Silent Ball: An Easy, Fun Review Game for Students

silent ballLast year around this time of year, I wrote a post about a project that I do with my classes that I find academically stimulating for students while simultaneously helping me to avoid teacher burnout. This year, I’ve tweaked the project just a little, and I’m really enjoying the student presentations.  I’m also learning great new strategies that students bring in from best practices of other teachers or from their own creativity.  Below is a very brief breakdown of the project followed by a great review game that students taught me this year, which can be used for a variety of subjects and levels!

The Project: 

1. Divide a novel into equal, manageable sections and give students a reading schedule.  I use 12 sections of Huckleberry Finn that are each about 20 pages.

2. Assign small groups to each section.  My class sizes and time restraints dictate that I work with groups of 3.  (I do the first presentation as a model by myself).

4. Each day according to the reading schedule, give students a short reading quiz to keep everyone accountable.  Then, the assigned group for the day presents a 15-20 minute lecture (with PPT or Prezi) and a 15-20 minute activity based on their chapters.  Organization, creativity, and connection to text are key for the activity.  I encourage students to use best practices they’ve picked up from any of their classes to include a variety of ideas like jeopardy, video clips, and socratic seminar just to name a few.

Silent Ball: 

From this project, I’ve learned a whole host of fun activities that I can use at other times of the year.  This week, I learned a game that was just simple enough to fit almost any subject at a moment’s notice, but also just engaging enough to keep students’ attention.  All you need is a tennis ball and a list of review questions.  Here’s the set up:

1. Prepare a list of review questions or key terms (from literature, vocabulary, etc).  If you are working with a novel, check out reading guides from Secondary Solutions for ready to use questions/answers.

2. Have students create one large circle with their desks. Students should then sit on top of the desk (or stand in front of it if safety or preference dictates).

3. The first student will silently point at another student and throw the tennis ball.  The student that catches the ball will do the same.  If at any point a student drops the ball, makes a bad throw, or speaks out loud, they must answer a review question.  Right answers stay in the game, wrong answers mean the student has to sit down in his/her chair and is out.  Play continues until there is a winner.  If it seems too easy or you need the game to move along, you can require one handed throws/catches or non-dominant hand throws/catches.

When the student first explained this game to me, I was skeptical, but in practice it was actually fun and under control the whole time.  It is definitely something I will keep in my tool box for times when a quick review of something is necessary.  What do you think?  I’d love to hear your comments, questions, and suggestions below!

5 Ways to Use Magazines in the Classroom


With a push in the common core to incorporate more informational texts and a teenage audience that is becoming more globally aware than any previous generation, I have found that using high quality magazines in the classroom can help capture young minds in relevant reading and writing.  I especially like The New Yorker, but the same strategies below can be used for Time Magazine, National Geographic, your local newspaper, or many other options.  (Be sure to vet articles carefully and get approval where appropriate.)  Many newspapers and some magazines also have an educator’s discount! Below are some ways that I’m using magazines in my classroom.  I’d love to hear your questions, comments, or suggestions below!

1. Engage students in high interest pieces. Instead of reading the same stale opinion pieces from the anthology, I find that students respond well to pieces like “The Case for Banning Laptops in the Classroom” or “Trigger Warnings and the Novelist’s Mind“.  In every week’s edition, I find something that I’m excited to share with my juniors.

2. Use pieces as a model for a student assignment. This week, I read “The Secret Fantasies of Adults” as a model for my AP juniors, to write “The Secret Fantasies of AP juniors”.  It was a great lesson in creative writing and the importance of understanding the speaker, audience, and subject relationship.

3. Use pieces for close reading and prose analysis. Last week there was a story entitled “Voting by the Numbers,” which started with a beautifully written analogy and continued with an argument full of logical appeals and other rhetorical devices.  It was great for teaching argumentation and close reading.  If we want our students to be sophisticated writers, we must expose them to sophisticating writing.

4. Connect to other classes and disciplines.  There was a piece this week about life behind the Berlin wall that I bookmarked to teach later in the year when students are studying the topic in their history class.

5. Use pieces to teach the art of writing other than essays.   In every issue there are artfully written reviews of restaurants, books, movies, and other entertainment. These can serve as excellent models for students to write real life applications.

