Three Universal Themes Every High School Student Should Know

Three Universal Themes Every High School Student Should Know
As English teachers, we are in a unique position where we not only shape and refine students’ writing skills, but also, possibly, hopefully, their world view. We are able to do this because most of  the literary works crucial to our curriculum were written with the intention of inspiring profound and controversial thought. Here are three thought provoking themes that are essential to teach high school students.

Sometimes, in order to foster a student’s growth for the better, it is beneficial to show them a monster rather than a role model - an anti role model if you will. Showing examples of humanity’s inhumanity can be quite revealing in regards to our own character flaws. After all, oftentimes the reason we do not like someone is because we see an aspect of ourselves which we hate within them. In Elie Wiesel's novel, Night, Elie recounts his first hand experience as a prisoner in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Aside from the infamous atrocities committed by the the Nazis, Elie recounts the noteworthy observation that cruelty breeds further cruelty. Fellow prisoners and even family members would betray and fight each other to bolster their own chances of survival. Studying cruelty and its effects can help students realize the consequences of their own actions, such as bullying and gossiping, and hopefully dissuade them from spreading cruelty themselves.

Novels with Inhumanity as a theme: Night, Animal Farm, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Lord of the Flies

There are many interpretations to how the American Dream is defined, but generally they all allude to the naive belief that an individual is guaranteed to achieve material wealth, success, and/or untarnished happiness through some combination of hard work, honesty, and morality. Regardless of the interpretation, the ideal of the American Dream profoundly shaped American values and culture, so much so that you may even want to coordinate lessons with whomever teaches History. It can be argued that immigration to America was largely motivated by the American Dream as it seemingly promised that anyone could achieve prosperity regardless of their social status, ethnicity, or nationality. However, many immigrants were disappointed to find that prejudice, amongst other barriers, limited their choices within the land of opportunity much like it did for the Lithuanian family in Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle.

Another reason to study the American Dream is to show students how even ideals with the best intentions can be corrupted. After World War I, in the 1920’s era, many Americans became disillusioned with America’s traditional cultural values and morals after witnessing the widespread chaos and carnage. This disillusionment combined with the sharp upturn in the stock market after the war led to rampant hedonism. Noble ambitions fell out of fashion as Americans chased a new, perverted American Dream which revolved around attaining money and pleasure without the previous notions of honesty and morality. F. Scott Fitzgerald vividly portrays this period of excessive greed and vice in American history in his novel, The Great Gatsby.

Novels with the theme of the American Dream: The Jungle, The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, Death of a Salesman

This theme is sure to strike a chord with students as they are all in their formative years and are still figuring out what they find to be meaningful as well as who they are as an individual. In my opinion, the most important lesson that can be gleaned from this theme is how potentially harmful it can be for someone to force an identity upon another. Most people have at one point in their life been a victim of such a crime; they’ve been called a nerd, or a jock, or a diva, or worse. Similarly, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, the protagonist, Hester Prynne, is forced to wear a badge identifying her as an adulteress as a means to humiliate her. In Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, the narrator finds the development of his identity stunted by the emphasis everyone, including the people he considers to be his allies, places on his race. Students will likely find inspiration in the methods these characters employ to develop their identities while rebelling against societal forces which try to steal their identities from them.

Novels with the theme of self discovery are also helpful in giving students examples of pitfalls to avoid during their formative years. For instance in J.D. Salinger’s novel, The Catcher in the Rye, the protagonist, Holden, alienates himself from other people as a means to protect his identity, but his isolation proves to be harmful as most of Holden’s pain can be attributed to his loneliness and his inability to understand others. In Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises, most of the characters within the story do everything they can to distract themselves from developing their own identities, foregoing any form of self reflection in lieu of  drunkenness and other forms of escapism. As such, their lives are completely joyless and stagnant, the kind of lives we hope for the next generation to avoid.

Novels with the theme of Finding One’s Identity: The Scarlet Letter, Invisible Man, The Catcher in the Rye, The Sun Also Rises, Beloved
Three Universal Themes Every High School Student Should Know


Scaffolding the Literary Analysis Response


For several years now, I’ve watched students struggle year after year with the same concepts. They have a difficult time analyzing literature on a deeper level, and they also struggle with properly embedding their quotes. Rather than face the same struggles again this year, I anticipated the struggle and revised how I teach my students to read and write about short stories. It is working. Not only is it working, but it is working far better than I ever could have imagined. My students are understanding the stories more, and their analytical writing has improved leaps and bounds since the first assignment.

