As a middle school or high school English Language Arts (ELA) teacher, you have the important task of empowering students to listen to the voices of others, to find and use their own voices, and to communicate clearly so their voices are heard. From my 23 years of teaching ELA, here are six essentials for the middle school and high school ELA classroom that can help make your teaching a success.
1. ELA Essential: A variety of reading materials
It is important to provide your students with a variety of reading materials that cater to their interests and reading levels and help them to build schemas. This can include fiction, non-fiction, poetry, graphic novels, and audio books. By providing a variety of reading materials, you can keep your students engaged and interested in reading.
One easy way to help expose students to a variety of authors and genres on a wide range of topics is by implementing an article of the week program. Sharing an article each week with students helps to expose students to over thirty different writing pieces throughout the school year. Plus, FREE articles can easily be found online. NPR is my favorite place to source articles of the week from a variety of authors on a wide range of topics. Throughout the year, we'll read articles with topics ranging from animals to young people changing the world to the political climate of South Sudan (we read the novel A Long Walk to Water, so my students have a vested interest!).
2. ELA Essential: Writing tools that empower
Writing helps our students to find their voices. Providing your students with the necessary tools to write and to help build confidence is key. Writing is a vulnerable place, and the first step towards building a successful writing program is helping our students feel comfortable expressing their ideas.
One of the very best writing tools is also one of the most readily available: books! Use author's writing (and as appropriate student and teacher writing) as a model. Analyze author's techniques with students. Break down model writing into lists that work as guidelines. For example, before we write informative essays, we find examples in the articles we read. We write a list of "Qualities of Effective Informative Writing" and we use that list to guide us through out writing process.
Additionally, if I notice my students struggling with a specific element of writing (for example, blending quotes), I pull out mentor texts (sometimes these are exemplar student examples I use with permission) and we examine what successful writers do. Modeling is one of the best writing tools out there and models are all around us!
This Ultimate Writer's Notebook walks students through the writing process and includes mentors for all the major genres of writing throughout the school year. Share this with your students in Google Classroom at the beginning of the school year, and use it as a home for writing all year long.
3. ELA Essential: Tools to highlight grammar and vocabulary in context
Grammar can put your kids to sleep or it can awaken their power as writers. Empower student writers by teaching them how to harness the power of grammar to strengthen their communication and even how to break the rules of grammar so they can develop their own unique writing style.
Research shows that grammar is best taught in context. Throughout the writing process, authors can make great models of proper grammar and can help students notice specific elements of grammar. Use these grammar foldables to help students notice grammar as they read and then apply those rules to their own writing.
Math teachers use reference sheets as students work through challenging problems. As students work through the writing process, provide them with a similar tool for ELA. This ELA reference sheet provides students with essential guidelines for blending quotes, structuring sentences, and using proper capitalization and punctuation.
After writing, leave feedback on student grammar pointing out any errors along with the suggested fixes. A time-saving hack: create a numbered list of your students most common errors, then add your list to your Google Classroom Comment bank (grab this list of 58 comments done and organized for you). When leaving feedback, simply type the number and the comment will auto-generate. The comment bank only works in Google Classroom, but you can do something similar by providing students with a numbered list and simply leaving numbers as feedback on student work.
Along with feedback, it is essential to provide students time to apply it. When you hand back writing, give students a class period to read and apply your feedback. Motivate students by allowing them to make the fixes for a higher grade. To save time, you can use the "last edits" tool in Google Docs to see the changes students made versus having to regrade the entire piece of writing.
Alongside grammar, vocabulary is best taught in context. Encourage students to collect powerful words in a writer's notebook or reading journal, and then encourage students to use those words in their own writing. Building morphemic awareness is another research based strategy--teaching students how to identify and break down word parts (prefix, affix, and suffix). This Greek and Latin Root Word project is perfect for the beginning of the school year because students create posters sharing different word parts and definitions that can hang on your walls as a reference all year long!
4. ELA Essential: A well-stocked classroom library
A well-stocked classroom library is my favorite classroom decor. Books give our students windows into the world, reflections that help them to examine their own lives, and doors to escape into other worlds. Having a variety of books and other reading materials at students' fingertips is a beautiful gift. If you're having trouble growing your classroom library, take heart. Growing your classroom library can take years, but here are some tips for bringing more books into your classroom:
Ask for donations. Families are often looking to pass books their kids have read or grown out of onto someone else.
Scholastic book orders can be your best friend. When students purchase even a small number of books, teachers earn credits that can be used to purchase books for the classroom.
Many libraries have very inexpensive used book sales. They can be a treasure hunt, but hit them up whenever you can to get stacks of books for super cheap!
