How do YOU do it?

Posted on November 9, 2010Filed Under Teaching | 6 Comments

Math teachers have it easy. Everything is already sequenced; there’s already an organizational structure built in. The kids have to know this before they can do that. The tests are objective, you don’t have essays to read, and best of all, you don’t have to figure out what the heck to teach. The next thing  on the list is binomials, then there’s quadratic equations (or whatever), and so on…

Math teachers have it hard. How do you mix things up when there’s a sequence you have to follow? How can you answer the “math is boring” people, when math IS boring the way American schools are forced to teach it? How do you answer the “why do we need to know this?” question when, after they’re finished with 5th grade math, most of them won’t need to know it? How many times can you watch kids come to the board to solve random equations? How does one actually get people to learn math? And  how the heck do you NOT do the old go-over-last-night’s-homework-then-see-examples-of-the-new-topic-then-practice-a-few-then-start-the-homework thing that math teachers have done for a millennium?

Anyway, I’m sort of off topic and I haven’t even started. I was interrogating my servants today, getting the latest on what they’re doing in their 8th grade English classes. I am always very curious about what goes on in other teachers’ classes. I am especially interested in how they divvy up their time. How the year is organized, how the weeks are organized, and most importantly to me, how the periods are organized. When I started teaching that was the biggest mystery to me.

As a BTSA teacher, and as the tech support guy at our site for the last 12 years, I have been in a lot of other teachers’ classrooms while they’re teaching. Many times I have watched entire periods. But it’s still hard to get a picture of the big picture. Are things organized by the novels/short stories? How do you work in grammar, mechanics, and writing? Or do you suspend those while you’re reading? Are all the writing assignments tied to the reading? Should they be? Is there a theme to the readings? Should they be connected in some way? Do people still do “units”?

Then there are the day to day questions. What does it mean to “teach” a novel? Read it in class and discuss? Center all activities, including grammar and vocabulary and such around whatever you’re reading? Both? When you assign it to be read at home, how do you make sure they’re reading? If you’re in a grammar “unit” is that all you do? What do you do in class, and what is homework?

I know there are standards, but that doesn’t really help a whole lot with the organizational aspect.

So, I always quiz my eighth grade servants about what goes on in their English classes. This year, since I have a section of eighth grade, it’s especially interesting to me.

“So what are you guys reading in English?”

“We’re doing grammar.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes. We finished Nothing But the Truth.”

“Wait. You only started that a week or two ago.”

“What did you do?”

“We read a lot in class. Now we have a final project due.”

“No open-mouth quizzes? No reading checks? No shtuff related to the novel?”


“So now all you’re doing is grammar? What’s that mean? You’re not doing vocab or a novel or whatever too?”

“We get a worksheet. We work on it with partners. We correct it. We start another one.”

“The whole period?”

“Pretty much. We start The Pearl next week. There will be a packet this time.”

I couldn’t get through a whole period that way. One of my tenets of middle school teaching is that you have to have at least three activities per period. Middle schoolers need a routine, but they also need some variety.  A typical period for me would look like this (our periods are 54 minutes):

Warm Up – Usually related to our current spelling/vocabulary list. (10 minutes, including correcting/going over)
Grammar/Mechanics Related Activity – AKA Pink Sheets. Sometimes starts as homework, sometimes not. Ranges from partners working on worksheets and then quizzing after to Schoolhouse Rock. (10-15 minutes)
Vocabulary Activity (Wednesdays), Writing Activity (T/Th) (15 minutes)
Reading/Literature Activities – Reading aloud, discussion, open-mouth quizzes, reading checks, etc. (15-20 minutes)

Plus there’s usually an ongoing thing, like: 120 seconds, the usual Friday tests, research, pretesting, and so forth, that cuts into the above schedule. It is almost unheard of in my class for us to do the same activity for an entire period. That may be as attributable to my ADD as to any pedagogical justifications.

So I’m interested. How do you divvy up everything?


6 Responses to “How do YOU do it?”

  1. Sara on November 11th, 2010 5:25 pm

    This is my eighth year of teaching middle school language arts, and I’m still baffled by the balancing act. Every year I start off with the goal of getting my classes more organized…more streamlined. Language Arts is like a can of vegetable soup. Vocabulary, literature, writing, grammar are all rolled into one, and how does a teacher go about planning for all of these without seeming scattered and unorganized? I’ve tried the whole “novel-based, grammar-and-writing-and-vocabulary-all based on the novel” thing, but quite frankly I always feel like the kids are missing a lot when I approach my classes that way. We just finished The Outsiders, and right now I’ve got them working on writing character sketches, a vocabulary unit, AND a grammar unit on verb phrases. And now, alas, I feel like they’re missing out on literature for the time being. Now I’m chomping at the bit to get going on our next novel. It’s hard to maintain some kind of continuity. But, on the bright side, each day is a surprise! That’s a good thing….right?

