Tag Archives: advice

When we need to recharge

10 Nov

What happens when you hit a rut? In the 180 plus days of school, it is bound to happen. The mid-semester innovations slump seems to be upon us here in the basement. We have had a few failures, a few successes, but now it is time to take what we have learned and do something amazing.

As I sit and listen to an unusually quite room here in innovations class, it is clear that my pre-blogging speech inspired some reflection today. So what do we do when we need to be inspired?

Reexamine your passions

Why are we even here? What are we good at? How can I align those passions and skills with a problem that lies ahead? On Monday for our brainstorm activity, we made a list of our passions and skills. We then narrowed them down by grouping them together in order to find “the sweet spot” where our passions intersect. We then made a list of problems we have seen around us. How can our passions and skills help to solve those problems?

Take a look at the video below to see what we did at the start of the week.

The next step is for those who were unable to determine a problem they cared about in that session. The assignment over the weekend will be to start a “Bug List” in the notes app of their phone.

Put yourself and your beliefs out there

When we are challenged, we have to determine whether we will stand behind our beliefs or want to disregard them. Blogs help us do to this. My most important example came from innovations class last year. She and I each tweeted her blog post about sexual assault and a discussion with a teacher. The responses she got were rude, offensive, and ignorant. She came to class and asked, “What should I do? Should I take it down?” What we learned was that when trying to make a change, we often run into resistance. This is the time when we determine how strong our beliefs are. That resistance meant that she hit a nerve and needed to keep going. After seeing that response, the student had a renewed commitment to her project and her ultimate goal of educating her fellow students on sexual assault and rape culture. If our beliefs go unchallenged, it can be difficult to find the dedication and determination to make something happen.

Collaborate with trusted peers

When we work with others whom we respect, we have an opportunity to grow our thinking. Even more important is the energy that comes from a great sharing session with a group. We have a chance to be that source of energy for others each day. Think about the last time you met to talk about a great idea, great book, or great speaker. When we have something to discuss that truly matters to us, it is energizing to share that sense of community and build ideas together. Be an energy creator, not an energy vampire!

My hope is that our innovations class continues to see the potential in their ideas and the world around them. Looking back at these three ideas, I find that I use them in my professional life, and that is what makes innovations class so important. If these students can build these skills in high school, they will be far ahead of their peers as they head on to their next steps in life.

Knowing and addressing this slump is an important step on our road to big successes.


Essentially speaking

7 Oct

Wow, time sure does go by fast! Apparently I’m already a month into this whole high school thing. At least that’s what they tell me.

Recently we had a chance, as English teachers, to examine all of the secondary English curriculum maps. One thing stood out, well I guess we better say that two things stood out. The first point was that English teachers are protective. Don’t you dare take my books to that grade level! Just kidding (sort of).

But the main point, at least in my eyes, was that an essential question framing a unit makes a huge difference in how that unit is perceived. I have written about Jeffrey Wilhelm before, but his views on essential questions are starting to spread throughout English teachers in our district because of our work last week.

Essential questions must:

  • Get to the heart of the discipline
  • Be compelling and “sexy” in order to capture the students’ attention
  • Not be able to be answered by Googling it

As part of the seventh grade team of teachers who worked on creating essential questions last year, I was proud to hear the chatter of those great questions. Although using the word “sexy” when describing an English lesson might sound ridiculous to some (we almost had to use earmuffs at one point), it is true! How can we be edgy enough to motivate our students to learn?

Here are the unit titles or essential questions that we came up with:

  • How much control do I have over who I am?
  • What would I give up to be free?
  • How can I get people to do what I want?
  • How can I be a hero?

All important to students’ lives, unanswerable through a Google search, and lead students to important parts of English.

New to the tenth and eleventh grade curriculums (curricula? Apparently they are both correct. Thank you, dictionary.com.), I am trying to create some essential questions that are even more powerful and important to my students’ lives. Here is what I have for quarter one.

