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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Tips for Teaching The Research Paper

research paper

At my school, 3rd quarter in the English department means one thing: research paper time.  We do our best to build on the process every year so that seniors graduate with confidence and a working knowledge of writing research papers and I do think that in this case departmental support is important to effective teaching. Whether you are just starting the daunting task of planning the paper or are looking for a fresh take, I highly recommend the research paper resource product from Secondary Solutions, which can be purchased as part of the Essay Architect system or separately from TeachersPayTeachers.  This Common Core Standards Based (ELA: Writing) product on teaching research papers is full of everything you need to help students grasp the concept of completing research, plagiarism, organizing their sources, using source information, MLA format, deciphering credible Internet sources, and more!  In addition to the notes, handouts, and activities included in that resource, I would like to share a couple of my tips for teaching the research paper.

1. Think through the types of sources you want students using. We cannot reasonably expect students to decipher sources for credibility and usefulness unless we teach them where to start.  I usually require that my junior students use a variety of 4-7 sources, including a minimum of one encyclopedia, one book, and one credible online source. In my experience, if I don’t put this requirement out right at the beginning, students wait until the absolute last minute and then use less than optimal sources.  Check out this post for more info on teaching students how to determine the credibility of online sources.

2. Break it down into steps.  Procrastination is a serious sport in my high school and sometimes my students want to give up before they even start because the task seems to overwhelming.  Smaller steps help with accountability and attitude.  Depending on the level I am teaching I break down my due dates into something like this:

  • Week 1: Verification of sources
  • Week 2: Thesis and working bibliography
  • Week 3 or 4: Draft
  • Week 5 or 6: Final Paper Due Date

3. Be sure that students ask themselves, “So what?”. In the information age, it is no longer important to simply find the facts.  Students need to look into the causes, effects, or importance of their topics.  Right now, my juniors are writing about topics related to The Great Gatsby and the 1920s. I let each of them pick a different topic from a list I created so they don’t feel like they are all writing the same paper.  I  emphasize the importance of discussing more than timelines, dates, and facts.  I want them to take a critical view of the lasting cultural impact of their topic.  I also have students present their research after the paper deadline, which gives them more incentive to bring out the relevance of their topic, otherwise we will sit through presentation after presentation of dates and places…

4. Explicitly discuss plagiarism in all its many forms. I used to have a line in my research paper prompt that informed students of my zero tolerance for plagiarism policy and I left it at that. However, I’ve learned over the past few years that students don’t always know (or at least feign ignorance of) the definition of plagiarism.  Some students think that the only plagiarism is buying an essay or copying/pasting 100%.  We talk ad nauseam about issues of paraphrasing too closely and taking other people’s ideas.

5. Include time for peer critique, editing, and revisions.  After weeks of struggling through the research process it is so tempting to just collect those suckers and break out the red pen, but if we really want students to improve their writing we need to slog on until the very end with lots of instruction on the process that takes place AFTER the complete paper has been written.  PS Did I mention that this resource also has a peer editing checklist?  ;)

What are your research paper challenges, tips, or ideas?  What are your students researching this year?

 

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10 Tips for Efficient Essay Grading

Essay Grading

For me, grading essays is one of the most challenging aspects of teaching high school English (see my top 10 here). I don’t have a problem with deciphering handwriting or subjectively evaluating a written piece. I have a problem with the incredibly long hours I dedicate to the (sometimes thankless) sport of essay grading. I teach 1 advanced placement and 4 college prep English classes, which average 30 students per class. I know that many teachers have it far worse than I do, but I have to work very hard to keep my head above the essay-filled water! While we’re talking essays, you should totally check out the newly revised Essay Architect Writing System.  Here are some of the tips I have gathered along the way to make the essay grading a little more manageable:

