Send Your Students to Boot Camp

Every summer, after several glorious weeks of relaxation and sun-filled days, I start imagining how I want my upcoming classes to function.

As a high school English teacher, I always have students entering classes with a variety of skill levels and experiences. While I know my job is to meet those students at their level and teach them our course standards, I decided that I needed something that would consolidate our varied skills and start us off on a common path; something that would give these kids a strong foundation and allow them to continue building upon it.

I feel like I wrestle with the same questions every year:
  • Will I give a baseline assessment and what will I do with it?  
  • Should I start with short stories and teach all the literary devices they’ll need to know for the year through the stories? I know that’s helpful, and a common way for high school teachers to start the year. But is it too much too soon? 
  • Should I start with a review of the things they may have forgotten over the summer? Nitpicky things, like commonly confused words, reviewing plurals and possessives, formatting titles, including T-A-G, paragraphing… Yes, I like that idea, but does it go far enough?
How can I marry all these ideas into something that will build the foundational skills I need the students to have?  How can I start the year in a way that the students find valuable?  How can I provide a reference point that they can rely on for the rest of our time together (and more)?

Enter Course Skills Boot Camp!

In my planning (and especially on the heels of a year of distance learning), I loved the idea of a boot camp format to give my students a focused start…but what would I include? Thinking about our content standards and the toolbox of tricks that I’ve used in the past, I decided that reading analysis had to be the focus. Teaching solid writing is an anchor of our year, so I was confident that by digging into reading analysis, those fundamental skills would solidify and our writing would benefit.

So, what would this look like?

On the first full week of school, I give students a two-day baseline assessment. While this might sound intimidating to students, I like having an indication of what skills my students are entering with. On the first day, I give students a handout of the short story, “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros, knowing that it is very accessible to most readers. After I read the story aloud, I ask them to color-mark and annotate what they find important. Some students create a key of literary devices they notice and do a beautiful job of analyzing the text. And some students look at me with wide eyes and have no idea what to do. I assure them that this is just a baseline that won’t hurt their grade, and they get to work. I collect the annotations at the end of the period, and the next day, I give them back, along with a writing prompt about literary devices conveying the theme. They now have the whole period to write their essay, and I collect them at the end.

Now for the fun part! Boot Camp…

Over the next five to seven school days, I take the opportunity to model my thinking and provide students with strong mentor texts to refer to throughout the year (and beyond).  I just wrapped up my second year implementing this plan and made some changes for the better, including a new text. So here's the plan:

Each day, we start class with a mini-lesson on the literary devices that we'll focus on that day (I use slides from my Literary Devices resource that features solid explanations and visuals that students relate to). Students take notes in their English notebooks.

Then, we look at the Boot Camp text.  We use the same piece of text for each of the five days, but look at the text with a different focus each day: Characterization, Setting, Narrator, Author's Craft, and Theme. We discuss what features we'll look for (from the literary devices notes), and then look at the device-specific questions I provide at the bottom of each text.  Using the think-aloud modeling strategy, I color-mark and annotate the projected text, explaining my thought process as I go. Because I want to show that reading is an interactive practice, I'll often say, "I'm wondering why..." and point out specific details to question their purpose.

Once we've gone through each text, I'll ask an open-ended question and give 2-3 minutes for students to write the response.  Then, they share their responses with their table-mates and then move to whole-class discussion.  I always wrap this up by asking for questions and providing clarification for anything that was misunderstood.

Because I teach on a traditional schedule of 55-minute classes, that's about our closing time.  If I had the time that a block schedule provides, I'd then assign our practice texts, but in our case, we practice the following day.  As class begins, I give each student a practice passage from a different text.  I ask students to work with their group members to color-mark and annotate the specific skill that we worked on the day before.  I encourage them to use their notes and the models to analyze the passage.  After about 7-10 minutes, I ask students to come and mark up the projected text, explaining their thinking and allowing them to take ownership of their learning.

Finally, at the end of Boot Camp, I assign the baseline assessment again.  I give one period for the students to color-mark and annotate the original text, turning it in to me before they leave class.  The next day, I return their analysis and re-assign the same prompt.  While we don't spend time during the Boot Camp discussing writing, their second essays are still so much stronger because they now know how to properly analyze a text.  And, when I hand back the original baseline to compare with their second baseline, the students feel a sense of pride in seeing their growth, starting the year with the belief that they will learn and improve in this class.  It's a win-win!

Is this a plan that you think will work for your classes?

I encourage you to choose an accessible text that your students should be able to read without much difficulty.  And then, choose your daily focus to support your course's focus; literary devices are a natural fit for my literature-based class.

If you'd like to try this out with all the work done for you (baseline prompt, 2 separate texts to serve two different grade groups (grades 8-9 and grades 10-12), annotation models for each text, practice passages, and more are included), then check out my resource on Teachers Pay Teachers.  I have added to the resource, adding a second text (which I used this year), as well as the five unique practice passages that align with each skill taught.