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Welcome. My name is Corbett Harrison. I have been an educator since 1990, and a teacher-trainer and University adjunct professor since 1998. I specialize in teaching writing using differentiated instruction techniques. I also focus on critical thinking skills, especially during the pre-writing and revision stages of the writing process. I retired from the classroom in June of 2019, and I will continue to consult with schools, districts, and states who are more interested in developing quality writing plans, not buying from one-size-fits-all writing programs.

Beginning over the summer of 2019, I will be available once again to train teachers your school or district if you would like to hire a qualified and dynamic trainer. You can find general information about my workshops here.

If you would like to check my availability for a specific date or dates for the 2019-20 school year, please contact me at this e-mail address. My calendar is already fillling up with workshop engagements.


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       Because writing--when taught well--can be the most enjoyable part of your teaching day, we created this website to provide fun, adaptable ideas for teachers.

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Contact me through my e-mail address with questions/comments about this lesson: Corbett@CorbettHarrison.com

Background information for this lesson: My friend and amazing teaching colleague from the NNWP--Rob Stone--used to introduce our "I-pods Across the Curriculum" inservice class by saying something inspiring. I'm paraphrasing here, but Rob would always observe, "If you want to connect with your students so they write authentically for you, there are two easy techniques to try: 1) refer to their music, or 2) refer to their technology. The great thing about using your iPod as your 'mentor text' is that you have the ability to do both or either as soon as you bring it out and tell them today's writing lesson will begin with you sharing from it. I may be twenty-five years older than my students, but when I bring out my iPod and play from it, that gap disappears for a while."

Our 150 Northern Nevada teachers who took that grant-sponsored class from us (and who all received a classroom iPod for attending) each had to submit a writing lesson inspired by something they would keep on their own iPods. These best of those lessons became part of the I-pods Across the Curriculum Lesson Collection that still exists at WritingFix.

My wonderful and much-wiser-than-me wife, Dena--who was one of our original iPod presenters when Rob and I launched that inservice class--eventually caught the "iPod sickness" that Rob and I joked about with our participants at our first class session. We always warned everyone, "Once you make a good lesson based on a favorite piece of music, you'll kind of start listening to all your favorite songs in a completely different way, asking 'Might this become a lesson for my students?'" instead of enjoying the music on a non-educational level. I have now created lessons based on my favorite songs, and having to teach those lessons multiple times a day for several years has kind of made me dislike some of my old, favorite songs. It happens. Ron and I called it the "iPod sickness." You have been warned that it exists.

Back to Dena, she was the one who originally brought me the idea of using the iPod's "Playlist" feature as a writing tool. She knows she heard about it at a conference way back when, but can't remember who gave her the idea, but if that presenter is reading this, know that we thank you for this idea that we have now adapted to use in a variety of ways. So...without further ado...Dena and I share below three of our favorite adaptive ideas for assigning iPod playlists as Common Core-friendly writing tasks. These can be used as summative assessments, formative assessments, or a writer's notebook task. Remember, we don't provide these ideas so that you can replicate them exactly as we present them; the best writing teacher is one who borrows big ideas and adapts them to fit their own students and purposes.

Find dozens of song-inspired lessons at WritingFix, a website Dena and I now sponsor because we admire the teacher-built lessons posted there.

Using an iPod's Playlist Format as a Mentor Text: 3 Fresh Ideas
our students connect in special ways to their music, so use that connection to inspire writing and talking about writing...

Lesson overview: A few years back, I heard about teachers assigning "imaginary iPod playlists" as a technique for having the students introduce themselves and their quirks and personalities. Titles of songs and a song's content--when explained--can become very revealing when written about and/or when explained to other students. Me? I had plenty of "Introduce Yourself to Us" activities, so even though I liked the idea, I put it on the back-burner of ideas. This last school year, I began trying some different techniques with initial idea but in the area of literature response and grammar instruction, and I'm confident now I have enough samples to share the idea as a lesson write-up. Below, you will find two variations for creating playlists as a response to literature (one from Dena and one from me), and you will also find the new one I'm working on with grammar terminology for this year. With Common Core stressing an abundance of grammar-based vocabulary and me adamantly refusing to teach grammar through worksheets, I am determined to teach my students how to think about grammar at a higher level from Bloom's than recall and simple practice; the grammar-inspired playlist below, I think, pushes creative, higher level thinking that makes me happy.

