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Making learning ESSENTIAL for struggling students

Years ago,working in an affiliate school of Ted Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools, I became intimately knowledgeable with backwards planning that centered around an essential question.  What I found then and still find today is that for struggling students, whether it is because of language development, motivation, or any other potential academic roadblocks, making learning meaningful and relevant provides the BEST opportunities for academic growth.  And the best way to do this? Start and end with essential questions!

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Happy Fall! Time for Literary Pumpkins!

Whenever a major, fun holiday approaches, I get really envious of my elementary and middle school counterparts who regularly incorporate fun, crafty holiday activities into their curriclum.  As a high school teacher, I often forego the "fun" task to make sure we get through all of our essential concepts, which always bums me out. This is why I was so excited to have a great, fun, high school level seasonal activity shared with me by my friend and colleague, Rick Brown, called Literary Pumpkins.  He learned of it a few years back and it has become a big hit here at San Ysidro High.


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The 3 most important words to teach students in grades 7-12

I have the awesome fortune to work with extremely collaborative teachers across multiple content areas.  The other day, I was working with a science teacher on beefing up a writing assignment in her class that challenged students to use critical thinking skills when reading an article and transferring their thoughts into a position paper.  Her frustration was that students generally read articles, etc. in her class for content, not purpose.

This is a common concern for many teachers in every content area of adolescents and teens.  How do you get students to dig deeper into gathering meaning and purpose of text?  This is, after all,  the key to higher order thinking, and the premise for what they are often tested on in standardized tests.

There are three words that all students need to know and use each time they read.  With these three words, all text is made more meaningful- more purposeful.  Ready for them?  Wait for it...


Working with students who struggle with reading and writing, I make it a point to teach these three words at the onset of the school year.  I start off with defining the words:




Armed with these clear and undertandable definitions, students are asked to ANALYZE my classroom while it is still new to them.  They travel in pairs, sharing their observations, verbally at first, then in writing.

Once they've made one go-around, I ask them to make judgements on what they observed- EVALUATE their observations: Did they like or dislike something?  Why was something arranged in a particular order?  What is the purpose behind what they saw on the walls or in/on other parts of the room?  Once again, partners shared responses, verbally at first, then in writing.

Lastly, once students returned to their seats, I asked them to write about what they saw (analyzed) and what they thought about it (evaluated) by DESCRIBING their thoughts in a short paragragh. 


We practice this several times by traveling around campus (great way to introduce Freshmen to the school!)

The next step is transferring this skill to reading text and writing about it.  I start of with an article, then short story.  It is always neat to see the confidence students develop with this process.  Each student eventually shares the process of analyzing and evaluating the text out loud and reads their descriptions or findings.

Armed with these highly valuable academic vocabulary words, students feel they can tackle any text!

For more infomation on teaching academic vocabulary visit these websites:

Word lists and lesson plans for every grade level:


Cool games to teach academic vocab:


Great e-presentation of how to teach academic vocabulary!


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Inside Patty's High School Grade Classroom are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.