Newest Resource Reveal!

I’m excited to announce the completion of the entire grade 8 ELA Common Core (and LAFS, for Florida) CIM series bundle! It’s taken me about a year to complete, and I’m very pleased with what I’ve been able to create for you. In the bundle, there are 17 different resources. Each targets an individual standard with three mini-lessons. Each CIM uses excerpts that have been adapted to be (or were, in their original format, already) appropriate for 8th-grade readers. This was assured through the use of the Lexile® analyzer as well as several other online readability calculators (Flesch, etc.).

If you’ve never heard about or used my CIM resources, they use the research-based “model – teach – assess” technique. They are quick (10-15 min) mini-lessons that target specific standards. The only Common Core practice I’ve been able to find is general and mixed standards. Mine is the only one I know of that does individual standard, targeted instruction and practice. It’s low-prep and easy to implement. It even includes suggestions for differentiation and extension!

I know many of you have been just waiting for me to finish the rest of the bundle, and now it’s finally ready for you! Buying the bundle instead of all the individual CIMs will save you a, well, bundle! If you’re looking for a quick, targeted, and easy resource for these standards, come check them out!

ALL RL.8 RI.8 Bundle

Why I Scale (and Curve) My Grades

I was fortunate enough to work in my district’s assessment office for over two years. I worked with teachers and other district administrators to create all of the district-wide exams for English, their electives, and some CTE (Career and Technical Education) courses. As I work for one of the ten largest districts in the country, this was a major undertaking.

In this position, I was privy to some unique perspective on how the scaling process works not only at a district level, but also for large testing companies like College Board and ACT. It changed my perspective regarding curves and scales for individual assessments and overall course grades as a whole.

This experience came after a more negative experience early in my teaching career, where I wound up losing a position because of, among other issues, my course grades. I find that the teachers I work with face a major obstacle with grades. A large number of students don’t do what they’re expected to do. They don’t do homework. They don’t do class work. They don’t turn in work they actually take the time to do. They don’t study for tests. Or, they study for tests but because they didn’t do the other important work, they fail anyway. If you take a look at many teachers’ raw grade book scores for any individual assignments, there are an alarming number of failing grades.

scales oops

Now, teachers can lament and rend their garments all they like about how lazy students (and/or parents, etc.) are and how, “If (insert name here) would just do what s/he’s supposed to, they would be passing!” But at some point, there is a reality game to play. The reality is that in any given class, there is a spectrum of students. There always has been, and there always will be. Even in honors or AP classes, there is a spectrum. Some of it has to do with student effort, but some of it is related to innate ability/talent/intellect, what-have-you. Let me tell you, I worked my behind off in my college computer programming class (why I had to take it to get certified for middle school math is beyond me, but that is neither here nor there). I did every assignment. I went to every class. I went to office hours. I asked questions. I worked HARD. And I barely – BARELY – made a “C.” There were assignments and assessments I failed. Not because I was lazy, but because my brain just did not work that way. It wasn’t something for which I had a natural affinity. Anyway, the point is that in any class, there is a spectrum of students. And I can’t (nor should I, in my opinion) make ten different ability versions of a quiz or test so that I can accurately assess every single student where they are in that moment. Every student takes the same test. Maybe I have 2 or 3 versions, but it’s of the same test – same level, rigor, etc. And I know – heck, I’ll even use the word “expect” – there to be failures. Because my tests are well-made. I follow a 30/40/30 or 25/50/25 rule for my tests in terms of easy/medium/difficult questions. I need to have enough questions to differentiate my “D” students from my “F” students. I need to have enough questions to differentiate my “B” students from my “A” students. I know student Q over there isn’t going to get an “A.” I know that because he’s on the lower end of my spectrum. But I’m not entirely sure if he’s a “D” or an “F” student, so that’s where my 25-30% of easy questions come in. I know student S is going to ace the easy and medium questions, but I’m not sure if student S is an “A” or a “B” student, so that’s where my 25-30% of hard questions come in.

scales question distribution

The problem is, when you have a class that has a really wide, and heavily skewed spectrum, you end up doing a lot of “D”/”F” differentiation and not a lot of “A”/”B” differentiation. Which makes your test scores look like crap. And if that’s the case for all of your assignments and assessments, then your class averages look like crap.

So instead of grading in a CRT (criterion-referenced test) system, which looks at raw scores as the basis for grades, I went to a more NRT (norm-referenced test) system, which scales – or in some cases curves – scores to assign grades. This is what large districts like my own do, as well as major national testing companies like the College Board and ACT. There’s a reason they convert raw scores to scale scores. There’s a reason their national averages work out to a bell curve. They recognize and base their scoring on the fact that there is a spectrum of students who take their tests.

scales bell curve

Now, I’m not suggesting that we don’t let students fail. I’m not suggesting what some schools or even entire districts mandate (not mine, thankfully…yet), which are things like having minimum grades of 50% or even 55% rather than zero’s in a gradebook. I see the argument behind that, but…frankly, that’s a topic for a different entry. I’m not suggesting that a student who answers 2 questions right out of 25 end up with an A or a B. However, I am saying that scaling scores is a reasonable way to norm assessment, assignment, and entire class grades so that a teacher doesn’t find him/herself at the end of the quarter with 15 F’s and 10 B’s and C’s and no A’s. I’ve been on the receiving end of that discussion with admin and believe me, it wasn’t pretty. Scaling grades isn’t grade inflation, when it’s done appropriately. Here is how a scaling process might work.

