Final Review – Incredible Shrinking Notes

I don’t know where I first read about the shrinking notes strategy for summarizing.  It was our final lesson and my ELLs just wanted  finals to be over and for school to be out.  I needed an engaging activity to review the themes of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and remembered the shrinking notes.  In groups, students wrote the big ideas of the novel on a large sticky note, narrowed them down to a medium sized notes and finally chose the three most significant ideas on a small post it.  We then had a short discussion on each group’s choices, supporting ideas with textual evidence, of course.

Learning Targets

For years I have been writing the learning target of the lesson as an essential question.  I add the strategies/skills and activities that will help answer the focus question. This became the students’ study guide, and I refer to the ‘map’ throughout the lesson.


One evening, as I was designing a lesson, I again looked through Morrison McGill’s 100 Ideas for Secondary Teachers for a refreshing idea and came across #55 ‘Spit it Out! (What? Why? How?)’.


Ah ha!  Three obvious questions so easily forgotten;  questions we should always be asking our students.   However, I now target the learning by asking What? Why? How?  The questions clarify my lesson design, and I hope my ELLs  make better sense of the lesson.


Fahrenheit 451: Censorship #1

“It was a pleasure to burn”.

That’s how Ray Bradbury opens his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451.

Ilana, our librarian,  designed an interactive presentation to provide my ELLs with background knowledge to help them make sense of one of the central themes in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  

She began by showing the students a powerful video.

After a class discussion about the big ideas in the video,  Ilana continued with the main activity.  She had selected several books that had either been banned or challenged.  On the table were strips of paper with the reasons for the challenge.  Each student selected a few books and tried to match them with the reasons by reading the blurbs.



The students were intrigued by the various reasons given for banning or challenging books.  They were surprised that books they loved as kids such as Winnie the Poo, Where’s Waldo or Where the Wild Things Are, had been challenged.  Banning Orwell’s 1984 made more sense.  In the first follow up discussion, one student remarked that perhaps a government should control what people read in order to prevent them from getting strange ideas that might harm themselves and others.  “What about Mein Kampf?” he asked. Our conversation moved on to freedom and personal safety.

This discussion will be continued next week when Ilana reads a recently published children’s book that has been challenged.

I am looking forward to the ‘ahah’ moments.




Students Have Their Say

I am always looking for different creative activities that act as a hook for a new novel or text.

I decided to try Dave Stuart Jr’s Pop Up Debate – a form of discussion where each student gets at least one chance to make a claim and support it.

They responded to an essential question about the role of technology in their lives.  (We are going to read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury).  Since this was the first time my ELLs were doing the activity, they had time to think about their answers through todaysmeet – a very user friendly back channeling tool.  The students have used this often in class and are familiar with commenting protocols etc.

We then moved on to the Pop Up Debate.  Stuart gives excellent directions and I created a document with his guidelines.  Students don’t know how to contribute to a formal, academic discussion, so Stuart suggests giving the students certain prompts from  They Say/I Say.  The ‘debate’ is conducted cordially with the students monitoring who speaks when.  Essentially only the student standing may speak.

They really enjoyed the activity and gave positive feedback.  The ELLs felt the formal debate gave them practice  articulating  their ideas in English.  They explained that it was interesting listening to other people’s point of view.  In fact, they wanted the opportunity to stand up and talk more than twice.


Talk Show #3 Break a Leg

The Talk Show role playing  test came together on the day.

I was so impressed by the performances of the two groups.  One group emphasized their originality in the props and staging,  offering a backdrop of slides.  The other group demonstrated insight into the characters though their detailed scripts.

creative ‘live’ unit test

At the end of their performances, I asked my ELLs to complete a Venn Diagram comparing the Talk Show Test and a Written Test.


They enjoyed “being creative, connecting with students, generating ideas, going into detail, giving their opinion, teaching how to explain their point of view not only to the teacher but to everybody, being able to fix something if it’s not good and having fun.”

The written test, on the other hand, means you are “by yourself, more nervous, bored, stressed, not showing everything you know.”

The ELLs concluded that there should be a balance between ‘action’ and written tests.

But they all opted for a written test as their final exam.


