Games to Help Students Write More Precisely and Concisely

I always seem to have students who believe that effective writing is verbose. If they exceed the page minimum, they expect a high grade.  These students tend to applaud themselves for the hard work on essay assignments, and it can be very difficult to convince them that their style of writing is actually quite lazy. As English teachers, we try to teach students that writing should be precise and concise. In order for students to accomplish this goal, they must have an extensive vocabulary and clear command of syntax. In short, we teach the adage:

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Below are two games that can be used in the English classroom to emphasize these writing traits.  They can be used as a warm-up, brain break between lessons, after test activity, or any other time that works for your instruction.

Game 1: The Synonym Series

Procedure:

  • Before the game begins generate a list of precise, high level vocabulary words that your students would be familiar with. You need 1 word for every two students in your class.
  • Divide students into 2 groups.
  • Invite 1 student from each group to face off.
  • Show the first word to the students who are not in the face off. Make sure face-off students cannot see it.
  • Then, each side will take turns giving one word clues to their team member.  Clues can be synonyms or descriptors like: stronger, weaker, formal, informal, and the like. No rhyming, sound clues, or other shenanigans.
  • The first person who guesses the correct word scores a point for his or her team.

Example: Elated

Clues: Happy, Stronger, Stoked, Formal, Euphoric, Jubilant, Joyous, and so on until one member guesses correctly.

Benefits: This game enhances vocabulary by recognizing and using synonyms. It also helps students pay attention to connotation (stronger, weaker, angrier, etc) and audience (formal, informal, jargon, etc).

Game 2: Least Words

  • Before the game begins write long sentences that can be written more concisely.
  • Divide the class into 2-3 teams.
  • Project or write the first sentence on the board.
  • Have students re-write the sentence using more concise language.
  • The group that writes the shortest sentence, retaining the most precise language scores a point.

Example: The football game was seen by us as a way to suggest the fact that we are not as talented a school as our cross town rival.

Revisions would omit and reword phrases like “was seen by us as a way”, “the fact that”, and other overly wordy parts of the sentence.

Benefits: In this game the teacher overtly places value on concise sentences, reinforcing them for students. It also allows for several teachable moment grammar mini-lessons when evaluating which condensed sentence best retains the original meaning.

What strategies do you use to teach precise and concise language?  We’d love to hear from you in the comment section below.

A Creative Spin on Argument Writing

argumentNo matter which standards you are currently in alignment with, argument writing is an incredibly important mainstay of English curricula.  Arguments can take many forms, and sometimes it is fun to mix up the writing assignments to inspire students to use their creativity and have a little fun (especially during fourth quarter)!  Today I want to share a writing assignment that fell into my lap recently and turned out to be a great experience for my secondary students.  Last week, I was reading the New Yorker and I came across this article that described a couple’s first dinner in the form of a recipe. I thought that it was an interesting social commentary that teenagers could easily relate to (even though the article is geared toward young adults).  So, I decided to mix up the argument writing for the week to include an assignment modeled after this article. We read the article together and discussed the elements of style, content, and convention that were employed as well as the arguments, both explicit and implicit.  A couple of the reasons I liked this assignment were:

  • It allowed students to read a relevant professional model of interesting prose.
  • It engaged students in a creative (dare I say fun) writing assignment.
  •  It still covered some standards that I am always working on (namely CCS 9-12 Writing.1 A,C,D)
    • Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
    • Introduce precise, knowledgeable claim(s), establish the significance of the claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that logically sequences claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.
    • Use words, phrases, and clauses as well as varied syntax to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships between claim(s) and reasons, between reasons and evidence, and between claim(s) and counterclaims.
    • Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing.

The Prompt:

Write a social commentary that takes the form of a process.  Teacher Note: We extensively brainstormed social issues/situations and process writing forms in class.  Social issues included things like: family dynamics/sibling rivalries, report card season, smart phone use, sports team/club/group hierarchies, college applications, and other topics.  Processes included: writing a recipe, giving directions, giving a formal invitation, and proctoring a test among other ideas.

Would you use this assignment in your class?   What other creative ways do you teach argument writing?   We’d love to hear from you in the comment section below!