Let’s say, for time’s sake, that my class has 10 students. I know, right? Heaven. But again, this is for time’s purpose, not reality. I give a test to a low-performing class and this is my raw score data:

Student Raw % Score Raw letter grade
A 15 F
B 20 F
C 30 F
D 60 D
E 75 C
F 25 F
G 80 B
H 45 F
I 55 F
J 35 F

Something really important to remember in the scaling process is that I do NOT discard my raw data. This class needs a LOT of remediation and further instruction on this topic. I would NOT want to move on to the next concept before doing some serious re-teaching. The average for this assessment is only a 44%. That is TERRIBLE. Something went horribly wrong.

scales terribly wrong

Here is where I have a decision to make. I can choose to curve my scores OR I can choose to scale them. Curving is different from scaling. Curving is adding points to raw scores, which results in a change to the overall average score. This is probably more common than scaling because lots of teachers already do it. “Oh, man, everyone missed question 7. Gee, now that I look at it, I can see that question 7 really was kind of vague. It really wasn’t a great question. I’m going to throw it out.” When you throw out/don’t count a question, you’re simply adding the same number of points to everyone’s raw score. That’s a curve. Or, when you say, “Hey, this average was only a 44% I want the average to be 70%. That means I have to add 26 percentage points to everyone’s score.” Or, you look at the highest score and if it isn’t an A, you add however many points that person needs to move up to an A to everyone’s score. That’s a curve. That’s how we get the expression “blow the curve.” When everyone else does terribly but one person scores an A, it can negate the need for a curve. Using curves is pretty easy and accomplishes something similar to a scale, which is it saves your grade book and students’ overall averages.

Now, if I wanted to scale these scores, what I would do is decide what I wanted my normed curve to look like, do I want a bell curve? Do I want a skewed curve? If so, do I want to skew low or high? I am pretty anal about this and really love the beauty and symmetry of the bell curve, so I usually scale my scores to resemble a bell curve. You can also choose to scale the scores to some other norm. For example, in my district, the semester exam scales were created to match the norm curve of student course grades. If 15% of students earned an A, 20% earned a B, 45% earned a C, 5% of students earned a D, and 15% of students earned an F, then that is what the scale would reflect. Or try to come close to, anyway.

So let’s scale my quiz scores to match a bell curve. Without going into some higher-level statistics, the basic breakdown of the bell curve says the majority of scores fall in the middle (C), some of the scores fall on either side of that – an equal amount – as B’s and D’s, and the smallest amount of scores fall outside of those – again, an equal amount – as A’s and F’s.

With only 10 students, our bell curve might look something like this:

scales bell curve 2

This is what the scale scores look like from the original table:

Student Raw % Score Raw letter grade Scale score
A 15 F F
B 20 F D
C 30 F C
D 60 D B
E 75 C B
F 25 F D
G 80 B A
H 45 F C
I 55 F C
J 35 F C

Their scale score has nothing (or very little) to do with their raw score and everything to do with the normed curve and their performance compared to their peers. This preserves the spectrum of students in the class without inflating grades or hurting teachers’ grade books.

When scaling is used in conjunction with curving, it can be effective in maintaining a “normed” or “balanced” grade book. If teachers discount raw score information, though, or curve blindly just to get to a “nice average” for an assessment, this isn’t best practice. Without looking at the assessments, teachers aren’t able to become aware of flaws or bias in individual items or student weaknesses and areas in need of intervention. Again, I wouldn’t intend to just move on from this assessment. I would intend to reteach and reassess it until those raw “F” students were able to score raw “C’s”. Am I going to move Student A? Maybe from a raw “F” to a raw “D,” but probably not much more than that. Could I get my raw “C” to a raw “B” and/or my raw “B” to a raw “A”? Probably. I would hope so. But, I don’t want the original assessment to kill my grade book or students’ overall averages, so using a scale is helpful and appropriate. Am I going to achieve my goals every time? Nope. That’s not reality. But the point is that would be my intention, and that’s what matters. I could throw the whole assessment out, but what message am I sending to students then? Did it even matter in their eyes if the grade doesn’t count? Students struggle (often, at least in my experience) to see the value in an assignment that doesn’t get a grade, and then you run into motivation issues. But again, another topic for another entry.

Once I started using curves and scales responsibly, my grade book looked great. I don’t have tons of A’s and I don’t have kids who clearly either didn’t understand a concept or were ridiculously lazy getting A’s, both of which would indicate indiscriminate grade inflation. What I do have, however, is evidence for my administrators that I reflect thoroughly on my grading process and the assessments themselves.

Why I Use PowerPoint to Teach Middle School Math

Nowadays, one of the major components of many teacher evaluations – including mine – is student engagement. Especially as a new teacher, I struggled with what felt like a game of “Whack-A-Mole” – getting student A on task only to find student B across the room is flinging paper at the student in the next seat. It was a never-ending cycle that left me exhausted. No matter what I did, I couldn’t figure out a way to get every student on task, doing what I needed them (and what they needed) to be doing.

why teach PPT whackamole

It took me a while to figure out that there were two major reasons why my students weren’t always on task. And no, it wasn’t that my lessons themselves weren’t “engaging,” although, as a new teacher, that actually was part of it, but not the central part. I know this to be true because as I progressed in my teaching career, I learned how to make much more engaging lessons, but unless I employed the tactics I’m about to explain, I wound up with the same problems.

