Judging books by their covers: using imagination to teach elements of fiction

“Never judge a book by its cover” is a cliche of which most our students are aware. This lesson takes that cliche, and turns it on its head to help students use their imaginations, creativity, and collaboration to better practice the understanding and application of story elements.

In the lesson, small groups get a book and are asked to imagine a plot and theme of the book based only on the title and what they can see on the front cover. Groups imagine these elements, draw a plot diagram, and then present their stories with the rest of the class. At the end, groups then get to read the inside/back cover and students are always excited about how their plots are similar or different from the actual book.

This lesson is meant to cover the CCSS standard for 8th grade ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.2, which reads: “Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text” (English Language Arts Standards » Reading: Literature » Grade 8). Depending on what elements your focus on, you could use this lesson with many grade levels based on this specific standard.

This lesson is ideal for students as a review/extension activity. Personally, I implemented this lesson after noticing through assessment that my students were still struggling with plotting out the conflict of stories that they had read. I wanted a lesson that included creativity instead of simply reading another story and drawing another plot diagram. My goals for this lesson also included having students work together collaboratively and to get them excited to share their ideas with each other. These skills (creativity, collaboration, and communication) are three of the four 21st century skills that are students desperately need.

These elements can be changed however it best suits your students’ learning needs. The elements that I focused on in this lesson are: protagonist/antagonist, dynamic/static characterization, conflict, narrator, theme, and a plot diagram (setting, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution). As stated, you can change these around as suits your students’ needs, focusing on those terms that they need the most reinforcement in.

The lesson hook is to tell students that today they are going to judge books by their covers. I prepared for the lesson by grabbing enough books from my classroom libraries to have the class split up into groups of 2 or 3. I made sure the covers of these books were engaging and interesting looking and only had a title and author on them. That way students would have enough material to spark their imaginations, but not any plot points that would stifle those same imaginative juices.

I let each group pick a book, making sure to emphasize that they must judge the book solely on its cover. Then I emphasize to the students that they are to use their imaginations and collaborate together to complete the imaginative task laid before them.

I project a list of questions that students are to answer. Students typed up their answers on a document and used an online drawing tool OR my white board to create their plot diagram. (You could get this to students however you see fit based on technology available in your class.) I made sure to emphasize (going along with the standard) that their theme, characters, setting, and plot all needed to be connected to that main idea summary that they began with.

Imagine a story creativity questions

  1. Write a 1-3 sentence summary of what happens in the book.
  2. What is the conflict? (and what type is it)
  3. Who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist?
  4. What is the setting? (time, place, AND social context)
  5. Draw a plot diagram for the story
    1. Remember that CLIMAX is where the conflict undergoes some change
  6. Is the protagonist dynamic or static and how?
  7. Is the antagonist dynamic or static and how?
  8. What type of narrator is it? (1st, 3rd limited, 3rd omn.)
  9. Write a theme statement for the book

I then had students present to the class, while making sure that everyone could see the cover of their book. Finally, after presenting, each group read the back cover/inside cover.

Overall, this was a fun and engaging activity. Students were hooked from the beginning and my formative data showed me that students engaged in the elements of fiction at a higher rate than previously in the class. It worked well to engage students in three of the 4 C’s and was highly aligned to a CCSS standard.

I encourage you to try this lesson out with your students, at any grade level.



Published in the local paper!

A class project my students did was published in the paper. In order to teach argument structure, students picked a local issue that they cared about. They then figured out who was a possible change-maker for the issue. Then, they wrote a letter and sent it to that particular change-maker.

Many students received letters back, but even if they didn’t, this was the most engaged that they had been so far this year. It just goes to show you that an authentic audience and purpose really does go a long way.

You can read the article here.


First day of school 2016!

Well everyone, the first day is in the books. I had a great and busy day. I really try to make my first day pretty interactive and fun since I know that students will maybe be sitting and listening to syllabi the rest of the day. (Side note: can we all stop doing that?!)

My first day centers around being awesome. I really want to set the tone for the year as positive and exciting, and I borrow from TLAP to make it happen.

First, we watch a Kid President video (the pep talk one). Then students make a symbol out of playdoh of what makes them awesome. They then do some sharing and write about it. Overall, it’s a great first day. Who doesn’t love Kid President and playing with playdoh?

Here’s a link to a quick video of my favorite student creation. They made a book (as a whole table!) to show how they like to read.


Creating a model of your biggest fear

Today was a fun day in 8th grade dealing with our biggest fears. Which, at first listen, might sound a little strange: how can your biggest fear be fun? However, combining a makerspace and our biggest fears turns out to be a fun and creative day.

We are starting a new unit today where students will be reading and analyzing horror, mystery, and suspense stories. In order to get them excited about the unit and thinking about fear, I designed this day.

Students first thought about their biggest fear. I then unleashed them onto the makerspace. They had about 15 minutes to make their fear from the makerspace supplies. I got some really great creations (and some not so great). Students then reflected on and analyzed their fears.

Overall it was a great way to start the unit and students are excited to get to reading!

