Book Club, Curriculum

KIAT Book Club: Becoming a Better Teacher Ch. 9

Chapter nine in Becoming a Better Teacher is basically a summative conclusion. No new information is introduced so, to be totally honest, there’s not much I can say about it.

In case the reader has forgotten, the chapter discusses what was brought up in the first eight chapters and it poses the question: “what does it look like to be a learner-centred teacher?” Indeed, that is what all of the tips and information have been guiding us toward for this entire time; learning how to teach for the kids rather than for the standardized tests.


We are reminded of the important ideas from throughout the book, including essential questions, integrated curriculum, curriculum and assessment design, authentic assessment, rubrics, portfolios, reflection, and finally action research.

It also discusses the fact that we don’t need to follow a specific order or design in order to adopt these practices and change our focus to student-based learning. We can begin with what seems easiest to implement, what we feel the strongest desire to change, etc.

Overall, I found this book extremely engaging and inspiring. As a teacher who thrives on planning and organization, and who always wants to improve her practice, this book offered excellent tips and advice. Albeit, I found myself slightly disengaged through chapter 8, but chapters 1-7 and 9 were excellent resources.

If you are interested in Becoming a Better Teacher, here is the link to its page on Amazon!

Curriculum, Junior High

The Hunger Games in the Classroom

I read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins for the first time about five years ago when I assigned it to a group of students for a group study project. I ended up falling in love with the book myself and recently decided to re-read it on account of the soon-to-be-released film and the fact that it is becoming evermore popular and I wanted to create a few lesson plans or a complete unit plan around it.

I am often reluctant to teach popular/modern novels in the classroom because, to be perfectly honest, popular novels produced for young adults are often crap (yes, that is the right word for several of them *cough* Twilight *cough, cough*) or else have little substance in terms of themes, reflection, and critical thinking.

However, The Hunger Games is highly useful in the classroom because, not only does it hold “classic” themes such as self identity, courage, power and control, and family. Additionally,  it also plays upon modern issues that have been created out of reality television and violent video games and other media.

For thsoe unaware of the premise of The Hunger Games, it is told form the perspective of 16 year old Katniss Everdeen, who lives in the nation of Panem (a futuristic version of North America). Each year, Panem holds the “Hunger Games”, in which one male and one female from each of the 12 districts of Panem are chosen to compete in a televised event where opponents literally fight to the death. At the end of the games, one winner is crowned.

One of the things that makes Collins’ story so intriguing is that the Hunger Games themselves are literally set up like a modern reality show, in which viewers can vote and bet on their favourite competitors and send in sponsorships to aide in keeping them alive to the end. However, the extreme violence clearly involved begs the question how far is too far?

Indeed, reality shows, television, movies, and so on, continue to push boundaries and limits, becoming increasingly violent, crude, cruel, difficult, and sexually charged, that it makes one naturally wonder where it will end. Collins creates a fictional answer to this question with The Hunger Games.

Through Katniss, readers understand the Hunger Games through the eyes of a girl from the poor state of District 12, who opposes the Hunger Games (put on by the Capital). She questions the power of the Capital, and works within her means to to display this clear oppostion by the end of the novel. She also acts to juxtapose the intense riches and power of the Capital to the other poorer people in Districts of Panem.

With the themes of the novel, English teachers can create an entire unit which applies classic themes to modern day issues. Additionally, they can also discuss issues of power and control and relate them to historical events and politics, relating the story to dictatorships throughout history.

Book Club, Curriculum

KIAT Book Club: Becoming a Better Teacher Ch. 8

Chapter eight in Becoming a Better Teacher continues on with the importance of questions. The chapter itself is titled “Action Research: Asking and Answering Questions About Practice” and sounded fairly daunting to me upon first read. The essential question posed is “how do questions teach?” and touches upon what has been discussed about questions in previous chapters.


We can ask ourselves questions about our own practice and how we can improve and we can ask students questions to probe them about their learning and (again) our own practice. Is our curriculum and teaching style engaging to kids? Ask them; students know which classes they enjoy and why.

The chapter lays out how to plan and execute action research which can be implemented by teachers to answer important questions about many topics or issues. Steps are laid out for teachers to follow to help them decide why questions they want answered, why it’s important for them to be answered, and how to collect the data which they collect.