The two reasons my students weren’t always on task were

1) they didn’t know what to do/didn’t have something to do

and

2) they couldn’t do what they were supposed to be doing.

Many of my students were off task because they didn’t know what to or have something to do. I had way too much downtime in my lessons. The students who were mature were able to sit and wait until the next component – which, admittedly, wasn’t long. It wasn’t like I had 5 or 10 minutes of dead time, but any teacher can tell you that even just 10 seconds of space is enough to derail a student who is either immature or not self-directed.

Students goofing off in classroom

Students goofing off in classroom — Image by © Sean De Burca/Corbis

So, what’s a girl to do? I abhorred the idea of busy work – I still do. Whatever I had for my students to do, it had to be authentic and worthwhile. It was a long time ago, so I don’t remember the flash of lightning that hit me for the inspiration, but at some point, I decided to try PowerPoint lessons. I put together all the vocabulary, notes, examples, and practice problems for a concept into a slide show and required my students to take these notes for a grade.

why teach PPT projected slide

Do you know what it’s like to hear the angels of heaven sing?

why teach PPT angels sing

I suppose it sounds like different things to different people, but that day it was the sound of silence. It was my whole class on task. Seriously. Every single student. And I know that most teachers will confirm that novelty and/or gimmicks may solve a problem in the short term, but give it about two weeks and things often go back to the way they were.

why teach PPT wait_for_it

That didn’t happen. I used PowerPoints with the same success regarding engagement and on-task behavior throughout the rest of not that year, but subsequent years. This is because PowerPoints give students clear and consistent expectations of what they are supposed to be doing, and provides enough information on each slide to keep students engaged if they finish one definition or problem before other students.

The other reason my students were off task was because I was expecting them to do things they couldn’t. Many of my students – like so many in our country – were performing below grade level. When I was putting up one problem at a time and asking students to work on it, the ones who couldn’t do it were off task. Once I changed to PowerPoint lessons, though, this problem was eliminated. Instead of one or two problems at a time, I was able to have several – sometimes up to ten different problems on a slide! I was able to have different levels of problems so that everyone was able to do what I wanted them to do. Additionally, the other slides alleviated this problem because everyone can write down information from a slide. This may not seem worthwhile, but I made sure my students knew two important things about this: 1) this was building notetaking skills, where were vital for their future in education, and 2) these notes were graded, so even if they didn’t fully understand the lesson, just by writing down the information on the slides, they could earn a grade that would help them overall.

why teach PPT important

And guess what? This all had an unexpected side effect: because these low-performing students now knew what they had to do/had something to do AND could do it, they actually began to improve their understanding and comprehension.

why teach PPT whaaat

If you’ve never tried using a PowerPoint in your middle school math classroom but you’d like to, I’d encourage you to check out some ready-made lessons that are Common Core-aligned. These are my most popular and best-selling lessons:

Independent vs. Dependent Variables

Ratios and Proportions

Integers and Absolute Value

Open House Tips & Tricks

I would love for open house to be a full day. There’s just never enough time to communicate everything I feel is necessary to everyone who attends. I don’t get to spend enough time with parents/guardians talking about expectations and how my class works. I wish I had more time.

open house need more time

Teachers who have been to this rodeo before do certain things ensure open house is successful. We print supply lists ahead of time. We have people sign in – we might even have them jot down their phone number or email for us. We hand out curriculum/course overviews. We have our rules posted and our rooms decorated. But over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about how I can get even more out of this year’s open house.

Secondary teachers’ open house night/day is different from elementary. We’ve got multiple classes – so do the kids. So, there’s a lot of roaming around. And a lot of students and families are only there to map out their day; they aren’t attending with the intention of truly engaging in any meaningful discussions with the teacher. They’ve been to this rodeo, too (6th and 9th grades are, I find, the exception to this rule). Still, I found that I was run ragged after open house, even though I had things set up in a reasonably organized fashion.

open house exhausted

As the school year has inched ever closer with each passing day, I find myself wondering, “How can I get even more out of this event? How can I facilitate independence for those families who just come for the map and supply lists so I am free to answer questions from other families?”

One thing I tried last year that worked well and that I will be employing this year is to project a screen onto my board with class supplies for families (along with a printed handout). When employing this strategy, I had a lot of people walk in, read the screen, pick up the handout, sign my information sheet, and then walk out after making eye contact and giving me a smile.

This year, though, I’m determined to digitize my classroom experience even further, though. My PowerPoint slide this year is going to have a chart, and in that chart, will be QR codes and bitly links to the Google sheet into which parents will enter their contact information, the supply list document, the welcome letter document, and the Remind sign up instructions pages (never used Remind? Google it! Maybe I’ll even write a post about it later!). I’m also going to have the Google sheet for contact information up on my student desktop computer for parents who don’t have (or don’t feel comfortable using) a smart phone. Of course, I’ll have paper copies of the supply list, welcome letter, and Remind instructions for those families as well.

open house ppt slide new

I am hoping that this will streamline things even further because 1) I’ll save time and resources not having to print so much, 2) I won’t have to manually transfer each hand-written email and phone number (you know, just because someone is a grown up doesn’t mean handwriting is readable…and of course the information in the school database is often wrong…) but can simply import it from the electronic sheet, and 3) I won’t have to be as involved in the distribution of paperwork (I’m betting most families have a smart phone for at least one of the members!).

