Saturday, March 23, 2013

Celebrating Spring Break the Only Way I Know How

It's Spring Break, kids!
I thought it would never get here! All day yesterday, I was like this.
The kids were like, "Umm... what is wrong with you?" And I was all, "Ummm... what is wrong with you? It's Friday, it's the last day of school before Spring Break, we had a pep rally featuring band kids and talent show kids, of all things, and I got to wear jeans, Chucks, and an IU shirt to school! What could possibly be better than that?!"
And then today happened, and it's been better than yesterday.
I feel like you should know that never once in my life have I gone on vacation during Spring Break. My family was definitely not the vacationing type when I was younger, and it's only been in recent years that my parents are all "Hey, vacations! Cruises! Empty nest! Boo yah!" Whatevs.
Sooo... I am celebrating my Spring Break the only way I know how.
I slept in until 10:00 a.m. It was incredible.
I spent the morning (what I had left of it) doing my workouts (ahem... for the first time in... a while...), playing with my puppy, and reblogging stuff on Tumblr. Hey, did you know I'm on Tumblr?
I went to the grocery and took my time about it because I didn't have ten million other things to do when I got home like I do most weekends. (CONFESSION: I love going to the grocery. It soothes my Type A personality and my OCD to have complete control over what kind of groceries enter my cart and, therefore, my house. I also kind of love organizing my grocery list and following my happy little route through the store without my husband - whom I love and adore - getting distracted and running off to an aisle that we aren't supposed to go to yet! Yes, I'm a freak. I know this and I embrace this.)
I got Taco Bell for lunch!! I freakin' love Taco Bell. I completely understand that it makes no logical sense for a person to enjoy eating Taco Bell, and I know it's a far cry from healthy, clean eating, but I love it anyway. I got those cheesy gordita things and fiesta potatoes. Delightful. You know what will make you want Taco Bell too? This awesome gif. It's a Taco Bell commercial. Rumor has it that it's from 1978. Was Taco Bell even around in 1978?
I also got to go to the library for the first time in I'm not sure how long. The library has just about the same hours that I have. It was pretty amazing to see some of the new books they have! I was in the teen fiction section (don't judge me... I'm reading those books for work, obviously...) and every time I saw a new book I was all excited. Probably like this little guy watching fireworks.
*happy sigh*
I love Spring Break better as an adult than I ever did as a kid. Now excuse me while I go play Skyrim and drink more Monster Energy drinks.
Hey, teachers, what are you doing for Spring Break? Do you love Spring Break like I do? (I bet I know the answer...)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Vocabulary Blues Part II: A Slowly Evolving Solution

This is the second part of a two-part post. Part I can be found here.

Yesterday, thanks to the suggestion from my reader kSm, I delved into the problem of teaching vocabulary. I mentioned that my fellow English 10 teacher in my building and I have started switching things up in order to prepare our students for the imminent ECA. One of the areas we decided we really needed to work on was vocabulary.

This bit of research, presented at the Smekens conference I attended (though I don't recall from whence it originally came), blew me away.

The average student requires fourteen exposures to a word before it becomes part of their vocabulary. The struggling student may require as many as forty exposures.

It is no damn wonder that my pitiful vocabulary units were not working. My students probably weren't getting more than five real exposures to each of those words.

After coming back from the literacy conference we had several ideas on how to spruce things up. Here are some things we're currently doing:

1. Right now, we've dropped our Sadlier-Oxford vocabulary books for the next eight weeks or so. Those books will be less than useful in this ECA preparation process.

2. We have developed our list of thirty core content words that our students must know to succeed on the ECA and to be well-prepared for the world of English 11. We will be strongly focusing on this list. (Our list includes words like protagonist, antagonist, author's purpose, allegory... and it also includes test-taking words like analyze, evaluate, and define.)

3. We are dedicating every Monday for the next eight weeks to learning core vocabulary.

4. We have already given a vocabulary pre-test to determine which core words our students are very comfortable with and which words are going to require some work.

5. On Tuesdays, when we work on reading comprehension, we doing a lot of work with incidental vocabulary and the use of context clues to determine what unknown words mean. This is a pretty large part of the ECA.

This is an evolving process, and it's going to take some time to get things right. I think, though, that we are on the right track with this.

Based on this approach and how well it works, I hope to implement some of these things in all of my classes from Day One of the 2013-2014 school year. I'm working on my personal list of improvements for teaching vocabulary in my classes. Here's what I've got so far:
  • Don't completely get rid of the Sadlier-Oxford books, but use them differently. I like the idea of using them to beef up student writing, to help them make better word choices in their own writing. I do not want to ever go back to using it the way I have the last two years.
  • Develop the core vocabulary list for my English 9H class and start working on that early. We've got to get a minimum of fourteen exposures in for each of those words!
  • Take time at the beginning of the school year to teach the eight types of context clues. Though it might slow things down to begin with, I believe this will ultimately be a major time saver and I think kids will feel less intimidated by outside reading if they know they will be able to figure out incidental words when they run into them.
  • Do more vocabulary work within our reading units. Instead of giving brief explanations of words or terms as we run into them, get the kids more involved in the process.
  • Keep a vocabulary notebook in our class binders. (*NOTE: I'm still working on a template that I like for this... stay tuned to see what develops!)
  • Use more vocabulary strategies. Work books and packets are so boring, for me and for the kids!
I plan to write about vocabulary again in the future, as I see how things develop and try out some new ideas.