Teacher Tip: An Easy Way to Create Sheltered Research and Argument Projects

Sheltered ResearchDuring this time of year, the research paper dominates the English department in my school.  We slog through the sometimes painful and sometimes engaging process of finding credible sources, creating a documented argument, and using MLA format.   I wrote about teaching research papers in this earlier post if you want to know more. Today I want to share a quick tip for creating sheltered research and argument papers without a ton of background work for the teacher. By sheltered research, I just mean that teachers provide the sources for students to synthesize as opposed to students being open to all possible sources. I find that these assignments are ideal for preparing students to do longer, more independent and scholarly research papers later.

Benefits of Sheltered Research: 

  • The teacher controls the type of sources used, which can help students avoid the pitfalls of inappropriate sources.  They must learn about the pitfalls later, but hopefully after they have the confidence to use reliable sources.
  • The research timeline can go much faster when students are given the sources so teachers can fit research in even with other priorities and testing schedules.
  • It is easier to track down plagiarism and misreading when the teacher is familiar with the sources.
  • MLA citation teaching can be more directly guided when the teacher knows exactly what type of sources students will be citing.

Goals of the Assignment: 

  • Students will read professional sources on a given topic.
  • Students will develop a thesis and argument on a topic.
  • Students will synthesize a given number of sources to support their argument.  (I usually say that they must use 3 sources, but that number can vary.)
  • Students will properly quote, paraphrase, and cite sources.

Finding Resources: 

You can take the time to look up articles and print them for students or link them to your website, but I would like to draw your attention to an easier way that may work for you. Many newspapers create online collections around topics, which offer a wealth of contexts and perspectives.  Using them also helps keep the research current without the teacher redoing work every year or so.  Here are some links to topics that may intrigue students:

Students look through the headlines and select articles to read and use.  The nice thing about using a newspaper database is that students have a variety of articles to spin their paper without the significant limitation that results in 30+ identical papers.  Depending on the population you serve, you may need to find newspapers that are more relevant or acceptable to your area.  More scholarly articles can be found in library databases, of course, but I find that newspaper articles are much more accessible to students early in the process of learning.

What do you think? Would you use these resources?  How do you find research to provide to students without spending hours planning?

The Plagiarism Problem

Today we are sharing this great infographic from health informatics at The University of Illinois, Chicago to continue our discussion about the importance of teaching students about plagiarism.  Below is a creative lesson plan idea for helping students to connect meaningfully to the idea of academic integrity.  UIC_Plagiarism_InfographicThis infographic offers information and suggestions for stemming this growing issue.  We want to give a big thank you to The University of Illinois at Chicago for bringing it to our attention!  I also wanted to share a creative idea for helping students connect meaningfully with this crime that they often think of as victimless.  I’ve known a few English teachers to do a variation of this assignment and I think it could be adapted to work at many grade levels.  Here is the gist of the assignment:

1. Assign a creative assignment that can be presented in a 60 second class presentation.  (For example: creative writing or research with a visual aid)

2. Have students present their projects to the class so everyone gets a good idea of the quality of each student’s work.

3. Post assignments up around the room.

4. Give students post it notes and ask them to write their name on them.

5. Have students walk around and vote for the best projects by placing their post it notes on their favorite.

6. Cross out the original names on the projects and tell students that their grades will be based on the project that they selected and not on the work that they actually completed.

Inevitably, there will be projects that were completed with mindless haste and others that were created with care and critical thinking.  There will probably be a few students who didn’t do the assignment at all and will get credit. Students who put time and effort into their project will likely be outraged at the idea that others will get credit for their work.  With the face of outrage real in their peers, the students who are getting the undue credit will likely feel the pangs of guilt.  This is the perfect moment for a discussion of plagiarism that will hopefully stick with many students for a long time.

What do you think of this idea?  Do you or your colleagues do something similar? What have the reactions been like?  We’d love to hear from you in the comment section below!