Something else I have done with great success is to list important class-level items needed (hand sanitizer, tissues, paper towels, etc.) on sticky notes with my name, classroom, and subject, and allow people to take the sticky notes with them as they exit. I’ve seen teachers simply list (creatively and beautifully) what is needed, and sometimes parents will even write it down, but often times they forget which teacher asked for what and the supplies never make it into the right room. The use of sticky notes helps tremendously with this (I’ve had parents give me direct feedback on this for many years).

open house post it supplies

I have also had several years (before having my child) where my husband has come to open house and set up “shop” in the back of the room giving families the opportunity to purchase supplies cheaply and conveniently rather than have to make another trip to the store after the tax-free days our state gives us. Because elementary schools (and pre-schools) are really good about sending home supply lists before the start of the year, but secondary teachers/schools find this more difficult because each student now has 7 teachers, and there are 1000+ students and all their schedules are different.

If you like these ideas and want an open house freebie, I’ve got something for you to check out!

Have a wonderful open house and a great start to the year!

Common Core Practice for RL.8.4, RL.8.5, and RL.8.6

For those of you who read regularly, you’ll remember that I’m working on my 8th grade line of Continuous Improvement Model mini-lesson resources. I’m making good progress and I have recently finished and posted these resources:

CCSS.ELA.RL.8.4

8th grade CIM RL4

CCSS.ELA.RL.8.5

8th grade RL5 1

and

CCSS.ELA.RL.8.6

8th grade CIM RL6 1

I’ve also bundled these so you can save over 10% if you purchase them together.

8th grade CIM RL4-6

If you’ve never heard about or used my CIM resources, they use the research-based “model – teach – assess” technique. They are quick (10-15 min) mini-lessons that target specific standards. The only Common Core practice I’ve been able to find is general and mixed-standards. Mine is the only one I know of that does individual standard, targeted instruction and practice. It’s low-prep and easy to implement.

If you’re looking for quick, targeted, and easy resources for this standards, come check them out!

 

Why I Taught Formulaic Writing

Obviously, I am a writer. Obviously. You’re reading something I wrote right now. I write a wide variety of works, everything from poetry to book reviews. I’ve published a novel and create unique curriculum resources. I even write in the world of fan fiction. I will be the first person to champion free-form, creative writing. In fact, I am not a huge fan of strict structure in most writing (have you ever actually tried to write a sonnet?). So, why would someone like me resort to teaching formulaic writing in my classroom? I’m not talking about “beginning, middle, end” structure. I’m talking about essentially fill-in-the-blank templates for students. It might seem counter-productive. I’ve even had other teachers side-eye me when they hear or see what I do. Heck, I’ll be honest, the first time I saw this type of writing instruction, I side-eyed it.

formulaic writing side eye.gif

But I have my reasons. I have taught 7th, 9th, 10th, and 12th grade ELA (in that order). Every single grade level I have taught I kept hoping it would get better. I kept hoping that my students would come to me as good writers and I could take their writing and help them soar. I wanted to take them from good to great. I wanted them to enter contests and win scholarships. I wanted them to score straight 6’s on the state writing test. But for 3 years, my 7th graders demonstrated over and over their inability to form a coherent paragraph (some even struggled with a coherent sentence). When I moved up to high school, I was sure the students would have more basic skill. I was wrong. I started my formulaic writing in middle school and continued it in high school for 1 simple reason: I had to.

formulaic writing desperation.PNG

I taught low-performing, low-achieving students. I won’t pretend that I had any sort of Michelle Pfeiffer, Dangerous Minds experiences, but I had students routinely performing at level 1 and level 2 (level 3 is considered proficient in my state) and in remedial reading classes. I had ESE students in my FUSE classes. I had scores of students who either couldn’t write, thought they couldn’t write, or didn’t want to write. I would give writing prompts and watch as students put their heads down on their desks without writing a single word. Over and over I would try to get to the root of the problem. “Why aren’t you writing?” I would ask. Over and over I would hear some variant of the same answer: “I don’t know what to write.”

formulaic writing student head down

Well, finally, I said enough was enough. No one should not know what to write unless they’re halfway through a novel and can’t figure out how to relate a once-vibrant subplot to the theme. The prompts that the vast majority of my students were asked to write on were no cause for this answer. They didn’t require endless wells of creativity. They required some basic grasp of the main writing traits: structure, conventions, and ideas (I know there are 6 writing traits, but for students who typically hand in a blank sheet, even just getting 3 three under control is a major accomplishment). The vast majority of my students will not only likely never be published authors, but also don’t have any desire to be. I just had to figure out a way for them to live within their reality. I had to figure out a way to help them demonstrate some sort of mastery of the basics. If I could do that, then I could consider myself successful.

formulaic writing success

And so my formulaic writing was born. I began with my lowest students and created the skeleton essay. This is where I put every structurally required element in for them and they only had to come up with quasi-coherent content. I began with the three basic paragraphs: introduction, body, and conclusion. I skipped the hook (because face it, you can have a functional essay without one) and wrote the thesis statement for them. I wrote all the transition words and the blueprint for the body paragraph as well as the conclusion paragraph. I started with easy questions. Inflammatory questions. Questions that are in no way related to the higher-order thinking prompts required on state writing tests and SAT and ACT writing portions. But you know what? That’s okay. Starting with the hackneyed, “Should there be school uniforms?” is okay when you’re trying to get a kid from blank-page-head-on-the-desk to turning in something with meaning – something that shows him/her writing is something s/he can do.