STEP 1: TEACH LITERARY DEVICES
I began my short story unit by directly teaching various literary devices and how to properly embed quotations. I also placed an emphasis on close reading with my Sticky Note Literary Analysis graphic organizers. Then, I started small with a super short story and an even shorter writing response.

STEP 2: ASSIGN A SHORT RESPONSE
We read Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour”, and I assigned my students this short, little three-sentence response writing assignment. While I expect more than three sentences from my students by the end of the year, I wanted to start short so that I could help remediate writing in an effective manner. Even though the written response was only three sentences long, it was no picnic in the park. I told my students that I would only assign 2 grades: an F (50%) and an A (100%). I only assigned two vastly different grades for this assignment because I wanted my students to continuously work toward the A. They had infinite chances to keep revising their response for full credit. I really focused on having students properly embed their quotations and provide insightful analysis.
STEP 3: PROVIDE IMMEDIATE FEEDBACK
Because the writing prompt is so short, I can quickly grade each student’s writing and provide meaningful feedback during the class period. The quick access to meaningful comments and feedback allows students to learn from their mistakes and grow as writers. Also, only needing to rewrite one or two sentences in a short response is far less intimidating than needing to rewrite an entire essay.

STEP 4: REPEAT THE 3-SENTENCE RESPONSE
Before moving on to a lengthier response, repeat the 3-sentence response a couple times. This way, students learn how to properly write literary analysis without being too overwhelmed with a major writing task. I did this two times with two different stories in my classroom, and it was a major game changer. Within the first two weeks of school, I the vast majority of my sophomores were writing thoughtful and intriguing literary analysis responses with properly embedded, cited, and explained quotations.


3 Skills I Teach With Nonfiction Text

I like to incorporate a lot of nonfiction in my curriculum. While I love fiction and make sure I include it in my instruction, I also firmly believe that studying, analyzing, and writing about nonfiction is vitally essential for today’s learners.

When I teach argumentation and nonfiction texts in my classroom, there are three skills that I intentionally teach toward the beginning of the unit: paraphrasing, quoting, and summarizing. While I believe that teaching specific rhetorical devices and strategies are important, I save those lessons for when my students are able to correctly paraphrase, quote, and summarize any piece of text.

Paraphrasing
In my opinion, I believe that paraphrasing text is a bit easier than summarizing text since it is essentially rewriting the entire text in one’s own words. One of the pitfalls in which most students fall victim to is failing to properly cite paraphrased text. This is because so many students assume that just because the text is in their own words that it is theirs, and this is not true. When I teach paraphrasing, I place great emphasis on the need to properly cite their research and the work they are paraphrasing to maintain credibility and avoid plagiarism.

Summarizing
When I teach summarizing, I place an emphasis on finding the main idea and supporting details in the text. When students summarize an article for me, they should always include the article title, author, the main message, and how the author delivers that particular message.

Quoting
One of the most challenging writing skills for students to master is how to properly embed quotations in their writing. When I teach students to embed quotes (whether from fiction or nonfiction) in their writing, I focus on having the students introduce the quote in their own words with a transition word or phrase and contextual information, and then complete the sentence with a quote that grammatically fits within the sentence. I tell my students their quotes should be seamlessly written into their papers, and that they should never begin a sentence with a quote.

When students know how to properly paraphrase, summarize, and quote text, they will have the skill set necessary to take rhetorical and textual analysis to a deeper and more meaningful level. Some great sites to access nonfiction text include CommonLit.org, NewsELA.com, and Listenwise.com.

In my classroom, I use these lessons to teach these skills to my students:




Introducing Complex Ideas to Students

I teach a lot of nonfiction in my junior-level and senior-level high school English classes, and oftentimes these nonfiction articles and speeches deal with new, complex topics. Before we read the article, I want to access my students’ prior knowledge on the topic, as well as get them thinking about the topic in an effort to properly prepare them to read and understand the text.


One such way to introduce new and complex topics to students is by having them create collaborative brainstorming posters. These posters are simple and require minimal preparation, but they generate excellent classroom discussion.


