Monday, December 31, 2012

13 for '13

I read somewhere a while back and maybe it was on Yahoo? an article from a very credible source that you should never make one big umbrella resolution to start off your New Year because they never pan out. Examples of Umbrella Resolutions include:

"I'm going to lose weight and not be fat anymore!"

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Film Score Activity: Using Music to Create Awesome Settings!


I'm a big fan of music in the classroom. A lot of this probably stems from the fact that I'm a music lover. I don't know know bands or song names, but I know what I like, and the fact is that I like most styles of music.

I'm a big believer in the universality of music. Music speaks to everyone in some way; it's a highly relatable medium. I'm always looking for ways to reach all of my students, and I think one of the best ways to do that is through music.

There is often music playing in my classroom, especially while my students are working solo or with partners. During less-than-exciting practice work (like grammar), I play a lot of rock and pop music, high energy pieces where the kids sing along. It's pretty awesome to see a classroom full of students who are 100% engaged, doing skill practice activities, and singing "Jack and Diane." During reading and writing, the music with lyrics goes away, but that doesn't mean that the fun goes away. Though I'm a big fan of classical music, it sometimes puts my students to sleep. I don't use ambient music either, because that will put me to sleep! Instead, I find lyrics-free stations on Pandora. I've got a couple of great stations that have alternative rock music without lyrics. It's high-energy music without the trouble of words.

Besides the everyday use of music in my classroom, though, I have devised several lessons that include music. The one I'm sharing today is the Film Score Activity, which is a lesson in creating realistic settings.

Lord of the Rings music in Radio City Music Hall
Preparing for the Lesson

1. Notes, classroom discussion, and activities about:
  • the three purposes of setting in literature
  • imagery and using sensory details
  • mood
(Need some inspiration? Email me or comment below if you want my PowerPoint presentation!)

2. Compiling the Music
Have you ever heard of Freeplay Music? Best. Website. EVER! (If you need free music without lyrics, that is.) Freeplay Music consists of production music that is perfect for this activity. It is also great for other classroom activities that might include making videos, presentations, soundtracks, etc. I also use it to find good music without lyrics! Go explore Freeplay Music.
For this activity, you want to choose five or so pieces of music that all have a different "feel" or mood. My favorites include:
  • Sir Robin of Locksley (epic/heroic/grand)
  • Explosion (foreboding/intense/sinister)
  • Ease Up (exotic/mysterious)
  • Warriors and Knights (adventure/action/cinematic)
  • Legend of the Piper (driving/urgent)
  • Tango vs. Tangle (simmering/spooky)  *NOTE: without a doubt, someone will think old West or a desert  :)
Download these pieces (the longest possible version is best) to your computer and cue them up for class.

The Lesson

Explain to students that they are going to use their new skills to create realistic settings. Oftentimes, in the making of movies, they apply the music after the scene has been created. Explain to the students that they will be working backwards. The objective is for students to listen to the music, paying careful attention to the mood of the music, and to build a film scene around the music.

My goal was for my students to create realistic settings based on the music, so before beginning we did a quick review of using sensory details to create the mood. I didn't want them to have a plot for the scene, just the setting, but I'm sure this would be awesome as a plot activity too!

I allowed ten minutes per piece of music/setting. I played the music (sometimes twice) and students created what they felt would be appropriate settings/movie scenes for the music, using lots of imagery and sensory details to reflect the mood of the music.

This lesson has been a huge success in my classroom. It's amazing to see what the kids come up with and just how imaginative they are. (I think one of my all-time favorites was the girl who created the grocery store "fight-for-the-last-Thanksgiving-turkey" scene using the music from Sir Robin of Locksley. Hilarious!)

I have a sick sense of humor.

Happy teaching (and writing)!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Creative Writing Activity That Every Student Loves

When I mention "The Box" to my students, they light up like kindergarteners in a room full of glitter. Is it a box full of goodies? Is it a game? Is it something that will get them out of homework? Nope.

It's a creative writing activity.

"You jest!" you might say, or "You're kidding me, right?" No jesting here. "The Box" is a creative writing activity that accomplishes three major tasks.

1. It requires the students to write a lot in a short amount of time.
2. It forces kids out of their writing comfort zone.
3. It impacts the way they think about writing within guidelines.