Continuing on, the book discussed how to actually assess the data found, how to use it, and how to share it with others.

To be honest, I found this chapter to be the least engaging of the book, though I do see the value in it. Perhaps it becomes more meaningful when the rest of the curriculum design and planning has been put into action in the classroom already (something which I have not fully done yet), but I found the information less engaging than previously discussed through the book.

If you want to buy Becoming a Better Teacher (which I assure you has been extremely informative and helpful prior to this somewhat less-engaging chapter), here’s the link to its Amazon page.

Curriculum, High School

Ten Films to Use as Primary Texts

Teachers tend to show films simply to accompany primary texts in the classroom. In English we’ll show To Kill a Mockingbird as we read the novel, in Social Studies we show films like Passchendaele to accompany our lecture on the historic event. In Chemistry we’ll show those amazing James Bond knock-off films to teach chemical bonds, and so on.

Alternatively, we may also show films to kill off a class when we can’t teach (like if half the students are away for a sports event).

However, I find it particularly effective to occasionally use a film as the primary text in a classroom and base lessons and curriculum off if it. Modern students relate better to films and are more familiar with them, so it is often very nice for them to work with texts they are more familiar with. Additionally, you will often receive work and answers from them that you would have never expected. Here are ten of my favourite films to show in class:

10. Cast Away

In teaching English, Cast Away is absolutely wonderful for teaching literary devices in a different way. Students can visually see such devices as Symbolism and Dramatic Irony.

When implementing this lesson, I like to wait and use it as review for before the final. By the end of the year, Short Stories, Poetry, Novel Study, and Dramatic Literature will have covered all of the literary terms they need for the final and/or provincial, but to review in an interesting way, have them watch the film, write down all of the devices they see and then write an essay that discusses three. The lesson will cover basic essay-writing, ability to compare, and cover literary terms and devices.

9. Hairspray

Hairspray (I prefer the remake to the original) is a fun and hilarious film that students love (regardless of gender). It deals with American 1960s history and racial segregation. Additionally, you can discuss irony/parody as the film takes very serious race and body image issues and makes them humourous.

I use this in Junior High because it’s a good way to introduce students to heavier writing assignments and topics while not being too daunting. It isn’t serious enough or hit enough learning objectives to justify it in high school. However, when students are first learning to write essays, it’s a good topic to write on. Alternatively, it can also be a good source for students to answer serious questions and begin learning how to draw connections between text and world and also learn how to answer academically.

8. Super-Size Me

The documentary attacks fast food and the health and obesity crisis in America. Super-Size Me is great for a Health, Biology, Sports Medicine, Gym, or Foods class.

Morgan Spurlock uses the most famous fast food restaurant chain in the world, McDonalds, to physically show viewers how terrible junk food and lack of exercise are to the body. Have students answer questions while watching the film and then work in partners or groups after the film to discuss their answers.

If you have time and still want to focus on the film while transitioning into healthy choices, have students research and present a diet and lifestyle plan which works to the opposite effect of Spurlock’s McDonalds diet and results in a healthy body and mind.

7. The Sixth Sense

M. Night Shyamalan’s first and best film, The Sixth Sense, is wonderful to show to students. I love to show it when dealing with plot and foreshadowing. Because the film is not as new as it was when I was in high school and junior high, it works really well in the higher grades of junior high (grades eight or nine) or in high school because many students have not seen it and are unaware of the surprise ending.

The DVD special features have a segment which discusses symbolism and foreshadowing (such as the use of the colour red and Dr. Crowe’s lack of physical and verbal interaction with other characters).

In junior high, this is great to use in a short story unit and have students write their own stories (have them include a detailed plot summary and diagram) which includes foreshadowing and symbolism. In high school, you may want to revert to the traditional essay to prepare them for finals and/or the provincial.

6. Shrek

Shrek is a phenomenal movie when dealing with parody. Students love it because they all recognize the fairy tales that the film is based off of.

Have students in junior high or lower level high school use this as a basis for their own parodies. First, have them answer detailed questions on what parody is in relation to the film, then when they have a solid understanding, have them work in groups to create their own parody projects.

5. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat

If you are teaching Religion, students always enjoy Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. While Jesus Christ Superstar is always another popular option, I prefer to show Joseph because teaching the Old Testament tends to be a bit duller than teaching the New Testament.