iPod Playlist Writing Task: Reading Summary Idea #1
One of Twenty-five Creative and Meaningful ways to have students summarize their thinking about a book after a week of reading--the iPod Playlist: This idea actually comes from Dena's twenty-five "instead of writing a boring summary" writing activities, which she turned into a Bingo Card over the summer of 2013, and that she now uses on a weekly basis with her students. Each month, she provides a new scrambled version of the original card, and her students must create a Bingo to earn their monthly summary-writing points. This amounts to one creative summary every week. Dena exclusively uses the cards with her students and the books they are reading independently; I, however, began using it with both my assigned novels and my independent books, and I have now seen great success in both types of reading assignments. You can access a free sample of Dena's Bingo Card by clicking here; the free sample (which is a PowerPoint that is meant to be navigated by students who open the file and then click "F5" to run the slideshow) also comes in this PDF version (which doesn't have the fun, self-navigating hyperlink-ability that the PowerPoint version has). With the free sample, only three of the twenty-five activities come with student-friendly explanations of the writing task and come with a teacher model created by Dena. With the free sample, you also can access and use the general rubric Dena created that she uses to have her students self-evaluate themselves before she gives them a weekly summary writing grade; the rubric is the final slide in the slideshow. If you're tired of reading boring reading summaries from your students, and this posted lesson piques your interest enough to consider purchasing the entire set of 25 activities that Dena created (with just a little help from me!), click here. We believe we sell all of our for-sale products at a very reasonable rate, and this one in particular is a well-spent $15 investment. 90% of what we offer online is totally free, and the money we make on our for-sale products helps us keep this website online and advertisement free; it also keeps WritingFix (a website that we assumed sponsorship of in 2010 when the NNWP lost its federal funding) free and online. Thanks in advance if you decide to support our little website in this way; if you are happy with the single lesson from the 25 activities, that's fine too. Please just make sure you tell your fellow teachers where the idea came from, if you decide it's worthy of being shared among your staff.

Summarize what I've read this by sharing five songs? Explain how the plot, characters, and themes of my book made me think of these five songs' lyrics and/or titles? Our students really liked this idea when they first heard us share it as a new option for their reading journals, but a few of them caught on early to the reality of the task. "Can't I just write a two-paragraph summary?" some of the kiddos asked. "It doesn't take me as long to do that."

"What?" I always replied. "It doesn't take you as long to simply regurgitate your book's plot-line to me like they do on Sparknotes? Is that why you're asking? Because you were planning on using Sparknotes instead of doing your own thinking this week?" I like to have a little fun with my students who ask me to give them simpler tasks, which I assume they did a lot of with their previous reading and writing teachers.

"No," they cried as they defended their honor, which I truly wasn't calling into question. "It's just easier to write a summary."

"And when did it become okay in my class to do things in the 'easier' way?" My students learn real fast that a lot of the writing tasks I give them are short, but that means I expect them to spend some time thinking before putting pencil or pen to paper. The "Plotting a Musical Playlist" task is one of those types of writing tasks in my classroom. It admittedly requires a few extra steps beyond their reading of the week's assigned pages, a few extra steps to reflect on the characters, plot moments, and recurring thematic ideas and then think of music they know that somehow shows a connection.

Now I'll admit to those of you who don't have the entire Bingo Card of activities that I can say to my students, "Then choose a different activity for the week from the card. There are twenty-four more options after all." I can say this to my students who don't love their music as much as the 90% of my students who relish the opportunity to talk about their favorite songs and groups and solo artists. I believe strongly in providing choice options for students, so if you don't have other choices to offer them because you don't own our entire set of 25 activities, you might want to assign this activity initially as classwork (instead of homework) to small groups (instead of individuals) so that you can eavesdrop on their conversations and determine who's actually done the reading for the week in that tricky way those of us who don't play solitaire or check our e-mails when we give them small group tasks to complete. If you do this as a small group or partner activity, make sure each group has a computer available to them, and figure out a way to rotate the responsibility of who is doing the computer research for songs or lyrics. I like to yell "Five minutes have passed! You need to have someone else sit with the computer for the next four minutes!"

If they're working in groups for this task, be very prepared to hear students become very defensive about their music preferences. As I write this lesson up in December of 2014, I vividly recall the fights last year over statements like "One Direction is such an amazing group" and "Lady Gaga has no talent at all!" In front of the students, I acknowledge that most people are very passionate about the music they like, and that most people have very different tastes in music, but we--as always--will speak to each other with respect as we complete this group task. Each time I hear group members saying anything disrespectful, I immediately increase the number of songs that group owes me by one song.

