There are a lot of weird days in teaching. And I’m not talking about the weird days like when a 9th grader eats an entire rose on Valentine’s Day, and then asks if he can go to the restroom and puke. True story. #studentteaching.
I’m talking about the days that come after your students have finished a big research paper and everyone is exhausted. Or it’s a short week or a shortened class period. Or you really don’t want to launch into The Great Gatsby on the same Friday as a school assembly (back when those were allowed), so maybe you’ll wait until Monday. But then what do you teach on this day? Those are the in between days I’m talking about.
So, here are five go-to ideas for those in between days, or even just a Tuesday.
1.) Circle Stories
I consider circle stories a highly under rated tool for the high school English classroom.
What They Are:
Once students are in groups of four, each student starts his/her own story, then after five minutes passes it to the person to his/her right. That person adds to the story, then passes it to the person on his right, and so on, until the story has made its way to all group members. I usually let the person who started the story finish it.
I also like to give students a few "story starter" ideas on the board, which is essentially the first sentence or two of a story. They can use these if they need to, but they don't have to.
If there’s a worldwide pandemic going on that causes students to learn virtually, or if you can’t pass papers around, you can do the same thing, but students will type on a google document and then share it virtually with the person next to them at the end of the 5 minutes. If students are 100% virtual, you might need to do a little prep in putting students in groups and instructing them about the order in which they will share their stories.
What I love about circle stories:
Every single student is engaged the entire class period, you hear the kids’ laughter, and they get to practice writing in a completely low stakes situation.
Once students have read their original story take an extra few minutes to do the following:
- Have students go through the story they started and underline three vivid verbs they see.
- Have them circle the two strongest adjectives that were used.
- Have them put a box around one specific noun.
- Have them highlight the single best sentence in the entire story (and be sure they’re ready to tell you why it’s the best sentence).
Volunteers can then choose to share either their entire story (which a surprising amount will want to do, in my experience) or they can share that one great sentence that they highlighted.
2.) Choice Reading
What It Is:
Let your students read whatever book they want for the entire class period. I did say book. I know that technically reading a bunch of articles is reading, but I like to use these days to encourage students to stick with a text for more than three minutes. It’s a challenge and a skill that needs to be developed in our current world. I’m a reader and have been reading for like 36 years or something and I now struggle to sit with a text for more than 12 minutes. It’s the times we live in. So give your students a chance to practice developing their attention in this way.
If they need breaks to walk around or stretch, sure. Do it. But really encourage them to stick with a single text for the duration of your class period (this can be a great thing to do on those shortened class periods).
Why I Love It:
Typically students don’t get enough time in their lives to read, so a day of choice reading can truly be a rest, a treat, and a challenge all in one.
For their “ticket out the door” have them do the following:
- Write down one sentence that they found that was well-crafted or made them want to read more.
- Write down three vivid verbs that stood out to them.
- Find a compound sentence and write it down.
Also, since they spent the whole period silently reading (ideally), it’s nice to give them five minutes or so at the end of class and share with a partner or the large group about the book they read. Is it interesting? Did it get boring? Are they going to stick with it? Would they recommend it?
Reading time can truly be a gift, and the loads of learning they are doing if they are sitting and reading a text is unquestionable, so I’d urge you to do this every once in a while.
I love a good podcast. I mean LOVE. I mean, I wish I currently had a commute to work so that I could listen to more of them. Podcasts are all over the place in terms of intended audience, topics, and length, so you obviously can’t just use any of them for your high school classroom. But there are a number of podcasts that are stand alone episodes that can allow you a nice reprieve from direct instruction while allowing your students to learn at the same time. I’m just going to mention one right now, but I plan on writing a whole blog post in the coming weeks about the topics of podcasts and grammar.
Imagined Life Podcast
Imagined life is a creative nonfiction podcast that details the life of a famous person, but you don’t know who the famous person is until the end of the episode. There are “clues” along the way so you can guess as you listen. These are great for a typical class period. They’re about 45-50 minutes each. You’ll probably need a stretch break or two.
Listen to the episode and have your students jot down their clues and guesses while they listen.
Want a handout that can work with any episode of Imagined Life? Get it HERE.
Why I Love Podcasts
It's great for developing listening skills and introduces students to a new medium that uses language to inform, entertain, or explain.
At the end of the class period, have students write the following about the episode:
- A simple sentence about whether or not they were able to guess the person before it was revealed.
- A compound sentence about the obstacles the person faced.
- A complex sentence about the strengths of the subject of the episode.
4. Make a Mentor Sentence Mini Poster
If you have seen any of my other blog posts, you know that I live and breathe the power of the mentor sentence in helping students improve their writing and grasp grammar concepts.
It's great to give students mentor sentences to observe, but it's also highly impacting for them to choose a mentor sentence and to spend some time with it.
Have student use an independent reading book or a novel you're reading as a class. Alternatively, if you have some time to plan in advance, grab some highly engaging YA books from the library and have them in your class. Give students a good amount of time, maybe 15 minutes, to just read their book and look for a sentence that stands out. It could be a sentence with great verbs, strong adjectives, parallel structure, or anything else.
You may want to model this step. Read aloud one of YOUR favorite books. Read for a few minutes and when you land on a sentence you love, talk to them about it. You could say something like:
"Wow! That sentence got my attention! He used four verbs in that one sentence. And listen to these verbs: cling, grab, torment. That's amazing. I'm going to use this as my mentor sentence because I think I can represent that somehow."
Once students have found a sentence, give them a blank 8.5" x 10" sheet of paper, and tell them they must make a mini-poster with the sentence on it. They could use word art, they can draw pictures, or they can represent what they think the sentence means. Encourage them to make something worthy to hang in your classroom. They don't have to be artists to do this. They can draw simple symbols that relate to the sentence.
This can be a good activity to do on a "weird" day and offer as extra credit. I find students work unbelievable hard for extra credit while an actual grade is not as compelling to them. Say you'll give them up to 10 points for this. So if it really is worthy to hang in your classroom, you give them 10 points. If they don't take any time with it, they get 1 point.
Why I Love It:
Anytime you can allow students to bring language and visuals together, a concept will sink in deeper.
5. Fill-in-the-blank games (like Mad Libs)
What They Are:
Mad libs is a classic activity and for good reason. They're fun, and they might remind your students of childhood a little bit.
These can be fun to do as a whole class warm up ("Thomas give me an adverb, Taylor what is a great vivid verb you can think of?" and so on). Read the class story once everyone has had a chance to contribute a word.
Of course the traditional way to do mad libs is with a partner, and that is also a lot of fun.
If you want to challenge your students a little more, have them write their own mad libs story with blanks for the verbs, nouns, and adjectives. They can try it out with a partner and see if it "works." If it doesn't work, they may need to troubleshoot. Maybe they asked for a verb when they should have asked for a noun.
Although the traditional Mad Libs typically works well with elementary or middle school students, there are some for older kids. I have created a Mad-Libs style activity designed specifically for high school students that you can check out HERE.
Why I Love It:
Students will think more about how words actually function when they are required to write a short passage with blanks and decide what part of speech would fit into that blank. Also, it's nice to hear your students laugh.
I hope this gives you a few ideas for your next strange day in the classroom. And really, even if you don’t have a shortened week or class period, sometimes you need a break. Sometimes the kids need a break. There’s no shame in just mixing it up on a Thursday!
The Power of Choice Reading in High School - McLaughlin Teaches English
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