Category Archives: Strategies to Add Some Zip

Guest Post: Why I Want My Classroom To Run Like Zappos

I like shoes. Like many 20 something teachers, I want some variety in what I wear to 9d67eecb760e5f2da5199c53ffd5e85awork (heels, flats, boots, hand-painted Tom’s with Shakespeare’s quotes…) which means I’ve spent a lot of time perusing, purchasing, and inevitably returning some of those online shoe purchases. Hands down, their company is one of the easiest to return or exchange those shoes that don’t quite match that new blazer, I also bought online. All that aside, that isn’t why I want my classroom to run like their company.

For the last few years, Zappos has consistently shown up on the best places to work list. But why? This company has recently touted movement toward a “holacracy.”  This term, initially dubbed by the political writer, Arthur Koestler, focuses on the importance of individual autonomy and self-governance. Zappos prides itself on letting their employees be their own boss. Who hasn’t at one point or another dreamed of being their own boss?

Zappos’ move toward a holacracy is one that we’ve been slogging toward in the academic world for years. Author of multiple New York Times best-sellers and Ted-Talk Famous, Daniel Pink’s research on behavioral science, especially that on motivation, has verified what we as teachers have known for years; when we let the students be the boss, the quality of work often shows a shocking improvement in both output and originality.

Jumping on the Genius Hour bandwagon, with guidance from peers, I integrated this concept into my 12th grade English course. Once a week for twelve weeks, students researched and created a project that was their choice. In our district, people more powerful than me pushed for this concept to be a “real” part of our 12th-grade curriculum: the capstone of their high school experience. Through new curriculum development and alignment, this new course came to fruition. Relying heavily on Pink’s tenets for motivation, I’ve found that the level of work submitted to my “College Prep” English 12 classes often surpasses that of their Advanced Placement counterparts. Students have dazzled me by turning their ideas of starting a nonprofit organization into reality. Students who’ve written business plans for an online venture they want to begin in college.  Students who’ve created and launched their own drop-shipping companies and websites. Students who mastered specific aspects of Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawing style. Students who analyzed the psychology of repetition changing the neuroplasticity of brains. Students who completed a statistical analysis of data where they collected and disaggregated data on whether standardized test scores are representative of student GPA. Students who have designed and coded games of their own creation.

Students who don’t consider themselves “lovers of English” find success in this class. Students with special needs find success in this class. Why? Because, for once, they are their own boss.

Screen Shot 2018-07-01 at 10.53.17 AMWe start the trimester by exploring Pink’s research using excerpts from Drive and Dan Ariely’s book Payoff while also viewing Pink’s RSA Animate video. While my favorite part might be the Back the Future references, what we actually discuss are the ideas of companies like Skype, Wikipedia, and Atlassian. As a class, we dissect how each of these companies fulfills the concepts of purpose, autonomy, and mastery.

The conversation inevitably leads to the question: How are we going to do that in a class? From those big ideas (no, I don’t expect you to start a fully functional company), we scale back. What can students realistically complete in twelve weeks?

After brainstorming and project tuning, I become more of an instructor on educational pedagogy than the traditional English teacher. Each student is responsible for creating their individual learning plan and personal curriculum. Some days I slip on my curriculum boots and help kids write their own essential and guiding questions, explore (and explain) the Common Core State Standards, climb up Bloom’s Taxonomy and wade through Webb’s Depths of Knowledge. Students know these educational researchers and can articulate how their research and projects are fulfilling these expectations for curriculum. On other days, I tie on my English teacher tennis shoes and help students improve their research skills, encourage networking for action research, and determine the structure for research writing, revising, and editing.

Encouraged by the holacracy of their working environment, Zappos team members might set the record for longest and friendliest customer service calls. They might send you flowers when they make a mistake on your order. These employees go the extra mile not because they must, but because they want to.