Note about acceptable words in song titles and lyrics: Obviously with today's ever-changing music industry, you need to set some ground rules about what kind of words in song lyrics you're willing to accept from students if they do this task individually as homework, which is how Dena and I both assign it to be. You can probably think of a specific student who'd--perhaps purposely--try to shock you with the most vulgar of song lyrics from his/her own personal music collection. You have to decide what you'll tolerate, and you need to make that expectation very clear before students are sent out on this task. Dena is more liberal than me; she let's her kids use songs that have lyrics with certain words that I don't allow in my classroom at all. My rule is "If it's a word you wouldn't use in a job interview or a college interview, then keep it out of my classroom." My students are in middle school, and I hope their parents monitor their music choices so that words harsher than 'damn, 'hell,' and 'crap' don't end up on their children's actual I-pods and music players, but I can't control that; I can, however, set the rule in my classroom that I don't want f-bombs in the songs they are sharing with me. Would that policy change if I was still teaching Juniors and Seniors? Probably, but you have to make the decision based on what you're personally comfortable defending if it comes to that. What I say to my students is "There are more than enough songs out there to choose from that wouldn't even make this an issue at all, and those are the songs I expect you to be sharing with me if you choose this option as your means to summarize what's going on in your book. If a lyric in your song would make my grandmother blush, then you don't get to use that song."

Dena's Reading Summary Bingo Task: So this activity actually started taking shape back in 2012. My wife--who had grown quite disillusioned with her school's Accelerated Reader program requirements and the fact that she was making her students "dance" for gradebook points instead of enjoy good books--set out to create twenty-five alternative ways to have students prove to her they had read that week by sharing a short but meaningful piece of original writing about the book they were in the process of reading. Once a week--this was Dena's original plan--her students would complete one of her "instead-of-simply-writing-a-summary" tasks from the list of activities she was developing, and for each book students read independently, she wanted to see four or five (perhaps more) completed activities that--if all were looked over together--would serve as legitimate proof the student had read and comprehended the book. Instead of depending on her school's AR Program's multiple choice quizzes over books, she allowed her students to create what we called "mini portfolios" of creative writing tasks inspired by four or five (perhaps more or less, depending on the book's size) of the thoughtful tasks from her Bingo Card. Obviously with five completed activities, students might create an actual "bingo!" using the card, but both Dena and I decided that creating five-in-a-row activities should not be a strict requirement, just suggested as a challenge. Dena allows her students to take a prize from her prize basket if they make a perfect Bingo after five weeks of using the Bingo card of the month; it's amazing how many kids will take on that more restrictive challenge so they can have a fancy pencil, sticker, or plastic toy Dena provides from the Dollar Store.

One of the more popular of the twenty-five activities on Dena's Reading Summary Bingo Cards quickly became the one that is called "Plotting out a Musical Playlist." Here are the simple instructions that Dena created for her students and that are a part of the interactive PowerPoint teachers can load onto their students' shared drives at school if they purchase the set of Bingo cards from us: "This activity requires you to represent important scenes or important characters in your book as represented through a music playlist.  You will need to create a 5-song playlist for your I-pod, along with a detailed two-sentence explanation for each song you have included.  This activity needs you to bring your love of music into the book you are reading! Your choice of songs should refer to events focused on the current week’s reading.  You are allowed to make up song titles, if you need to." Almost no students ever take her up on that last sentence, which I find really interesting.

As always, Dena and I both provide our students with a teacher-model with the writing tasks we assign. When Dena created her teacher models for the twenty-five tasks on her Bingo Cards, she went back and re-read the first few chapters of twenty-five books from her classroom library that her students check out the most often, and her teacher-models are based on those books. For the "Plotting out a Musical Playlist" activity, she used the fourth book in Cassandra Clare's The Mortal Instruments series, The City of Fallen Angels, which her middle school girls absolutely adore and love to create "book clubs" around. Clicking on the slide image above, and going to the second slide, will show you Dena's teacher model she shares with her students.

How I Use this Assignment Differently than Dena : Dena's students maintain both a reading notebook and a separate writer's notebook for her class, and she does a great job of helping her students find ways to love both of these notebooks. At the end of each week, she checks the students' notebooks for their newest completed activity from the Bingo card; before she checks them, she requires the students to give themselves a grade (using the rubric that comes with the Bingo Card set), to verbally justify their grade to another student, and she is usually able to check them all during class on Fridays while the students are working on something else. By having students verbally justify their self-evaluation to another student before she comes around, the students have already practiced how they're going to justify their grade when Dena asks them, and so the process moves along "much more efficiently," according to my wife.

Me? We do so much with our writer's notebooks (click that link if you're new to my site and don't know how much I believe in the importance of having a solid writer's notebook routine) that I don't want my students to have to maintain a second notebook. I used to have them divide their writer's notebooks into two parts: one for writing and one for reading responses, but my young and wonderful writers actually told me that they would prefer their writer's notebooks just to be the writing they were working on. They didn't like my assignments for reading mixed in with their personal explorations of writing. I, too, require them to self-evaluate, but I have them explain/justify their self-evaluation in a short paragraph they write in class before they hand their reading summary tasks in to me on the Fridays they are due.