The materials you will need for this assignment:
  • Butcher or poster paper
  • Markers


To complete a collaborative brainstorming poster in class, have students get into groups of three to five students. Each group will get one piece of butcher paper, poster board, or chart paper. Each member within the group will select one color marker that they will use for the entire project.


Instruct students to write the topic in large print in the middle of the paper, and then have each student contribute to the poster using the color they’ve chosen. Each student will be responsible for contribution to the poster, and the marker colors help keep students accountable.


Each student in the group will be responsible for adding the following items to the poster in their selected marker color:
  • the definition of the word/concept in their own words
  • 2 or 3 traits of that concept
  • A person who embodies or exemplifies the concept
  • A famous quote related to the concept


I give my students about 15 minutes to form groups and complete this task. The posters do not need to be perfect, final drafts. Instead, they should be a starting-off point that introduces the topic to the students. Once they are done with the posters, I have students groups present their posters, with one or two students from each group sharing various elements of their poster.

To maximize the benefits these posters provide, I put them up on the classroom walls and refer back to them throughout the rest of the unit when we discuss the article.

Why I Teach the Parts of Speech in High School

When we read over and begin grading our students’ writing assignments for the first time in a new school year, we are able to assess their writing capabilities.Within a matter of a few sentences, we can see if a student is a struggling writer, or if writing comes more naturally to them. After reading, analyzing, and grading student writing over the past several years, I’ve come one big conclusion: the reason why some students struggle with their writing is because they do not understand the basics of how to form a sentence.
Throughout my years teaching, I’ve worked at two different high schools with two different student populations. No matter what a student’s language, cultural background, or socioeconomic status is, if they have a difficult time writing, it is more than likely due to the fact that they do not know the parts of speech and how and when to use them properly.

Students are taught the various parts of speech early on in grade school. While I think it is necessary to teach students the parts of speech early on in their academic careers, I also feel that it is essential to continuously teach and review parts of speech with middle school students and even high school students.

If a high school student knows what a noun, pronoun, verb, conjunction, adjective, and adverb are and how and when to use them effectively, that student is more likely to be a good writer. Knowing the basic parts of speech, even if it seems like an elementary concept, is so crucial for high schoolers, that I continue to teach and review parts of speech with my high schoolers. Whether I spend one day reviewing parts of speech or many weeks teaching and reviewing parts of speech, I always see an improvement in student writing.

So, the real solution to this problem is simple. We don’t need to worry about parallel structure, active and passive voice, and tone just yet. Let’s review and teach the parts of speech to our middle school and high school students, and really begin to see their writing improve. Sometimes, we just have to get back to the basics to see true growth. And for writing, those basics are teaching and reinforcing the parts of speech.

Here are some age and content-appropriate resources and tools to help you teach and review parts of speech in your classroom.

This teaching bundle has everything a secondary ELA teacher could possibly need to teach parts of speech. For each part of speech, there is a separate unit that contains an editable PowerPoint presentation to use for direct instruction, a secured-PDF file with pretests, student reference sheets, practice worksheets, and a final assessment.

This is a fun and interactive teaching resource that engages students and they review the parts of speech. This mini flip book can be used on its own or as part of an interactive notebook.
You may also want to see my Pronouns Mini Flip Book

Unlike many parts of speech tasks cards out there, these task cards are age-appropriate for middle school and high school students. The last thing we want to do is offend the teenagers in our rooms with childish educational resources meant for third grade. There are two different sets of task cards in this resource, and each set has 40 unique cards. With 80 task cards total, this resource can be used for several days.
You may also want to see my Pronouns Task Cards

NoRedInk.com
Teachers can create free account on NoRedInk.com to help students learn grammar. There are a couple different sections and lessons that focus entirely on parts of speech alone.


Chromebook Storage and Organization in the Secondary ELA Classroom

Storing and organizing Chromebook carts in the classroom.
Whether you currently have Chromebooks in your classroom, are about to get Chromebooks for your classroom, or are just beginning to research how to integrate Chromebooks and digital lessons into your classroom, one thing you will definitely want to research is Chromebook storage and organization.

As an early adopter of using Chromebooks in the classroom, I’ve had quite a few years of experience storing and organizing my Chromebooks carts (and my fair share of failed routines and procedures).