formulaic writing argumenet

I started with blueprint, formulaic writing with insanely basic prompts and allowed anecdote after anecdote for “evidence.” I fostered the mentality that “no one cares if what you write is true; the reader cares if what you write is reasonable and related.” Once my students knew the formula and felt “allowed” to (essentially) make up evidence, they had no excuse. There was no room for “I don’t know what to write.” Because now they had a blueprint. They had a formula. They didn’t have to figure out how to start. I began having students who would write absolutely nothing turning in multi-paragraph essays. Not grade-level vocabulary or even sentence-length, but they felt like they had accomplished something.

formulaic writing happy student

I’ve learned over the course of my teaching career that I have to meet and teach students where they’re at. If I asked my 4-year-old to do Calculus, he’d hop down from the chair after less than a minute and want to go play. He wouldn’t care if it was state-mandated that he demonstrate mastery. He wouldn’t be able to do it. I have had to let go of the idea that I could get every kid performing at or above grade-level over the course of the year. I have seen time and time again that if I teach a student where s/he is at, engagement is higher, motivation is higher, and that student’s achievement is higher. Have I made up for years’ worth of deficits? No, but have I prevented yet another wasted year? I like to think so.

If you’d like to see (and perhaps try!) some of what I used to improve my students’ writing, come check out my mini-lesson on writing thesis statements or my writer’s workshop!

Are You Testing Me? Part 1

This is part 1 of a 3-part series on assessment.

As a classroom teacher, I was always looking for ways to effectively assess my students’ learning. I came up with some great ways to differentiate through product, but sometimes, I just had to use a traditional assessment. I always thought I was pretty good at creating those assessments, but once I got my current job working for Assessment and Accountability, I realized I’d been doing lots of things that are not best practices when it comes to traditional assessments. I’ve decided to share some biggies with you in the hopes that your classroom assessments can be more valid, effective, and help you inform your instruction.

1. Make sure your questions are just that: questions. While it is acceptable to craft an item so that the answer completes a sentence (this is popular in college entrance exams and AP exams), classroom assessments tend to be more valid and effective (and you learn a bit more about your students’ comprehension) if your items are all worded as questions. Here are some examples.

5-21b

– “a” is the preferred item style.

– “b” is acceptable, but not ideal. Note: If you are going to use this format, be sure the “blank” students have to fill in is at the end of the stem (so, not “____ was the first President of the US.”).

– “c” is unacceptable; it isn’t a question, and students might be confused because they’re not entirely sure what you’re wanting them to do. Plus, it’s not even grammatically correct.

2. Use arbitrary order in your distractors (answer choices). We have human bias when we create answer choices. Statistically, we choose B or C as the correct answer more often than A or D (or E, if using 5 answer choices). This is a problem because if students figure out your bias, they can guess with higher rates of accuracy, which defeats the purpose of assessing what concepts or skills they actually know. If you use arbitrary order, this eliminates bias (or lessens it). Here are the common ways to arbitrarily order answer choices:

a. Alphabetically (when answer choices are one word)

b. By length (when answer choices are more than one word)

c. By the order in which the answers appear in the text (for example, line numbers in poetry or quotations from various paragraphs)

d. Chronologically

e. Smallest to largest (numerical values)

3. Number 2 depends on one thing, though: your answer choices should be roughly the same length. We like to make the right answers either the shortest or longest. It takes some practice and skill to make all your distractors the same length. Students pick up on this bias easily and will often guess an answer choice that is considerably longer or shorter than the others.

4. Punctuate your answer choices correctly. A sentence contains a subject and a verb. Sometimes the subject is what we call “understood.” For example, an imperative sentence (an order), “Clean up this mess!” is a sentence because the subject is understood to be “you” – as in, “You, clean up this mess!” It also has a verb: “clean.” There are also one-word sentences like “No.” and “Yes.” And “Stop.” If an answer choice has a subject and a verb, it should be punctuated as such: capitalize the first word and put an end mark (most likely a period) at the end. If it is NOT a sentence, do NOT capitalize the first word and do NOT put a period at the end. And in this vein, make sure all your answer choices (for a specific item) are the same, grammatically: either all are sentences or all are not. Additionally, make sure they are all consistent in terms of parts of speech, verb tense, point of view, etc. Here are some examples:

5-21a

– “a” is problematic because while “i” and “iv” are correctly punctuated sentences, “ii” is not a sentence, and should not be capitalized and ‘iii” is not a sentence and should not be capitalized or contain a period. Also, “iv” is much longer than the other 3 choices. Furthermore, all 4 answer choices are inconsistent.

– “b” and “c” are both equally acceptable. “b” uses complete sentences for all the answer choices, punctuates them correctly, and they are all roughly the same length. They also use the same verb tense (present). “c” uses a single word or phrase for all 4 answer choices; none of them are capitalized (nor should they be); none of them have end marks (nor should they). Additionally, all 4 are the same (and correct) part of speech (noun).

– “d” is problematic because although they are not sentences and are correctly (un)punctuated, they are not all the same (or appropriate) part of speech. “i”, “ii”, and “iv” are adjectives but “iii” is a noun.