I simply have students answer questions on the most important points from the film and bible points. Further on in the curriculum, I will often revert back to Joseph and have students make their own stories or retellings of biblical stories in a humourous and fun way.

4. Drugged: High on Cocaine

This is a great documentary to show to students in Health or a life-planning course like CALM or Planning 10 (they differ from province-to-province).

As a student, I specifically remember watching films which simply acted to scare us into refraining from drugs. However, Drugged: High on Cocaine is informative on how cocaine and crack are distributed and sold, how they affect the body, and how they destroy lives. I appreciate showing it because I feel that students are too intelligent to be moved by simple do not do drugs films. Drugged shows them the intricacies behind the drug and gives students more than just surface reasons to avoid the drug.

3. What the Bleep Do We Know

I love to show What the Bleep do We Know to students at the beginning of the semester in Math and Science courses. The film is both story and documentary. It unveils all that we do not know and creates possibilities which we rarely think about.

I show it because I really like to emphasis the fact that there is no one hundred percent correct answer, which students often forget in Math and Science. I enjoy showing the film because I feel that it inspires students to become more passionate about learning, especially in subjects which are often taken too seriously and taught too dryly.

2. Across the Universe

I absolutely love Across the Universe and will use any excuse to show it to a class. I like to have students use it as a guide to create a project in which they take artwork of one form and combine it together in an interesting way to create a different story.

While Across the Universe uses music from the Beatles to create a distinct story, I encourage students to find a way to do the same. For example, they may use poems by a specific author or on a specific topic, or letters from soldiers, or magazine articles, and so forth, to create a separate (while also related) story. I always make sure to discuss various points that were included in the film that relate back to the Beatles’ lives and music and encourage them to find ways of mixing interesting facts in with their stories.

1. Waiting for Superman

No matter what course I am teaching, I love to show Waiting for Superman at the beginning of the year. The film focuses on the education system in the United States, which is failing students horribly. It discusses the discrepancy between schools based on socioeconomic status and the fact that bad teachers are never gotten rid of, but simply moved from school to school.

After the film I will either have students do a bit of research on the education in other specific nations, or else show a power point and lecture on these points.

I do this to demonstrate that, despite its flaws, the education system in Canada is extremely good and students should be grateful and recognize what they have been given. Additionally, I use it to lead in to my points about never accepting anything but their very best and refusing to do such things as curve grades (if the best paper in one of my classes deserves a C, I will never give it an A simply because it was better by comparison).

Overall, I use this film to inspire and to illustrate to students how thankful they should be for the education they are receiving and which everyone deserves.

Book Club, Curriculum

KIAT Book Club: Becoming a Better Teacher Ch. 7

This week’s chapter in Becoming a Better Teacher is all about reflection. As teachers, we are told consistently to reflect, and we do. I know that personally, I reflect upon each lesson and each day after completion and consistently ask myself what went well and what could have been done better. It’s how we improve ourselves over the days, months, and years to become the best teachers we can be.


This chapter asks the question: “how can teachers get students to invest in and value reflection?” Indeed, we all understand the importance of reflection, but it’s more difficult for students to think about work after it’s been completed. So frequently in our traditional education system, students focus on getting the work in by the deadline, they scan their returned projects for a grade, and they toss it aside. Too infrequently they are asking for clarification and reflecting on how they can improve.

Here, we are given ideas about how to include reflective activities in our teaching practice. It also focuses on having students become more specific in responding to reflective questions. Too often kids can be too broad in answers; if we continue to allow this to happen, they’ll have a difficult time discussing their thoughts and ideas in older grades and post-secondary education.

The chapter offers examples of prompts for reflection for kids, as well as checklists they can fill out which are also helpful for the teacher to improve lessons and activities so that they become more engaging and useful to kids.

If you’re interested in the book, here’s the link to it on Amazon.


Ten Ways to Incorporate Humour in the Classroom

I find the best way to get students involved, retain their attention, and ensure that they recall curriculum is to make lessons interesting and meaningful to them. Overall, the easiest way to do this is to utilize humour in the classroom.

