Monthly Archives: August 2014

Making the Case for TRUE Writing In the Classroom

I love to write. I have loved to write from the time I was young and had the wonderful opportunity of taking a summer course in which we worked on writing and illustrating a book for a few weeks. This, of course, was years ago, so I mean we used ACTUAL pencils and markers and paper; few of today’s students would understand such a thing when they are creating books on their iPads… which brings me to my point.

Today’s students are storytellers. They are creating and curating with technology tools as never before. Ask a kid about the latest Youtube craze or blog, and there’s an excellent chance you will Writing by marinlearn more in two minutes than you ever knew before about technology. They’re not just using Snapchat and Instagram for inappropriate purposes, as the media would have you believe. Many of them are telling stories through their words and images.

And, young children still have that spark for wanting to write and taking ownership of their work. My five year old is a beginning reader and writer, and he is fascinated by how letters and words string together. Lately, he prefers writing “in the sky” with his fingers instead of answering me verbally; his favorite words to write are no, yes, and ok. He asks me to write down words that he has not seen before, so he can “see how they look.” Small children especially are fascinated by the mystery of writing and letters.

The problem is, once they enter the public school testing machine, they lose that fascination and spark that is inherent to their curiosity. Writing becomes something they “have to do for the test” instead of something they want to do for themselves. I have been in elementary schools and seen students’ writing work proudly displayed in the halls, and I’ve been completely dismayed by what I’ve read.  All of the kids’ work started with the exact same sentence. Then, they all used the same transition words (and I had to stifle a scream when I saw all of the -ly suffixes: firstly, secondly, lastly, most importantly) and closing sentences. Talk about a cookie-cutter education!

The worst part was, I could almost hear the kids counting their sentences and paragraphs; most elementary students are taught a basic three-paragraph structure, with 3 sentences in the opening, 5 sentences in the body, and 3 sentences in the closing. Why is writing about numbers? Why is writing about everybody doing it the same way? The teachers see what it takes to be “proficient in writing,” and they crank the formulas out to their kids.

The absolute travesty is seeing kids who don’t understand what a paragraph (or sometimes, even a sentence) is by the time they are freshmen and sophomores in high school. These kids don’t realize that they start with a main idea in a topic sentence because they are writing about an idea in a cohesive unit of text: a paragraph. They just think they are reading a prompt, restating it, giving 3 details for support, and slapping on a closing sentence.

second thoughts by Laura BillingsThey’ve been trained to do this, because we’ve been trained to teach it that way. This idea of formula writing caught on years ago, and everybody is terrified of breaking the mold because we are told in data team meetings and in-service days that the writing scores are the pits and we need to do something to change it. We also are told that kids lose too many points on reading and math assessments because they skip the written response questions, and that we have to model how to score well on that portion of the assessment with whole-group, small-group, and independent writing activities in our classrooms that involve a scaffolded plan for support.

Because the scoring guides are written in a way that value a restated prompt, a certain number of details from the text, and explanation for support, that’s all kids are being shown how to do when it comes to writing. It has gotten to the point where we see high school students writing a topic sentence that is not indented, including a bulleted list of evidence from the text, and rewriting the topic sentence after the bulleted list as an attempt at a conclusion. Sometimes, we are lucky to see a transition word at the beginning of the closing sentence.

We need to STOP! This is exactly what opponents of standardized tests are talking about when we say that kids are being taught to be test takers instead of being taught how to be thinkers. And, while I am not in the business of blaming teachers, I definitely take issue with any teacher who instructs a student to write this way. However, I certainly understand the pressures that teachers face from administrators, parents, and community members when the test scores are published and the district is labeled as “failing.”

So, what is a teacher to do? Well, we advocate for standing up for kids. We want you to stand up for your own profession. If you know that what you are doing is not helping kids to be better thinkers, change your practice. Talk with other teachers in your building and see what they are doing. You may just be surprised by how many people appear to be doing the test prep BS but actually are “breaking out” and doing something that is good for kids.

The funny thing about all of this is, I was asked by a principal a few years ago to speak at our local Intermediate Unit about my writing instruction, because my students had some of the highest scores on our state writing assessments. I told him that I would be happy to speak, but I wanted to let him know that I did not use a writing program or a published set of writing strategy books or test prep items; I just had my kids write every day to prompts that related to our lessons and learning. Writing was a learning tool in my classroom. Most times, I did not formally grade the students’ writing, because I wanted them to see writing as another learning tool instead of as a chore or a huge graded project. And, it apparently worked, because their scores made my administrators happy; but, more important to me, I was seeing the kids write more analytical pieces and getting far fewer questions like, “How many sentences should this be?’ He did not follow through with his invitation for me to speak, after I told him all of this. I guess I didn’t fit his idea of a “good writing instructor” after all. That’s the only time I can recall that he didn’t listen to his data; I suppose it’s hard to reconcile the data with a teacher who doesn’t play by the rules.

students hard at work by Susan SermonetaThe TRUTH is, I was getting better writing results because I had the kids write every day. I was giving them prompts that made them think and connect and reflect. I was giving them immediate feedback on their writing and ideas by making our Bell Ringers and Tickets Out the Door (Do Nows) short writing assignments. I was walking around the room, reading over kids’ shoulders while they wrote; I was writing positive comments, drawing smiley faces, or putting stickers on good responses to encourage them to keep going. I was asking for volunteers to share their writing with the class. I was assigning larger writing assignments and providing kids with scoring guides and due dates from Day 1. I also was assigning peer editors, modeling the peer editing process, and giving them time to collaborate from brainstorming to final draft editing. I was scheduling writing conferences with students. And, I was giving choice in assignments so kids could choose their topics, prompts, or assignments.