1. Stagger deadlines: I teach 2 American lit, 2 British lit, and an AP language course. To make my life a little easier, I try to create long-term plans that insure that my classes will not have essay deadlines on the same week. Sometimes deadlines collide and I regret it later, but as we all know the best laid plans of mice and men sometimes go awry. I’m not sure if I could do this as effectively if I taught the same subject all day. It drives me a little crazy when my classes get off from each other, but maybe with some thoughtful planning, it could work out.
2. Find a happy place:  I have to have a place where I will be most comfortable and productive.  It is a place where I won’t be too comfy and fall asleep, too distracted and lose my train of thought, or too ill-prepared and struggle for the right pens and paperclips.  It seems like every year my happy place changes. One year it was my home office. Another year I loved the big wooden table in our scarcely used library.  This year has found me (probably too often) at Starbucks cozied up with a venti skinny mocha, extra espresso shot.  Where is your essay grading happy place? I think it is time for me to find a new spot.
3. Develop a rubric: There are many great ideas for rubrics floating out there, but you have to select something that clearly outlines your priorities and policies.  I require students attach the rubric to every paper so I can just circle some areas that need work and save time on note writing.
4. Require proofreading:  I do not have time to grade papers that don’t capitalize the beginning of a sentence or accidentally write form instead of from. I find that requiring students to get papers proofread in advance helps to catch those small things.  I usually have students attach a draft with proof that 1-3 people proofread and made suggestions and we have a little chat about finding competent proofreaders. One of my goals for next year is to look into how to save some trees on this step with google doc editing.
5. Set a timer: To help keep me on a pace, I set a timer for 4-7 minutes depending on the paper and my preferences. When the timer goes off I know I need to make final remarks and move on. I just started this one this year and so far it has been helping a lot.
6. Sort papers: This one causes quite the controversy in my own head, but I use it occasionally when I really need to get psyched up to read papers. When I am having a rough time getting started, I will sort them with a couple of the students who usually excel in writing on the top, the less successful in the middle and the middle of the road at the end.  When we are talking timed-write I sort by handwriting, making sure that the tough ones don’t all end up at the end when my eyes are already falling out.  The controversy here is found in the worry that I will unconsciously pre-judge a paper giving it an unfair advantage or disadvantage based on the initial sorting.  I try to only use this technique when I need that extra push to get started.  I’d love to hear your opinion on whether or not this is legit or totally messed up.
7. Create a key: Create a key so that students know that RO means run-on, IC means incomplete sentence, CM means needs more commentary, etc.  Post that key in your classroom and give students a handout copy to keep in their binders.  This will save a ton of time in comment writing.
8. Grade the whole stack: We all do it.  We get into a paper stack and we start the bargaining.  ”If I grade 5 more, I get to check Facebook, then if I grade 2 more, I can watch 10 minutes of my show, etc”.  Sometimes this is absolutely necessary, but I think that staying in the essay grading mode without breaks for a whole class helps grading go by faster and is arguably more fair to all students as I am in the same mind set for all papers.
9. Require self-assessment: I ask students to grade their own papers according to my rubric and attach the rubric to their paper.  This gives me some insight into their metacognition and helps students think more effectively about how the paper will be graded, causing more corrections before turning it in.
10.Create feedback notes: This adds a little bit of work in the short-term, but helps me tremendously in the long-term.  When I am grading papers, I make a note of common successes and errors.  Then, when I give back papers, I go through things I loved and areas of improvement on a powerpoint quoting students anonymously.  Students look through their papers as we talk to see if they had the same successes or areas of growth.  For many, this forces reflection on my comments and helps to make the correction or continue the success in future papers, thus making papers-to-be easier for me to grade.

What are your tips and tricks for efficient essay grading?   I’d love to add to my list and save myself some sanity as we go into the next semester!

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Tips for Attacking the Common Core Narrative Writing Standards:

Common Core Narrative

I love teaching narrative writing to high school students!  I get so busy emphasizing effective argumentation and exposition, that narrative writing always seems like a breath of fresh air and a chance for students to get creative!  Here are my tips for teaching the common core narrative writing standards:

  • Know The Narrative Standards: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3a Engage and orient the reader by setting out a problem, situation, or observation, establishing one or multiple point(s) of view, and introducing a narrator and/or characters; create a smooth progression of experiences or events.
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3b Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, description, reflection, and multiple plot lines, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3c Use a variety of techniques to sequence events so that they build on one another to create a coherent whole.
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3d Use precise words and phrases, telling details, and sensory language to convey a vivid picture of the experiences, events, setting, and/or characters.
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3e Provide a conclusion that follows from and reflects on what is experienced, observed, or resolved over the course of the narrative.
  • Teach Writing with Literature:  Give students a concrete professional sample to study before they start writing to actively teach techniques like dialogue, sequencing, multiple plot lines, pacing, and the other standards.  Here are some examples:
    • Read excerpts from Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift and teach students to write narrative satires, which critique current society in a meaningful and allegorical way.  Teenagers are masters of satire if channeled properly.
    • Read “The  Street of the Cañon” by Josephina Niggli and inspire students to write imaginary narratives that celebrate their culture.
    • Read “Earth on Turtle’s Back” or other origin myth and assign students to write their own narrative, explaining the origin of life, or natural phenomena.
    • Read “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury and allow students to write narratives about what they think the future will look like.
    • Read excerpts from A Farewell to Manzanar Jean Wakatsuki Houston and James Houston. Have students write real narratives inspired by their own lives or family members’ lives.
  • Write Interdisciplinary Narratives:  Connect with other disciplines to create meaningful narrative assessments.  For example:
    • If your students are studying WWII in World History, have them write narratives from the trenches.  They can be love stories, battle stories, tales of camaraderie, or so many other options to include the interests of all students.  Be sure they include accurate historical information gleaned from their class.
    • If your students are studying the Gold Rush in US History, teach them to write imaginary narratives of failure or success in the Gold Rush.
    • If your students are studying about the laws of motion in physics, allow them to write elaborate narrative word problems in which the main character’s real life problem is solved with he help of physics.
    • Have student write mystery narratives in which the detective uses math principals to find the culprit.
  • Emphasize pre-writing: Multiple points of view, interconnected plot lines, smooth transitions, and a coherent pieces are produced through thorough planning.  Don’t rush the pre-writing stage.  Allow students to talk it out with a partner before writing so they can bounce new ideas off each other and take the story to the next level. You may even consider making this a partner effort.
  • Integrate Art: Whether it is drawn, painted, computer generated, or using any other medium, have students create art based on their narrative.  Here’s the trick: Art must be based only on sensory details included in the text.  If students are unable to complete the art at first, they need to go back and add more detail.
  • Use Technology: Students can submit their narratives to a class blog for others to comment on.  Adding a peer audience almost always brings up the level of writing.
  • Help Students Reflect: After narratives have been crafted, it is not enough to grade it and give it back. Students need to reflect on what is experienced, observed, or resolved over the course of the narrative and during the writing process.   This will help students have a greater appreciation for literature and their own skills.

What are your tips for teaching the narrative standard?  We’d love to hear your suggestions, questions, or comments!

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