In my classroom, I want students to go that extra mile: give an hour-long expert presentation on their learning, start a nonprofit, paint a mural in an impoverished community, teach their peers self-defense, create, design and 3-D print a new product. What does that mean for me as a teacher?

I compare it to watching my niece learning to tie her shoes. Even though it would be so much faster for me to tie her shoes for her, it is essential to explore the process and allow her to move at her own pace. Sometimes you’ve got to let her figure out if bunny ears or loop-swoop-and pull works best.

I want the same experience for my high school seniors. No matter the age, people learn best when they can be their own boss. Though it is easier said than done, we need to think about our identity as educators in an ever-shifting perspective. We need to continue to revise what it means to be a teacher. There are moments when you are needed to be the expert in English, literature, language and writing, but in a class that thrives on Genius Hour organization, you also have to accept that you are not the expert in every single avenue of research your students will take. As the teacher, you do your best to learn alongside your students and model what it means to be inquisitive and passionate about learning.  It takes time and a willingness on our part as educators to take a step back from being the “sage on the stage” and allow students to explore and engage in new content in a way that is meaningful to them.

Hayley McKinney is an English teacher in Birmingham Public Schools where she primarily teaches 10th and 12th grade English as well as public speaking classes.  She coaches forensic and debate in her spare time. She recently completed a Masters of Arts in Educational Leadership.

 

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Pop Up Peer Editing Lab

I am always striving to have students meet the standard for writing volume Kelly Gallagher challenges teachers to assign students.  Gallagher argues that students should be writing FOUR TIMES the amount that teachers are grading.  Between quick writes, timed essays for AP, work-shopped poems, creatives pieces, blog posts, reflections, and topic journals, you’d think we would all come pretty close to that ratio.  And I bet most of us are.

A colleague who teaches history has been striving to also be a teacher of literacy (YES!) which has lead to great conversations and collaboration.   In the fall, as his students were drafting research papers, he said, “How do you do it? I can’t give them all the feedback they need.”

I chuckled to myself, thinking of all the paper-management survival tactics we English teachers have.  Then it dawned on me–I have classes of talented, capable writers, why not allow my junior and senior students give feedback to lower classmen?  Wouldn’t that be another form of workshop writing?

Thus the Pop Up Peer Editing Lab was born in Room 20.

Thankfully my school is service-minded, so students readily agreed to be the outsourced editors for teachers.  I let teachers know that we, the English students in Room 20, would be happy to help revise and suggest edits on any writing as a way to improve our skills as writers and give back to our school community.  All we requested from teachers was a bit of turnaround time and paper copies (I know–paper! Who knew that is what these digital natives would prefer!  When asked, many students echoed the belief I likely share with many of you:  paper feedback is more authentic and creates connections).  To date, my students have edited lab reports, history research, art analysis, even middle school writing, in addition to what we do during our time together.

And you know what, it is actually easier DONE than said.  Yep, you read that right!

I think of the Pop Up Peer Editing Lab like a pop up restaurant or store around Chicago, opening when demand is high before closing to move on to a new location, during which demand increases again.  To make this happen, I frame 10-20 minutes, depending on the writing type and how many drafts we have, where I can in our workshop schedule.  Some days this counts for our writing mini-lesson or writing time if we are between class drafts.

As a community of writers, we begin by reviewing the actual assignment students received and the rubric which leads to us generating a list of essential “look fors” and suggestions we are likely all going to make.  To workshop writers, this is like a reverse-mentor text where students are thinking of what an exemplary draft would look like and contain based on the rubric.  After students edit, I merely give the annotated drafts back to the teacher. Voila! As a colleague, I am helping my peers become literacy teachers while my students are helping their peers become better writers.

Peer editing, as we know, helps student writers to develop writing and revision skills through a different lens, taking on the role of an editor and teacher of writing.  The Pop Up Lab has been a useful formative assessment of writing skills for my students because they need to understand the content to teach it through feedback.