If we want better thinkers, we need better writers. Writing is, hands down, the number one way to get kids to think about the lessons, concepts, connections, and everything else we want them to be doing if they are going to leave our rooms as learners instead of test takers. So, we need to give kids opportunities – several opportunities – to TRULY write in our classrooms. Drop the formulas. Drop the numbers. Let kids tell their stories. Let them write about what matters to them. Once they find their voice and see value in writing, their “academic writing” will become so much better and so much less of a process for them, and for you.

Not sure how to get started? Our writing tips, strategies, graphic organizers, and more are coming soon to our Resources. For now, sign up for our Newsletter and get access to the graphic organizers Bailey already has shared from her classroom, or email Bailey at There’s nothing better than tried-and-true resources!

Writing image via Flickr by marin
Second Thoughts image via Flickr by Laura Billings
Students Hard at Work image via Flickr by Susan Sermoneta

Weekly Roundup 8/29/14

Weekly Roundup2As students and teachers begin to settle back into the school routine, the education news this week has been anything but routine. From a governor filing a lawsuit against the Common Core, to a parent group convincing a Florida school board to opt out of all high-stakes, standardized testing, the news of the week has been interesting, to say the least. We will bring you the good, the bad, and the ugly of education-related news stories that grab our attention each week, in our Weekly Roundup. This week’s 8 articles are listed below, in no particular order.
*FYI – Newsletter subscribers have the advantage of receiving our top news picks sooner than they will appear in the Weekly Roundup.*

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has filed a lawsuit against the federal government, “accusing it of illegally manipulating federal grant money and regulations to force states to adopt the Common Core education standards,” according to a report from NBC San Diego. This is an interesting scenario, as some are pegging the move as politically-driven given Jindal’s likely 2016 presidential bid. The filing follows Jindal’s botched attempt to repeal the Common Core education standards in his state. Read the full story at NBC San Diego.

Everyone is talking about how much classroom instruction is being eaten away by testing, but Valerie Strauss, who covers education for The Washington Post and runs The Answer Sheet blog, has gone one step further by publishing the 2014-2015 standardized testing schedule for Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Florida has been a hotbed of standardized testing since Jeb Bush was at the helm as governor more than 10 years ago, but this year looks to be especially taxing on educators and students as of a statute goes into effect requiring end-of-course exams for every subject, including music and phys ed and kindergarten. If this schedule doesn’t prove just how out of control the testing craze in America has become, we don’t know what does. See the published schedule for yourself, if you have the stomach for it.

The Lee County School Board in Fort Myers, Florida, made history Wednesday, Aug. 27 by becoming the first in Florida to opt out of Common Core testing. In fact, the Lee Schools have opted out of “all statewide, standardized tests.” With a decision of 3-2, the board received boisterous cheers and applause from the auditorium full of opt-out supporters wearing red in a sign of solidarity. Superintendent Nancy Graham responded: “This will hurt children. There is no way around it.” She was met with boos. Had we been there, we would have booed, too. Read the article and watch the video of the moment the decision was made.

The news out of Florida isn’t all good. In 2011, the Florida legislature approved a statute to go into effect this school year “requiring that school districts develop and/or administer seven or more end-of-course assessments to all students.” The statute did not exclude kindergarten. The result is that six year olds will take seven potentially high-stakes tests, and in Florida, the results of end-of-course exams do affect teachers’ pay and evaluations. Read the full Washington Post article.

In an article/book review, Sara Mosle gives an in-depth analysis of what teachers in America need in order to be better teachers, and she arrives at a conclusion that should not surprise many of those in the profession: time to collaborate with peers and mentors to hone their craft. She discusses the hours that teachers spend putting together lessons, grading papers, calling parents, attending meetings, and everything else that entails being a teacher. She calls out the author of Building a Better Teacher, Elizabeth Green (co-founder of Gotham Schools, a news web site originally devoted to covering NYC schools that recently has expanded to other cities and been renamed Chalkbeat) for her exploration of the idea that teaching is not a “mystical talent” but a set of best practices acquired through hands-on coaching, self-scrutiny, and collaboration by saying that “her account suggests that implementing this vision may entail a bigger transformation than she quite realizes.” The article is thought provoking and at times maddening; we recommend you read the entire Atlantic article to the end.

In a recent post, the blogger at WagTheDog posed a question, “Common Core: Growing Pains or Growing Awareness?” and points to a recent survey that indicates teacher support for the Common Core has sharply declined. Common Core supporters almost all seem to think teachers are bucking the Common Core because it is something new that requires change and more work, but the blogger points out four well-documented reasons for the drop off in teacher support. We couldn’t agree with the blogger more, and we encourage you to read his post and check out the links within it.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is no friend of public education, and Colleen Flaherty discusses exactly how Walker’s $1.6 billion cuts to public education are affecting students as they enter schools after summer break this year. Spanish teacher John Havlicek has 20 years of experience teaching in Wisconsin public schools and explains how Walker’s cuts are affecting the students in his school. Havlicek’s first-hand account details just how devastating the cuts are, especially in his school, where approximately 50% of students receive free or reduced lunch. Read the Education Votes/NEA article to see how governors like Walker are hurting not just the education system, but the students that it is supposed to serve.

The New York State Education Department released a report highlighting the results of the state’s 2014 Common Core State Standards-aligned exams…but interestingly, the data reported makes it difficult to really interpret the results. Carol Burris summarizes some key findings for The Washington Post. Read the full story here.

The Times, They Are A-Changin’: Lee County, Florida, Opts Out!

WOW! The news out of Florida is historic! In a vote of 3-2 last night, the Lee County School Board voted to opt out of ALL statewide standardized tests, including the Common Core. This is the first school district in the state to vote to opt out. Parents and community supporters attended Lee County Opts Outthe meeting en masse, donning red shirts in a show of solidarity and cheering as the board’s motion passed. Parents spoke during their one-minute time limit to urge the board to put their students first and shared personal stories of the testing nightmares their students have had to endure. More than 30 people spoke during the 3-hour meeting.