The Talk Show test required so much more than demonstrating a deep understanding of the novel.  It involved learning how to assign roles, work collaboratively and listen.  Like working in the real world.

However, for us teachers  it is all about balance, isn’t it?

I look forward to more ‘live’ assessments.

Growth Mindset Reminders

All year we have been speaking about what it means to have a growth mindset.  ‘Yet’ has become a word that is dear to our hearts.  Many educators tweeted various growth mindset infographics which I printed, laminated and taped to the desks.


Do you think the students read them without my direct intervention?  I wish the answer were a resounding ‘YES’.

I decided to tape the mantras on the door and on the wall facing the students.  I plan to casually point to them with my laser pointer.

Do you have any ideas?

Let The I-search Writing Begin

The Argumentative Writing unit is well worth the purchase.  To begin their writing journey, the students completed an enlarged version of the essay organizer.


I conferenced with each one as they filled in the required sections of their research paper: thesis question, background information, evidence and analysis.   This is one of the best ways to clear up confusions and think more deeply about their topic of inquiry.

Talk Show #2 How to Listen

I thought that the first few small group strategies (taken from Teaching the Social Skills of Academic Interaction by Daniels and Steineke ) the students practiced were enough.

I divided the ELLs into larger groups in order to create their Talk Shows.  I reminded them of the behaviors of contributors to dynamic discussions.  We all turned to the anchor chart.


However, I soon realized that I had not prepared the students thoroughly enough.  I had not prepared them to participate in ongoing small group discussions, and more importantly, how to reach consensus.  One group was in trouble.  Not every students’ voice was heard so I returned to Daniels and Steineke,







I paused the script writing and followed the directions of ‘Hearing Everyone’s Ideas First’ (167).  Many years ago I learnt from Larry Ferlazzo that a teacher must be able to apologize.  This was not the first occasion  I told my ELLs: “Mea Culpa. I am sorry.”

So we took a few steps back.

We created another anchor chart of what supportive groups sound like (as recommended in the book). The students came up with various suggestions to engage every member  including setting the ground rules, the importance of having an ‘energizer’ as well as  sometimes just going with the flow.

Kids never cease to surprise me with their insight.  Perhaps the fact that they had already experienced what wasn’t working in their groups, meant that they knew exactly what they needed to work on.

The students added a few of their own.  The ‘conch’ is a connection to Lord of the Flies which we read last year.  So proud of my ELLs.


What a difference!

My takeaway:  I should trust experts such as Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and Nancy Steineke, and take the time to follow their carefully crafted , scaffolded lessons building on each skill.



Talk Show #1 or Can’t We Take a Pencil and Paper Test?

This was an enlightening lesson on perseverance and demonstrating growth mindset.  We have come to the end of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Haddon;  a wonderful book about the challenges facing an adolescent with Asperger’s.   I decided to try an alternative assessment: a talk show from my latest PD book, (Steineke 142).


At first the students were excited and there was energetic discussion .  They decided on creating a show around what happened to the main characters after the book because Haddon leaves a few questions unanswered.  However, when I explained that the content, i.e. the script with textual evidence weighted more that the performance, frustration set in.  “Let’s take a regular test”, they whined.

I spoke about enjoying the challenge of a new activity and had a discussion about the essential questions we had discussed:

What’s it like being , as Temple Grandin put it, different but not less?

In what ways does the protagonist act like a typical teen and in what ways are his actions unusual?

It was then that one of the group members came up with an idea: the protagonist’s journey towards independence; an upbeat, optimistic theme of accomplishment.

This paved the way for a ‘meaty’ as well as entertaining script.


Let the Search Begin

We are very fortunate to have a media specialist librarian who brought her presentation on how to refine searches, use data bases etc. to our classroom.

But before the presentation, I once again took the sound advice of The Unquiet Librarian and tested the students’ “points of need” with a handout that served as a KWL chart.







he first question was “What gives you the most difficulty when doing a research assignment?”  They were mostly concerned about the challenge of finding reliable sources, identifying important information as well as time management.

The rest of the handout was for students to take notes on the various topics  covered in the presentation.  I added a section on confusions and questions.  At the end of the lesson, the students completed an exit note card that asked: “What do you know now that you didn’t know before the presentation on how to conduct research?”