Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Book Report of a Different Color: Part 2

This is the second in a series of posts about engaging, creative assignments that can be used with your choice of literature. These assignments will get your students writing as well as thinking critically about themes, characters, setting, mood, etc!

Below are five ideas for this week. Be sure to look back at last week’s post and check back next week for more!

#6. Produce a (your choice of novel, play, etc.) newspaper. Include things like obituaries, advice columns, pictures, articles, comics, horoscopes, opinions, puzzles, advertisements, play reviews, recipes, etc. The sky is the limit, but be sure to capture the tone of the (novel, play, etc.). Have some fun!

Here are a couple of student examples. I love how creative the students get with this assignment, and they really have to think about all aspects of the literary work. I've even had students submit their newspapers in plastic newspaper bags!

#7. To be or not to be: that is just one of the questions.  Pretend you are a magazine or newspaper reporter. Choose a character from (novel, play, etc. of your choice) to interview. Write out your questions and the character’s responses. The topics for the questions are up to you but should be somehow related to the literary work.

This assignment forces students to think about characterization as well as the details of the plot. Some students enjoy recording the interviews.

#8. If music be the food of love, write a song! That’s right. Pretend you’re producing (Title of Literary Work), the Musical. Write one of the songs that will be in the musical. Be sure to tell who sings it. It could be a solo, a duet, or even a song for the whole cast. It might be fun to borrow a melody from another song—or even write your own accompaniment—and actually sing your song, but that’s optional. It should have some musical qualities either way, though.

Here is an example of a CD cover a student made to go along with this project. He wrote lyrics for only one of the songs listed, but just coming up with titles required critical thinking. Some of my more musically gifted students have put their lyrics to music and performed their songs for the class!

#9. Get a job! Choose any character from the (novel, play, etc.). Decide what type of career would suit that character, and write a resume for him or her. You’ll have to get really creative for this one! Make up information if you need to, but stay true to the character.

This assignment obviously focuses on characterization, and it requires students to really dig into the text for relevant details. It also has a practical application for older and/or career-minded students.

#10. Ready for a little comic relief? Choose a scene from (literary work of your choice) and write it up like a comic strip. While it isn’t necessary to include all of the lines (or dialogue) from the original text, your comic should capture the gist of the scene. Can’t draw? Stick figures and clip art are fine! Or try

This is a more basic assignment, but students still have to synthesize the plot, characters, and tone of the work. The student who created the second sample below used 

Be sure to check back next week for still more creative literary assignments! Meanwhile, please leave a comment below and/or share our blog with other teachers who enjoy new ideas. :)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Book Report of a Different Color

Literary writing assignments and book reports can be meaningful without being dull! The following assignments will get your students writing as well as thinking critically about themes, characters, setting, etc. I’ll post five ideas per week for the next few weeks. Here we go:

#1. The publishers of Life's Little Instructions have heard that (your choice of novel) contains lots of great lessons for life, and they need your help to compile a special edition of instructions based on the novel! Suggest 20 different instructions that could be included in this edition. Instructions can be serious or light-hearted. Be sure to explain why each instruction would be appropriate. If you want to put the tips together into an actual booklet of some sort, you may put the explanations on the back of each page.

Obviously, this assignment is a great way to get students thinking about theme. Here are a couple of student examples:

#2. As you are reading (your choice of literary work), think about which (canto, scene, chapter, etc.) you want to illustrate. Then, illustrate the (canto, scene, chapter, etc.) or some aspect of it on 8.5x11 paper. You may use any type of images you deem appropriate—drawn, cut out, downloaded, three-dimensional, color, black and white, etc. Your goal is to depict the (canto, scene, chapter, etc.). Think not only about what is happening in the text, but also about the characters, themes, symbols, etc. On the back of your illustration, you must quote the one line from the (canto, scene, chapter, etc.) that best captures the essence of your illustration. Finally, you must attach a one-page explanation of why you have chosen to depict the (canto, scene, chapter, etc.) they way you have: Why did you choose the types of images you chose? Why did you arrange them the way you did? What does you illustration say about the (canto, scene, chapter, etc.)?

This assignment provides an opportunity for students to think about all aspects of the literature and to create their own symbolism. Here are two student examples from Dante's Inferno. The written explanation gives this assignment real depth of meaning.

#3. Choose five characters from (novel of your choice), and then choose something nonhuman to represent each one. (It doesn’t have to be something from the book. It could be something as random as a stapler.) For each character, write a paragraph that tells what object you’ve chosen and how that object and that character are alike. Specific quotations and/or paraphrases from the novel would be helpful in providing your explanations.

I don't have a picture to share for this one, but it gives students an opportunity to really delve into the characters and think on a higher level.

#4. Then saw you not his face . . . book? What if (insert author here) had known about Facebook?! We’ll each choose a character from (your choice of play) and make a Facebook page for him or her. Don’t forget a picture! Then all the characters will need to become friends. No “outsiders” allowed please (except for parents, of course, but they can’t comment.) Throughout the week, post and comment as though you were really that character. Though you don’t have a posting/commenting quota, your character needs to participate actively. Print out your Facebook pages to submit—no revision will be necessary of course.

We've had a lot of fun with this one! We continue the project throughout the course of the novel. Then at the end, we have a springboard for talking about character development, plot development, dramatic irony, etc.

#5. And what should we do in Illyria? Create a travel brochure that convinces me to visit some certain place in (your choice of literary work). Capture the setting, mood, and tone of the work so visitors understand what the place is like. Try to think of everything a traveler would want to know. Consider an attractive travel package. Be creative (even ironic?) and have fun!