THIS is the step toward taking back education and putting kids and learning first that we advocate. THIS is “civil disobedience” in the name of breaking the testing cycle that cripples teachers. THIS is why we started TRUTH In Teaching: to bring teachers together to start sharing stories from the trenches to open people’s eyes about what it’s really like to try to teach during these trying times.

Subscribe to our newsletter. Sign up to receive email every time we post to this blog. Send us your personal stories of TRUTH In Teaching from your classroom to Bailey at or Angela at If a district in Florida (a state that has a statute requiring ALL students – including kindergarteners – to take up to seven end-of-course exams that affect teachers’ pay and evaluations, beginning this school year) can vote to opt out, there is hope for all of us. But, it’s going to take solidarity. It’s going to take teachers raising our voices, parents joining our ranks, and everyone working together for the students if we hope to make a national change. Share your TRUTH and teach on!

Our Wish For You This Year: BE a Teacher

This is the first day for students in our home district. We know some of you are being saddled with extra responsibilities and duties. We know some of you were handed more paperwork. We know some of you have more students than you expected. We know some of you are dealing with new administrators who did not start off on the right foot. But, today, we know all of you are going to put all of that aside and BE a teacher. The first day of school is the day when that is more possible than any other day of the year. It’s too early to assess, too early to test prep, too early for all of the other nonsense. So, our wish for you this year is that you will BE a teacher more of the time.


some of you will comfort a little one who cries for home.

some of you will wipe little noses.

some of you will learn more names than you ever thought possible.

some of you will make them laugh.

some of you will make them wish they could have you next year, too.

some of you will make them feel right at home.

some of you will feel like you never left the classroom.

some of you will feel refreshed and energized.

some of you will wonder if you can do this again.

some of you will be more exhausted at the end of the day than ever before.

some of you will be more excited about the school year than your students.

some of you will wish the whole year could be this way…

… and maybe it can. BE a TEACHER. Not a tester. Not a hoop jumper. Not a sideline sitter. Not a complier, just for the sake of compliance.

BE a teacher.

FYI: Doing What’s Right for Kids Is Not On the Agenda

The reports are out, and kids, especially teens, officially need more sleep, which translates to a necessary later start time for schools.  The American Academy of Pediatrics is saying what teachers have known for years, yet administrators, school boards, and some politicians across the country are setting the morning bell to ring earlier and earlier to extend school days to get more seat time. The real goal? Extending the school day to cram more test prep into kids’ brains so they’re all the more ready for those assessments. We can only hope that those people pushing for educational reform listen to the doctors, since they haven’t been listening to the teachers. Too bad we can guess where this will go… in one ear and right out the other, along with everything else that is good for kids but bad for business.

“The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life,” says Layra y el estudio by Jose Vicente Jimenez RibasDr. Judith Owens, director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, who led the team that wrote the group’s policy statement on the issue. 

Since when are doctors concerned about higher standardized tests scores? And, what I find even more disturbing is the fact that the phrase “higher standardized test scores” is in the same sentence as “an overall better quality of life.” I’m not attacking this doctor, because her research is valid, and she clearly is reporting in the best interests of students. But, this is a perfect example of all that is wrong with the current national discussion on public education.

Image via Flickr by Jose Vicente Jimenez Riba

The Importance of Accurate and Timely Documentation

I have been a teacher mentor twice in my career, and I had a couple of first-year co-teachers that I also helped to mentor. When I sat down and thought about what I wanted to tell them in those first few precious days of in-service before the hubbub of having actual students in our classrooms, one thing continued to come to mind first: Document everything. I had been given that piece of advice by countless seasoned teachers my first year, and I felt an obligation to pass it along to all of the newbies in my charge.

We have a union. But, we also have administrators who do not always listen to our side when parents come knocking; some never listen to teachers regardless of the situation. And, with everything that happens in the day of a life of a teacher, we truly may not be able to remember everything in detail when we are called upon to testify, report, or share in any setting from a court of law to a guidance counselor or principal’s office. While it is possible to go a little overboard with documentation, especially during those first couple of years as a new teacher, it is better to play it safe than sorry and find yourself in a situation where you wish you had documented it.

Documented Life Journal tab by marynbtolSo, what do you document? In my opinion, you should document anything that occurs with a student involving discipline, a confrontation, an uncomfortable conversation, etc. And, the documentation in question here is the sort that you keep in a private three-ring binder, journal, or other source that you easily can take with you on conference days or days that you are out of the classroom. Your documentation will be highly sensitive in nature due to the fact that it will contain the truth about students, their behavior, threats, your evaluations, and more, so when you are out of the classroom you should make every effort to secure it.

As for the importance of documentation, I cannot stress it enough. In an era during which teachers are being blamed for everything, students are beginning to assimilate the war-on-teacher mentality from society at large. They demand that we respect them rather than earn it from us. They assume that they are going to be able to do as they please in our rooms because they know that teachers often are powerless against “squeaky-wheel parents” when they complain to administrators about our plagiarism policy, our grading guidelines, our seating charts… This is what happens when we adopt the school-as-business model: the customer is always right, even when the “customer” is a fourteen-year-old kid armed with a smartphone and an attitude.

Documentation adds another layer in our defense of ourselves. We cannot do much in a their-word-against-our-word scenario without it. With it, we can point to times and dates and witnesses and help build our case. It seems crazy that grown professionals even need to do such a thing, but that is the culture in which we currently operate. Gone are the days when teachers were trusted because they were the professionals and adults in the room.

We have been receiving email from teachers across the country who have horror stories about needing records to defend themselves. In the interest of protecting teachers who want their voices to be heard, we are not going to share any personal information – not even their initials or home states.