Storing and organizing Chromebook carts in the classroom.When it comes to deciding on a storage and organization strategy for your classroom Chromebook carts, two of the most important things are consistency and accountability. You want to begin the year with a strong routine that will remain consistent throughout the entire year, and you also want your students to be held accountable for properly storing and using the Chromebooks.
After a couple years of trying different Chromebook policies in my classroom, I’ve finally found one that works best for me in my classroom. While I love the idea of keeping the Chromebooks out on the tables all day long because it saves valuable instructional time, students lose their personal accountability and responsibility in doing so. They do not have any ownership over a specific device, which makes it a bit more tempting for students to not be as careful with the devices.
Instead, I have my students take out their Chromebooks out of the cart and put them back in the cart each class period. It takes a little bit of initial set-up and practice, but for me, it is the best way to manage my classroom set of Chromebooks.
To begin with, I have two Chromebooks carts in my classroom with 20 Chromebooks each. I labeled each cart a different color, and within each cart, each Chromebook has two different labels: a label with a number and a label with a student’s name from each class period who is assigned to that particular Chromebook. I store each of my carts on opposite ends of the room. Students sitting on the north side of the room only use the north cart, and likewise for students sitting on the south side of the room and the south cart.
Storing and organizing Chromebook carts in the classroom.
I assigned my students to Chromebooks for personal accountability. Each student has a color and number assigned to them. Not only are they responsible for the Chromebook during that class period, but they are also responsible for putting away their assigned Chromebook in its designated space. Assigning Chromebooks to students, rather than having them use any Chromebook in the cart, helps me to know who is putting their Chromebooks back correctly, and it even reduces how quickly germs spread.  Instead of all 150 plus of my students touching all of the devices, only five of them touch a single one.
For the set-up, I purchased color dot stickers. I labeled each Chromebook with a particular color dot, and then I wrote the number on the dot. Then on the bottom of the Chromebook, I typed a label with each student’s name for all class periods on it –that way I know exactly who has the Chromebooks without having to go to my teacher binder.
On days we use the Chromebooks in class, students take out their designated Chromebook as they walk into the classroom. When we have about five minutes remaining in class, I have my students start putting their Chromebooks back in the carts so that all Chromebooks are back and accounted for before the bell rings.

An Emotional and Powerful Ice-Breaker for the First Day of School

Though I did not include this icebreaker in my Back to School Activities for Secondary Students packet, it’s one that I’ve done for the past few years, and I absolutely love it.

Let’s face it: high school students deal with so much more pressure than past generations have. Between social media and growing up a little too quickly, I think, perhaps, that it is actually more challenging to be a teenager now than it has ever been before –and that’s why I LOVE this Post Secret-inspired icebreaker.

I was first introduced to the Post Secret blog (and this activity) in a creative writing class in college. Every week this blog posts readers’ anonymous (and sometimes very deep, dark, or private) online (with permission –the secrets were sent in by their owners) for the world to see.

So, on the very first day of school, I say hello and hand out a notecard to every single student as they step through the threshold and enter my classroom. They probably think the notecard is for the typical name, address, parent contact information –and they couldn’t be more wrong. I tell them that I will be able to convince them to share their deepest secret with me, and that I’ll share it aloud in class. You should see their shocked faces!
Then, without telling my students the name of the blog, I explain the blog and show them a generic PowerPoint that I created using some of the recent (and more appropriate) Post Secret secrets.

You can download that PowerPoint for free here: Post Secret Icebreaker PowerPoint.

I explain to them that writing down a secret like this can be therapeutic and cleansing, and that it might make them feel better to get it out in the open. I also explain to them that by doing this exercise together as a class, we might actually learn that we are not alone and that other people in the class are going through what we are going through at the same time.

>>> Icebreaker Rules <<<
1. Students write down their deepest secret on the notecard.
2. Teacher collets notecards face down as students finish (without looking!).
3. Teacher includes his or her own real secret in the pile.
4.  Teacher tells students to keep track of how many secrets they can relate to.
5. Teacher reads all secrets aloud.
6. Teacher rips up secrets and throws them away.
7. Teacher asks students to raise their hands if they related to one secret, two secrets, three secrets, and so on.