5. Having 5 answer choices isn’t statistically different from having 4 answer choices, in terms of what you learn about your students’ knowledge. Anything less than 4 choices, however, is problematic because it doesn’t allow for differentiation among student mastery levels. Lesson: if you’re doing a multiple-choice assessment, go with 4 answer choices. 5 if you feel you absolutely must, but never less than 4. Side note: if you are going to follow the trend where there are multiple answer choices, you must follow this ratio: for 2 answer choices, you must have 5 or 6 options; for 3 answer choices, you must have at least 6 but not more than 8 options. You should not design a question where there are more than 3 correct answer choices.

6. Make your answer choices reasonable. You won’t learn anything about your students’ mastery if one or two of the answer choices are so outlandish that only a monkey would choose it. And don’t try to trick your students. Think about what you want to learn from their answers. Make your distractors (the incorrect answer choices) things that your students would choose if they had certain misconceptions. For example, if your question is (-2) + 3(8 x 3) / 4(5-7), then make your answer choices options that students could get if they dropped a negative, didn’t follow order of operations, etc. This way, you’ll actually gain useful information from students who get the wrong answer. You’ll know why they got it wrong and it can help you target re-teaching.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this series, which will be posted next week. I would love to hear from you! Please comment or leave a question about this blog entry using the form below!

Coming of Age

Picture this: Small-town girl’s best friend moves away the summer before high school starts. Small-town girl is insecure, introverted, and lonely. New neighbor moves in across the street: It’s another rising freshman from New York City. New girl is everything Small-town girl wants to be: pretty, talented, popular. They become unlikely friends. School starts: Cue the drama. New girl gets noticed by a member of the basketball team and invites her to high school party. Both girls go, and New girl gets raped by 3 boys on the team. Small-town girl wants to tell someone; New girl makes her promise to keep quiet. Small-town girl struggles with the decision to be loyal to New girl and keep her friendship or be honest and tell someone what happened and get New girl the help she needs. New girl begins drinking, smoking, cutting, and sleeping around. Drama ensues. The girls fight. New-girl climbs to the top of a water tower during a storm and dies. Did she fall? Did she jump? Small-town girl doesn’t know. Guilt eats away at her. She blames herself. She can’t handle the guilt. She starts cutting. She starts failing her classes. She climbs to the top of the water tower, and…she realizes she wants to live and decides to ask for help. She turns her life around. She comes of age.

purple storm kindle edition

Sound like just the kind of angst-filled story your students will love? Mine did. I read the novel over the course of a week and my students begged – begged, pleaded, cajoled – every day to continue the story. They loved it even more when they learned it was inspired by actual events. When it ended, they were devastated. They demanded more be written. I asked them what could make it better: they gave feedback. Based on that feedback, I crafted a revised version of the novel. That’s right, I wrote this story, and used feedback from the target audience (young adults) to make the book everything they wanted it to be.

It’s short (just 124 pages in paperback), readable, and engaging.

purple storm paperback edition

Buy a copy and see if you think your students will like it, then buy a copy for your classroom. Or, just buy a copy for your classroom and see what happens when one of them picks it up. Who knows, if it becomes a hit, you could even do a whole unit on it (which I’ve created – comprehension questions, vocabulary, graphic organizers, discussion questions, quizzes, and a test – everything you need).

If you teach a non-English subject, pass the information along to your English-teaching colleagues. They’ll thank you!

Novel - Purple Storm

Here are the links to the novel:

To buy paperback

To buy on Kindle

To buy the unit on TpT

Teachers are Heroes!

It’s true, teachers really are heroes! Teachers are leaders, nurses, parents, psychologists, social workers, friends, confidants, and so much more. If you’ve been waiting for the perfect time to check out Teachers Pay Teachers, it has arrived! Today (only for a few more hours!) everything on the site – in every single store! – is at least 10% off! My store has everything 28% off! That’s right! If you’ve been eyeing that perfect lesson, activity, or resource, now is the time to stop by and stock up! There probably won’t be another sale until my birthday (that’s all the way in April, people!), so get test prep, Common Core and LAFS resources, math lessons, writing resources, reading activities, and so much more! And don’t forget, there’s a TON of free stuff on the site, too – not just my store, but hundreds – thousands (literally, there are over 70K stores on TpT!) – of stores with something for everyone. So no matter what or you teach – in a classroom K-12, early childhood, college, or even homeschool, there is something for you! Head on over and check it out!

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Get your teaching resources while the getting is good!

Musical Chairs

First things first: Go Buckeyes! That’s right, the Ohio State Buckeyes showed those Turtles (Maryland) who is the boss of the Big Ten! Tomorrow you’ll get your football freebie, so be sure to check back! And if you’re not a huge Ohio State fan (although, why wouldn’t you be, really?), you can tell yourself this is a reward for 1) University of Kentucky beating SCAR (yes, I know, UK won a football game…how bizarre…put that together with Duke having another good season and it sets up a hopeful UK vs. Duke bowl game…crazy…) or 2) University of M*ch*gan losing yet another game. Your call.

Anyway, on to this week’s entry.

I remember my very first year of teaching during pre-planning, spending time in my classroom deciding how to arrange my desks. Being the super, awesome, idealistic teacher that I was, I was determined to make group work and collaborative learning king of my castle. Students in rows? I scoffed. Not in this classroom! Wellllll, fast forward a few weeks into the school year and I was kicking myself. My students would NOT stop talking. They didn’t do any work. They were off task. It was a nightmare. Of course, this was due to a variety of factors, but one of them was my seating arrangement. It took some time, trial, and error, but after a few years, I had made adjustments and my middle school classrooms were running smoothly. The two biggest changes I made were 1) No group seating without group work and 2) Assigned seats.