  • A teacher received an unsatisfactory rating on an observation dated by an administrator on a date when the teacher was not in the building – she had been out for two weeks due to surgery with sick days in place.
  • A teacher was accused of calling a student an “idiot” during a class with a co-teacher. The parents demanded the teacher be suspended and called school board members and the superintendent. The co-teacher had documented that one student had called another student an “idiot” during class, and the regular teacher addressed it by saying, “We don’t call people idiots in this classroom. Apologize now.” It later was revealed that the student who told his parents the teacher had called him an “idiot” had failed a test and wanted to get the teacher into trouble for failing him.
  • A teacher was accused of targeting a student for plagiarism. The parents contacted the principal and said their child was being accused unfairly and demanded that the teacher accept and grade the paper. The teacher had documented the plagiarism, printed out the website from which the student had taken the paragraphs, highlighted the material in both the student’s work and the website copy, and contacted parents to tell them that the student had five days to redo the assignment. The teacher also had documentation of two other students who had plagiarized, so she was able to prove she was not unfairly targeting any student.
  • A student raised his hand and made a gun with his fingers. He pointed the “gun” at a teacher’s head and said, “Boom!” A teacher documented the incident and took it to an administrator.  The administrator said that he was sure the student didn’t mean it and wouldn’t worry about it. The teacher then took the documentation to the guidance counselor and her union leaders.

This is just a sampling of the stories we have received from teachers. We wish we could say that the documentation made a difference in all of the cases we have heard about, but unfortunately it hasn’t. What it has done is raise awareness about the issues teachers deal with daily and help some teachers feel at least a little better that they have records to rely on when they need to protect themselves.

There are a few things you should keep in mind when you document issues:

  1. Complete the documentation as soon as possible after the incident occurs. The details will be more fresh in your mind and you will be more accurate in your description.
  2. Always include the date, time, and location of the incident, or the date and time of the telephone call, in the documentation.
  3. Include the names of adult witnesses and do everything you can to get them to document the issue and give you a copy to include with your records.
  4. Keep your documentation records secure at all times. Don’t store them in a visible, public area. Most important, remember to take them with you at the end of the day.
  5. Print emails and make copies of notes, evaluations, letters, etc.
  6. If an administrator asks for your documentation, you may want to check with a union leader first. If you don’t have a union, use your best judgment about what to share. If you do turn in your documentation, turn in a copy of it. Never turn in your originals.

Documentation may not help in every instance, but it will help you keep an accurate record of the problems and challenges you face throughout the school year. If the time should come that you need to protect yourself, your documentation is going to be very important to the process. It is almost comical that teachers feel the need to document everything in this day and age; we feel as though all of the forces are working against us and pushing us out of our profession. Yet, other groups are fighting teacher tenure because they feel like we are invincible. The two sides could not be further apart: this is the fallout from the war on teachers.

If you have any stories of your own about the importance of documentation that you would like to share, please email Bailey at or reply in the comments below.

Image via Flickr by marynbtol

8 Proven Ice Breakers, Team Builders, and Group Activities for the Start of the Year

Ice Breakers Team Builders and Group ActivitiesWe’ve already talked about the importance of – and encouraged you to – take time during the first critical few weeks of school to foster a positive learning environment. So this year, instead of boring students with policy changes, rules and regulations, and parent signature forms, try changing things up with some fun activities that just might get your students excited about walking into your room on the second day of school and every day thereafter.

Not only will using these ice breakers and other activities help you learn all your students’ names more quickly, but they model the behavior you expect of your students, lessening the need to put all those rules and consequences into play.

I’ve put every one of these ideas into practice at some point during my eleven years in one of three different secondary Language Arts/English classrooms, but every idea and activity is easily adapted to suit elementary or other secondary content settings.

1. Find Someone Who…

I learned this activity by participating in it as a student in a Penn Literacy Network (PLN) graduate class, and it required little adaptation to put it to use in my own classroom. The purpose of the activity was immediately clear when our facilitator handed us sheets of paper with “Find Someone Who…” written across the top, along with several statements with blank lines at the end.

Working their way around the room, students find classmates to swap papers with, reading the statements to find one that suits and entering their names on the applicable lines. The process is repeated until all students have all their statements completed with student names, with no student signing anyone else’s paper more than once.

Here are a few statements I’ve used for this activity with my students:

  • Find someone who has no siblings.
  • Find someone who went to a Little League World Series game.
  • Find someone who likes Math more than English.
  • Find someone who loves cafeteria chicken nuggets.

Rules of the activity:

  • Students must move around the room and exchange papers with others face-to-face. No passing sheets around the room.
  • Use a timer to let students know they’ll be “on the clock” in your classroom.
  • Students may not return to their seats until the paper is filled out in full.
  • No student may sign another student’s sheet more than once.

When all students have returned to their seats, choose a volunteer to read their first statement out loud and name the student who signed. That student then, in turn, stands up, and reads the second statement on her sheet, and so on.

2. Gift Bag Book Guess

This is another activity I learned in a PLN class, and one that I put to use in the last few years in my classroom with freshmen, sophomores, and juniors. For this activity, choose enough books so that when students are divided into groups of four, you will have one book per group. Record four quotations from each book onto index cards, one quotation per card, and place them in gift bags.Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts by Pete

Ask students to separate themselves into groups of four people, and give each group a gift bag, telling them to wait for further instructions. When all groups have received a bag, tell the class that you’ll be giving short talks on the books, which are displayed on a table at the front of the room. Students should be able to review the books while they work, if needed.

After discussing each book, ask students to pull the quotations from the gift bags, one quotation per student, and take turns reading them out loud to the group. Then, they should work together to guess from which book the quotation has been taken. Students write their guess on a slip of paper next to the gift bag’s corresponding number, and pass their gift bag to another group. Repeat the process until each group works with every bag.

A few tips for this activity:

  • Number the gift bags.
  • Number the quotations with corresponding numbers so they don’t get mixed up.
  • Choose books students will have the opportunity to read throughout the year.
  • Choose common quotations that aren’t too obscure.
  • For primary teachers, try using pictures to match settings with characters or plot events with books.