 

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A Lab Editor’s suggestion to an ESL student which includes a notice of passive voice, something the Lab Editor Kelsey has been working on in her own writing.

Additionally, the Pop Up Lab edits have given me formative data about what students are noticing and the moves they’re making in their own writing to elevate it.  I often circulate multiple copies of the same draft, then compare the edits and note trends.  The trends help me determine mini lessons or concepts to review, as well as what is sticking with students from modeling and practicing in our notebooks.

We have played around with revision and editing using discipline-specific teacher rubrics, Kelly Gallagher’s RADaR model of revision from Write Like This, Bless-Press-Address from the NWP, Push & Pull, but many times students edit and suggest revisions based on our initial list and their own knowledge.  You could, of course, always ask teachers precisely what they want to get out of the outsourced feedback.  To build this community of peer editing, my upcoming goal is to collaborate on scheduling so my students and their peer writers can hold a conference, supporting talk around writing and revision while strengthening our writing community.

Would outsourced editing and revision suggestions work in your school?  How would you adapt this “pop up” college-style writing lab to suit the needs of your colleagues while challenging your students?

Maggie Lopez is almost done editing her English III, English IV, and AP Language & Composition students’ essays for the year, and just when she finally mastered reading each students’ timed essay handwriting.  Follow her as she moves to Salt Lake City to start a new adventure @meglopez0.

Multigenre Magic

Teacher goosebumps. We’ve all had them: students are focused, consulting their Writer’s Notebooks, talking to each other, incorporating what they learned into their writing. It’s what we live for. No moment in the academic year ever evokes this synchrony more than the multigenre project.

Defining Through Experience

Like my students, you might be wondering what multigenre is. I learned about multigenre during my first year of teaching when I attended a workshop with Tom Romano, the godfather of multigenre. Dr. Romano has since become a mentor and colleague and his work continues to inspire my students 15 years later. Shana 

When we begin our multigenre unit, students have, at best, a vague notion of the vocabulary, but no experience.

Before class begins, I conspire with one of the orneriest kids; today it’s Jamal. Together, we quickly whisper a plan. As students finish up their vocabulary quiz, I look to Jamal, eyebrows raised.

“Jamal! I just saw that. You cheated,” I accuse heatedly. Suppressing a smile, Jamal shifts to fake outrage. We verbally spar a bit, ensuring all students tune in. They’re used to firm classroom management. Today it’s different.

Channeling all my inner drama queen, I huff and puff and toss my ID badge and keys to the floor. “Guess, what? I’m done!” I proclaim as I storm out of the door.

I wait a beat. Then before students can get too excited, I burst back in the door and high-five Jamal. Students are confused, excited, hyped. “You’re trying to figure it out, right? Well, before we talk about it, let’s write about it.”

Students grab their Writer’s Notebooks (WNB) as I pass out notecards. On each notecard is a genre of writing with which my students are familiar: Facebook post, text message conversation, letters, among them.

And students write. For three minutes their pens flow and they capture all the nuances — the questions, the perspectives, the layers. We share writing. We collaborate. We grow as a community.

“We’ve just created a multigenre,” I explain and share Romano’s definition of multigenre.Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 2.31.22 PM

Multigenre Tasting

Once we define multigenre, the next step is to immerse ourselves in mentors. Using past projects, as well the ones I’ve curated at Multigenre Library, we participate in a multigenre tasting. We create lists of the qualities of multigenre, as well as a rubric and checklist for this kind of writing. After establishing guidelines, students go back to their notebooks and explore their writing territories, finding compelling topics.

Mini-lessons

The bulk of the time for this unit is spent workshopping, conferencing, writing. We spend time in three main ways:

  1. Genre minilessons
  2. Research minilessons
  3. Revision minilessons

In genre mini-lessons, I stand firmly on Katie Wood Ray’s shoulders, knowing that asking my students to notice things in a piece of text is the key to them reading like writers. So, when we are going to try a new genre, we start by looking at examples of that genre. We make a list of rules/guidelines for that kind of writing and then we write about our own topic. Together we explore double voice poems, recipes, and open letters. Katie wrote about one of my favorite genres to explore in this post last month.