1) No group seating without group work: Anyone who reads educational research can tell you the benefits of group work and collaborative learning at all levels of education. However, there is no way that any teacher can make every single activity or lesson a collaborative learning opportunity. The whole point of differentiated instruction is to vary all aspects of learning. You wouldn’t want to just teach through the collaborative process. So why arrange your desks in a way that doesn’t support the type of learning going on? If you’re going to be doing direct instruction (or a test, etc.), sitting students in groups doesn’t make sense. Arranging desks in groups indicates collaborative work. Putting students in a physical environment that suggests collaboration and then expecting them not to collaborate is unfair. And it’s a recipe for disaster. Here’s how I changed my environment to maximize instruction: The desks in my classroom were arranged in rows. Every class period, if you walked into my classroom before the bell rang, you would see desks arranged in rows. 5 x 5, 6 x 5, 5 x 4…it doesn’t matter. Rows. My students were trained at the beginning of the year to come into the classroom, get their needed supplies out of their backpacks, put their bags at the front of the room, go to their seats, and begin work on the bell work (bell ringer, morning work, whatever you call it in your classroom). In the event that the lesson planned for the day incorporated collaborative learning, I spent time at the start of the year training my students to quickly, quietly, and efficiently move themselves and the desks into groups (and back, of course, into rows). By the time the year was in full swing, my students could go from rows to desks in less than about 10 seconds. Most of the time, it was closer to 5. Then, when the collaborative portion of the lesson is over, back into rows they went. Again, 5-10 seconds, and…done! So, if you have your desks in groups and you are having trouble getting your students to focus when they are not doing group work, I’d suggest giving this method a try.

2) Assigned seats: It doesn’t take much to figure out that students are chatty. They talk to their friends. They talk to the new kid. They talk to the person they don’t even like – although not nicely. They’ll talk to themselves, if they have to. They like to talk. If you let them, they’ll sit with the people who will talk the most with them. This is bad news for your classroom learning environment. Can you let your students pick their own seats and still have a successful class? Of course. And if that’s how you roll, then high five to you. But that’s not the way we did it in my room. I found that the majority of middle school teachers regularly assigned seats. What I also found, however, was that they did not change those seats frequently. If you assign seats but don’t change them often, your students will befriend each other. Sit next to someone long enough, and you’ll find something to whisper about. So I changed my students’ seats every two weeks. That’s right: Every two weeks. If there was a short week or some other event, I might let it ride to three, but that was definitely the max. The first few months, I’d brace for the groan when students came in and saw a new chart up on the ELMO, but by the middle of 2nd quarter, there was no more fight in them. They came, they sat, they learned. When I moved up to teach at the high school level, it never occurred to me to let my students pick their own seats. I assigned seats from day one. I taught 9th and 10th grade my first year. My students could not BELIEVE that I assigned them seats. From the way they told it, I was, apparently, the only high school teacher in the entire building that assigned seats. I told them, “Tough. Life sucks, then you die. There are assigned seats in room 212.” I will say that my 3rd year teaching high school I ended up with a class of seniors. I did give them the benefit of the doubt and refrained from assigning seats. They never abused the privilege, so I never saw reason to change the status quo. So, two questions: a) why assign seats and b) how does one effectively assign seats?

a. Why assign seats? Assigned seats are a classroom management tool. The first benefit to assigned seats is attendance. I never had to call roll. I never took more than about 15 seconds to take attendance. I looked at the seating chart; I looked at the students in their seats; I marked the blank chairs. Done. The second benefit to assigned seats is structure. Students like structure. Heck, we all like structure. Especially for my challenging students, the consistency of sitting in the same spot every day took at least one choice off their plate and kept them from making a bad decision day after day. And for those students who really struggled with change, I’d keep their seat in roughly the same spot (or the exact same chair) even when it was time to change. Half the time they didn’t even notice, because their neighbors changed. Assigned seats not only eliminated the opportunity to make bad seating choices, but it also eliminated the need to choose any seat at all. This is a huge time saver for those students who continually ping pong around the classroom before the bell rings (or even once it does). They (purposefully) waste time deciding where to sit. Assign them a seat and you’ll eliminate that. A third benefit to assigned seats is instructional intervention. As you’ll see below, one way you can assign seats is according to grade or ability level. If you have a struggling student and you continually seat him/her next to high performing peers, you have that in your arsenal when your administration or the parent asks what you’ve done to support that child.

b. How does one effectively assign seats? Most teachers use a district-adopted electronic grade book, and most of these programs support an option for seating charts. Let me tell you, though, that I cannot ever remember simply pressing the “assign” or “random” button when assigning seats. To make seat assignments work for you, you have to put some effort in. First, ask yourself what your goal is for the seating arrangement. Do you have a class of talkers? Do you have a handful of students who are royally obnoxious? Do you have one or two students who are just really struggling academically? Do you have students who are unmotivated? Do you have students who like to sleep? Do you have students who are belligerent? Do you have students who over-involve? For nearly every issue you can think of, assigned seats can help eliminate the problem.

