Why I Stopped Letting My Students Have Their Backpacks at Their Desks During Class (aka the Backpack Bay)

In a long-ago post, I mentioned that one of my “hills to die on,” so to speak, was about backpacks in my classroom. Unless the school I work at has a no-backpack in class policy (and I did work at such a school that tried this policy one year), I can’t mandate that my students not bring their backpacks to class. That aside, I do have control over the procedures for my room.

I used to let my students keep their backpacks at their desks. They would put them under the desks, behind them on the chair, on their laps, or some would even hang them on the back of the chair. I got so tired of tripping over backpacks, constantly hearing students shuffle around in their backpacks, and having to reprimand students for trying to use their backpacks to hide that they were eating in class or using their phone. I was over it.

This is where the backpack bay was born. I cleared off a 2-shelf bookcase and started requiring students to store their backpacks there during class. They were expected to come into class and go to their seat, get out the necessary materials for the day, put their backpack on the shelf (or on the floor in front of the shelves if they were full), and come sit back down. At first, students don’t like this rule, but they get used to it pretty quickly.

I’m very strict about accessing backpacks during class. It’s permitted, but only one student can be at the backpack bay at a time. I also require students to keep any water bottles they may have in their backpacks. They can get a drink if they need to, but they aren’t allowed to keep the water at their desks.

I have received many compliments throughout the years I’ve done this from people who come in and can’t believe how easy it is to walk around my room! It also improves student focus and engagement because they don’t have their bag to mess around with all period.

I tried coat racks one year, but made the mistake of going for the cheap ones rather invest for the long haul, so they fell apart halfway through the year. After that, I went and got plastic storage tubs – big ones – and started using those. I have 6 and that was enough for even my largest class of 29. They held up beautifully.

backpack bay.PNG

One unexpected benefit of this rule was that I became better at time management (and my students became involved in it, too). I found I had to make sure I wrapped up my lesson in time to let students retrieve their bags and pack up before the bell rang. I kept better track of time and stayed on schedule more consistently.

If you think this might improve your classroom management, movement, and student focus, here are a couple of tips:

  • Make the bay at the front of the room. That way, you (and the whole class) can see whose bag is being accessed to prevent problems.
  • Be consistent with enforcement. If class has started and I see students whose bags are still at their desks, I’ll either go to them and quietly remind them to put their bag away or I’ll make a general statement about remembering to put backpacks where they belong.
  • Students like to keep their bags on the floor (not sure why), so think about requiring the bags to touch the wall so they don’t start sprawling into other floor space.
  • Think about allowing students to retrieve their bags in groups (perhaps by row or groups – if you use collaborative seating arrangements). You will have a huge bottleneck if you let all the students up for their bags at the same time.
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How I Lessened the Absenteeism Problem in Relation to Student Achievement

This isn’t an entry on how I got kids to come to school. If I had the answer to that, I’d have sold it and be retired. No, absenteeism is a reality within all teachers must live. Instead of lamenting the issue itself, time is better spent thinking up ways to mitigate the consequences of it. I think teachers can sum up the negative consequences of absenteeism in 2 words:

  • Instruction
  • Work

No one wants kids to miss school. It’s a hassle. They come back and teachers have to work overtime (more than we already do) to get that kid caught up. Because no matter how much you chant the mantra that it’s the student’s responsibility to take care of what they missed…it’s really up to you. Because until we can figure out how to reverse the student misconception that if they were absent they are excused from the work…we have to take matters into our own hands because ultimately, we’re judged on that student’s performance.

If you are not fortunate enough to work for a district or school that has either reliable technology or a digital platform, you could do what I used to do (up until semester 2 of the ’15-’16 school year) and have the absent binder. I used to print the forms and “hire” a student captain to fill out the appropriate information each day. This worked really well most of the time, but the students were unreliable sometimes (because: teenagers) and I ended up doing most of the writing. I eventually changed to keeping the document template on my computer and typing in the information each day (or week) and just printing it out and putting it in the binder for students.

This was a lifesaver. I trained my students to go to the binder when they returned and get any handouts they missed (also printed and available in the absent binder), the day’s bell work (starter, bell ringer, whatever you call it in your room), and record the assignment – both in class and homework, if applicable – they missed and only come to me if they couldn’t get what they needed from another classmate. And by “needed,” I mean the notes, questions about the assignment, etc. – not copying answers for problems. This saved me so much time in the long run and made things easier because students had something consistent. They didn’t stop missing school, but they made up their work more frequently and more independently, and that restored a lot of my sanity.

If you do have reliable access to technology (i.e. a desktop/laptop and the internet) I would highly recommend doing this electronically. I’m lucky enough to work for a district that purchased rights to use a digital interface for our grade book, and with it, come some really cool features. I am able to post anything I want in a “class feed.” Think of it as a type of Facebook page for my classes. Each class has its own. Starting 2nd semester of this year, I moved my absent binder to our web interface. I posted the weekly bell work, assignments, everything we did each day on that feed. I got a student desktop through a grant and then when students returned from an absence, I sent them to the computer to get what they needed from the class feed. They did the bell work question, took the notes (I uploaded pictures of my hand-written notes for each day or the PowerPoint lessons I did), did the assignment (I uploaded any specifics – what pages and which book were used, the worksheet if it was stand-alone, etc. I even started videotaping my lessons and uploading those to the feed so students could watch the actual lesson.  And, if it was distributed, I still had a stack of handouts for the entire quarter), and turned it in. Usually. This was so efficient and saved me time and energy (and sanity). It took some work on the front end, and I would fall behind sometimes, but my students would always seem to remind me – which was great; it meant they were looking for what they missed and couldn’t find it.absenteeism 1

My Newest CIM: RL.7.3

For those of you who read regularly, you’ll remember that I’m working on my 7th grade line of Continuous Improvement Model mini-lesson resources. I’m making good progress and I have recently finished and posted the CCSS.ELA.RL.7.3 resource. With this, I’ve also made a bundle with RL.7.1, RL.7.2, and RL.7.3, so you can save over 15% if you are interested in all 3.

What is a CIM? The acronym “CIM” stands for “Continuous Improvement Model.” It is one name for the research-based strategy that follows the “I do,” “we do,” “you do,” teaching model. In this resource, there are 3 lessons. Lesson 1 is a teacher-modeled lesson. Lesson 2 is a collaborative lesson where the teacher leads the class. The students complete lesson 3 independently. This resource is, in and of itself, a scaffolding tool. It is designed to help students master standards in a gradual manner.

This product is a 3-5 day tool for teachers to instruct, assess, and reteach skills and concepts associated with the RL.7.3 standard: Analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact (e.g., how setting shapes the characters or plot). It also aligns with Florida’s standard: LAFS.7.RL.1.3, because of how Florida adapted their standards. It may also align with your state’s standards if your state doesn’t use CCSS.

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. I use literature in the public domain from reputable authors (like Kipling, Twain, and Poe – this resource uses works by Hawthorne and Maupassant), so you’re exposing your students to quality literature with targeted standards practice. It takes out all the prep and guesswork!

If you’re looking for a quick, targeted, and easy resource for this standard, come check it out!

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

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!