Six Alternative Building Background Strategies for ELA Teachers

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Long gone are the days that I stand in front of my class before the start of a novel and go through a three day powerpoint slide.  Ten years ago, that was best practice for so many of us. They were lessons I looked forward to, but I fear it’s because I loved being center stage.  The trouble with that? Planning lessons so highly teacher-centered just isn’t the way to go! We can do better and I have six solutions today that you can try.

1.  QR Code Stations:

This is by far one of my go-to favorites!  To create QR Code stations, begin by identifying five or six strong, engaging websites, videos, or other web-based sources.  Each source should explore a different element of the background information needed before starting your next novel/unit of study.  If you think about what you would have used originally to put in a powerpoint full of information, take that same information but put it into distinct categories.

Once you’ve found your websites, all you need to do now is create your QR codes and the handout students will use as they travel around the room visiting each station.  For the handout, I simply create a table (3x3 for six stations) and design a pointed, specific question for each station. To create the QR codes, I use this QR code generator (it’s free!), and then print out a sign for each station that says Station 1:  and the QR code. Finally, print and hang up your stations and print or make your student handouts electronically accessible and your lesson is ready!

Looking for a lesson to get you started? Check this one out: Villain Archetype Digital Stations Activity!

2.  Artifact Carousel:

This is a no-tech, hands on version of the QR Code Stations activity.  Instead of finding websites and videos, in this approach, you’d bring in physical artifacts for students to examine.  Students travel around the room from artifact to artifact recording their observations and making predictions as to what they might mean or signify in the context of the next unit that you’re beginning.  

For example, before I start teaching a Shakespeare play, I might give students the heads up that we are in fact starting Shakespeare, but I want to see what they know about him and his life before beginning.  One artifact I like to use is a sun (picture or other toy/item from around the house). The kids look at it, discuss it, and make guesses as to why I would have included that as an artifact leading up to a study in Shakespeare.  When the carousel is over, and after hearing a number of student guesses, I would reveal to them that the sun is included because all of Shakespeare’s plays had to take place during the day time because the Globe did not have electric lighting.  Also, Shakespeare uses some beautiful poetic language to describe night because it would have be be imagined during the play. Have fun choosing your artifacts! When Shakespeare is concerned, I love using a plastic skull head (to talk about drama), a stick of deodorant (those groundlings were pretty stinky!), and a crown (to talk about Shakespeare’s connection to Queen Elizabeth). It’s great to watch the kids work together making predictions and actively pulling together their background knowledge.  

3.  Persona Poem:

I love this creative writing approach to starting a novel!  If you’ve never written or heard of persona poetry before, it’s really quite simple, and at the same time extremely powerful for students.  The idea of a persona poem is to take on the “persona” of another person (or in some cases object). So, before we started Of Mice and Men, I shared with the students some of Dorothea Lange’s photography of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.  After viewing and discussing the photos, I asked students to write a poem from the perspective (persona) of someone they saw in the pictures that day.  By having students work to put themselves in the shoes or life of the context of the novel before reading it, they were ready to start meeting characters once we started reading.  I love these two persona poems to use as examples (use at your discretion) by Jamila Woods and Margaret Atwood.

4.  Pear Deck/NearPod:

These two tech options are a great alternative to the powerpoint lecture.  Both Pear Deck and NearPod allow you to communicate a lot of new information to students quickly, but they have built in methods of checking for understanding and interaction along the way.  Each platform has their own unique style, so be sure to check them both out to see which fits best with your goals.

5.  Text Scavenger Hunt:

Does your text have features that would be helpful for students to discover ahead of time?  Maybe your next novel has really intriguing chapter titles or a particularly telling epitaph.  If you’re starting a play, there are probably lots of features that you want students to discover and discuss before starting.  And if you’re starting some nonfiction, there are probably some important different ways of sectioning the text that your students should notice ahead of time, too.  To create a text scavenger hunt, I usually identify a few important features (titles, characters, vocabulary, structures, table of contents, author’s notes, dedications, the cover picture(s), etc.) and send the students on a scavenger hunt through the text to find each of the components I’ve identified.  Then, students can work in pairs to find each of the elements and at the end of the class period come together to discuss the significance of all their findings.

6.  TedEd:

If you haven’t used TedEd yet, what on earth are you waiting for?!  Similar to EdPuzzle, TedEd videos take students through a TedTalk with layered questions. There is also a discussion board option that I LOVE using with students! TedEd has tons of pre-created lessons connected to videos, but also offers educators the chance to design their own lessons, too!