Each book we read (both the assigned and independently chosen titles) becomes a 6- to 8-minute persuasive speech/presentation my students prepare for small group sharing, and these happen--on average--every four or five weeks in my classroom. That's a basic explanation of how my Reading Workshop program works (click that link if you're new to my site and don't know how much I believe in the importance of having students give "book talks" instead of write book reports). This past year, I experimented with having my sixth and seventh graders--after spending five weeks on an independently-chosen novel and turning in a Bingo card activity per week--go back to their five activities, revise them, publish them, and present them as a "mini portfolio" about their books to each other. I ended up with some amazing samples of the activities; normally, the samples aren't typed and decorated so nicely as these, but I believe in showing students top-notch samples to motivate excellence.

So here are some of those top-notch, revised & published examples I photographed of the "Plotting a Musical Playlist" activity from four of students who chose to do that activity as one of their five activities. Keep in mind this: they had the choice of doing five activities from a selection of twenty-five activities. I believe these four samples--as different as they are from each other--show quality because my students who like linking music to their reading consciously chose this activity; it wasn't forced on them. That's the beauty of using choice when you're differentiating instruction with your students. The twenty-five activities on Dena's Reading Bingo Cards purposely appeal to different types of learners who can express themselves in different ways. Keep that in mind as you peruse these students' Musical Playlists.

Student Samples of Published Playlists--Click each image to see a larger version of the students' work

6th grader Riley's published playlist
for the novel Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick

6th grader Shea's published playlist
for the novel Insurgent by Veronica Roth

7th grader Meghan's published playlist
for the novel Confessions of a First Daughter by Cassidy Calloway

7th grader Cole's published playlist
for the novel Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

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iPod Playlist: Reading Summary Idea #2
This is an adaptation I made to Dena's original "Plotting out a Playlist" idea from her 25 original activities when two things happened while using her Bingo Cards with my own students: 1) several of my students wrote such vague playlist descriptions that I was doubting they had really read the assigned chapters of our class book, and 2) in making a teacher model, I realized that there were songs that weren't 100% about the book's idea I wanted to express, but there was a specific lyric or verse that--if I explained it out of the context of the song--I could really relate to the character or the situation in the context of the chapter that had been assigned.

My adaptation of Dena's original idea involved students--instead of simply citing the title of the song and giving a short summary of the whole song's lyrics as they generally related to current reading--well, it required my students to actually paste a short portion of a song's lyrics from the song onto the assignment they were turning in; they, then, had to write a succinct explanation and justification that focused on how the lyrics they had focused on from the bigger song were the most appropriate lines to help them explain something plot-driven or some character's motivation from an assigned chapter/section. It also permitted students to pull the clean portion of a song's lyrics out that--otherwise--wouldn't have been allowed because of the "mean old Mr. Harrison's language restrictions" I had set on the original version of this assignment; sometimes a song labeled "explicit" actually has a significant verse or two that avoids the vulgar language.

My students always ask me, "What's your favorite book ever, Mr. Harrison," my safest answer is always, "Well, my favorite classic is Huckleberry Finn," which is totally true. It and Lord of the Flies were the first "classics" I picked up on my own and read cover to cover, just because I wanted to, and Huck Finn spoke more to my adventurous, youthful spirit more than those good and evil boys trapped on William Golding's allegorical island. I actually happen to think Stephen King has written some of the best books I have ever read and enjoyed with every page turn, but I can't recommend those books to my students unless I know their parents pretty well. So safe answer: "Huckleberry Finn is my favorite book, kids!"

I personally think Huckleberry's story starts out pretty slowly (which can also be said of Golding's Lord of the Flies, I suppose), but even so, for my teacher model of this variation, I focused on the first five chapters of Huck's novel. Each chapter, I decided, helped me learn an important aspect about Huck or one of the other characters' traits. You can click on the image at right or here to open a printable version of this teacher-model that successfully showed my students how much detail I was expecting from them to show me how they'd chosen the song.

I had to do a little mini-lesson using Google and my Smartboard to show kids how I found my songs--two of which I'd not heard of before making this model. My mini-lesson simply ran like this:

