Secondary Solutions

Ideas, tips, and tools for the middle and high school English Language Arts teacher. Visit our store at www.4secondarysolutions.com!

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A Teacher’s Thoughts on Summer Reading:

Summer Reading

It is the time of year again when we meet in departments to plan out summer reading programs. For me, the words “summer reading” can be a delight and a drain. I work at a school that requires summer reading for college prep and honors English classes at every grade level, which can present some challenges.  Even with the struggles, I think that summer reading is a battle worth fighting.  If you are interested in some of the scientific benefits of summer reading, click around this site for a bit.  Here are my thoughts on putting together a summer reading program that will enhance the curriculum without burning out teachers or students.

1. Offer high interest materials. Summer is a great time to give students a book that will keep the pages turning and not keep the eye lids drooping. Pick something that will appeal to the teenagers at your particular age and level.  This strategy combats my biggest struggle, which is the lack of motivation for some students.  Some suggestions:

  • The John Green books, like Looking for Alaska, The Fault in Our Stars, or An Abundance of Katherines-  It is fun for teenagers to read about other quirky teenagers.
  • Science fiction and fantasy- the kind of books that often get left out of the traditional canon in the school year.  I like books like Dune, The Time Machine, or Hitchhikers Guide too the Galaxy, but there are tons out there to choose from.
  • Other YA faves like Catcher in the Rye, 1984, Perks of Being a Wallflower, etc.

2. Offer reasonable choices. It is nice to offer choices in case some students have read some of the books on the list and also to honor the interest factor for a wide range of students. Each book should be of reasonable length for students and the book list should be of reasonable length for teachers.  In my humble opinion, the teacher should have read all of the books on the list in order to engage in discussion and assessment.

3. Keep assignments simple. If you are doing handouts, questions, essays or anything else with the book, keep it simple.  Summer reading should be about enjoying some quality literature and not getting bogged down in minutia.

4. Make it count. Students learn very quickly and then word gets out if the summer reading assignment does not “count for anything.”  If you can, make the assessment or discussion worth a substantial point value.  In case students don’t complete the assignment well, I like for the summer reading to be worth enough to hurt the first quarter grade, but not so much that the semester grade cannot recover.

5. Bring the conversation online. If you are working with a manageable sized group, using a platform like Collaborize Classroom could be a great way to check in with students throughout the summer. Click here for a Collaborize Classroom tutorial.

6. Be flexible and have a back up plan.  I’ve never had a year with no transfer students or other I-didn’t-get-the-summer-reading situation.  When this happens, I usually excuse the assignment or give students until the end of the first quarter to get it done. The first few years, I let this eat me alive because I was in pursuit of that perfect summer reading program.  It is not out there. Make it work.

 

What are your thoughts on summer reading? Leave a comment below!

 

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Get the Most Out of your Next Professional Development Conference

conference

As a teacher, I feel like I technically have a lot of opportunities for professional development, but it is just so hard to make the time to research, plan, attend, and appreciate most of the options out there!  When I actually do get all of that together and attend a conference, there are 2 main risks: 1. The conference or presenter may not be all that it was cracked up to be, or sometimes more likely 2. I may not take full advantage of all of the benefits and resources available.  After attending a wildly successful conference recently, I wanted to write about my tips for taking full advantage of professional development conferences:

1. Mix and mingle.  It is comfortable for all of us to talk with co-workers or to look down at our phones, but if we really want to get the most out of the day, we should meet new people and get new ideas.  We can hear all about our co-workers’ ideas any day, let’s use a conference as a push to add to our tool boxes with ideas from other teachers around us. Bonus: even if there are blasé speakers, we can still gain value from our colleagues.  Pro tip: Bring simple business cards.  You can print a page at home or upload and print at most drug stores (Walgreens.com etc).  Having a card makes it so easy to exchange information so you can follow up on that great new handout or procedure they mentioned during the break.

2. Don’t grade. I will confess, this is the hardest advice to me to take.  With a million papers to grade at all times, it is so easy to slip a few into the conference bag and start multi-tasking.  Here’s the thing: it’s rude to the presenter and to the people sitting around you who want to engage.  If the conference is that bad, politely excuse yourself to go grade at the coffee shop across the street.  That is just my opinion, do you agree?  I saw a lot of red pens openly out at my last PD so maybe I am in the minority here.

3. Take notes in a way that you will actually use later.  I’ve written so many notes in notebooks and agendas that I will never look at again.  My suggestion would be to have one professional development notebook where you keep only great ideas. If you start taking notes for something that turns out to be a bust, take that paper out so you have one place to look back full of inspiration and void of randomness.  One notebook can last a long time if you play this right.  I also like to use post-it notes on the actual materials given out so that I don’t have to match up the notes in my notebook to the materials.

4. Make the rounds.  At many large conferences, there is an area full of vendor booths; be sure to walk around!  In addition to the free teacher swag often available, you can learn valuable insights from the business owners and consultants manning the booths.  If you see a Secondary Solutions booth, be sure to stop in for a chat with our very own Kristen Bowers! Her next stop will be the IRA conference in New Orleans in May! Also, click to read Kristen’s tips on what to pack and more! 

5. Pick conferences and sessions that support your goals. At the beginning of each school year, set goals for improving in your craft, then select PD that will support those goals.  Want to learn more about common core question stems?  Writing instruction?  Differentiation techniques?  Chances are there multiple professional development opportunities to support your unique goals, you just have to look for them.  We can see huge progress if we focus our attention on one or two goals instead of trying to get a little of everything.

What are your tips for getting the most from your conference experience? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

 

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Teacher Tips: Writing Letters of Recommendation (Free Form Download!)

Letters of Rec

I teach primarily juniors and seniors this year and so I have three main waves of recommendation writing: junior enrichment opportunities, senior college apps, and senior scholarship apps.  Many of these opportunities ask students to obtain a letter of recommendation from an English teacher who can give insight into student reading and communication skills.  Whether you are sitting down to write one letter or fifty letters, here are some tips to get you through:

1. Be authentic.  Sometimes you have to be honest with students and decline to write a letter of recommendation when you feel that you don’t have the time to complete the task, you don’t know the student well enough, or you don’t think that you can write a positive letter.  Allow yourself to make the professional call either way so that you can avoid writing an untruthful ode to the student constantly cheating and disrupting class or a boring form letter about that extraordinary student in dire need of a scholarship.

2. Consider starting with a few general form letters. Every student is exceptional, but letters of recommendation may come in batches.  I have general templates for categories like: the student athlete, the most improved, the extra-curricular star, the service oriented, and the consistent hard worker.  I then fill in the general template with the specifics of the student so that I can quickly, but accurately get the letter done.  In my 10 years writing letters, I’ve had a few every year that break all molds and require me to break out all of my rhetoric skills from scratch.

3. Ask for a brag sheet and the details of the opportunity. Even if you know your students well, give them an opportunity to fill out the whole picture.  The form below is a tremendous help to me and it helps to keep students accountable.

4. Quote students. I like to include quotes from student essay writing or brag sheets in order to show and not just tell the student’s strengths.

5. Put on the finishing touches.  After you have spent time writing this letter, be sure to proofread it, print it on letterhead, and sign it.  These letters are important and you want to honor them.

 

What recommendations do you have?  Is my form helpful?  I’d love to hear from you in the comment section!

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