Once students have tried out lots of different ways of writing, from lots of different perspectives, we talk about incorporating research into their writing in a purposeful way. Whether students are writing about personal topics, or more traditional research subjects, they need to know how to add a layer of research because it deepens the writing and builds their own knowledge.

I began to save the research step until later in the process after they’d generated plenty of writing about their topics. They write a bit, then conduct research, then weave that research into writing that already exists. This approach has cut down on plagiarism. More importantly, it’s made the writing and the research more authentic.

Publishing & Assessment

Next students publish. We discuss how important it is to remember that their writing is the engine of the multigenre project. A beautiful presentation falls flat if the writing doesn’t show evidence of craft. This is an English class, after all. Students conference with me and with each other about ways they might present their work. Some choose digital platforms, others create scrapbooks.  

 

I have tried many approaches to assessing student learning within this unit. I used to have a rubric that was so detailed you’d need a magnifying glass to read it (which means nobody actually read it). Now I use a simple rubric, one we create together. Students must have a certain number or pieces, and write in a set number of genres. There needs to be passion and voice. Mostly, though, I focus on feedback. I make notes on post-its and stick them on pages where their voice soars, where images pop. The assessment has already happened through conferencing and workshopping. In the end, we focus on celebrating the work and how far they’ve come.

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, working with teachers in all grade levels to move kids as readers and writers. She’s getting ready to introduce multigenre to 150 freshman next week while covering a 3-week sub position. She might be a little crazy (but also really excited).

Eulogy writing as a way to employ rhetorical strategies

I find myself like I am sure many AP teachers do, searching for ways, strategies, assignments, etc. where students can apply the writing styles and tools in new ways that expand beyond the timed essay.  My students are developing the shift in mindset that is required for rhetorical analysis, shifting away from evaluating what was said to how it was said.  

During our culminating discussion of Into the Wild, students had divergent views on Chris McCandless–some students sympathized with his quest and others believed him reckless and arrogant (this later made for an amazing debate!).  The seminar shifted to discussing all of those that Chris’ choice to go into the wilderness, and death, impacted his parents, beloved sister, and those he met along his journey.  It was a student’s question, How do you think his parents felt going back to the bus?  Which  led us to consider those Chris left behind and what they would want to say to him.  

As Louise Rosenblatt discovered decades ago, the merit of a text for adolescents often lies in the connection a student has with the book (read more about a modern take on Rosenblatt’s transactional theory here and here).  Students want to connect with texts in meaningful ways, through their own experiences, beliefs, and preferences.  We want readers to have emotional reactions no matter what they’re reading, be it poetry, fiction, or nonfiction.  My students identified with Chris, his loving sister, or his longing parents.  Some students understood his adolescent need for adventure and freedom while others argued he had a duty to his family.

Tasking students with writing a eulogy for such a polarizing person seemed an ideal way for students to employ their rhetorical techniques as writers while defending their view of Chris.

Prior to letting them loose to write, we examined and discussed eulogies from famous people to use as mentor texts.  Our readings ranged from Bill Clinton’s eulogy of Richard Nixon to Amy Winehouse and Steve Jobs.  Through these mentor texts, students discussed how tone is established and reveals the relationship to the deceased individual, even the eulogist’s feelings towards the person, as well as the features of a eulogy.  From reading a range of eulogies, students came to their understanding that quality, emotional eulogies often employ a variety of appeals, noting that rhetorical techniques are for everyday use–yes!  There IS a use for these skills outside of the Language and Composition classroom, beyond the exam!

After students felt comfortable with the format, I assigned the eulogy and students selected the character they would become during their eulogy.  Then the writing and revision process took hold!