I can’t fit magazine articles into every week of my curriculum, but when I can, students love it.  An added benefit is the enjoyment I get from curling up with my magazine and a hot cup of coffee for some “planning” and “professional development” time!  What do you think?  We’d love to hear your thoughts below!

Staying Positive in the Face of Difficult Parent Conferences

conferences 2Last year, I wrote a post with advice for creating positive parent-teacher conferences and I must say that I enjoy talking with most parents that come in to speak with me. That being said, there are some difficult parent conferences that we have all experienced over the years and I’d like to write today about ways to remain positive in the face of some of these dreaded phrases:

  • “Your class is the only one he is struggling with, so it must be your teaching that is the problem.”
    • Most of the time this information is sketchy at best, but if you don’t have the data in front of you, you cannot call them on any untruths or exaggerations.  When this type of comment starts, I like to redirect to focus only on my particular class.  Do not get caught up in evaluating or comparing yourself to your colleagues.  In as logical a fashion as possible, go through the study habits, assessment scores, participation, and other information for the student and reinforce the homework/study expectations and any tutoring or office hours that you offer.
  • “She is just not interested in the books you are reading in your class.”
    • This one always takes me by surprise because I take pains to pick out the most engaging texts that are appropriate to the class.  I also subscribe the the school of sometimes-you-have-to-do-things-you-don’t-want-to-do.  In my opinion, the best way to handle this parent is to emphasize the wide range of engaging texts that you teach.  Show how excited you are about your curriculum and hope that the literature love is contagious.
  • “He’s just not good at English.”
    • I don’t think we get this one as much as our colleagues in the math department, but when this one comes up, reassure parents that your job is to teach the students in front of you.  If they were already prodigies in English, they would not need your class.  Encourage parents to trust the process in order to improve skills regardless of natural ability or previous experience.
  • “She just doesn’t have time to study for your class because of a sport, job, extra-curricular, etc.”
    • Even though I want to stress the importance of academics over other commitments, I understand that there is value (and sometimes necessity) to activities outside the classroom. Sympathize with this parent and give a few suggestions for balancing obligations, like coming in early before school to work on homework or using the quizlet app to study on the bus to an away game.  The expectations and deadlines must be clear and consistent for all students, so be firm, yet sympathetic.
  • “He says you hate him.”
    • Yeah, like teachers have the time and energy to go around hating students and taking it out on their grades! But to spin this in a positive direction, you have to emphasize the positive traits of said student, taking pains to smile.  Show the parents how kind and reasonable you are, and they will be less inclined to believe their child next time.
  • “She says everyone is failing.” 
    • Be careful, this parent is baiting you.  Do not get caught up in comparing students or talking about class averages, which can get really ugly really fast. Reinforce the opportunities and criteria for success in your class.
  • “Can you walk me through the entire semester and outline your common core alignment.”
    • In my opinion, this parent is best deflected to the dean of curriculum or department chair.  If it is an open call conference night, you can also ask this parent to make a special appointment to give you time to prepare yourself and make sure that you don’t end up with a long line backing up outside your door while one parent monopolizes your time.
  • “Can you call me every time he misses an assignment or gets below a B on an assessment?”
    • For me, this is not a reasonable request.  With 34+ students in a class, I simply do not have the time to make that many phone calls.  Instead, offer what you can.  If the grades are kept online, inform them about the frequency of grade updates.  If email is better for you, offer to send a quick email check in if the overall grade drops below a C.  Whatever you pick, be sure that it is something you can reasonably cram into your busy schedule.

What would you add to this list?  Leave questions, comments, and suggestions below.  Thanks for visiting us!


Teaching on Halloween: Tips to Avoid Distraction

halloweenThere are some days during the school year when teaching high school feels a little like herding cats.  For me, those days include Valentine’s Day, Friday before spring break, homecoming week, and Halloween.  Halloween is especially tricky since it tends to come right after all of the homecoming and spirit week shenanigans, plus it involves copious amounts of sugar, late night outings, and attire that is not always conducive to learning.   Some years, I trek on through the transcendentalists (the unit that happens to land in late October most years) without acknowledging the distractions at all.  From a  curricular design perspective, this keeps my plan tight, but from a practical standpoint, it almost always ends up in an incredibly labored (and generally ignored) lecture with very little successful learning.  On the other extreme, I do not want to sacrifice all meaningful learning by giving that day to mindless busy work or that classroom management nightmare called free time.  Below I am sharing some ideas for Halloween activities for the English classroom that embrace the holiday, while holding on to academic standards.  I’d love to hear your suggestions, experiences, and comments below.