  2. Meg on November 11th, 2010 6:46 pm

    My school has a separate Reading and Writing class for middle school, so that makes it easier for me. My high school Asian Lit is another story, and is new this year so I’m trying to get it organized. This is how I do it:

    6th/7th grade Writing: Mondays are grammar/vocab days with a pretest Thurs, and Test Fri. The rest is organized by types of writing with A LOT of class work time.

    6th Reading: based on the lit terms and types of literature they need to learn and working them up to a thesis paper. Basically it goes: novel, novel, short stories, personal book, drama, traditional lit, novel, lit circles with thesis paper.

    7th Reading: I organize based on types of writing related to literature and reviewing lit terms. So it follows this: review novel, comparison of movie and novel, film analysis, scifi/fantasy, personal book, dis-utopia novel (Giver, White Mountains, etc).

    Asian Lit: First year doing it and for our school. It’s broken up into quarters by countries and the focus of each one. I run it more like a college course right now. 1st quarter: India/ Cultural Traditions and the affect. 2nd quarter: China/ the history-literature connection. 3rd quarter: Korea/ Maintaining your identity. 4th quarter: Japan/ Modernization and making something your own.

    Still trying to figure out how to effectively organize Asian Lit. Been snagging ideas from you and other teachers to use for the future.

  3. Carly on November 11th, 2010 8:46 pm

    I am also one of those teachers who likes to switch it up frequently in class. I’ve had other teachers observe me before and they usually comment on that – maybe it’s unusual? I find it works well and holds their interest better.

    I no longer teach English – but when I did I always started with a caught’ya sentence (Jane Bell Kiester – Caught’yas: Grammar with a Giggle) Awesome stuff. Then we moved to some mini-lesson often related to writing and then on to either our novel or writing assignment.

    I like to have a routine – yet mix it up. Now I teach drama and journalism classes and follow a similar format with my activities – although drama tends to get pretty wild. Love that improv!

    I can’t imagine spending an entire class period doing grammar worksheets. Yikes!

  4. mrC on November 12th, 2010 9:13 am

    @Sara: The soup metaphor is a good one. There’s so much you have to include, without drowning anything out. And I like my soup chunky. Mmmmm. soup…
    @Meg: My very first student teaching assignment, back in ’88 at a junior high, gave us two periods; one for literature, and the other for grammar and such. But since they were back-to-back, you could overlap, or steal minutes from one for the other. I have sorely missed that ever since. I didn’t really know what to do with it then, but now…
    @Carly: I’ma gonna have to check out the Caught Ya’s. Sounds like it’s right up my alley. And I know, a whole period on anything, let alone a worksheet…shudder.

  5. Briana on December 7th, 2010 8:15 pm

    I’m a 7th grade language arts teacher as well and, technically, this is my first year teaching… I actually started last April (I was offered the job in the middle of student teaching, long story short) and I’m sort of clueless about how to organize the curriculum as well. I totally agree with the vegetable soup analogy! So far, this is how I do things.
    *Warm Ups- 15 minutes (Non-fiction reading passages similar to our state standardized test or grammar practice)
    *Word Study- 10-20 minutes (Students have a word list each week that comes from the novel or story we are reading that counts as spelling and vocabulary… my district loves spelling, although I personally am not a big fan. Students get the words on Monday, pretest Tuesday, practice spelling and defining on Wednesday and Thursday and test on Friday)
    *Reading Workshop- 15-20 minutes (We read about a chapter a day, some times more, sometimes less and discuss. Sometimes I throw in some sort of activity… Students notice, well, those who are not in la la land, spelling/vocab words as we read.)
    *Writing Workshop- This doesn’t happen very long or very often. Sometimes we will condense or skip reading for a day if we are working on a writing assignment. Students keep their writing in a journal that stays in the back of the room.
    *Read Aloud- I spend those last few minutes of class with a few pages of a novel that’s just for enjoyment. No tests or assignments.

    That’s what I’m doing now, but it’s sure to change. I am quite enjoying your site. Good advice, great stories, and awesome resources. Thanks! 🙂

  6. mrC on December 8th, 2010 7:40 pm

    @ Briana: Sounds like you have it a lot more dialed in than I did when I started. Thanks for the kind words. If you ever have any questions, please fell free…

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