small assignment, and still have students ask to use a late pass.  I had a couple of students who used all three late passes in the first two weeks of the quarter.  I decided that didn’t work for me.

Over the summer, I read some articles that made me consider another plan, which I am trying this year.  Students’ grades have two parts.  Ten percent of their grade is for “On Time Homework.”  The other 90 percent is all the assignments we do in class.  If students turn in their homework on time, they earn points in the on-time homework category.  If not, they don’t.  However, even if the work is late, I will still accept it for no penalty on the work itself for up to two weeks.

I hope this will help not only my bright but anxiety-ridden high-ability students, but also my lower ability students who just sometimes need a little more time.

How was late work accepted when you were a student?  If you’re a teacher, what’s your late work policy?