The chatters and the PITAs. [Oh, and if you don’t know what a PITA is…google it.] If you have just had it with those students in your class who will.not.shut.up or who seem to irritate everyone around them and cause a ton of drama, a seating chart can help. For this situation, it is vital to identify the catalysts (or, epicenters, if you will) in the class. You might be tempted to say, “But my whole class talks!” If you really watch, however, you’ll see that it begins with just a few students – maybe 2-3, and then when they are not curbed, others jump in. If you’re having trouble identifying these students, ask a fellow teacher to come in and watch specifically for this. Once you have identified the 2-3 students who instigate the talking or the drama, seat them in the corners of the room. Not like, wearing a dunce cap, but in the desks at the four corners of the rows. Then, build your chart inward, with the least talkative students surrounding your instigators and finally finish with the students in the center. See the diagram below.

seating chart

So, you can see that I have done quite a bit of damage to keep my instigators isolated and prevent them from disrupting the class. Also notice that I’ve worked hard to keep any of my “yellow light” students from being directly next to an instigator. You might feel like you have a class of all reds, or that you just don’t have enough greens, but play around with your seating chart and you will find something that at least makes things better, if not solves the problem completely. The key here is to switch these seats regularly – again, I suggest every 2 weeks. It keeps the reds from 1) annoying the greens they’re seated next to and b) befriending the greens and turning them into yellows or reds.

Here are other suggestions for seating arrangements:

Seat by grade (%). I do not suggest doing a simple high-low or low-high. Then you end up with all the unmotivated, failing kids in the same place, which is no bueno. Instead, seat your students alternating high-low-high-low-etc. This ensures that the struggling students always have someone next to them that is 1) likely on task, 2) available for partner work, 3) modeling positive academic behavior (participating, etc.). “But the ‘F’ kids will just cheat off of the ‘A’ kids!” you might argue. I have never had that issue. I provided alternate forms of the test so no one sat next to someone with the same version. Too much work? Then have a “test day” seating chart where you sit in a generic alpha-order or some other arbitrary mode. For a single day, that won’t cause any disruptions.

Seat by gender. You can either do boy-girl-boy-girl alternating (which can have the side benefit of curbing chatter, depending on your mix) or all boys on one side and all girls on the other. My students LOVED it when I sat them this way. Be careful not to seat front vs. back, though, or it will look like favoritism. Assign left vs. right to avoid any problems.

CAUTION: Pay attention to the racial makeup of your class. You want to make sure you disperse all races equally over the layout of the classroom. Not that you would so something on purpose, but…sometimes I didn’t realize it until they all sat down, but I’d end up with the 3 black boys in the class in the back row. Or the 5 white girls all in the front. Oops…

Ideas for seating single problem students:

The sleeper. Obviously all teachers have their own methods of dealing with sleepers (if you read my “sleeper” post, you’ll be familiar with mine). I’ve found it works best if you seat the sleepers in the very back on the edge. Or at least along the edges of the desks. This makes for easy and inconspicuous access, should you decide to intervene.

The belligerent arguer. One of the corners on the row closest to the door. This way, if I had to either 1) ask the student to leave or 2) chat with the student in the hall, they were less disruptive to the class because they had a shorter distance to cover to get to the door.

The one you know hates your guts. Seat this beauty front and center. Send the message that you even though you know they can’t stand you, it doesn’t affect your desire for them to learn.

The one who always seems to be turned around talking. Sit this in the last seat of either the first or the last row. There’s nowhere to turn.

Ideas for small classes:

Sit students every other seat. I was lucky enough to have some classes where I could get away with this arrangement. Let me tell you how much work they got done! Holy cow!

Sit students all in the first 3 rows. Forbid students from sitting in the back.

In-classroom seating interventions:

“Islands of Shame.” I may have covered this in a previous post, but I’m not sure, so I’ll go over it again. In my classroom, I had 5 rows of 6 desks. I also had 3 desks strategically placed in isolated locations around the room. Two up underneath the white board (opposite sides of the classroom) and one facing the 2nd whiteboard on the side wall, behind the upright cabinet. Students who would not stop talking, regardless of where I sat them (I’m talking about just shouting across the room, turning around and disrupting class constantly), I would direct them to an island of shame. And yes, I called it the island of shame. Sarcasm (sort of gently) was part of my classroom culture, though – I’m not advocating you use the term “island of shame” if it doesn’t fit with your personality – so the kids knew it wasn’t personal, just that I really had had it with their disruptions. It got so popular that some of my problem kids would move themselves there when they knew things were getting out of control. And of course, any time a student moved him/herself away from a problem I NEVER stopped them.

Standing. I’ve got a pretty clear set of rules I follow for dealing with sleepers, but occasionally I’d have a kid who was just having a rough day and wanted to sleep. This was usually the case when we would watch a film clip (not “movie day” four days in a row, but a legit film clip for a lesson) and the lights would be off for more than 45 seconds. Or, I’d have the kid who just kept putting his feet on the desk in front of him and pissing off the kid there. I’d warn these students one time to stop their behavior and tell them if it happened again, they’d have to stand. Sure enough, if it happened again, I’d tell them to go stand in the back of the classroom against the wall. Not yelling at them, not making them feel like crap, just, “Please stand up.” I rarely had anyone argue with me over it. In fact, kids who were repeat offenders (especially during the ‘lights off’ film time or when there was a Power Point or something) would ask as soon as I turned the lights off if they could stand in the back of the room. I’d say “sure!” and thank them for being so proactive.

So that’s my post for the week. I know it’s getting close to the end of the first quarter, and some of you may be struggling with some behavior issues. I hope that the ideas I’ve presented in this entry about seating charts will help you gain a little more control in your classroom so your students can learn as much as possible! Of course, comments are welcome!

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