In American Lit, my first unit is shaped around the question “What power does a label have over me?” We have looked at labels through multiple This I Believe essays dealing with labels. This week we read about the controversy about yoga pants in a local North Dakota school and how the students were shown a clip of Pretty Woman – some pretty interesting labels were being applied to both males and females there – and a blogger’s response to the dress code. And we are moving towards The Scarlet Letter, one of the most famous labels of all. Supporting that will be a look at a girl named Jada who was raped, photographed, and became a hashtag joke on Twitter. Rather than hide in shame Jada stood up for herself and many others and gained national support. Talk about taking over a label!

Creating a unit like this is fun to teach! When I want to be a student in my classroom, and I get fired up about making a connection from a supporting text to a larger piece, it tells me that something great is going to come of it. It also gives me focus in looking for nonfiction articles to support the larger texts.

The hardest part of essential questions is coming up with them! What matters to students right now? What do you know will get their attention?

Challenge yourself to be more engaging in your themes and units. Your student engagement will show you that it was worth it.

Just wasting time

12 Sep

Call me a softie, go ahead.

I’ve done enough talking about the importance of relationships and rapport with students that I am not ashamed of focusing on it. Whatever time I spend in the first three days (our first week) of school that builds relationships is not going to be wasted time. I truly believe that.

Thanks to Dave Burgess and Teach Like a Pirate, I began my year with both sophomores and juniors playing with Play-Doh. And as the new guy in the building, I heard all kinds of comments from other students and teachers. And they were good! The Play-Doh was to be shaped in a way to represent something about the student sculptor. This gave me a chance to try to learn everyone’s name and something about them. Learning names has always been easy for me because I knew students in the upcoming grades, and my classes weren’t as big. Now with 125 students that is a different story. Calling each student by name is one of my first yearly goals.

The second day was a collaborative group experience where students had to determine which 5 out of 10 people on a deserted island would be brought back to safety and which 5 would be left on their own. I patched a variety of images and youtube videos together to tell the scenario’s story. I added a little ridiculous voiceover and let the students decide. It was a great introduction to the collaborative projects that are coming up this year.

The connections that I have made with students will help me throughout the year. If I can convince a few reluctant students that English might be worth some effort this year, I’ve accomplished a lot. I don’t think I’ve wasted a minute.

Deepening my bag of tricks with Kelly Gallagher

5 Aug

Is Kelly Gallagher a celebrity? Judging by my colleague chasing him around to take his picture, yes.

Is Kelly Gallagher a world-class English teacher? No doubt about it.

Is Kelly Gallagher a magician? Although his powers seem to be nearing supernatural, he is, in fact, human.

And the best part about him being human is that his strategies, ideas, and philosophies can be adapted and integrated into my own classroom very easily. His book Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It has been a great resource to me, especially in terms of reinforcing my belief in the importance of fostering a love of reading. And Teaching Adolescent Writers has helped me with the feedback and instruction that is necessary in a writing classroom.

But hearing him speak in person helped me to make even more connections between what I do, what I want to do, and what I can do. He made the North Dakota Council of Teachers of English Conference completely worth it on his own. I’ll share some of the concepts and strategies that I plan to implement with you today.

Assigning writing is easy. Teaching writing is hard.

The study of models in writing is one strategy that made so much sense to me, but not just to read a model or two then go write. The study of models, including students copying the format and inserting their own words. When students read, analyze, and emulate model pieces of writing, they become better writers.

There should be a heavy dose of approved plagiarism in our classrooms. 

By closely analyzing what the author is doing here, here, and here, students are able to understand how they can do the same things in their writing. Gallagher suggests using a mentor text that students read and analyze on their own, noting what the author is doing. The class discussion that follows creates notes that help all students to see the same things. By the end of the class discussion, everyone’s notes are the same. This gives the students a map of how to create a piece. And if a student asks how long the assignment is supposed to be, it is a clear indication that they have not seen enough mentor texts.

I felt supported in the idea that narrative writing is a medium that deserves to be valued. It helps students to learn to write, and it is also a tool that can be used for persuasive and informative writing.

To create seeds for future writings as well as to make it easy for students to begin, Gallagher suggested starting with six-word memoirs. Here are a few examples, but check out the link for more.

  • Adulthood. I miss myself so much.
  • Collect your thoughts then edit them.

Go from there to creating a tweet of 14o characters or less.