1. Read and analyze a spooky poem or short story. With short works, students can get into the holiday spirit and thoroughly analyze a work without zoning out like they might with longer texts. Some of my faves include:

  • “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe (Great for American lit classes)
  • “The Apparition” by John Donne (Great for British lit classes)
  • “Ghost House” by Robert Frost (Great for all levels)

2. Give a short Halloween research assignment.  Students can research different aspects of Halloween and write about them, create posters, or present them to the group.  The History Channel site is a great place to start. You can divide students into groups to each research a different aspect of Halloween, like pumpkins, costumes, trick or treating, witches, etc or the ways that different cultures celebrate a similar holiday.

3. Give students a creative writing assignment to write a short ghost story.  You can have students read them to the class and select a winner.  If you trust your class, turn out the lights and bring a flashlight to shine for the spooky reading.

I’d love to hear your ideas and tips for teaching on Halloween!  At least Halloween is on a Friday this year, so we won’t have to worry about students dragging in the next day in a candy coma! Happy teaching!

Teacher Tips: How Can I Ever Catch Up With This Work Load?!?!

catching upIt always astounds me how much this job does NOT get any easier!  10 years in and I still find myself hopelessly in the weeds on a monthly, if not weekly basis.  My grades, emails, lesson plans, meetings, and everything else seem to pile up when I am busy teaching and then all of the sudden the panic sets in.  Today I want to share a couple of tips that I have picked up along the way from my own experience or from wise teachers I’ve worked with.  Please share your tips in the comment section below!

1. Take a day off: This is a tricky (and in my opinion, last resort) kind of tip, but sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures! With a whole or half day off, you can force yourself into a coffee shop, library, or other productive work space to just jam through your work load and come back on top of your game.  There are some caveats here though:

  • You have to pick a day that has an easy sub plan so you don’t end up spending extra hours planning and grading sub work.
  • You have to be in a supportive administration situation if you are going to be forthcoming about your reason for taking the day off.
  • You have to use this plan sparingly because your kids need you.

2. Make prioritized lists: I live and breathe lists and they are the only way that I can survive the week.  If you are feeling overwhelmed with your task lists, try prioritizing them by what needs to get done each day, week, or prep period.  That way there is some light at the end of the tunnel. If you realize that your lists are unreasonable given the time allotted, start taking out the inessentials.

3. Tell students the grading machine is broken: A dear, former department chair gave me this advice.  She said that when she was woefully behind, she would assign work and not grade it.  She would simply tell students that the grading machine (her) was broken.  When done very intermittently, students are still motivated to do their work because they don’t know when the grading machine will be in or out of service.  I’ve not tried this one yet, but she always told me that it worked like a charm.

4. Say no: If you get so behind that you can’t see over the piles of things to do, say no to the extras like letters of rec, club moderating, covering for a co-worker, etc.  It is not easy, but sometimes you have to give yourself permission to say no.

5. Treat yourself: Before you sit down to fill out endless report cards or grade the mountain of essays, get yourself a snack, treat, or special coffee to take a little bit of the pain away.  In my experience, this will keep you on task a little longer.

6. Make a survival lesson plan: Every once in a while, you have to let go of the dynamic best practices and give an assignment, project, related movie, or other lesson that allows you to catch up during class time.  Be careful of this one because you don’t want to end up in a survival lesson plan habit.  No teacher wants to be the one that is being criticized in the faculty lounge for showing a movie everyday.  On the other hand, everyone understands that the occasional survival plan is what keeps teachers’ heads above water.

7. Remember the real reason why you teach: When this job feels like a whirlwind and your to do list looks impossible, don’t forget the reason you started teaching in the first place. It really is a labor of love.

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