The crazy thing about this writing activity is that they like it. The students are engaged from beginning to end - even the non-writers - and then they talk about their writing after class. I wish I could always generate that kind of enthusiasm. I introduced this activity to my freshmen today (who are notoriously unenthusiastic) and it generated a great deal of conversation after class, in a very good way. It's fun to listen to students from different class periods discussing how they could have made their stories better or how they want to continue their writing. My sophomores were pretty jealous when they came in and saw "The Box" on the board for the freshmen.

Before I tell you about "The Box" I need to say right from the start that this is not my own original idea. This was a writing activity I did in one of my education classes in college, and I have used it since my student teaching days, always with great success.

It will be easier to explain "The Box" to you as if I was talking to you as a body of students. So, here we go.

Today we're going to do a creative writing activity called "The Box." That will be the assignment title on your paper. The purpose of "The Box" is to help you write quickly and to be a flexible writer. First, the rules. There are two rules for "The Box." Rule #1 is that you cannot ask for help from those around you. This is solely on your brain power. Rule #2, and this is the hard one, is that you cannot ask questions. Are you ready? Okay, the first thing you are going to do is write a story. This story can be fiction or non-fiction. You can base it off of something that happened to you over the weekend or your story can feature ninjas and dragons. It's entirely up to you. The only thing I insist on is that, early on, you need to have a box in your story. This can be any kind of box. It could be a shoe box, or a big cardboard box. It could be the box a present comes in. It could be a T.V., because once upon a time those looked like boxes. This room is a box, so maybe the box is a room. Or it could be a fish tank. So, you're going to write a short story about anything you like, but it must have a box. Okay. Go.

This is the point when hands often fly in the air, begging to ask how long the story should be, or if X counts as a box. I gently remind the students about the no questions rule and tell them to just go with their gut and keep on writing. I encourage them to "word vomit" all over the page and not worry about writing an ending right away.

Anywhere from seven to ten minutes into the activity, depending on how long it took the students to get started, I interrupt them.

Okay, guys, now you're going to keep writing that same story you've got going, but now you need to add a tree to your story.

This is the cue for the kids to look at me like I've completely lost my mind. Some of them say, "Oh!" and start writing madly because they know exactly how they are going to put a tree in the story. Some of them chew on the pencil, or stare deeply into space. Some of them get the silliest grins on their faces when they figure out a very clever way to incorporate a tree into the story. Since the goal is creativity, it might help to mention, "Don't forget, this doesn't have to be a regular old tree." That might help struggling students to think outside of the proverbial box, to think of "family trees" or "Christmas trees."

Five minutes later. You guys are doing great. Now, this time, you're going to add fire to your story.

And on it goes.

Depending on how long you want the activity to last, you can add just a few random items or you can throw many different things at them. It's important that the item isn't too specific to allow for maximum creativity. Some of the items we used today were:
- a box
- another box :)
- fire
- running water
- a tree
- a toad
- the color purple
- something sparkly
- a turtle
- a non-human creature

It's pretty amazing what the students can come up with during this activity, and no two stories are ever alike. I love this exercise because it helps students realize that they have a lot of individuality and creativity to offer a writing assignment.

On a side note, I use this activity when I work on my novel. I just have little slips of paper in a bag and I draw them out and add them to my writing to spice things up.

What do you think? What writing activities have you found to be successful in your classes?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Making Life Easier for You and Your Sub Part 2: Setting Up Your Classroom Before You Leave It

(This is the second post of a two-part series. Click here to read Part I.)

In all honesty, this picture definitely applies to my outside-of-school life, but woah, buddy, not my classroom! Okay... well... it gets kind of messy sometimes too, my desk in particular. I've been in some classrooms before, though, that strongly remind me of that second picture. Now, I don't judge because it's completely unfair to judge a teacher on how they keep their classroom based off of one visit. For all you know, some major catastrophe just happened in that room, like some kid used an apostrophe to indicate the plural form of a word (the nerve of that kid)!

This will make me cry more quickly than a Reese Witherspoon movie.
It's bad news bears, though, when a classroom is like that all the time, and it is really bad news bears when that is what a substitute teacher sees the moment they walk through the door.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Making Life Easier for You and Your Sub Part 1: The Sub Binder

Can someone please tell me what a Blimpie is and where I can find one? This looks yummy!