A powerful last step was for students to annotate their draft to identify and discuss the purpose of the devices they employed, like a reflective rhetorical analysis of their choices as a writer.  This was key to moving students towards understanding why writers make the moves they do.  Then, we delivered them to develop speaking skills in a low stakes setting and have the opportunity to hear rhetorical strategies used.

 

Two student samples through various perspectives with their annotations:

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While this assignment was made for Into the Wild and specifically for Chris McCandless, the assignment could easily be modified for any text studied as a class or independently. Consider how the ending of The Great Gatsby would change if Nick delivered a eulogy. What would Daisy have said, with or without Tom in the audience?  What would Hannah’s classmates who received a cassette in 13 Reasons Why have said to memorialize her?   

This eulogy allowed me to assess students’ character understanding, a way for students to apply their rhetorical knowledge, as well as a low stakes way to practice speaking, all while synthesizing perspectives in the text.  Did I mention squeezing in a little rhetorical practice for the upcoming exam?  I also think students were able to sort out their views on Chris through the persona they took on, adding an invaluable transactive quality to their analysis. 

Maggie Lopez teaches juniors and seniors in Chicago, but is looking forward to a new adventure in Utah for the next school year.  Currently, she is working through her personal reading list of An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews.

My Students Teach Me 5 Strategies To Use Today…and So Much More

You know, growing up, I didn’t have very many female friends.

Teenage girls are a difficult species, and when I was one, I was sensitive, shy, and pretty happy to stay solitary. Frankly, I found my middle and high school peers a little scary, and a lot intimidating. I happily read books in lieu of having girlfriends–or boyfriends, come to think of it.

But, since teaching is a very female-dominated profession, I’ve been unable to avoid working with women on a daily basis.

And I am so thankful for that.

Becoming a teacher has taught me a great many things, but one of the most beautiful things it has brought me are so many amazing friendships with strong, intelligent, passionate, driven women. Women like my Three Teachers Talk sisters Amy and Lisa; women like my work friends Marissa and Elaine; women like my college-level colleagues Audra, Sarah, and Sharon; women like my college classmates Maggie and Caitlin.

img_0076And for the past two years, as I have worked with preservice teachers of all content areas and grade levels, my students have been almost exclusively female. These ladies embody girl power as they work through the stringent requirements of our program and navigate the emotional ups and downs of their first days of teaching.

This weekend, I was so lucky to get to chair a presentation by five of my secondary English teachers, in which they shared a successful strategy they’d used in their classrooms. As I watched them confidently lead a room full of English teachers through activities and questions, I felt both like a proud mama and their soul sister.

My kids have come of age, and have joined our teacher tribe.

img_0077At our WV ELA State Conference, Elizabeth, Brittany, Sarah, Victoria, and Rachel shared one each of their tried-and-true strategies with participants.

  • Elizabeth shared her brilliant “I Wish I Could Have Said” notecard idea, in which her students jot down ideas they never got to share in whole-group discussion, partner talk time, or in writing. Elizabeth collects their cards periodically and responds in a variety of ways. Her handouts are here.
  • Brittany shared a critical literacy activity she uses for either reading or writing in which her students read a given text through a specific lens. She scaffolds this activity to be as simple as reading for sensory details, or as complex as reading through the lens of postmodernism. You can view her handouts here.
  • Sarah shared an activity in which she staged a murder scene in her classroom, having her students evaluate the scene like detectives in order to craft claims and support them with specific details. She used this as a lead-up to her argument writing unit. Her handouts are here.
  • Victoria shared how she brings games into the classroom to help her middle school students practice democratic curricula and choice. After they work through a game, they craft a product that narrates their experience in multiple genres. You can see Victoria’s handouts here.
  • Rachel shared a post-it note strategy in which her students wrote in pairs in response to a specific question or prompt she gave. Then, she’d conference with students about the given topic, using their post-it as an artifact, providing multiple opportunities for students to think through and revise their responses. She shared how this could work as a brainstorming activity, pre- or post-assessment activity, or spin on a quickwrite.