Some of the best comedic gems to use in the classroom can be found on the internet, others (like television shows or movies) can be ordered online, and still others (books, comics) again online or your local bookstore. Here’s a list of some of my favourite lesson plans centred around humourous alternative texts:

10. Teaching creative note-taking with Something Awful

This entry on Something Awful posts the hilarious results that ensue when you ask kids to tell you something about a subject (examples are things like bunnies and dogs) and then you draw their answers. These are mostly hilarious because of the kids’ answers, but I find that the concept can be translated within the classroom (in a way that doesn’t make fun of students).

When lecturing on something particularly interesting or funny (Charles II, maybe?) or dense/confusing (causes of WWI), I find it can be beneficial for students to first write their notes out in a different way (that’s where the pictures come in) and then to share their creative endeavours with other students. Through sharing, students take pride in their work and also have a chance to teach their notes to classmates, which is proven to aid in information retention.

9. Teaching plagiarism with pop music

I see plagiarism way more than I should. Obviously, it’s completely unacceptable and I have zero tolerance for it. But, sometimes when I’ve just started a term with a class, and I find that all of a sudden I’ve received over half of student work which samples from another source or from another student. Rather than fail them all, I like to give them all a warning, the chance to re-do the work, and the clear indication that any other form of cheating in the future will result in an unquestionable fail.

To get their attention with plagiarism, I like to put the following on the overhead or SMARTboard:

For you I would have done whatever
And I just can’t believe we ain’t together
And I wanna play it cool, but I’m losin’ you
I’ll buy you anything, I’ll buy you any ring
And I’m in pieces, baby fix me
And just shake me ’til you wake me from this bad dream
I’m going down, down, down, down
And I just can’t believe my first love won’t be around

When I was 13, I had my first love,
There was nobody that compared to my baby
and nobody came between us or could ever come above
She had me going crazy, oh, I was star-struck,
she woke me up daily, don’t need no Starbucks.
She made my heart pound, it skipped a beat when I see her in the street and
at school on the playground but I really wanna see her on the weekend.
She knows she got me dazing cause she was so amazing
and now my heart is breaking but I just keep on saying.

For those of you as up on tween pop music as I am, you’ll recognize the above lyrics from Justin Bieber’s “Baby” featuring Ludacris. Put the lyrics of a popular song up, tell students it was a poem submitted to you by a former student that you wanted to share, then ask one of them to read it out loud to the class. Act shocked when they awkwardly tell you it’s actually the lyrics to a pop song, and then begin your lesson on plagiarism. They’ll never forget it again.

8. Using Tom Lehrer’s “New Math” to review subtraction

I love this song! It’s just plain catchy! While I don’t find it useful in actually teaching subtraction, on account of how quickly he sings, I find it a fun way to review subtraction after learning it and once students have the hang of it. They enjoy singing along when they understand exactly what’s going on in the video.

7. Teaching to proofread with Taylor Mali

Most teachers know Taylor Mali on account of his famous spoken word poem, What Teachers Make. In the classroom, I like to show students another of his poems to remind them all to proofread, not just spellcheck. Here’s the poem in question:

Students love it and have zero excuses if they hand in a paper after featuring silly errors that could have been avoided if they had simply proofread instead of just spell checking.

6. Teaching social consciousness with

Cracked has plenty of articles that are absolutely hilarious as well as very informative. I find a lot of their list-style articles work very well in a social studies classroom. In social, I like to devote about 10 minutes in every class to talking about world events and, often, students’ perspectives about what is going on in the world has been horribly skewed by the media. Particularly when countries or organizations pose a threat to America.

Here is a great article from Cracked that deconstructs some common myths people tend to believe about America’s “enemies”. Not only does it inform students, it also encourages them to think more critically about news and media in the future.

5. Teaching Twelfth Night with She’s The Man

One of my personal favourite films, She’s The Man, which features the ever-charming Amanda Bynes in drag and falling for her sexy, male, soccer-playing roommate Channing Tatum, is based loosely on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. YAY! Any excuse to show this film in the classroom feels like Heaven to me.

Because the film is only a loose adaptation, I don’t like to waste valuable classroom time showing the entire thing if I’m trying to get through curriculum. Rather, I like to bring in a mix of texts and have the students compare them. Kenneth Brannagh’s filmed play version is excellent, as is the 1996 film version with Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Kingsley

I’ll usually play a quick clip of She’s The Man and have students compare the modern version to the traditional versions and also have them pull out any references they can find. Usually I’ll follow this with an assignment in which I have students modernize a scene from the play.

