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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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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Simple, Effective Essay Rubric

A few weeks ago I wrote about the 10 struggles that surprised me in the classroom and one of those was the crazy number of hours I spend outside of the classroom grading papers!  Then, I wrote a post about how I get through all those papers and a couple of people reached out to me to ask about the rubric that I use.  Although I have no miracle cure that will shrink the papers, I have found that a simple, effective rubric reduces the time that I spend writing feedback, so I’m sharing it today!  

Here are the things I like about the rubric that I have been tweaking for the last 10 years:

  • I give this rubric with the prompt at the beginning of a writing assignment, which makes grading clear for students from the outset.
  • I create the rubric on a full page so there is plenty of room to add short comments in boxes when needed.
  • I can easily just circle issues in the category box to explain my score if no comment is required.
  • There is a place for self-assessment, which helps students to go through a more effective proofreading before turning it in.
  • There are only 7 categories, which represent the overall areas of emphasis in my class.
  • The final category can be changed with each paper to reflect mini-lessons during the unit or other skills I want to emphasize.

You can download and edit this rubric here! 

(The above link should save as a word document in your downloads folder, but if you have any issues accessing it, here is the PDF version)

SS RubricI’d love to hear your feedback so I can keep refining this rubric.  Thanks so much for stopping by! 

 

 

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Teaching Students to Determine Credibility of Online Sources (Free Student Handout!)

Credible Sources

Two important revolutions have come together to make online source credibility testing an important skill to teach our students:

  • The Common Core emphasizes research and informational texts. 
  • Our students have incredible access to online sources.

Even though most of my students walk around all day with the internet in their pockets, they do not know innately how to determine the credibility of a source for my research paper, infographics, and other assignments.   More alarmingly, they consistently report bad habits including the use of fast information sources that they know are not reliable and the use of copy/paste functions to get homework done in a hurry.  In order to send students into college and into the world with valid research habits, I consciously teach students a checklist to determine the credibility of a source.  I  go through the list with them a few times and make them use it regularly in the hope that they will internalize the information for future use.  Here is my credibility check list:

I’d love to hear your tips, questions or suggestions to add to the list!  Leave a comment below and add to the conversation.

Determining the Credibility of Online Sources:

When using online sources for formal research, you must determine credibility in order to validate the reliability of your own research.  Keep in mind: Articles from peer reviewed online journals like those found in JSTOR, EBSCO Host, and other databases include all citation information and can easily be found credible.  Sites like Wikipedia, blogs, and social media are open forums for non-experts and while they may be great brainstorming tools, they are not credible sources for formal research.  With so many sites in the spectrum between JSTOR and Wikipedia, it can be difficult to determine credibility, so here is a checklist to go through when making an evaluation:

  • What is your topic?
    • You should always look for sources appropriate to your topic.  For example, if you are researching heart disease, you should look at sites run by The American Heart Association and not a side note blog post from Huffington Post.
  • What is the URL?
    • Always be sure to record the entire URL.  You will need this information and more to cite properly.   Be sure you are aware of the root site of the page you found.
  • Is the extension appropriate to the content?
    • .gov and .mil are government run sites, .edu means it is an education site, and .com/.org/.co can be purchased online.  This does not mean that .com/.org/.co are not reliable, but you should make note of the extension for overall reliability testing.
  • Who is the author?
    • You should use sites that have a stated author.  Sometimes the author’s name will be on the article or page, and sometimes you will have to dig a little deeper to an “about the author” page or a link on the main site.
  • Is there contact information for the author?
    • Credible authors will have some type of contact information. It may be in the form of an email, phone number, address, or online submission form.
  • What are the author’s credentials?
    • Look for authors who hold degrees, experience, titles, or memberships to recognizable professional groups relating to the topic.
  • Does the site appear to be professional?
    • Look for sites that are professional, clean, and organized. For most research, personal blogs are not a reliable source.
  • Are there typos and other errors?
    • Grammar, spelling, and other errors are a hint that the information has not been reviewed carefully and may be suspect.
  • What is the purpose of the site?
    • Are they trying to persuade? educate? preach? other?
  • Is there bias?  If so, what is it?
    • For example, if you take medical information from a cigarette company or sports information from a particular college, understand the bias.  Bias does not mean you can’t use the page; you just have to be aware and use the information accordingly.
  • Is this a primary or secondary source?
    • The closer to the primary source a page is, the more reliable the information.
  • Are there citations or a bibliography?
    • These will help you determine the legitimacy of secondary sources.  Ask yourself if the bibliography shows quality research material.
  • Is there a date for the publication/revision of the page?
    • You will need this information to cite properly.  It is also important to know that your information is current.  You don’t want to research current educational trends and use high school drop out rates from 1990.
  • Does the information seem in depth and comprehensive?
    • You want to look for sources dedicated to the information you are looking for, not a source, which briefly touches on your topic.
  • Overall Evaluation:
    • Based on this list, do you find this source to be credible?  Be sure that you are able to justify your evaluation with evidence.

Citing an online source:

Please refer to the Owl at Purdue for information on citing electronic sources in MLA or APA format:  Owl.English.Purdue.edu

What would you add, take away or ask about this list?  I’d love to know!

 

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