  • I explain how in chapter four, we meet the Window Douglas' slave, Jim, for a second time, and for a second time, he acts like he strongly believes in superstitious things. I determined this must be an important element of the character since it has already shown up twice. The kids like it when I explain how Jim tries to read Huck's fortune using--not a crystal ball--but a coughed-up hairball. I think that description alone has convinced a number of my students to try out Huck Finn's story on their own, which is how I first enjoyed that book.
  • I tell the students how I wanted my song lyric from chapter four to say something about superstition that I think the character Jim would agree with. I bring up the Google main page on my Smartboard and type in Songs about Superstition, and they quickly notice how I barely got through the word superstition before Google guessed what I wanted to search for. Oh, if only we'd had Google when we were kids; as it was, doing this kind of search and research might have taken me a half day at the library back in the olden days!
  • I chose to demonstrate with the theme of superstition from chapter four because I knew--from experience--the songs that came up in the first five hits would have pretty tame lyrics. If you do the same with "songs about sinning," which is what I ultimately used to find my song lyric from chapter 1 of my teacher model, a few of the song choices were a little closer to R-rated language than I wanted for this demonstration. Always preview a site before showing it, right? I could tell you some unfortunate stories of times that I didn't do this.
  • I consciously chose to leave the last line off the segment of lyrics I pasted onto my model, which I wanted the kids to see and understand why. They are not allowed to change any lyrics to fit their needs, but they can edit them down. The original segment of lyrics I found in the Stevie Wonder song ended with the line "Superstition ain't the way." Stevie Wonder's lyrics give examples of superstitious behaviors but then negates those actions with that final line of his chorus. I don't believe Jim is at a point in his experience where he would know to negate his own superstitious beliefs despite their absurdity, and so I chose to leave that one line out. With my eighth graders, this led to a very intelligent discussion of propagandists quoting others improperly by only sharing a portion of what they say. I explained that we were doing a character, plot, or theme-driven assignment for me, not creating propaganda, so I was fine with them leaving a line or two out if it helped them explain one of those things better to the students they'd be sharing their lyrics with.
  • And with that demonstration, my students were ready to try it. I was duly impressed with how this assignment variation had my students more focused on thematic elements and character traits more than they had before.

This adaptation of Dena's original task involved a substantial amount of more detailed writing and research, and so I used it differently with my eighth graders. It became a two-week assignment that we used with a longer novel--Upton Sinclair's The Jungle--that we weren't using the entire set of Bingo Cards with. It became a single writing assignment that we used as a "midway through the novel" reflection assignment, and when everyone brought their five-song list to class on the due date, and we formed small groups for book talks, the discussions were amazing that day.

As you look at this adaptation I made, I remind you to remember the purpose of this website. We provide these lessons so that you will adapt them, not use them exactly as we did. Dena and I both freely admit that we became better writing teachers by borrowing recklessly from teachers we respect, and adapting their ideas to fit our own needs. A good writing teacher knows how to adapt a good idea to work with whatever grade or book they are teaching too; a poor writing teacher relies on a word-for-word script or other teacher's assignment. If you like this adaptation I made, then adapt it further. Create your own teacher model for your own favorite book so that you can explain your thinking and writing process to your own students. Trust me on this one. Let adaptation become second nature to you, and if you're at one of those schools that requires you to use a scripted program for writing, know that Dena and I have complete sympathy for your situation.

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iPod Playlist Idea #3: Grammatical Terminology Themes

I normally don't do this, but I am sharing a "lesson in progress" that I am finalizing and will be rolling out this spring with my eighth graders. No student samples...yet. Just a few teacher models in development still. It fits nicely in with this page's theme: taking advantage of the format of an iPod playlist.

First off, know that I am a grammar junkie and a grammar nerd. I didn't used to be! I finally lucked out and had a professor in college (Dr. Jacobson) who made grammar actually interesting to me (hint to all teachers = he didn't use a single grammar worksheet! Not ever!), and now I know so many, weird facts about grammar because he instilled in me a lifelong passion to know more. My favorite grammar book ever remains the first title in what became a series: The Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon, and re-reading it always teaches me a new rule or reminds me of a grammatical term I haven't used in a while. Grammar is the living, breathing, ever-developing structure of our language, and its existence fascinates me to this day because of one teacher who shared his passion about the topic in interesting ways. I hope I become that one great, grammar teacher to some of my writers; actually, I hope I am just one of many great grammar teachers but--sadly--I don't think enough language teachers understand grammar deeply enough to teach it in an interesting way. Here is one new way I am developing to teach what could be a very dry and boring grammar lecture, but I am choosing to make it interesting and to incorporate it into an actual writing assignment.

Common Core directly names (as well as hints at) a significant amount of grammatical vocabulary that I am quite certain many teachers--or at least those who don't love grammar as much as I do--teach primarily through worksheets or lecture, if they address them at all. Phrases versus clauses? Conjunctive adverbs versus the other types of conjunctions? Active versus passive voice? Imperative versus subjunctive mood? Gerunds versus infinitives versus participle phrases? Homographs versus homophones? Does that list of grammatical terms scare you? They're in the CCSS, and they depend on each year's new foundation, meaning if you're the teacher who skips your year of grammar vocabulary and understanding, you've just put your kids in a bad place for upcoming school years. If you read over the LANGUAGE section of the Common Core Standards for your grade level, you might be surprised at some of the grammatical terminology you're expected to teach; you should also look at the same strand of standards for the years the precede your grade level.