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life could serve as another mentor text. The author uses each letter to tell a small part of her story, usually with humor included.


The same two words, albeit in reverse order, sum it all up:

Home nursing
Nursing home

Essays from This I Believe are also a great way for students to follow the pattern of a mentor text and create something that has meaning for them and to their classmates. Discussions on whether to start with the claim or finish with it, how to illustrate the point the best, and things like that are important classroom discussions after analyzing the piece.

And the last small writing piece that I’ll share is to explain a photograph. What is happening in these people’s lives? Do a short minilesson on first vs. third person, then students write for four minutes. Pass the paper to the next person at the table, and write for four more minutes. When you’re done, the group chooses the piece with the most potential and revises it as a group. This gives students a chance to collaborate and make decisions as a group. Lots of learning potential here!

Here are a few more things that I just have to share that stood out to me.

Gallagher’s comment to teachers who think teaching students to write the five-paragraph essay in order to learn to write:

Teach kids to write authentically, then if it is required by the school, teach to write inauthentically just before it is needed.

Kids understand that the five-paragraph essay written for a teacher’s eyes only is not important! Show students a meaningful mentor text and it allows students to help find their places in the world.

You can break the rules if you understand the rules.

Go ahead and use fragments to illustrate your point better! Good writers do things like this all the time. It. Is. Effective.

Here is another piece to analyze by Leonard Pitts Jr. entitled “Sometimes, the earth is cruel.” I’ll be taking the sentence stem “Sometimes, _________ is cruel” and using it as a writing prompt for my students this year.

Or how about this mentor text that can be emulated for analyzing a mistake? It’s called “A mistake that should last a lifetime.” Students see how the author introduces the mistake, tells the story of the mistake, then reflects on the mistake.

Whew! I have a lot of great things to do this year in helping my students become better writers!

So Is Kelly Gallagher a magician? Well if he is, I think I may have stolen his tricks.

Is he famous? Absolutely, and I even got a picture with him!


A typical Easter conversation about grading

25 Apr

Over the Easter break I ended up in an interesting conversation with some family members. My brother-in-law (Bil) is a recent college graduate currently looking for a social studies teaching position, his girlfriend (Gal) is a college student majoring in business, and my father-in-law (Fil) is a school board member. Quite the variety of opinions!

The connection here is education, and the topic of grading and late work came up. These conversations can be a lot of fun because it is important to see different perspectives and philosophies.

I am a firm believer that the most important thing is that the student does the work and learns what is necessary. I do not knock off points for late work, and if a student wants to redo something and improve their grade, more power to them! I do give due dates for assignments, but if a student needs more time to finish there is no penalty.

Bil’s questions were along the lines of responsibility and expectations for students. He had experience teaching in a high school where students could wait to turn their assignments in at the end of a quarter, and some took advantage of that. That left the teacher in the position of grading a whole bunch of work to meet his own deadline. The argument was that if we do not have firm deadlines with penalties, we are not preparing our students for their future.

Gal’s point of view was different. She was thinking of this discussion from the student’s perspective, and a good student at that. She is upset when a fellow student, or competitor as she sees them, turns in an assignment late and still receives full credit. It isn’t fair that she has to work as hard as she does while other students have a free pass to slack off and get it done later.

We didn’t hear a whole lot from Fil besides encouraging this friendly debate.

To be honest, I hadn’t thought deeply about the point of view of a student as a competitor for college scholarships, awards, and all of the things that go along with grades. But that is where the whole conversation led me in my thinking: grades. What are they used for? Why do we have them? And what is the most important thing about them?

In the simplest sense, grades should be a report of what a student has learned and can do. Unfortunately we turn them into so much more. They have become all-encompassing measures of a student from their behavior, responsibility, and intelligence.

If we deduct points for each late day, or knock off a certain random percentage, what are we saying about the value of that assignment? Even worse, if we do not allow the student to receive credit for that assignment, are we saying that that learning was only valuable if it was done on this certain specific day? A student who proves he has learned something should get credit for that accomplishment. Just like when you pass your driver’s test, you can drive, whether it took you one try or ten.