Substitute teachers either have the worst job in the world or the best. I've done my share of subbing and, from my personal experience, how the sub job goes really depends on the teacher for whom you are covering. It seems that the better prepared the teacher is for the absence, the better off the substitute will be. It's a rough day when you walk through the door and there are no seating charts, no rosters, no plans, and no pencils within sight. Now, please keep in mind that my subbing experiences were only in high school settings so I really have no idea what an elementary sub must go through. I imagine it's awful, but that's only because the thought of spending a day in an elementary school classroom makes me feel like this bear:

"Oh, God, help me!"

Monday, August 6, 2012

Back to School for the High School Teacher Part 3: The Well-Oiled Classroom Machine

*UPDATE (08-06-12) - The Back to School series consists of the following posts:
Part 1: The Sanity Saver
Part 2: The Classroom Website For the Super Busy Teacher
Part 3: The Well-Oiled Classroom Machine (you are here)
Special: The Student Edition

It's one thing for a teacher to be super organized (Part 1: The Sanity Saver). It's really great to make your classroom resources available 24/7 (Part 2: A Classroom Website for the Super Busy Teacher). But where does the majority of the learning take place? The classroom! No matter how perfectly you have organized your gradebook or how readily available homework assignments are, the majority of daily learning takes place in a classroom and you have to have a classroom that is interesting, organized, fun, and easily utilized. The classroom really is like a machine, or at least part of the big machine. If something doesn't work for you, it's going to slow down your productivity or even cause it to come to a grinding halt! Sometimes, mid-year, part of the machine quits working for you and you have to fix it. For the machine to work at peak performance, it needs to be properly constructed and well-maintained. Such is the classroom.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Back to School: The High School Student Edition (from a teacher's perspective)

*UPDATE (08-06-12) - The Back to School series consists of the following posts:
Part 1: The Sanity Saver
Part 2: The Classroom Website For the Super Busy Teacher
Part 3: The Well-Oiled Classroom Machine
Special: The Student Edition (you are here)

Actual Title: How to Make Your Year Suck Less

Hey, visiting high school student readers. Welcome to my blog. You will likely not give a crap about the majority of my blog posts since they are mostly really nerdy posts about cool things teachers like, but this... this is a wealth of information about making your year in high school suck less. This should particularly hit home for the freshmen.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Back to School for the High School Teacher Part 2: A Classroom Website for the Super Busy Teacher

*UPDATE (08-06-12) - The Back to School series consists of the following posts:
Part 1: The Sanity Saver
Part 2: The Classroom Website For the Super Busy Teacher (you are here)
Part 3: The Well-Oiled Classroom Machine
Special: The Student Edition

As I talked about last week (Back to School for the High School Teacher Part 1: The Sanity Saver), I've spent a great deal of my summer hunting for ideas to make the school year go more smoothly. Today's topic is one I had thought about doing for a while but I had never quite pulled it together. One of the classes I took in high school taught me how to use Adobe DreamWeaver to create web pages, and it was something I absolutely loved. I've always loved the idea of having a classroom website but I didn't really know the best way to go about doing this.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Back to School for the High School Teacher Part 1: The Sanity Saver

*UPDATE (08-06-12) - The Back to School series consists of the following posts:
Part 1: The Sanity Saver (you are here)
Part 2: The Classroom Website For the Super Busy Teacher
Part 3: The Well-Oiled Classroom Machine
Special: The Student Edition

I've had teaching on the brain since mid-July. I'm just as ready to get back to school next month as I was to get out in May. Even though this is my third year teaching I'm always looking for new ideas to make the year go more smoothly. I've been Pinning all summer and digging around for teaching blogs with cool classroom organization ideas. It seems like the majority of them, though, have been for elementary education. Those elementary educators really get into it, and I would love to see more blogs by high school teachers! One common element I've seen on many teacher blogs is the binder/teacher organization tool/daily organization tool/sanity saver. I've taken lots of different ideas, adjusted them to my personal needs, and created my own sanity saver that I'd like to share with you.
High School Teacher Daily Organizer