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!

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!

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