3. Matching

This activity is one of my favorite ways to get students up and moving during the first few days of school. I’ve seen it in so many graduate classes, it’s tough to attribute it to just one. The idea is to match students up in unconventional ways.

For this simple activity, think of two things to match:

  • quotations to people
  • quotations to books
  • art to artists
  • historical figures to eras
  • songs to musicians

Split your class into two halves and have each group stand on one side of the room. In one group, each student receives a card or paper representing one side of your matching scenario; students in the other group receive the other side of the pair. Students are then asked to mingle with the other group and find the student with the card that matches theirs.

4. Draw a Conclusion/Mystery

The premise of this activity is to create a mystery surrounding one aspect of your curriculum. As an English teacher, I always chose a plot from a story or parts of a particularly intriguing author’s life (Poe, anyone?), but you could easily choose a figure from your discipline to use for your purposes. Math teachers easily can do this with a creative word problem and science teachers can use a scientific question or hypothesis, for example.

Create stations placed around the classroom, each with a clue about the mystery. Students work in groups, either of their own choosing, your assignment, or by using one of the grouping activities from this list. Each student has a job: recorder, clue reader, discussion director, or connector. Students rotate jobs as they work around the room and investigate the clues, enabling you to observe how they perform in different roles.

At the final station, give each student a conclusion form (simple Word document with a space for the independent conclusion at the top and a space for the group’s final conclusion at the bottom), to illustrate the idea that you cannot draw a conclusion without first gathering all the evidence. Once filled out, students read and discuss their conclusions with their group members. Groups then create a group conclusion based on their discussions, with one volunteer from each group presenting the group conclusion to the class.

A full-class discussion is held on each group’s conclusion, with the class voting each conclusion as most creative, most logical, etc.

5. Speed Interviewing

This activity helps students develop summarization and note-taking skills. Give students four index cards and ask them to label the cards with their number (corresponding to their numbers in your grade book). Shuffle and redistribute the cards, ensuring no student receives his own number, and have students randomly call out one of their card numbers to pair students.

Set a digital timer for 90 seconds. One student asks a couple questions and takes notes while the other responds. This is followed by a group discussion in which you’ll receive some anticipated complaints: there isn’t enough time to think about and write their answers, partners talked too quickly and didn’t give them enough time to take adequate notes, and so on.

This becomes a teachable moment, in which you can discuss the importance of listening and developing good note-taking skills so that it’s not necessary to write word-for-word, etc. Link this idea to the concept of summarizing, and ask students to write a one- to two-sentence summary of their partners based on their notes. Students will find that even though they didn’t write word-for-word what their partners said, they’re able to write a brief summary based on the notes they took down.

6. iMovie Trailers

If your district uses Apple products, you can have students create their own iMovie trailers. If not, find out if enough students have iPhones that you can pair students with devices with those who don’t have an iPhone to complete this activity.

Have each student or pair of students download the free iMovie app. In one class period, have students create an iMovie trailer to introduce one another to the class. This activity can also be used as a follow-up to the speed interviewing activity described above.

By limiting trailers to 30 seconds in length, you’re asking students to summarize information about their classmates. In my classroom, students interviewed, created, edited, and presented in just two class periods, but this is an activity that’s easily adjusted to suit your time constraints.

7. Candy Colors

Purchase a few bags of foil-wrapped candy in bright fall colors. Give each student a piece of candy upon entering the room, but ask them not to unwrap or eat it until further instructions are provided. Use the various colors to group students in different areas of the classroom, then allow them to eat their candy to sweeten the deal before you hit them with the real work: inventing a new candy to market to kids in their age group.

Tasks include:

  • Make an ingredient list
  • Name the candy
  • Design the wrapper
  • Write a commercial
  • Record it as a radio or TV ad

Students get to choose whether to create a persuasive or descriptive ad and are provided with a scoring guide based on creativity and participation (knowing that grades will not be entered into the grade book).

This activity introduces students to the grading rubrics and project styles that will take place in the class during the year, gets them used to collaborating with peers, and allows you to model expectations and procedures. There are endless ways to modify and customize this activity for your subject matter and grade level. And, it gives you some valuable insights into your students’ personalities based on the inventions and marketing materials they produce.

8. Describe and Draw

For this activity, you’ll need some unusual objects gathered from around your home or elsewhere. The more unusual, the better. I’ve used things like quarters wrapped in a paper towel, then placed inside a Ziploc bag, rubber balls cut in half, and other oddities.

Place each object in a box and label the bottom of the box with what’s inside. Cut a hole in the top, large enough to put a hand and an arm through to feel the object inside, and tape a piece of paper over the opening. I use diaper boxes for this activity, for two reasons: one, because I happened to have ample diaper boxes on-hand, and two, because it adds to the intrigue. Place the boxes strategically in different areas of your classroom.

Group students into teams of three to four, and use whatever method (earliest birthday, etc.) to choose who gets to reach inside the box. Other group members need paper and a writing utensil. While the “feeler” reaches inside the opening and describes what he feels, the other group members attempt to draw the object based on his description.

After this activity is complete, the groups discuss their drawings and decide which they’d like to present to the class. Each group of students shares their results with the rest of the class, while you stand next to the box in question. When they’ve finished sharing their box, reach inside and reveal the object.

Stop Being Boring by Adam BindslevNot only is this activity an excellent ice breaker, it’s a good way to demonstrate that students will have fun in your class, in a structured way with learning. (And, that you’re going to be an unusual teacher.)

Getting kids interested in you, your class, and each other is the best way to kick off a new school year on a positive note. Not to mention, setting the stage for your procedures and expectations will be a way to save time and your sanity throughout the year.

