Why I Recommend SparkNotes to My Students (and how I encourage its use)

I was a pretty obnoxious kid growing up.

Okay, fine. I’m still pretty obnoxious. But as a kid, and more specifically, as a student, I was obnoxious. I wouldn’t have wanted to have me in a classroom (Hey, what do they say? Teachers make the worst students? Even as a secondary student I knew I wanted to be a teacher.). I talked all the time; I was a total smart-ass (not to the teachers…usually…or directly…). I am telling you the absolute truth when I say that my freshman year of high school, my World History teacher (who, by the way, was also the Dean of Students) took hold of my desk – with me in it – and flung it about 20 feet across the room because he was so exasperated with me one day. In his defense, I purposely provoked him, asking all sorts of inane, yet, just believable enough to be answered questions, with the sole goal of postponing the day’s test.

sparknotes obnoxious

Yeah. That was me.

But I’ll tell you one thing I wasn’t. I wasn’t a cheater. It wasn’t that I had a strict sense of morality. Other stuff I did growing up would disabuse you of that notion pretty quickly. No, I was an intellectual snob. Well, I suppose a better way to say it was that I didn’t trust anyone’s brain but my own. If I didn’t know it, or didn’t remember it, there was no possible way anyone sitting around me would, either. Of course, given who my circles of friends were at certain points in my secondary education career, I may have been spot on about that. But those less-than-stellar-albeit-necessary-for-making-me-who-I-am-today choices are neither here nor there. The point is, when my senior government teacher accused me of cheating on one of my last high school tests ever, I was justifiably affronted. I would NEVER cheat off of someone.

sparknotes horrified

And so, with that sense of justice (and because I was really worried about what would happen to me if I got caught doing it), I approached my Physics teacher before final exams that year and asked her if it would be considered cheating to program (okay, I’m using that term loosely…I really just wanted to save it in a file/page) the formulas into my TI-whatever-number-was-out-in-1998 graphing calculator and use it on the exam. She paused, seeming impressed – whether at my honesty or comfort level with the technology, I’m not sure – and said that if I could figure out how to do that, she’d be fine with me using the calculator. So I did, and I don’t think I really used it more than once or twice because I was well-prepared.

I tell you this background and anecdote to give you context for my decision as an English teacher to openly guide my students toward – and even encourage them to use – the resources on SparkNotes.

If you’re not familiar with SparkNotes, you should be. And I’d wager that you are familiar with Cliff’s Notes. It’s even a colloquialism these days – “Give me the Cliff’s Notes version!” Meant to only include the information of utmost necessity. Enough to pass the test. Because who really has time to read every assigned novel in British Lit? Or American Lit? Or all of high school?

sparknotes aint nobody

Cliff’s Notes has a pretty negative reputation as being a cheater’s way through the material. Good teachers would know right away if you’d only read the Cliff’s Notes version, because your answers would only skim the surface. And likely be phrased far too sophisticatedly for an average high school student.

SparkNotes is the modern-day version of Cliff’s Notes. On Steroids.

So, why would I encourage my students to go there, when no self-respecting English teacher would hand out Cliff’s Notes copies of a novel to students and say, “You know what? Go ahead. Skip the real thing. Hell. Watch the movie. It’s close enough.” Now, you might think you know the answer to this, because if you follow my blog, you know I often write posts that seem, perhaps to some, like I just lower the standards for my low-performing students. Like, I know they’re not going to read the novel. Why fight the battle? Why not give them something they actually might, if all the stars and planets align, find it in them to do? Would it really be that terrible?

But that is not what my rationale is. No, I don’t direct my students to SparkNotes because I just like to lower the bar. (And I prefer to think of my philosophies more as “realistic expectations,” thank-you-very-much.) No, it’s because of what SparkNotes offers.

Go to a Sparknotes unit for a novel and you will find a veritable cornucopia of resources for that work. You’ll get the context of the work, the plot overview, character list and analyses, and even discussion about themes, motifs, and symbols. And then, if that weren’t enough, you’ll get chapter summaries. They even have quizzes and review questions. They explain important quotations. And it’s all free. Free for students, free for teachers.

Now, I am an avid reader. I love to read. And I hate, hate, hate previewing the story. It’s like nails on a chalkboard having to find out what happens at the end before I even start. That was my least favorite part of being an English teacher. We had these story previews in our curriculum workbooks that gave a synopsis of the entire story before the students even began. It drove me crazy! Where was the suspense? The situational irony? Everything was ruined!

Until I had to teach Julius Caesar. I’m not a humongous Shakespeare fan to begin with, but Julius Caesar isn’t my favorite play of his on the best of days. What made it worse was that I remembered studying it in high school but didn’t actually remember anything other than that I did actually study it. I retained nothing. I’m not sure if that was because I just didn’t understand it or I didn’t read it and spent the discussion time being obnoxious. Probably the latter. But I was not excited to have to teach it. I didn’t even want to read it. I felt like a whiny student.

sparknotes whiny student

So I found SparkNotes. I read all the Act summaries. I read the synopses of character analysis, themes, important facts, etc. I even – praise the literary powers that be – used their “No Fear Shakespeare” modern text version to get me through the PITA that is early Modern English in iambic pentameter. And then I picked up my copy and read it through. And it made sense. And I flew through it. And it wasn’t hard. And it wasn’t boring. And it didn’t make me want to carve my eyes out with a spoon. I was amazed. I wished I’d had SparkNotes in high school. It would likely have helped me get through other classic literature without falling asleep (*cough cough* Great Gatsby, I’m looking at you).