As I reflect on all these young women have taught me over their past two years in my cohort, I am struck by how much more than just their educational wisdom they have unknowingly shared with me. They’re full of great ideas and effective strategies, but they’re also full of strength, humor, perseverance, compassion, and joy.

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Young educators can teach us so much. Let this be a lesson to listen not only to their fresh-from-college, research-based ideas, but also to be inspired by their energy, optimism, and idealism. The success of our profession depends on them, and our students will soon be in their capable hands.

And, if you’re open to learning…you never know what they might teach you.

Shana Karnes is thankful to teach at West Virginia University, where she works with preservice teachers in the College of Education. She is the mom of two-year-old and five-month-old daughters and wife of an orthopedic surgical resident. Find Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Champions Finish Strong

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About this time, every year, I begin to feel that itch, that urge to chuck everything I’m working on right now and start planning for next year. Maybe it’s the feeling of spring in the air, but I always find myself frustrated with how I spent my time this year and wanting to start fresh and clean for next year. So, as I move into test review mode, I begin my wish list for this year and vow to do better in August. It goes something like this:

     I wish that I had conferenced more…next year I’ll conference and here’s how…

     I wish that I had done a better job with writer’s notebooks…next year those notebooks are going to be cute and organized and here’s how…

     I wish that I had frontloaded this idea more in August….next year I’m going to frontload so hard and here’s how…

     I wish that I had taught this title instead or offered more choice here…next year I’m going to revamp every lesson plan and here’s how…

I think it’s pretty easy to recognize the “I wish” road as a treacherous one to travel down. But, honestly, for me, that urge to start planning for next year in the middle of this year is the real danger.

See, all of the end of the year countdown clocks act as siren songs, pulling me into the excitement of planning for a new school year: new pens (because they help me plan better), PD books (I’m starting with 180 Days), Google Folders (because I’m nerd, this will never not make me happy). I’m getting antsy just thinking about it.

And so I find myself eased into bright, happy, shiny thoughts about how perfect next year will be. I look forward to the excitement of a brand new group of students, of a summer spent immersing myself in practice, of all of the hope a new year of school brings.

And I know these are dangerous waters. I also coach volleyball, and, in that context, I would immediately recognize this behavior as problematic. Whenever my team thinks about Tuesday night’s game before Monday night’s game, we have a rough night. We can’t think about the district tournament in October until we’ve handled August. I would put a clamp on that kind of thinking right away on the court. And so, I’m realizing I also have to lock down my mid-April urges to plan for next year.

Why?

Because, in a nutshell, champions finish the way they start.

I think we have to approach the end of the year the same way we started it – fired up, focused on the tasks at hand, bringing that same excitement and hope and enthusiasm to each LONG day of testing and test prep. Don’t our students sitting in our classrooms right now deserve that? Don’t they deserve to know that we’re happy to see them each day they enter our classrooms, not counting down the days until they leave? Don’t they deserve more than filler? Don’t we deserve to be present in the moment, enjoying where we are right now in our journeys together?

But what is there to be excited for during testing season?

Great question. I teach in TN – testing has been… rough… this week.

However,  I’m particularly excited about three activities between here and our AP Lang and Comp test. These are pretty common activities among AP Language teachers, so I’m not presenting anything new here or even my own ideas (good teaching is good stealing according to Harry Wong), but sharing some ideas that have worked for me. They are tried and true ways to keep students involved, interested and invested on this downhill dash to the test:

1. Rhetorical analysis – Role playing. We’re currently role playing as Abigail Adams writing a letter to her son John Quincy. Students pair up (one is Abby, the other is a dear friend there to offer advice) and craft a letter to her son, encouraging him to take advantages of all of his opportunities. Then we read and analyze her actual letter to him. This is a pretty common AP lesson, but it’s new to this class. The simple act of role playing really deepened our discussion of rhetorical analysis and provided lots of AHA moments along the lines of “You’re right! She DIDN’T sit down and think ‘I need four rhetorical questions and one use of asyndeton. She thought about her large and small goals and worked from there!’” Students left with a better understanding of what to notice in a RA and how to organize their essay around ideas instead of devices. Surprisingly, these letters also showcased an almost aggressive level of voice. It was productive and fun – the perfect way to spend a test prep day.