If you have any questions about the activities, feel free to email Bailey at If you have a comment or suggestion, feel free to reply below. Better yet, if you have some tried and true activities of your own, we’d love it if you would share those below, too. Teach on!

Stop Being Boring image via Flickr by Adam Bindslev
Gift bag image via Flickr by Pete

Solve 4 Everyday Classroom Problems With Simple Solutions

When I started teaching, I knew that I had very high expectations for all of my students. I believed they should all put forth as much effort as possible, participate regularly, come to class prepared on a daily basis, and challenge themselves for the duration of the school year. If I wanted them to do that, then I needed to let them know from Day 1 that those were my expectations. And, I did. My expectations were spelled out in my parent and student letters, addressed by my classroom rules, and modeled and enforced in my classroom.

For the most part, I didn’t have any major issues with student discipline. I attributed that to the fact that I worked so hard to develop a rapport with my students and to balance the work with fun and engaging activities. I also espoused my belief that respect is a two-way street and if they wanted me to respect them, they would have to respect me. Administrators and colleagues were very positive about my classroom management techniques and praised me for handling students as well as I did in my very first year of teaching. I’ll never forget a substitute teacher asking me in shock if it really were just my first year because she thought I had years of experience since I handled my classroom so well.

The problem, though, was that I was utterly exhausted. I was, very foolishly, grading each student’s participation on a daily basis. And, I was keeping track of every time a kid forgot a writing utensil or a folder. And, I was logging visits to the nurse and the restroom Paperwork by luxomediaand absent work that never was completed. In class, I told kids who were falling asleep to stand up and do their work standing until they felt more awake. Then, I filled in a discipline form for my file. If a kid put her head down on her desk during class, I would tell her to sit up and then I filled in my discipline log.  The paperwork was getting out of control, as I was doing all of the “discipline” work plus all of the other duties of a teacher: writing lesson plans, designing activities, grading essays and tests, making bulletin boards, making copies, logging student remediation and reteaching and data, analyzing tests to discover student strengths and weaknesses, and on and on. By Christmas of my first year, I thought I was going to go crazy with all of the paperwork and calls home and entries in my discipline log.

That’s right: I had no major discipline issues, but my discipline log was being filled with students who forgot a pencil, who forgot a folder, who forgot to return a signed assessment, etc. It dawned on me that I didn’t necessarily have a discipline problem but a kid problem. These were 7th graders. I should have been happy they found my room some days, let alone actually remembered to bring all of their materials with them. But, what of those high expectations that I had made so clear to the students, their parents, and my administrators?

Well, I realized that I still could have those high expectations, but that I could go about enforcing them in a different way.  I had to learn how to pick my battles, if you will. I wanted to hold kids accountable but stop bringing the learning process to a halt just because a kid was being a kid and forgot to bring something to class. I solved those everyday problems with simple solutions and gave myself a break so I could focus on the more important things in my classroom.

Problem #1: Pencils – Students often forgot a writing utensil, and I would get so angry because I had no idea how they expected to “do” English class without one.

  • Former Fix: Log the infraction in the discipline log, ask student what happened to his pencil, and allow student to borrow one for that class period only. Reduce number ofPencil tips by Dvortygirl participation points for that day. Get frustrated two hours later when I realized the student had left class with MY pencil.
  • Current Fix: Allow student to borrow one from the black turnstile on my desk and leave something for collateral on my desk. Get the student into the beginning of class activity more quickly. Spend time reading his “Do Now” instead of writing in the discipline log. Smile when student returns pencil to turnstile and remembers to take his belonging from my desk at the end of class. Warn student at the door not to make a habit of forgetting his pencil.

Problem #2: Kids who, for the life of them, cannot remember their folders/binders – This infraction bothered me even more than the pencil problem. On the one hand, I at least had some hope that the kid didn’t have his class materials because he had taken them home to review and practice. On the other hand, I knew that he had tossed it somewhere with the rest of his school work and never opened it.

  • Former Fix: Log the infraction in the discipline log, ask student where he left his class materials, and gather extra copies and paper for him. Reduce number of participation points for that day. Get frustrated when I see the extras shoved under his desk in a crumpled mess at the end of class.
  • Current Fix: Option 1: If it’s a chronic problem, and I know the kid truly is not doing anything with his class materials outside of class, make a classroom folder for him and tell him that it will remain in the classroom so that he can learn every day. Remove his excuse for attempting to not do anything in class since he doesn’t have his materials. Option 2: If it’s a first-time occurrence, remind the kid that coming to class prepared is crucial to his success and show him where to find extra copies. Tell him to return the extra copies tomorrow, after he updates his own folder at home that evening.

Problem #3: Missed classwork/notes due to an absence – It’s inevitable: kids miss school for a million different reasons. Even though I stressed that it was their responsibility to inform me ahead of time about a planned absence, especially for athletics, kids forgot. And, the kids who missed school due to illness were supposed to come to me the next morning and get their materials so they could be ready for class; more often than not, they forgot, too.

  • Former Fix: Take attendance and make a sticky note of absent kids. At the end of the day, gather all missed work and write names of absent students at top. Sort work by class period and put into an absentee folder on the front table. Remind kids the next day to Notes by English106get their absent work. Reduce number of participation points for kids who don’t pick up the work or show me complete work by the deadline. Log the problems in the discipline log.
  • Current Fix: Assign students class partners. If they are absent, they borrow the notes from the partner and see which papers they missed. Students get copies of missed work from front table and see me with questions or problems. Remind them they may attend a reteaching session. If chronic absences become an issue, assign them a reteaching session.

Problem #4: Late work because of computer and printer “issues” at home – As an English teacher, I assigned various projects and essays to be completed by a certain due date. I advertised the due date the day that I assigned the work, gave students options for turning it in, including emailing it to me, printing it out and handing it to me, or sending it in Google Drive or putting it in Dropbox. And yet, kids still showed up on due dates with nothing to give to me because their printers had run out of ink. Every. Single. Time.