Yes, I already knew the ending, so I’m not sure how I’d feel about some other story being “spoiled” by reading SparkNotes first, but I’ve found – to my surprise – that my students didn’t seem to mind that aspect.

sparknotes i dont get it

So, when we would get ready to read a novel, I would encourage my students to go to SparkNotes. I would tell them to spend time reading everything SparkNotes had on that work of literature so they would understand and notice the subtleties of motifs, symbolism, and sub-plots. Sparknotes does such a great job explaining all this that we were able to spend our time in class talking about other meaningful aspects of the novel. SparkNotes is the modern-day Cliff’s Notes version. But it does it better. It includes so much more that makes it easier (dare I say, enticing?) to read the entire work. But it leaves a little mystery. As a teacher, I just made sure to look at the review, quiz, and essay questions that were on the site and steer clear of them. There were plenty of other things to discuss and put on my assessments.

SparkNotes is the modern-day Cliff’s Notes version. But it does it better. It includes so much more that makes it easier (dare I say, enticing?) to read the entire work. But it leaves a little mystery. As a teacher, I just made sure to look at the review, quiz, and essay questions that were on the site and steer clear of them. There were plenty of other things to discuss and put on my assessments. SparkNotes didn’t rob me of a unit. It didn’t give me a way to fail kids easily because they’d obviously only “read the Cliff’s Notes.” No, by using SparkNotes as a scaffolding tool, I made novel study more engaging and meaningful during class. And heck, it made me a better teacher, too. I like to think of myself as a version of my old Physics teacher who, rather than forbid what could potentially be an extremely valuable tool simply because it seemed like it would lead to slacking – or cheating, embraced it and all it had to offer, and that resulted in student success.

sparknotes hooray

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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 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!

 

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!

Football Freebie 12/2/14

Go Buckeyes! That’s right, The Ohio State University Buckeyes continued their dominance over that “team up north” this past Saturday and secured the victory in “The Game.” Back-to-back years of 40+ point games. It makes my Buckeye heart sing! I’ve already created and posted the football freebie for this week’s win. It’s the answer key to my popular product, 100 Content Questions for the novel, Tangerine, by Edward Bloor. It’s got answers to the 51 questions that have a single (or a few possible) “right” answers. I’ve received feedback from people who purchased this product that they would really like an answer key, so I decided to create one. If you teach Tangerine, you could always just download the answer key and have your students create the questions from the answers, Jeopardy-style. It does not include answers for the questions that are short-answer/extended-response or discussion.

Tangerine answer key

Tangerine

Oh, and don’t forget there are still a few hours left for the Cyber Monday (& Tuesday!) sale on Teachers Pay Teachers! Stop on by and check it out!

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Visit my store today for extra savings!

 

Cyber Monday Madness!

Happy Cyber Monday! Yes, it’s the new-age off-shoot of Black Friday (after, of course, the creation of “Small Business Saturday”); the day where everyone finds time during the work day to surf the internet for great online deals. Well, fear not, for I have Cyber Monday Madness to share with you! Teachers Pay Teachers is running their annual Cyber Monday sale today (December 1, 2014) and tomorrow (December 2, 2014). The entire site will be up to 28% off! Stop the madness! Everything in my store specifically will be 28% off the regular price. This is the perfect time to drop by and see the resources I have!

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Visit my store today!

I’ve also finished (and posted) the second CIM (Continuous Improvement Model) lesson for the grade 6 RL.2 CCSS practice. It uses Poe’s poem, “Annabel Lee” and is designed to take 3-5 days at 7-10 minutes each. It is an “I do,” “We do,” “You do,” model that teaches and assesses the three main aspects of the RL.2 standard: determining theme, finding details that convey the theme, and summarizing the text. If it sounds intriguing, I’ve got a free one for RL.1 you can check out first. I’m excited to be rolling out this line of CIMs. This one for grade 6 RL.2 is just the second of a long list of these CIM products. There will be a CIM for every standard (RL1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9 and RI1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) for grades 6, 7, 8, 9-10, and 11. The line will conclude with 2 versions of a practice assessment (similar to the PARCC, Smarter-Balance, or FSA) for each grade level (6-11). I continue to appreciate feedback on the products in this line so I can tailor them to teachers’ and students’ specific needs.

6th grade FCIM RL2

6th grade FCIM RL1 freebie

Well, I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving (if you’re in a country that celebrates it!) with your family (whether blood or chosen). The holiday season is in full swing, so be safe as you travel and try not to get too stressed out!

And don’t forget to cheer on the Buckeyes in the Big Ten championship game this weekend against Wisconsin. With our 2nd Heisman-candidate quarterback out, we’ll need everyone to rally behind Cardale Jones!

Football Freebie! 11/18/14

I know, I know, I’m cheating again this week – but I’m hoping to maybe have a real post later this week. In honor of the (now #6 in the country!) Buckeyes’ victory Saturday against Minnesota (or as my goofy husband calls it, “tiny Pepsi”…back off, ladies, he’s all mine…), I have prepared for you the vertical alignment of the CCSS Language standards. I used it all last week in my work with my district’s second semester exams, and I thought (and hope) it might come in handy for all the teachers out there. It’s definitely great to see the progression of grammar, punctuation, etc. in an easy-to-read chart format.

11-18-14

Here’s an better (albeit cropped) shot:

11-18-14a

ccss vertical alignment L

Football Freebie!

 

This coming Saturday, Ohio State takes on Indiana at home. I will be on Thanksgiving break all week and won’t be able to post the inevitable (sorry, IU fans, but…seriously…) freebie earned by the Buckeyes’ victory. Instead, I will be scheduling a pre-Cyber Monday event at my store. This Sunday, everything will be on sale for 24 hours! Stay tuned for more information.

Go Buckeyes!