If done correctly (and I cannot stress just how important following the rules is), this is a very powerful, emotional, and moving icebreaker. While we don't get to know quirky facts about each other on the first day, everyone in the room (teacher included) learns that we all have our strengths, weaknesses, and struggles. We all learn that we have more in common than we initially thought. We all learn to be a bit more empathetic.

Using Interactive Bookmarks for Novel Studies

When I teach novels in my classroom, I like to provide my students with a consistent routine that enables them to anticipate what we will be doing. In doing so, my students know what to expect work wise, and then they can focus more on understanding and analyzing the novels.
After introducing the novel to my students, I make sure I include these elements in all of my novel study units: vocabulary, comprehension questions, quote analysis, and writing tasks. As I plan each unit, I work from the end of the novel first. I look at the overall message and theme of the novel, and select my writing prompts (essays and mid-novel writing tasks). From there, I select the important quotes and passages to analyze, that way my less proficient students have additional exposure to quotes that can easily be incorporated into their responses and essays.
In order to include all of these elements into my novel unit instruction and provide consistency for my students, I teach every novel with foldable, interactive bookmarks. Each bookmark is printed (double-sided) on a single piece of paper and spans several chapters and includes novel vocabulary, comprehension questions, a space for students to keep track of a timeline of events, and a space for quotation analysis. There is actually quite a bit of work for the students to complete on each bookmark, but since we work on the bookmarks as we go, the workload is much more manageable for the students.
In my opinion, the most important part of the bookmarks is the quotation analysis section because this is where I can truly tailor the bookmarks to what I am working on with my students. When I have an upcoming writing assignment, I have my students look for and analyze quotes that will fit with that writing prompt. When I am working on a particular literary device with my students, I will have them look for and analyze an example of that particular device. If my goal is for my students to be able to identify how the author uses foreshadowing in the novel, I will ask my students to identify quotes that are foreshadowing and then explain how the quote is significant to the novel and to the audience's understanding of the novel.
The last thing I love about using the foldable and interactive bookmarks with all of my novel study units is that the students gain more from the novels when using them. My students understand the storyline more because in addition to answering comprehension questions, they are also writing their own timeline and finding quotes to analyze. Before quizzes and tests, my students frequently look over their previous bookmarks and use them as study guides.

Available Interactive Notebooks:

3 Things I Learned This Summer and How They Will Make Me a Better Teacher

For many of us, the upcoming school year is quickly approaching! As my summer closes, I have been gearing up for this fresh start. Shopping through Target, pouring over Pinterest, adding ideas to my Pinterest boards, creating new educational resources, and reconnecting with colleagues all help when transferring back into the teacher life!

Over Summer, I reflected in many ways. Learning to relax and remember why I love teaching so much. In addition, I revitalized how to be happy. Putting yourself first and ensuring your happiness reflects your teaching are all thoughts I worked on during vacation. I am so thankful I had this time to recover, but so excited for what lies ahead! After all, happy teachers have happy students.

To prepare for the year, I have thought about what changes I want to make. Color schemes, classroom setup, classroom rules and management, and overall colleague relationships! Noting what I wasn’t pleased with last year helps this process tremendously. With my last two weeks of vacation, I plan to investigate and research what might work best for my upcoming assignment. I also intend to expand my relations with colleagues. Not only do they offer great recommendations and ideas, they offer irreplaceable friendships inside and outside the workplace! Through all of my reflection, there are three things I’ve learned that will help me become a better teacher.

As I finish up this last stretch of my summer vacation, here are three things that I’ve learned:

  1. I know exactly what I want to improve this year for my new students. I want to work on providing more meaningful feedback to my students. To do this, I am going to grade less often...but when I grade, it will be with meaningful feedback that will help my students learn.
  2. I want to utilize my prep time more efficiently. Last school year some teachers commented on my Instagram page that they schedule out their prep time. I totally plan on doing that this new year. Two days will be for grading, two days will be for planning, and one day will be for classroom prep. I really feel this will help with time-management.
  3. It is okay to not have a picture-perfect classroom on the first day of school. This is one that I keep telling myself. I am less than three weeks away from having students in my room, and I have yet been able to step inside my new classroom. Decorating my room will be a work-in-progress, and that is perfectly okay. In fact, I am kind of excited to have my students help in the process.