Just for fun, here’s most people’s favourite clip from She’s The Man (I never show this one, it doesn’t have enough relevance to the original text, but it’s hilarious):

4. Using Facebook to teach plot and characterization

I decided to integrate students’ obsession with Facebook after stumbling upon this gem:

Click for content sourceIn doing a dramatic literature or novel study, it’s a fun way to have students analyze characters and plot conflicts. I’ve allowed students to use whatever craft supplies they feel they need (so they can use the computer, draw their design, or cut and paste) to either come up with a character profile page, a news feed, or a group. In the past I’ve seen character pages for Atticus Finch, a group dedicated to hating Malvolio, and a news feed based on Macbeth. Such a fun activity!

3. Teaching verbal irony using the Onion News Network

In teaching the basic, yet often confusing, concept of irony in English Lit., I find students often getting confused between dramatic, verbal, and situational irony. Dramatic irony is easily enough to teach with Shakespeare, for situational I like to have students write their own stories in which the actual outcome differs from the expected outcome (they LOVE doing this; get them to share their stories with a partner and then write one together to really drive the concept home).

In teaching verbal irony, it’s all well and good to explain the idea of sarcasm, but to really drive the idea home, I like to show this clip from the Onion:

Then I split the whiteboard into two and title one side SAD and one side FUNNY. As a class, we first talk about what was funny in the clip and then about what was sad about the clip. I let them know that verbal irony is done through a character, story, video, etc. presenting something in one way but actually meaning another. In my experience, a good story to bring in to the classroom for this type of irony is Harold Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (it really drives the happy vs. sad thing home).

2. Teaching news and current events with Philip DeFranco

I adore Philip DeFranco, he’s super funny, informed, and opinionated. Every once in a while, I find it really beneficial to bring in one of his recent videos to start a discussion on news, current events, and even pop culture. Even in a reluctant class, I find students will be more willing to share opinions or agree with what’s been said.

*Always make sure you watch the video first, DeFranco’s discussions sometimes aren’t appropriate for the classroom.

1. Teaching grammar with Hyperbole and a Half

Thanks to the hilarious Allie over at Hyperbole and a Half, students never need worry about the “alot” faux pas again. I usually find this works best for younger grades (think grades five and six or junior high), but I also whip it out when I start finding the word “alot” popping up in student work no matter what the grade (sadly, it very commonly needs to be used in grade 12).

Depending on a school’s resources (and how severe the problem is) I will either print all of the students a copy of this hilarious blog entry or else pop it up onto the SMARTboard. With the fact that it’s undoubtedly funny and well-written, coupled with the hilarious image of the Alot, students aren’t soon-to-forget that “alot” is grammatically incorrect and that I certainly don’t want to read it on any of their academic papers.

Book Club, Curriculum

KIAT Book Club: Becoming a Better Teacher Ch. 2

Hello again, and welcome to our discussion of Becoming a Better Teacher. Last chapter talked about incorporating essential questions into the classroom. This chapter is titled Curriculum Integration as a Tool for Coherence and discusses the need for teachers to rely less on textbooks and more on their own designed curriculum focused on student need.


The chapter is short and outlines reasons why creating integrated curriculum is important and broad concepts around the idea. The actual development and steps in creating your own curriculum come in in the next chapter (I have you excited for that, don’t I?).

The argument the book makes for curriculum integration is that students often move from one class to the next or one unit to the next without any sort of cohesion; everything is individualized and not part of a larger whole.

With integrated curriculum, students’ brains naturally store information as it is stored in relatable patterns. Further, they recognize how to apply knowledge rather than simply memorize facts. Finally, it also works to view school and education as a whole rather than as being made up of separate subjects.

The opening of Chapter Two
The opening of Chapter Two

I personally am a huge fan of subject integration as it blurs the lines between traditional subjects and makes students recognize that they are all interrelated, just as all things are in the world. Further, it lessens the likelihood of separation between the maths and sciences and arts and humanities; increasing likelihood of students enjoying and appreciating all subject matter.

The chapter continues on to discuss how to organize essential questions as a central theme for units, years, or subjects and makes excellent suggestions for pulling planning and organization all together.

Chapter three coming up next! If you want to buy the book, here’s the Amazon link.