Here are some examples culled from today’s writings.

 

  1. Synthesis – Pinwheel discussion. Again, more role playing. Students jigsaw a few short texts related to a topic and then come to a center table to discuss a single question in front of the whole class. They are encouraged to identify the attitude of the author and then converse with that attitude as that author. Unsurprisingly, they really get into it. The activity has them intentionally synthesizing  multiple perspectives on the fly and on their own in front of an authentic audience, reinforcing the idea of synthesis as conversation and elaboration.

3. Argument  – Speed dating. Five to six thought-provoking prompts are posted on the board one at a time. Students have four or five minutes to brainstorm claims, evidence, organizational structures and a theses. We whip around the room, sharing insights and approaches, curating a list of universal nouns or excellent pieces of evidence, creating ideas that students can tuck away in their back pockets before the test. I love this activity. There’s such great community in the sharing of ideas while also mimicking the time crunch of the written portion of the test.

Hopefully, none of the ideas feel like test prep. Hopefully, it’s just more learning. Hopefully, we find ourselves excited to be in English, fully present in the moment, enjoying our productive time together. The thoughts and ideas for next year can percolate until the end of May.

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She plans on watching two episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for Friday’s Film as Lit lesson. She realizes how very lucky she is that this falls under the category of  “Something She Gets To Do At Her Job For Money!!!!” She tweets at @marahsorris_cms.

March Madness – A Book Bracket that Breaks a Few Rules

As I write this post, I can’t help imagining what it will feel like at this time Thursday night when I am up to my eyeballs (finally) in all things Spring Break. I’m envisioning an episode of This is Us, an adult beverage, and perhaps some Easter candy the bunny just won’t get a chance to deliver. Maybe I’ll throw caution to the wind and rent a movie, stay awake for the entire thing, and put extra butter on my popcorn. Don’t try and hold me back, friends – I’m going to let ‘er rip. This girl is going to calorically navigate every day of this vacation.

Because let’s face it, sometimes we need to break the rules and revel in what feels good. Sometimes we need to abandon the stress, irritation, and seemingly endless march of…March.

Sometimes we need to break the rules.

Now I know, if I were you, I would be reading on in great anticipation of a reflective post that smacks at the very heart of pushing aside what’s prescribed and going instead with the deeply personal, life-altering, philosophy-bending, workshop work that fuels lives rich in reading, writing, and empathetic connections across our school communities.

Well…did I mention I am only four class periods away from vacation? 344 total class minutes. 18 total hours on the clock. 27 miles there and back to my nice warm bed. Dozens of warm smiles and well wishes for a well-deserved break to all my lovely students and colleagues.

Some will voyage to lands far and wide. Some will go on great adventures.

I will gladly go to my couch. My brain is fried.

 

As such, I wanted to share with you my experience with a March Madness Book Bracket, in the hopes that if you haven’t tried this yet, you’ll consider it for next year, or even better, you will ditch the March Madness component and just create your own Book Battle for April or May of this year to stir up passions around the current favorite titles in your classroom.

Personally, this idea came from two places:

  1. A random picture I saw on Twitter at some point that highlighted the excitement around a classroom book battle.
  2. March Madness Hoopla (punny is as punny does) here at Franklin High School.

