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.


We tend to use this word lightly – an inspirational talk, video, book.  However, today I want to thank Dave Stuart Jr., whose teacher friendly blog I have been following for some time. I want to thank Dave for introducing me to Barrett Brooks.  His compelling post expresses so succinctly what education is all about.

Brooks’ 6 principals surely make up the profile of our learners.


Our responsibility is to teach our youngsters



exposure to a variety of topics


design thinking


These principals are challenging and energizing.

Who or what inspired you this weekend?



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.

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 #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?”



Mini I-Search #1

I decided to focus on the process rather than a full research paper.  This meant scaffolding the pre-search, research, drafting, citing and peer review .  The final product will be an anatomy of a paper with a detailed outline.

In order to design this unit I referred to my ELL Writer’s Workshop Pinterest Board.  This led me to the Unquiet Librarian  posts on scaffolding research and topic choice. Using Jim Burke’s unit design template, I synthesized my sources into a month long unit.


We are spending a lot of time on pre-search.  I unashamedly admit that I followed the steps outlined in the post I mentioned.   The images and videos embedded in the posts make this so easy for a teacher.  The mini lessons included:

choosing a topic

mind mapping topics in order to narrow the choice

generating questions with the help of the Question Lenses

discussing possible sources apart from the obvious Wikipedia and Google

evaluating sites

annotating a text

peer feedback

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Peer Review

So far I have tried 2 ways to encourage students to talk about their own as well as their classmates’ writing.  It is all based on warm and cool feedback.

But first we always revise the elements of collaborative, academic discussion.  This year I am using Teaching the Social Skills of Academic Interaction by Daniels and Steineke,  and created the anchor paper that we always refer to.

IMG_5596 (1)

This seems so basic but is a crucial part of any successful collaborative activity.

The Teaching Channel teachers offer engaging ways to get students to talk about and revise their written work. I chose:

  1.  Critical Friends.  I actually showed the students the video because it gave me the opportunity to show how students (as well as the teacher) contribute to the success of the  feedback.    I am scaffolding a writing unit on how to craft an effective argument.  The students’ first assignment was to write a persuasive paragraph using a visual prompt from an original site 


We reviewed the criteria for an effective persuasive paragraph:

topic sentence

precise examples that support the main idea

analysis (Why should the reader care?)

strong clincher.

After sharing their first draft pieces on Google Drive, the students offered the ‘warm fuzzy’ feedback followed by precise suggestions for improvement.  It was interesting that the students were keen to discuss the writer’s argument and offer their own views.

However, this time the focus was on composing a cohesive perfect paragraph.  I reminded the students to try and give the feedback in the form of a question (see second activity below) which forces the writer to come up with her/his own ideas for revision.








2:  Warm and Cool Feedback  Once again, I used the video as a way to take the students through the steps and model them in this revision activity.

Warm and Cool Feedback – A Feedback System


What peer review activities do you use?










Sizzling Salsa Words

Jordana, a young ELA colleague, celebrated word choice with a Salsa party for her 10th graders.  My ELLs were not to be outdone so I planned a party for them.

It  began with tasting rice cakes and corn chips dipped into a bowl of not-too-hot salsa.

I think that eating rice cakes is like eating styrofoam (not that I’ve ever tried).  Salsa sizzles.  The students thought the rice cakes were boring and the salsa words were original.

It was messy and fun.

My takeaway:  I was sure the students would find the rice cakes dry and inedible.  However,  I learnt that hungry teens will devour anything especially before lunch.  I thought I over catered.  But no!


We no longer talk about word choice.  We discuss salsa words.

The Ubiquitous Icebreaker – an Upgrade

I am always searching for a new, original icebreaker to begin the year.

Since identity is a recurring theme in various texts, I like the idea of building  individual and class identity webs as a community builder.

I even have my first writing activity:  to reflect on the identity charts, find differences and commonalities.

My thanks to Sarah Ahmed.

A tweet by Traci Gardner sent me to an interesting article  that gave context to the identity concept maps.  I will pair individual and class selfies  with photographic and painted self portraits. And then … I will let you know next week.

Thank you Traci Gardner.

Do you have a favorite icebreaker?