Anchor Papers: A Journey Toward Better Student Papers

 

Using Anchor PapersI’ve recently had an ah-ha moment about teaching writing at all levels using anchor papers.  Anchor papers are basically a set of papers that each represent the characteristics of a particular grade range. For example, given a writing prompt about Native American mythology, I could have a set of anchor papers in which 1-2 papers are solid As, 1-2 papers are solid Bs, 1-2 papers are solid Cs, 1-2 papers are solid Ds, and 1-2 papers are Fs.  When we are finished with our literature unit on Native American mythology, I can have students write on the prompt with a clear rubric.  When the papers are complete, I can give students the unmarked anchor papers to categorize and grade based on the rubric.  After we have discussed which papers received which grades and for what reasons, students can self-assess their own papers with clarity. Then I could use a similar rubric with the next paper on Puritan literature, allowing students to self-assess without anchor papers before they turn it in for my grading.

Anchor paper strategies are common in the test prep world, but I think they can be just as helpful in our regular curriculum.  I teach  juniors, so at the beginning of the year, we do the Score Write activity from college board and I have seen a marked improvement in their SAT essay style writing as a result of the anchor paper technique.  Preparing anchor papers for ourselves can be a daunting task, but I think the long-term results will be well worth it.  Below I am sharing reasons to try anchor papers and tips for preparing them.  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below!

Reasons to use anchor papers:

  • Anchor papers elevate the concept of modeling. Instead of just modeling unattainable perfection, anchor papers help students at all levels see the range of essay skills.
  • Anchor papers show that there is more than one way to achieve a rhetorical purpose. Showing students papers from a variety of writers with multiple perspectives, helps students see that good writing comes in many forms and realize that their unique voice is valuable.
  • Anchor papers clarify the directions. Anchor papers can help students grasp MLA, paragraph formatting, and other directions and help students pay closer attention to the rubric.
  • Anchor papers develop metacognition skills. Metacognition and self-assessment are incredibly important skills for students to learn. Anchor papers force students to pay attention to the way that they think about the topic and the rubric without just throwing something on paper and letting the teacher sort it out.

Tips for Preparing to Use Anchor Papers:

  • Embrace the process. It may take you a year to gather anchor papers to be used next year.  You may have to dig through old portfolios.  Don’t pressure yourself to have it all together  immediately.  Make a goal and stick with it to see long-term results.
  • Consider getting permission and taking names off papers. Personally, I like to get permission from previous students before I use their paper as a model or anchor and even with permission I take their name off to avoid any awkwardness from current students who know previous students.
  • Creating a range is important. I’ve heard arguments for showing only the top papers, but I think that students learn a lot from seeing what doesn’t work in addition to what does.
  • Set up an atmosphere of respect.  Be sure to have a game plan to preface the anchor paper grading activity, so that students know how to grade on the rubric with objective, appropriate language.
  • Authenticity is best. I don’t know if any teacher in the world has time to write 5-10 anchor papers for a prompt, but even if you do have that kind of time and energy, I think authentic papers will work better.

What do you think?   Need more resources for teaching writing?  Check out Essay Architect!

anchor

Grammarly Review and Video Tutorial

The kind folks over at Grammarly recently let me try out their service with my high school English classes.  The service offers to help students continue to develop writing skills through automated instructional feedback in grammar and word choice, as well as plagiarism tracking.  I tried out the teacher/student version, which you can learn more about at Grammarly.com/edu.  Check out the video tutorial below and the pros and cons list.  Please let me know if you have questions or comments and remember to check back weekly for more teacher tips, tutorials, and tirades. ;)

 Grammarly Pros and Cons from my perspective:

Pros:

  • Students can submit their papers multiple times to receive maximum automated input that is more effective than a simple word processor grammar check.
  • The grammar checker saves time for me as it catches many mistakes. I am all about saving time as we all know that English teachers have enough on our plate already!
  • Grammar explanations give students clear guidelines.
  • Plagiarism checker prevents unintentional plagiarism and takes away the excuse of ignorance that students sometimes claim.
  • There is a blackboard option and convenient roll out instructions.

Cons:

  • Unless you have school and department support, the price can be limiting.  (Check out pricing here)
  • Some grammar suggestions misunderstand student intention, which can confuse the paper further.
  • The teacher side of the website is limited in information.  I could see how many times a paper was checked, but I couldn’t see the actual mistakes or plagiarism to tell whether they were valid or not. I had to have students print their reports for me, which seemed like a lot of paper.
  • The plagiarism tracker is limited to online sources and is not the key component to this service (as opposed to services like turnitin.com).

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?

 

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! 

 

 

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!