But how do we account for the responsibility, especially in our competitive society that demands we have valedictorians and scholarship winners? Should this be left for our SAT or ACT tests to determine?

If we continue to grade the same way that we always have, it is safe to say that we will continue to have these discussions. When we start to assess student learning as an accurate measure against the standards, we are less likely to have to worry about everything that goes into a number or letter assigned by the teacher. Standards-based grading allows teachers to avoid all of the extra stuff that gets factored into a grade and focus only on whether or not a student has mastered a given standard. And if mastery of the standards becomes the focus, the assessments will change as well.

Will this help students learn responsibility? If we show the students the goal and allow them to prove that they have mastered it, they will be more likely to want to display that mastery and accomplish the goal. My hope is that they do learn persistence when facing a challenging task and a value of the work that we do in class.

Bil is going to ask me if I think this will work for every student. Probably not, but that is the case with most things. The next step is student engagement and authenticity, but that is a whole new blog post!

Broken Windows Theory

13 Jun

First of all, I can’t get enough of Malcolm Gladwell. Blink was an amazing look at perception and first impressions. I’m in the middle of The Tipping Point right now, and I came across a theory that helps to explain behaviors in the world, but in schools in particular. Why does it seem like bad behaviors in schools end up multiplying? What makes it seem like an epidemic?

The Broken Windows theory, coming from a criminologist, is an explanation for this. Here is a quote from Gladwell that sums it up:

“Crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes. In a city, relatively minor problems like graffiti, public disorder, and aggressive panhandling, are all the equivalent of broken windows, invitations to more serious crime.”

Gladwell is using the theory to discuss violent crimes and felonies, which, cross your fingers, I’m hoping your school doesn’t have to deal with!

I’m picturing our school’s computer lab. I don’t spend much time in there because of my easy access to laptops and netbooks, but we do need to MAP test in the lab. There has always been some writing on the mouse pads, but it just seemed to go with the territory. If you put 25 middle school students in front of computers, they are bound to tell everyone that “Mandy was here” or insert two names into a squiggly heart of eternal love.

Well this year during MAP testing, I noticed some more vulgar language on the mouse pads, and even worse, the F-word penciled onto a computer along with a drawing of a knife. And these are nearly brand new iMacs! I couldn’t help but think if this was done because of the graffiti and writing that was already there.

It’s time to take a look at the things that we let go and don’t think about as a big deal. What kind of message is that sending to our kids? If we aren’t fixing our broken windows, we are telling kids that this is not a place of order and consequences. Instead of assuming that kids will be kids, we should take a step to improve the conditions around our school, starting with the little things. They make a big difference!

Advice for a new teacher

10 May

I was recently asked for advice for a first year teacher. It seemed like a perfect thing to share in this space!

Teach the behaviors that you expect and be clear about them. I know this, and I am still guilty of not doing it at times. For example, I used to be incredibly frustrated at how messy the computer cart was in my classroom. The cords would be everywhere but hardly ever plugged into the computers. I’ve now taught and practiced the process, and I never have to deal with the headache of organizing it anymore.

Join Twitter. I know it sounds funny, but it is absolutely the best professional development that I get. There are so many educators out there that post regularly and post great things. Lesson ideas, positive messages, management tips and all kinds of other things. I don’t post very often, but that isn’t the important part. There are so many resources out there to take advantage of and stay connected to.

It isn’t the students. At least most of the time it isn’t. Sometimes I find myself (and my team) asking what is wrong with the students that makes them not do something or not enjoy something. I always try to remember to ask, “What am I going to do to fix this?” And when it IS the student, it is important to know that there is probably a reason for that, too.

Do what you expect your students to do. Actually doing the assignment in a desk with them can be a powerful tool. It is great modeling and it shows that we struggle with difficult things, too. This is especially true in writing if students only see polished examples and not the process. Not only is it a good example, but it makes you think about your assignments.

Give students a choice. We always hear, “When there is something he wants to do, he’ll do it!” and it is always a complaint. Use that to your advantage! If students feel in control of what they are learning and want to do it, just think of the possibilities for what they can accomplish!

It is important to have a reason for what we are doing, know what that reason is, and be able to express it! Let’s take advantage of our chances to communicate and help each other.