Our school is blessed with a great number of hugely passionate, committed, and just all around awesome teachers and administrators across the building. This past month, Franklin saw the advent of our annual March Madness school-wide event. The incomparable Pat Gain, AP Environmental Science teacher to the stars, organizes an extravaganza the brings the whole school together in excitement, friendly competition, and support of Franklin’s Relay for Life and Best Buddies. Students earn raffle tickets for possible school spirit, teams organize to battle it out on the court, and the entire school gathers for a pep rally to watch the championship games and other fun at week’s end. This year, it inspired me to jump on the bandwagon and create a book bracket in my room.

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After the fact, I found this awesome March Madness Book Bracket that includes book trailers, printable brackets, a bracket reveal video, and the wherewithal to organize it all way ahead of time and share it so classes across the world can vote. You can vote in their championship matchup between The Hate You Give and Scythe right now! These people have t-shirts. It’s legit.

Meanwhile, I’ll be over here with my humble pie and share with you what I did and what I want to try to do for next year.

First, a disclaimer. I said I broke rules. I did. But it still worked.

  • There was no actual bracket to fill out.
  • I don’t know a lot (enough, much, anything) about basketball.
  • My bracket had no actual lines.

But it all worked out. Check it out below.

Mrs. Dennis March Madness Book Bracket 2018…

  1. Each of my classes did a quick write on their favorite read so far this year. We chatted after writing, reminisced about great books, added to our “I Want to Read” lists, and then put some titles up on the board. Over the course of a few days, the suggestions for awesome books grew, and I picked 16 that represented the most consistently raved about and most passionately advocated for in each class.
  2. I matched up the books somewhat appropriately in logical pairings. Two classics up against one another. Two historical fiction texts. Two books in verse. Etc.
  3. I printed images of the book covers for each title and set up a rudimentary book bracket on the back wall.
  4. A Google Form shared on Google Classroom gave my students the opportunity to vote in any/all of the matchups they felt compelled to vote for. I also shared this Google Form with other members of the English Department and encouraged them to share the link with their students and to vote for their own favorites.
  5. After the initial matchups, I was left with eight books in illogical pairings, so I had students vote for their top four choices one week, their top two the next, and now we’ve arrived at Championship Week.
  6. Before voting each round, students lobbied for the books they felt should move on to the next round. Which were the most worthy of advancing? Which changed student thinking? Which were the page-turners? It was awesome to hear kids going to the mat for their choices, and even when their favorites lost, they continued to try and sway people to still give the book a try. It did make it to the Big Dance after all.

Franklin March Madness Book Bracket Every Year From Now On…

  1. Start the whole process earlier. Give students a chance to pick up a book or two from the bracket and add fuel to the fire of how many kids have a book in the race.
  2. Complete actual brackets for some random and cheap prizes from my Kelly Gallagher-inspired Bag of Fun Crap.
  3. Random pairings. I love the idea from the link above to let the chips fall where they may and let books battle au natural. This eliminates my perceived issue of illogical matchups. Brackets are made to be busted!
  4. Measure twice, cut once. My book covers were almost too big. I had to move furniture! The hallway may be a more appropriate space and would promote the matchups to a wider audience as well.
  5. My pithy neighbor Brandon suggested that tape between the matchups would make it look a lot more like an actual bracket. Touché.
  6. Expand the empire and work to involve more students, more grade levels, more opinions, more passionate pleas for books to advance. More. Madness.

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My March needed a bit of madness and I look forward to doing it again next year. Though we didn’t have any actual brackets to fill out ahead of time, or league sanctioned seeding, or even actual matchups past the first round, the results involved a whole lot of passionate talk and writing around books.

When students hustle in the room to see which books are winners, as opposed to hurridly taking one last glance at their phones before the bell rings, I consider it a slam dunk.

(He he…told you I needed a vacation).

Our bracket is down to The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Which one would be your winner? Which books could go the distance with your classes this year? Please leave your comments below!


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her knowledge of basketball is limited, but her support of underdogs is fierce. Let’s Go, Loyola! Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum. 

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