  • Former Fix: Mark the assignment as late, reduce points in the grade book, and call home. Log the problem in the discipline log. Ask the kid for the assignment the next day and repeat the process every day for a week. Threaten the kid with detention if the assignment isn’t turned in TOMORROW. Get a very poorly completed assignment at the very last second.
  • Current Fix: Reduce the assignment grade by 2%, as per the district’s grading guidelines. Remind the student he has five days to turn it in and that he will lose no more than a total of 10% of his points, as per the grading guidelines. Hand the kid a flash drive and tell him to save the assignment to it and return the flash drive tomorrow. Remove the possibility for excuses and show the kid I mean business about receiving a quality product, even if it is a little late.

These solutions worked for me in my freshmen and sophomore classes. I enjoyed the break I gave myself by refusing to let paperwork and frustration take over my school days. It also seemed to help with some of the kids who realized that I still was holding them accountable but doling out more reasonable consequences when they didn’t live up to my expectations. At the end of the day, I had to keep in mind that they were just kids. It was hard to let go of some of my original “fixes,” but eventually I realized I was doing myself a favor by letting go of some of the issues that weren’t so important in the big picture.

Which everyday problems are most irksome for you? Which solutions have you implemented? Leave a reply to get the discussion going.

Paperwork image via Flickr by luxomedia
Pencil tips image via Flickr by Dvortygirl
Notes image via Flickr by English106

Weekly Roundup: 8/22/14

With teachers and students heading back to school (already) or in the next couple of weeks, education seems to be in the news more now than usual. Each week, we are going to bring you the good, the bad, and the ugly of the education-related news stories that grabbed our attention, listed in no particular order. *FYI – Newsletter subscribers have the advantage of receiving our top news picks sooner than they will appear in the Weekly Roundup.*

  • Award-winning high school English teacher Ian Altman’s list of seven things reformers should stop saying to teachers perfectly captures the anger and frustration teachers feel when they are being attacked by the public and reformers. Altman curated the list after speaking with educators across the country, and one thing is clear: it is time for teachers to stand up and take back their profession. Check out the full article from the Washington Post.
  • Arne Duncan decided this week that states may delay using test results in teacher-performance ratings for one more year, citing teachers’ need for more time to adapt to the new CCSS and tests. His tone was noticeably changed in his blog post: “I believe testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools.” Some states are choosing to continue to use test results in teacher evaluations, while Vermont’s state board of education recently decided against using test scores in teacher evaluations. Check out the full article from The New York Times.
  •  With all of the hype surrounding test scores and the very real and serious ways in which those scores affect teachers (not to mention students!), it is interesting, to say the least, that New York state officials “reportedly” lowered the number of correct answers needed to pass half the exams. Testing giant Pearson is the state’s testing vendor, and they, along with the state, determined that six tests were harder and four easier this year than in 2013. This all begs the question: how valid are the results that everyone relies on for so much in education? And, why are we relying on these tests in the first place?  Check out the full article from the New York Post.
  • Education reform is “A National Delusion,” according to Steve Nelson, Head of the Calhoun School in Manhattan, in an article contributed to The Huffington Post. We’re hearing about online education programs, charter schools, Common Core, testing, testing, and more testing, and a whole lot of blame placed on unions, tenure, and of course, teachers. “None of the things on the partial list above will have the slightest effect on the so-called achievement gap or the supposed decline in America’s international education rankings,” Nelson says. And we couldn’t agree more. Check out the full article.
  • Veteran teacher Arnold Pulda brilliantly describes teacher tenure at a time when so many public figures are getting it all wrong. He also craftily describes how his experience makes him a better, not worse, teacher and why it is so important to have veteran teachers in classrooms across the country, especially at a time when teachers are the target of blatant disrespect. Check out the full article from
  • Reynoldsburg, Ohio, is becoming a hotbed of grassroots political action as parents are increasingly supporting teachers after they failed to reach a contract agreement with the district even with the help of a federal mediator: the current contract expired July 31. 20% of the district’s teachers have left since January, and the community members, parents, and teachers are uniting to tell the school board to come up with a new proposal that addresses steady increases in class size, the teacher exodus, and merit pay based on a single high-stakes test. Check out the full article from NEA’s
  • Things just keep getting worse for the state of education in Pennsylvania, under the governance of Tom Corbett. As if slashing the education budget weren’t reason enough, Corbett is under fire because his former Education Secretary Ron Tomalis may have been a ghost employee as a “special adviser” to Corbett. Now, multiple people are calling for an investigation into whether Tomalis actually worked for his $139,542 salary and whether Corbett named him an adviser simply to boost Tomaslis’ annual pension by nearly $7,000. Check out the full article from
  • With the push for big data being used in every facet of education, it will be interesting to see how education reformers will spin the latest polling data that shows significant opposition to the Common Core. The polls, one by Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup and one by Harvard researchers for Education Next, both found public support diminishing for the standards. Check out the full article from The Atlantic.
  • It became very apparent this week that the war on public education and teachers is in full swing, as the Michigan Education Department approved the Detroit Public Schools’ plan to cut teachers’ pay by 10% and close 24 schools; the district found itself in trouble when voters failed to pass a county-wide tax millage that they had counted on for revenue. The DPS is $127 million in debt and has a five-year deficit elimination plan that includes the pay cuts and school closures, which result in larger class sizes for DPS students among other serious challenges.  The Detroit Teachers Union is vowing to fight the cuts. Check out the full article from CBS Detroit.
  • Another useful set of data was released this week to demonstrate the failure of NCLB and Race to the Top. ACT scores are proving to be flat from 2010-2014 even as billions of dollars have been spent on testing, test-based teacher evaluations, and teacher merit pay that education reformers think boost college readiness. Additionally, scores are stagnant on the federal government’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the SAT college admissions test. It appears as though the data proves that focusing on standardized testing has backfired; it is time to create better learning experiences for our students. Check out the full article from Diane Ravitch’s blog.
  • But we are living in a Golden Age of Education! That is, one in which we place the appearance of teaching our children well above the actual quality of said education. “Never before have so many dedicated hard-toiling bureaucrats in the education industry done so much to ensure the quality of the veneer of education,” author James Hanley says, in a post at Ordinary Times. Read the full story here. 
  • Are American parents to blame for messing up their kids’ education? While there’s ample discussion on this topic to spark a debate spanning decades, an article in The Statesman Journal takes a look at how the shifting mindset, entitlement mentality, and general tendency to make everything a high-stakes initiative is actually leading kids to believe that they’ve either got it or they don’t. And if they don’t, there’s no point in trying. It turns out, there’s value in making mistakes, in being less than the best, and — gasp — even sub-par performance. Get the full story from The Statesman Journal. 
  • Education reform relies on cold, impersonal measures to pit schools against one another and create stiff, rigorous testing environments in pursuit of the goal of “closing the achievement gap.” But how do we measure and account for the value of the human relationship that is “at the core of education,” according to Berkeley professor David Kirp in The New York Times (finally!). Natalie Wexler reflects on the human element and whether caring is enough in an article at Greater Greater Washington.
  • The Washington Post has an interesting piece regarding the positioning of education reform efforts in the media, and what opponents of high-stakes testing must do in response to successfully win the battle. A set of nine values/ goals are presented which paint a picture of a lovely ideal, but as a few commenters point out, fail to get down to the nitty-gritty of strategic efforts needed to actually get there. Still, it’s an intriguing read and there are some insightful responses in the comments that are worth a look. Check it out at The Washington Post.