Do you have a foolproof vocabulary plan or are you singing the vocabulary blues with me? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Vocabulary Blues Part I: The Problem

I think teachers middle school and up (and maybe younger... I don't really know...) can relate to the woes of teaching vocabulary at all different grade levels and in all content areas.

I can recall my own student experiences with learning vocabulary from sixth grade on, and I can tell you that there was never really anything to write home about about which to write home... (cliche vs. grammatical correctness... FIGHT!) During my middle school years, we had these vocab workbooks from Sadlier-Oxford. I would imagine many American English teachers have seen this vocab work book before.


For those that are unfamiliar with this book, each unit begins with a list of twenty or so vocabulary words with the part of speech, pronunciation guide, and (until you get to upper echilons of the series) it also includes the definition, right there next to the word. Each unit then has a Completing the Sentence activity, Synonyms activity, Antonyms activity, and a Matching activity, all of which I'm not really crazy about. Even now, as a third year English teacher and college graduate thank you very much, I still have to occasionally check the answer key because the wording in these activities is pretty much atrocious. The irony of poor wording in a vocabulary book is not lost on me. The book also comes with its own versions of tests, which I personally never use. I'm a book test hater.

In high school, our English teachers used this very same workbook as a source for words, but we didn't actually do the workbook activities. We just made a daily vocab card and had a vocab test every Friday. Depending on the level of the course, those Friday tests may have been cumulative and you may have also learned about the word roots. My 12th grade English teacher, whom I admired fiercly and still blame for my chosen career path,  quite frankly could not have given two shits about "teaching vocabulary" At least not this style of vocabulary. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The only non-English teacher I had who really emphasized the importance of vocabulary was my Biology II teacher, who was a word roots fiend. We had massive lists of word roots to memorize for that class, along with chapter-specific vocabulary. Many of my other science and history teachers were just like, "Okay, the definition of this bolded word can be found here. It means this. Moving on." While they were all, with a few exceptions, excellent teachers, they just didn't feel the need to really hit on the importance of the content vocabulary.

I never met a math teacher in my time in high school who was worried about the course's vocabulary. Which sucks. Because I'm a words person and, in retrospect, I think I would have been much more successful in math classes if I'd been given some words to help me out. Whatevs.

I will honestly say that I did not teach vocabulary my first year of teaching. I was too busy treading water in the Atlantic while watching my ship sink. (For more information about the first year of teaching, why don't you take a look at this post?)

Then I came to my current school and was completely dismayed to see those same Sadlier-Oxford Vocabulary Workshop books, and I was a little disgruntled to learn that I actually had to use the damn things. So I did the thing I knew how to do... I assigned each kid one of those books and attempted a vocabulary unit every other week or so. Oh yeah... and the books couldn't leave my classroom due to an extremely high incidence of cheating with these books (the answers are easily found online) which meant that all vocabulary work could only be done during class time. There for a while, I was spending three out of every ten classroom days on these vocabulary work books. It was one of the worst forms of learn-it-and-forget-it you can imagine, and it was sucking up very precious class time. I hated it, the kids hated it, their vocabulary scores were unimpressive to say the least, and there was exactly zero educational value to this system. I cringe to think of it.

Up until a few weeks ago, my system this school year has not been much better. This year, instead of giving my kids the book and saying, "Okay, go!" for the next three days, we have been doing daily vocabulary cards similar to what I did back in high school. Since there are twenty words a unit, it takes about four weeks to get through the unit's words, and then we still do the same song and dance of workbook activities (two days) and a test (one day). I think the cards have helped maybe a little, except for the fact the kids lose them over this four week span because there is no value placed on these cards. They just do not care and if I've learned anything over the past three years, it's that you have to figure out a way to make the kids care, even if it's just for a short period of time, and even the most diligent honors students will lose interest in this God-awful vocabulary system very quickly.

Then, a few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to go to a Smekens Literary Conference for two days and she dedicated an entire day to the teaching of vocabulary. I did a bit of complaining in this post about how long that day was, but I was definitely able to gleam some very important ideas that my fellow English 10 teacher and I are starting to incorportate as we prepare our students for the ECA.

Want to know what we're doing? Come back tomorrow for Vocabulary Blues Part II: A Slowly Evolving Solution.


P.S. - A big thanks to my reader kSm for suggesting this topic! I'm sending you many internet cat hugs.
Do you have a topic you would like for me to cover? Feel free to leave a comment or email me at stephanie (at) eatwriteteach (dot) com!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Teacher Fail Confession

Confession... I'm in my classroom... for the second time this weekend... completely surrounded by papers that need to be graded... but here I am.

Okay, to be fair to myself, I'm just taking a little brain break for the first time today.

Being completely unfair to myself, I was totally dumb and decided to have sixty-five research papers and seventy three-part Romeo and Juliet tests all due immediately before the end of the third quarter.

You know what's dumber than that? This is the second year in a row that I've done this to myself.

I call that a teacher fail.

Anyone else have a total fail they want to share?? It would make me feel lots better as I bash my head against my desk.