If you remember your most recent version of Bloom's taxonomy, you know that apply, analyze, evaluate and create are the four highest types of thinking we can engage our students with. From my years working for our district's professional development program, I suspect a lot of teachers misinterpret what apply means, and they mistakenly think by giving a lecture about--let's say--passive and active voice, then having kids attempt to master a worksheet, marking sentences with "P" for passive verb and "A" for active verb, they are asking students to apply the knowledge. They aren't. A worksheet promotes--at best--the Bloom's level of comprehend, which is demonstrating you have just a very basic understanding. To truly apply, you have to use the learned information in a completely different context, and a worksheet doesn't provide a different enough context from the type of sentences you're using with your lectures or lessons or however you're teaching your kids grammar-based vocabulary. What to do to reach analyze? You might show your students two different passages and demand of partners or small groups to, "Prove to me one of these writers uses more active voice than the other!" That's using the information in a different context! Then, if you have time, you can go wild and take it to analysis and evaluation by asking, "So which passage comes across as better written, if you were just basing that opinion just on each author's use of verbs?" Then really go nuts, and take it to the create level by then having students write an original 5-sentence, action-packed scene--once written all in passive voice, once written all in active voice. Did you notice the original writing requirement I threw in there to amuse myself? That's how you use writing to teach grammatical terms while you're actually teaching writing. That's a little trick my college professor and The (now Deluxe) Transitive Vampire set taught me to try, and it really works. Grammar is not a separate subject in my classroom; it's integrated into our writing assignments, and then we start looking for it in the reading we are doing as a class.

All right, that's my rant about why--after twelve years of wasting time with them--I believe grammar worksheets don't teach our students much about grammar at all, and how I've learned that if you simply practice as a teacher, you can incorporate the learning of grammatical terms into writing assignments that will help your students connect with the structure of language on a deeper level than those pointless worksheets might ever accomplish. Was that dogmatic enough? Did you know the four-word question I just asked in italics was composed of a linking verb, a relative pronoun, an adjective, and an adverbial intensifier? Maybe those labels are pointless and/or trivial information to you, but thanks to one great book and a teacher who taught me grammar with passion, I know those terms without having to look a single one of them up, and I actually use that knowledge to construct my own sentences and give them variety. Please understand: I don't teach my students all the grammatical terms I just threw in your face there, but the terms I do teach them stick with them, and they use them to think about when they are improving or analyzing their own writing. Each K-12 teacher--and Common Core makes this such a reality--needs to be responsible for helping their students truly apply new knowledge about new and previously learned grammatical terms with meaningful writing tasks. Have you looked at the Common Language expectations for the year(s) you directly teach and the years you're supposed to review? When I did, it was scary to see how much I wasn't covering, but I am taking steps to create high-level thinking tasks for my students that teaches them to truly analyze the grammar terms inside of sentences we read and write. Below is the newest idea that has occurred to me for teaching a grammatical term in a way that my students absolutely have to use the information in a different contextual task. It involves making an iPod playlist based on grammar terms.

Here's where this idea came from: Me? I am a maker of winter holiday gifts, not a buyer, and I make certain everyone I work with and call family knows this about me and reciprocates the big idea when it comes to me. I only purchase over-commercialized Christmas gifts for my nieces and nephews who are under the age of 18 (and I buy something for Dena, of course), but that's it; everyone else receives something I either make or something I find--and sometimes there's a few years in between me making or finding the perfect thing for a certain family member. My students tell me I have a pretty good (albeit eclectic) taste in music, so at some point I got in the habit of making music CDs for my work friends. I called them "From my iPod to yours" gifts, and I found if I created a fun theme for the CD, I could give everyone the same CD and just burn multiple copies. Even as a gift maker, there's always this teacher brain working in the back of my normal mind, and so for a few years, I created CDs that could actually teach you a bit more about grammar-based vocabulary; all the song titles on the CDs fit the grammatical theme I created after looking over song titles on my own iPod. I saved copies of most of those CDs, so here are the first two that I was able to locate:

My Playlist's Theme: Imperative Commands
My Playlist's Theme: Pronouns Only, No Nouns

Move Along All American Rejects
Knock on Wood Ami Stewart
Bang the Gong T. Rex
Stop and Stare One Republic
Love the One You're With Stephen Sills
Use Somebody Kings of Leon
Give a Little Bit The Goo Goo Dolls
Don't Panic Coldplay
Be My Lover La Bouche
Never Surrender Corey Hart
Eat It Weird Al Yankovich
Call Me Blondie
Live and Let Die Guns N' Roses

You and Me Lifehouse
When I'm With You Sheriff
Gotta Be Somebody Nickelback
I Did It Dave Matthews Band
You Found Me The Fray
I Think I Love You The Partridge Family
I Just Want To Be Your Everything Andy Gibb
What About Me? Moving Pictures
You Get What You Give New Radicals
Don't Do Me Like That Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Any Way You Want It Journey
You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet Bachman-Turner Overdrive
If This is It Huey Lewis & The News

It is actually fun for me to go through the song titles on my own iPod and see if any grammatical vocabulary themes emerge. As I explored the grammatical terms that Common Core will require me to teach and review to my own 6th-8th graders, I see a lot of potential for giving this task to my own students. Below are two ideas I'm working through, the first one being fairly simple, and the second one fairly complex. From these two ideas, I hope you can adapt a way to use this Grammatical Playlist idea in your own classroom, either as an individual or a group task; actually, I see my kids taking this task home and explaining it to their families, so my students can learn a little more about the music their parents remember and listen to. That's always a nice touch in a writing assignment: linking home discussions to the task.