Here are a couple of student examples for this one, too. Notice that one student opted to discourage visitors--very clever! This is one of my favorite projects because of the focus on some more difficult concepts like tone and mood.

Stop by next week for five more literature based project ideas!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

In the MOOD for Verbs?

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.8.1c. Form and use verbs in the indicative, imperative, interrogative, conditional, and subjunctive mood.

Regardless of how you feel about Common Core, teaching verb mood can be pretty challenging. These three steps can help your students learn these concepts—and they can be applied to teaching other concepts as well!

The steps are simple. Step one: Introduce the concept. Step two: Collect examples. Step three: Use and identify examples in the context of writing. The process looks something like this:

Step one: Introduce the concept. There are many ways to introduce these different moods, of course, but one way is by having students create mini-posters. In small groups, students illustrate indicative (making a statement), imperative (giving a command), and interrogative (asking a question) mood. Provide a model of each mood, and then give each group a specific verb to use. (There's a sample below. Hang on just a minute.)

Continue with mini-posters of conditional and subjunctive, which are a little trickier. It’s best to introduce these moods after students begin to understand independent and dependent clauses. (Daily Grammar Practice can help with these concepts!) 

The conditional mood is almost always used with the modals could, might, or would in an independent clause. If you wanted a detailed explanation of conditional mood, you would check out

Some people believe the use of subjunctive mood is fizzling out like the use of whom and shall. In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye sings
If I were a rich man,
Yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum.
All day long I'd biddy biddy bum
If I were a wealthy man.
I wouldn't have to work hard.
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.
If I were a biddy biddy rich,
Idle-diddle-daidle-daidle man.

In the more modern song “What If?” by Coldplay, however, we see
What if there was no light?
Nothin' wrong, nothin' right.
What if there was no time
And no reason or rhyme?

If you were to visit, you would find more information about subjunctive mood (which occurs in a dependent clause).

Here are examples of student-created mini-posters. Notice that the students underlined the verb in each sentence.

Step Two: Collect examples. My students don’t generally have trouble with imperative, interrogative, and indicative, but the best way I have found to help them grasp subjunctive and conditional mood is to have them collect examples. Think of a bug collection—except with sentences as the specimens! Dedicate a bulletin board or space on your wall for the collection. When a student comes across an example of one of the moods you are studying, she writes it on a note card (along with a basic citation). 

When a student brings in an example, allow him to share it with the class and point out the verb form. Then post the card in the permanent collection. My classes have always enjoyed competing against each other—the first class to bring in twenty specimens gets some kind of reward, for example. With awareness of and regular exposure to the different moods, students can remember and use them correctly. 

Here is an example of a specimen card and one of the charts I use to keep up with how many examples each class has contributed.

Step three: Use and identify examples in the context of writing. When students submit writing for assessment, require them to highlight and identify any imperative, interrogative, conditional, and subjunctive forms they use. (They can occasionally highlight an indicative as well though it’s certainly not necessary to point out every one of those!) 

Annotating their own writing in this way encourages students to think critically about the writing and to understand the relevance of the concepts they are studying. Of course, students can identify other concepts you’re trying to reinforce as well.

Here is a student example. Because of the annotation, you can see quickly and clearly that this student understands interrogative mood but doesn't quite grasp conditional mood yet. This type of assessment is much more meaningful than a multiple choice test.

If you have your own classroom-tested strategies for teaching verb mood, I hope you’ll share them in the comments section below. We can all use a new idea now and then!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Keys to Writing Good Summaries

Summary: a brief, concise recapitulation of a previous statement 

Key: something that affords a means to achieve, master, or understand something else; a very important or controlling thing; chief, major, essential, or fundamental

Why have I mentioned these definitions? What does a key have to do with writing a summary?

Teachers know that when we ask a student to write a summary, we want that student to come up with a short statement giving the main points of a paragraph, article, or book. We, as teachers, think students know how to do this. (After all, they innately know how to use all the latest technology!) 

But the fact is that students do not know how to write summaries. We know this because when we ask them to summarize, they either give us one sentence or regurgitate the whole article back to us. Yet, we often assign summaries without really teaching students how to write them. 

So how then should we teach them?  Below are the keys to writing good summaries.

Key #1: Students need to know what you expect when you ask them to write a summary. Tell them, but also find as many well written summaries as you can and let students read them. You can find them on book jackets, in book and movie reviews, on the Internet, or possibly in your own students' writing portfolios. Read the summaries and discuss them. 

Key #2:  Give students a short article or selection to read. All students should read the same selection. Discuss.

Key #3:  Working as a group, have students make a list of five or six important or key words in the article or selection. Explain that key words are the most important words in the selection. These words help the reader understand the selection; if the words were missing, the selection would not make sense.

Key #4:  Still working as a group, have students use the key words to write three or four sentences about the selection. Remind students that they should write the summary in their own words and should not copy sentences from the selection. Also, let them know that it is not always necessary to use all of their key words. Using the length of the article as a guide, you should specify the number of sentences that you want them to write. For a longer article or book, the number might be slightly higher. By giving students a limit, you are forcing them to be concise and focus their thoughts on the main idea of the selection.

Key #5:  Follow this procedure several times with different articles or books that the entire class has read. Then give the students opportunities to read articles, find key words, and write their own summaries.

I have used these keys to teach students of all ages to write concise, thoughtful summaries. You will be surprised at the improvements you will see in your students’ summary writing over a short period of time just by following these five simple keys on a regular basis.

Post by Judith Holbrook.

Daily Reading Practice provides students with the opportunity to identify key words and write a summary each week. Visit to learn more!