What have you been reading this week? Share your favorite picks with us, or sound off with your reactions in the comments below.

How the LLWS Can Change the Discussion on Education

Who was your favorite teacher? No, seriously. This only works if you play along. So, think about it. Ready? Okay. Who is it? And, more important, why did you pick that person? I’ll bet you smiled just thinking about it.

Now, name your favorite test. Go on. Need more time? We’ve got all the time in the world. I’ll bet you still can’t do it.

One last question: Why are people celebrating the Rhode Island coach from the LLWS? That’s an easy one, if you’ve seen any news channel, sports channel, newspaper, or social media outlet in the past few days. People are praising and loving Dave Belisle. And, they absolutely should be. He took a group of devastated young players and gave them the speech of a lifetime. Dave transcended the role of coach and became a mentor, counselor, cheerleader, and confidante in those few minutes on the field. In other words, he became a teacher.

So, in the middle of thBaseball by Joel Dindais war on teachers, why is this guy getting so much attention and so many accolades? He simply was talking to a bunch of kids. They didn’t even win. What’s the big deal?

The big deal is, he has built a relationship with those kids. You can see the pride in his eyes, and you can hear the love in his voice as he addresses his players. He is their Coach. They showed up to practice for him. They missed family gatherings and summer holiday fun time for him. They hustled around the bases and off the fields for him. And, they gathered around him when they most needed comfort after their heartbreaking loss.

You see, he does deserve the attention he is getting. He took the time to get to know those players and encourage them to be their very best, for months. He challenged them and pushed them, and they made it all the way to the Little League World Series. They probably exceeded their expectations and their predicted performance levels that were set on that very first day of practice, oh so long ago. So, I’m not too far off when I call him a teacher, am I?

The glaring disparity between this coach and a teacher is that the public at large has embraced him as a role model and a hero among men while they criticize, belittle, and attack teachers who do the very same things. And, don’t forget, teachers do these things for kids on a daily basis, outside of the limelight and often without the support of parents. I’m not saying teachers are better than this coach. I AM saying that teachers deserve the same respect as this coach.

But, this guy’s kids are losers: they’ve been eliminated. They weren’t proficient in the game of baseball. Where’s his improvement plan? Where’s his cut in pay? Where’s his constant monitoring and evaluating of scores and performance? It seems ridiculous to even ask these questions because it is ridiculous. These are kids. They were playing baseball. There has to be a losing team because it’s a game. But, they played their hearts out for their Coach, and they gave it their all because that’s what he taught them to do.

And yet, we hold teachers responsible for the very same things that seem so ridiculous for a baseball coach. The students taking those high-stakes tests that determine their teachers’ evaluations and, oftentimes, their schools’ funding levels, are kids. And, those kids need love and praise and encouragement just like Dave’s players; the sad thing is, they often need it most after they have lost the testing game despite putting in so much effort all year long. In spite of it all, kids are learning so many things as they make their way through school, thanks to the teachers who don’t think the assessments are the be-all and end-all of the public education system.

Teachers will tell you that education is not a game, but the assessment companies (aka Pearson) and state and federal governments have turned it into a game by incentivizing education and declaring that it’s a “Race to the Top.” Whose scores can improve the most and the fastest? Which kids can be declared proficient? And, even worse, Pearson and the state of New York reportedly changed the rules of the game while it was being played, by toying with the number of questions students needed to get correct in order to be declared proficient.

LLWSIt’s amazing how hard kids will work when they have a person that they know, trust, and respect leading them. The same certainly cannot be said about kids who are being taught with technology and computer systems that assess the daylights out of them. When you take the teachers out of teaching, you take the kids’ motivation and effort in learning along with them.

So, Dave Belisle should be your favorite coach. And, the next time that you share or comment on that video of his speech, or even talk about it at your own kid’s Fall ball practice, point out that those coaches are teachers, whether they have an education degree or not. You just may get people thinking about all that teachers do for kids, and you may just start to change the discussion about public education in this country.

Then, send your favorite teacher a thank-you note. It’s the least you could do.

Baseball image via Flickr by Joel Dinda