Grammatical Playlist idea #1: (a review for my 6th-8th graders but perhaps a "first time teaching" moment for younger students.) CD Theme: Nouns or Adjectives? There are a lot of songs that have one-word titles, and I will ask my students to create a twelve-song playlist. Half of their song titles have to be one-word adjectives (like "Brave by Katy Perry or "Alive" by Pearl Jam). The other half of the song titles would be one-word common--not proper--nouns (like "Clocks" by Coldplay or "Obsession" by Skye Ferreira). When students bring in their written playlists (they don't have to actually burn the actual CD, just so you know), I will put them in small groups, and each student will take his/her turn sharing their song titles. The rest of the group must unanimously decide if the one-word title is a noun or an adjective; then, they must decide if the adjective has a noun form (like bravery for "Brave") and if each noun has an adjective form (like clock-like for "Clocks"). I suppose I could simply give them a "Noun or Adjective" worksheet after a short lecture, but I just see this as being much more meaningful to help my writers truly "own" the vocabulary of grammar.

Grammatical Playlist idea #2: (this one is teaching a brand new grammatical concept--I'll be doing this task with my 8th graders this spring) CD Theme: Gerunds or Participles? Verbs are the coolest part of speech in my humble opinion, because with a little tweaking, they can become other parts of speech, mainly adjectives and nouns. A gerund is a verb phrase that is actually serving as a noun in a sentence; in contrast, a participle is a verb phrase that is actually serving as an adjective in a sentence. Ralph Fletcher (my favorite author when it comes to someone who writes books for student writers on how to become better writers) says a sure-fire way to improve your writing is to "invigorate you verbs," and I whole-heartedly agree. I take Ralph's advice a step further by telling my students to start by invigorating their writing's action verbs, but then I tell them to skillfully hide more verbs in those same sentences that are actually nouns and adjectives. I call it "invigorating your verbs--turbo style." Obviously, students need to know the difference among verbs, adjectives, and nouns before this lesson can begin, and I'm saddened when I inherit a new student half-way through our school year who isn't able to confidently identify these very basic parts of speech because how does one become an 8th grader without knowing this yet? Middle school years--to me--are the years to strengthen and solidify students' foundational knowledge, not teach the basics to them for the first time.

So generally speaking (because there are always exceptions to every grammatical rule), both gerunds and participles begin with a verb that is in its -ing form. The -ing verb is followed immediately by a noun, an adverb, a preposition, or a combination of those parts of speech; it is possible to have a gerund or a participle that is made up of just an -ing verb, but I tell my students those aren't quality gerunds or participles, and I require my students to create gerunds and participles with more than one word when we are learning about them. An -ing verb by itself is just a verb, but following that -ing verb with a noun, a prepositional phrase or an adverb turns your verb into a verb phrase, which is another set of grammatical terms I can review as I teach this lesson to my eighth graders this spring.

The same -ing verb phrase, in the hands of a skilled writer, can actually be used as either a gerund or a participle in a sentence, and that will be the ultimate objective of having my students make a Gerund or Participle? playlist for this assignment. To demonstrate how I'm going to teach this lesson, allow me to start with three songs from my own iPod that are -ing verb phrases:

"Running on Empty"
by Jackson Browne
"Dancing with Myself"
by Billy Idol
"Rolling in the Deep"
by Adele

Notice that the first word of every title above is the -ing form of a verb; remind your students that just because there is an -ing word somewhere in the title of a song doesn't make it eligible for this playlist assignment. The first word must be an -ing word that's a verb with the -ing suffix. If you're a fellow fan of Wiggins and McTighe's Understanding by Design lesson-building templates and lesson-design strategies, you know already that a good teacher anticipates those things that will confuse some students, and the teacher plans to address those potential confusions before, during, and after instruction. As I scanned my own iPod's songs, I saw potential confusions; therefore, before, during and after my lesson, I will remind my students that not every word that ends in -ing is a verb. The word during, for example, is a preposition. Nothing and something and everything are all pronouns. There are songs that begin with these words, and I don't want students to bring in titles that can't be used for our thinking and writing activity. The easy way to check your correctness on this one is this: if you drop the -ing from the word (and the sometimes doubled consonant, as you would have to with the word running), you should be left with a recognizable verb or action. With during, you can't dur because there is no such action; you also can't noth, someth, or everyth as actions. If you look at my three example songs above, you can run (if you remember it's okay to drop the doubled consonant!), you can dance, and you can roll. They are all action words.