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Using video games to teach story elements/analysis

I’m currently in the middle of a unit with my 8th graders teaching story elements and analysis, with a focus on theme. So many of my students struggle with the motivation to read stories simply for the joy of reading. I do my best to make the stories we do read engaging stories that have relevance for their lives. (For example, we acted out the lottery with only the Hutchinson family in on the deal.) However, for my struggling readers, seeing the big picture of why knowing story elements and being able to analyze their structure is still a grind. So, I’m going to insert something that I hope will increase their interest and understanding of why story elements play an important role in their lives.

So, this week we will be playing some video games and will be analyzing their story elements as well as evaluating that story. When finished with their analysis, students will be writing a game review on a Google Slide. I’ll then be tweeting these reviews from my teacher Twitter account. I’m also hoping a few gamer students know of a website where users can post game reviews themselves. That way I don’t have to tweet 80 different slides.

By the way, all of these games are playable on Chromebooks.

Here are the materials if you’re interested:

  • List of online games with good stories
  • Game analysis sheet: analyze for story elements
  • Game review template

Using “Making a Murderer:” best decision ever!

You might think I’m crazy, but let me tell you, teaching documentary analysis through “Making a Murderer” was one of the best decisions I’ve made so far this year. I’ve written a little bit about it before, but let me give you a little update.

Through some awesome help of social media and a friend of a friend, I got a guest speaker to come to my classroom yesterday. Chris Duffy was a reporter in Green Bay and covered the whole Steven Avery trial and fiasco. He now lives in the Twin Cities, right where I teach. Chris recently wrote an article for the Star Tribune about how documentaries are inherently biased. This is exactly what we’re tyring to teach the kids: that they must analyze everything in the media that they see and hear to really understand if it’s credible or not.

First, we read his article. I used DocentEDU to create an interactive, blended lesson for my students that they worked through at their own pace. It really was so awesome to have their online discussion answers to help spur discussion face to face. Then, Mr. Duffy was magnanimous enough to actually come and speak to my students.

My students were so engaged. Chris was a wonderful speaker and was so interesting. He hit on every single point that I had been trying to teach my students over the course of the unit. Our EQ had been, “Are documentaries a credible source of information?” Chris more than delivered. My students asked him questions (based on the DocentEDU lesson) for the whole class period. While reading their reflections afterwards, having Mr. Duffy as a guest really helped them think and learn about how they do and should consume media. The kids were still talking about it today.

Like I’ve said in other posts, I really encourage you to just reach out and find someone to come and speak to your class. I’ve had guests for every unit so far this year, and it always is the highlight of each unit. Just put a call out there and you never know who you might get!

Throwing Caution to the Wind: Community Members in the Classroom

Sometimes you just have to dive in head first, no matter what hesitations or worries you might have. Sometimes people ask me how I accomplish so much or learn so much. I would say that it comes from one simple thing: I’m not afraid of trying new things, failing, and then learning from those mistakes. If I have an idea that I think would be awesome for my students, I try it. It benefits no one to sit and hem and haw over whether something might flop or be great. You’ll never know unless you try.

Based on that mentality, I’ve tried out something this year that is going really well (for the most part–there are always mistakes) this year: inviting as many community members as possible into my classroom.

One of the goals that our building admin has set for every teacher is that they have one community member visit their classroom sometime during the school year. So far, because of diving in head first, I’ve had 12 community members visit my classroom and will actually have 3 more visiting in the next two weeks!

Let’s see who and what I’ve had happen in my classroom, and how diving in headfirst has helped!

  • Local businessman in charge of a local community action project
    • I had students writing persuasive essays about local social justice issues. Students couldn’t find the info online they needed, so we got on my iPhone on speaker and called the local Chamber of Commerce who put us in touch with someone who came into school the next day and was interviewed by my students.
  • Local entreprenuer
    • Students were beginning an entreprenuer project. I contacted a list serve of which I’m a part from my edtech company. A local entreprenuer came in and talked about basic design principles which helped my students make awesome advertisments for their products!
  • Owner of a PR firm
    • As part of the same list serve email, the owner of a local PR firm skyped with all my classes to talk about how to craft their advertising messages for the projects. He even coordinated with a nationally-published education blog for their work to be published online!
  • Graphic designer
    • From the same PR firm as above, she helped students with their logos. She even gave specific mentoring feedback to groups throughout their projects!
  • Local business professionals
    • When my students presented their final entreprenuership and advertising projects, I got 8 separate business professionals ranging from advertisers to local newspaper employees to Rotary club members to come and be guest judges. It was very powerful!
  • PBS Documentarian and social justice musician
    • We will have an assembly for all 8th graders in our whole town to hear and learn from this couple. We are currently studying documentaries in all 8th grade classes, and they are coming this next week to present to all the 8th graders!
  • Journalist who helped cover the Steven Avery trial
    • As I wrote about in another post, we are examing the film-making techniques of “Making a Murderer.” I actually got in touch with a journalist who covered the trial! He agreed to come to class. We’re so excited!

I could go on and on about how awesome it has been for my students to have these guests. And, I’ll just keep on diving head first and making random phone calls and sending random emails and random tweets as much as I can to get even more people to come in and help my students learn.

Like I said, although there have definitely been some things that I’d like to change in the future (and I’ve been learning from guest to guest), I won’t stop throwing caution to the wind.