Talk to administration: textbook funding is often separate from other school budget expenses, and you just might luck out and have your school purchase the books you need.
Encourage reading by providing students with choice and creating a positive reading culture. Use this Independent Reading Program and Interactive Journal to help students choose books, track their must-reads list, take pride in their reading accomplishments over time, facilitate book talks, and write letters to each other and their authors in response to their reading.
5. ELA Essential: A transparent, meaningful grading system
Having a transparent, meaningful system of communicating students' understanding is not only an ELA essential, it's an essential of good teaching. Nothing has had a bigger impact on my classroom culture and my approach to teaching and learning than making the shift towards standards based learning and grading. I have an entire section on my blog dedicated to standards based learning and grading here.
Grades are communication. They allow students and their families to have a clear measure of understanding. Grades also provide feedback. A few tips for creating a grading system that clearly communicates understanding:
Define grades by levels of understanding. Whether you use a five or 100 point scale, the top should reflect mastery. Define mastery with or for your students. Likewise, the bottom of the scale is a reflection of a lack of understanding. Define what this looks like along with what actions students can take if they demonstrate a lack of understanding. Hang posters in your classroom that clearly define levels of understanding.
Purify your grading system by taking away any grading that does not directly measure student understanding. Although controversial, I highly recommend eliminating late point systems and replacing them with alternative consequences. I have a full blog post of suggestions here. Eliminate taking off points for other behavior-based criteria as well (i.e., writing outside the margin, forgetting names on papers, etc.). Just because you don't take off points does not mean there isn't a consequence for irresponsible behaviors; it just means the consequence does not come in the form of grades, skewing your communication system.
Provide rubrics ahead of time. Allowing students to see how they are being graded empowers them to meet the criteria. Hand students the rubric for a writing assignment before they begin writing. Place rubrics for smaller assignments directly on the work like this:
Allow revisions and retakes. This seems like a lot of extra work on the teacher, but with clear guidelines, it provides students the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and apply feedback. Save time by using the last edits feature in Google Docs for any essay rewrites. For test retakes, require students to sign up for specific time-slots and to complete a request to retake ahead of time. You can see the form I use here. Set a deadline for all revisions or retakes at least one week before the end of the marking period so students don't bombard you with last minute work.
Shifting the focus from grades as a tool of control or judgment to grades as a tool to communicate understanding changes classroom culture. Students and teachers become more focused on learning and growing their understanding as a team.
6. ELA Essential: A positive classroom culture
A successful ELA classroom is not possible without a positive classroom culture. Believe it or not, one of my favorite ways to build a positive classroom culture is by having a clear and consistent structure. When class routines are predictable, kids know exactly what to expect. This brings a sense of comfort and also frees up cognitive space for learning! Structure your class using standards based lesson framing. You can read about that here. Stick to a basic structure:
Standards based bell ringer: think of this like a learning target but interactive. You can find the standards based bell ringers I use here.
Mini lesson directly teaching or reviewing the standard.
Modeling through sharing teacher, student, or author work.
Student application of skill.
Brief review: share exemplars, questions, reflections.
Focus on building community from the start (you can read more about that here), and encourage students to be upstanders for you and for each other throughout the school year. Facing History & Ourselves has some great resources to teach students about upstanders here. I use free posters from their site for an upstander bulletin board in my classroom.
Beyond being upstanders, model what it means to exist in a reading and writing community. Share your reading and writing struggles along with your triumphs. I'm perfectly honest with my students that I am a painfully slow reader. I like to read deeply, and that takes time. Write in front of your students and make mistakes. Think aloud as you persevere through those mistakes. Beyond sharing finished authors' work, share their writing process. Search YouTube for interviews with authors sharing their writing process (here's an example with author Jason Reynolds).
Create a culture where reading is celebrated and shared. Create a whole class bookshelf on Google Slides (you can see mine here) to track novels and celebrate accomplishments. Encourage students to write mini reviews on index cards of the books they read and tape them to your classroom library.
Last, create a safe space to make mistakes. Allowing retakes and revisions shows students that mistakes are a learning tool.
Creating a positive classroom culture where students are encouraged to share their ideas and opinions can help them feel more comfortable and engaged in the classroom. Additionally, providing positive feedback and praise can help build confidence in students and motivate them to continue to improve.
What you do is important. Throughout your ELA teaching career, you'll touch thousands of lives. Through reading and writing, we give students the tools to communicate clearly and effectively. By incorporating these six essentials into your middle school or high school ELA classroom, you can help your students become successful, empowered writers and readers.