When the students bring in their playlists of song titles that are indeed -ing verb phrases, I will expect them to create original sentences (working with partner, doing this work in front of me) wherein they use each song title as both a participle and as a gerund in their two separate sentences, and I'll expect them to absolutely know which is which in both sentences. Let's start with some gerund examples based on two of the three songs I have listed above. If my set of examples make sense, then I challenge you to create your own example sentences for my Adele song title that's my third example! Fair enough? I'm suspecting there are good teachers reading over this lesson who might be just learning about the difference between participles and gerunds, and that's fair based on what I know about how I was taught grammar for most of my own schooling days...but a good teacher is okay admitting they can still learn about the topics they're expected to teach.

Gerund examples (remember, when it's a gerund, the entire verb phrase is actually acting as a noun--or as the subject or direct object or as an object of a preposition in the sentence; I will show you three examples for each song, and the examples will go in that order.)

  • Running on empty is a possibility now that we have hybrid vehicles that can intelligently switch between gas and electric engine power.
  • By missing breakfast on Saturday, the track star knew she'd have to endure running on empty. (There's a bonus gerund in this sentence--if you can spot it!)
  • The oil lamp became a religious legend by running on empty.
  • Dancing with myself can actually serve as a pretty good form of exercise.
  • I happen to enjoy dancing with myself since the boys typically step on my toes when they attempt to dance with me.
  • After dancing with myself in front of everyone at the prom, I earned the tiniest bit of respect from some of the "cool" kids.

Participle examples (remember, when it's a participle, the entire verb phrase is acting as an adjective; if that adjective is further describing the subject of the sentence, you must separate it from the rest of the sentence with a comma--or with two commas if the participle phrase happens to fall in the middle of the sentence.)

  • Running on empty, the old pick-up truck sputtered along the old highway towards the lonely gas station.
  • The old pick-up truck sputtered along the old highway towards the lonely gas station, running on empty.
  • The old pick-up truck, running on empty, sputtered along the old highway towards the lonely gas station.
  • Dancing with myself, I discovered how to waltz and how to tango.
  • I discovered how to waltz and how to tango, dancing with myself.
  • I, dancing with myself, discovered how to waltz and how to tango.

Sometimes, there is such a subtle difference between gerunds and participles, and in eighth grade I don't need to dwell too hard on that reality; I hope the high school teachers who inherit my young writers, when they review participles and gerunds, can go a little deeper with the foundational lesson I'm giving here. If you're personally interested, note the very subtle difference between these two sentences:

  • Participle: Dancing with myself, I discovered how to waltz and how to tango. (The comma is absolutely required in this sentence.)
  • Gerund: By dancing with myself, I discovered how to waltz and how to tango. (The comma is nice here for the reader's sake, but it's actually an optional comma. See, I love knowing grammar because it teaches me other skills, like punctuation.)

How the lesson will run: I will use my three songs examples above to teach my students the difference between gerunds and participles. After seeing my examples, I will ask them to construct an original sentence that uses the exact same gerund or participle from my examples. We will share our new example sentences in small groups, questioning me if a disagreement occurs in a group member's example. I will talk about confusing -ing verbs with prepositions and with pronouns. Homework will be to come in with a 10-song playlist made up of -ing verbs phrases that could become gerunds or participles. When homework is due, students will form small groups and exchange playlists. First, they will check to make sure all ten songs match the expected criteria of being an -ing verb phrase. Second they will pick one of the song titles from a fellow group members' playlist and create a two sentences, one that uses the verb phrase as a gerund, one that uses the verb phrase as a participle. Sentences will be shared aloud, and group members will be allowed to disagree if a fellow group member has created an incorrect sentence. Group members will pass the playlists to the next student, and the sentence-making process will continue, but a different song title must be used on this second rotation. We will rotate a third time, and then I will quiz them somehow to see who has it and who doesn't. I will re-teach if needed, and we will probably review the material over the next week by challenging my students to find (or add) gerunds and participles in their already-written passages from their writer's notebooks.

I look forward to sharing samples from this lesson when I use it this spring. In the meantime, I challenge you--if you're inspired by this way to think about grammar--to share ideas for grammar playlists or--better yet--a playlist based on a grammatical term I haven't mentioned on this page? You can share your ideas at our ning; use this page to post your ideas in the "reply" box below the post:

Until next month, I hope you find some new ways to think about teaching grammar at the analysis level of Blooms and beyond!


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