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


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


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:


8th grade CIM RL4


8th grade RL5 1



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!

Why I Decided to Teach Certain Math Skills in My English Classes

As the third quarter comes to an end for many schools, I wanted to take the time to share why I, as an English teacher, spent time showing my students a very specific math skill: calculating GPA. I did this when I was teaching 9th & 10th grade English, although I also did a modified version of it this year with my 7th grade math students. However, middle school transcripts aren’t as focused on GPA – at least not in my district – so it depends on your circumstances whether or not you’d want to do this as a middle school teacher.


As a non-math content area teacher, I had to really weigh the pros and cons of taking an entire class period to go over a math skill. All our curriculums are over-packed. We don’t have days to “waste.” Was I ready to give up a day of curriculum to teach a skill that wasn’t directly related to my own curriculum and standards? Well, honestly, the first time I did this, I hadn’t intended to take an entire class period. My goal was to put up the grade calculation chart to show my students how their 3 grades (quarter 3, quarter 4, and final exam) worked together to get their final semester grade. That was only supposed to take maybe 10-15 minutes. I knew I could spare that. I knew I had to. But, as the conversation took a turn to GPA and how that is calculated and how “bad” one grade can be for a GPA, it didn’t take long to figure out that my students had zero idea how to calculate their own GPA.

deer in headlights

This was a serious problem since I worked with freshman. Those of you who work with underclassmen are well aware of the thought process these students have. So many of them don’t think their grades matter. They don’t realize the damage a bad grade in 9th or 10th grade can do to a GPA. They don’t understand that they will spend the rest of their high school career fighting to repair a GPA that has been devastated by a “C” or, heaven forbid, a “D.” Let’s not even talk about the “F”s. When I tried to quickly explain the GPA calculations, my students immediately took an interest. They demanded I slow down so they could take notes. Seriously, I had students who rarely paid any attention to a single word I said and when I started talking about their GPA they were like, “Woah, woah, woah, Miss! Slow down!” They cared about this. What shocked me was not so much that my students didn’t know how a GPA was calculated – after all, it would be unlikely that they would have learned that in middle school, given the emphasis (or lack thereof) placed on GPAs in middle school – it was that their math teachers hadn’t taught them this when they started high school.


I realize now that I shouldn’t have been surprised. As teachers, we assume a heck of a lot of knowledge for our students. We assume they just know things because we know them. We forget how we learned. It doesn’t occur to us to teach things we ourselves know and/or expect our students to know. And I’m not talking about curriculum concepts, I’m talking about this type of stuff: GPA calculation, test-taking techniques , how to bubble a freaking Scantron sheet correctly. So I taught them how to calculate their GPA. The first time, I had to fly by the seat of my pants. I had to guess how much our district weighted honors and AP classes. I let them know that my assumptions could be wrong and they should do their own research to figure out how their specific class load would work out. But the next time, I was prepared. I did my research and found the district’s weighting system and how GPA was calculated. I budgeted a full class period for it, and it paid off. And my students were enthralled and thankful. It honestly changed a lot of perspectives. I know a lot of my students changed their attitudes towards their effort in classes because of this lesson. I know because they told me themselves. I saw some students improve their efforts in my class, and I know other teachers saw improvements in theirs. They might not have known why, but the improvements were there.


You might think that the kids who cared were only the college-bound ones. The kids who knew they had no shot might not care about anything except graduating. Why bother with trying to get “A”s and “B”s when all you need is a 2.0 to graduate? Or maybe they were planning to drop out; why should they care about a GPA as a freshman when they knew in just 2 years they’d be out of school anyway? Well, what I’ve noticed is that students who think they can’t control something often become apathetic towards it. If a student thinks a GPA is some sort of magical number over which they have no control and no influence, they have no reason to devote any time or energy towards caring about it. But, if you show a student – any student – that THEY control this GPA, it changes a lot. Really, this is true about many things for students. They don’t have a lot of control over things. Give them a little bit of control and it empowers them. It engages them. And that’s what this lesson did for my students – all of them, even the low-performing, unmotivated ones. It gave them the knowledge that THEY controlled their GPA. And that changed everything.


How I Use Gains (or Growth) Grading to Foster Confidence in Low-Performing Students

I don’t know about you, but every year I’ve taught, I have students who come to me so defeated that they think the year’s over before it even starts. They’re so far behind in whatever subject it is (Math, English, whatever) that they don’t even want to try because they are convinced they’ll fail. I can’t blame them. If I knew that no matter what I did I was going to see “F” after “F” on every paper I got back, I wouldn’t want to put forth much effort, either. These were the grades they were getting (and would continue to get) on assignments if I graded on accuracy. The problem was that I was teaching and assessing on grade level, even though so many students were woefully below it. My hands were tied somewhat in terms of curriculum. I could do some remediation, but there just wasn’t ever going to be enough time in the day (or year) to make up for year upon year of missing skills. But I had to find a way to motivate them, so I came up with (okay, I’m sure I didn’t come up with it, but I decided to use) growth grading. I gave my students benchmark tests throughout the year (usually once a quarter – sometimes more, sometimes less, depending) and explained how they would be graded.

Baseline test: Graded on effort. I would watch the students as they worked and they would earn an “A” if they were working at 100% the entire time. Grades would go down if they weren’t trying. I would record the raw score of each student, but that wouldn’t factor into the grade itself.

Benchmark test #1: This test was graded on growth. I compared the student’s baseline raw score to this benchmark test’s raw score, and if they improved they would earn an “A” or “B” – the amount of improvement would determine which grade they earned. If their raw scores stayed the same (or within a certain percentage of each other) they would earn a “C”. If their score went down or it was obvious they just weren’t trying, they would earn a “D” or “F,” depending on the severity of the decrease/lack of effort.

Subsequent benchmark tests: These were graded the same way. However, if I had students who were earning raw scores in the “A” range, then if they stayed there, they continued to earn an “A”. I wasn’t going to penalize a student for going from a 95% to a 92%.

Students were so motivated once they learned this! The excitement in their eyes and body language when they saw an “A” on their test was inspiring. Even if they went from a 10% to a 20%, they had earned an “A” because they were making progress. It changed their outlook on their work and education.

Of course, I couldn’t grade every assignment like this, but because of this I also began writing raw scores on student work instead of percentages or letter grades. I found that students who were habitually getting “F” grades would get less discouraged if they saw 3/6 instead of “F” or 50%. For some reason, knowing they got half right was less discouraging than seeing that “F” or percentage. Sometimes, if I noticed a student was making progress, I would note it on their test. Just the other day, I had a student who had worked harder than he had the whole year for a full week. He took his notes, did his class work, paid attention…really tried. On his quiz, he only got 2.5/6, but I went back through his other scores for the year and it was the highest grade he’d earned the entire school year. So rather than put “F” on his paper, I wrote him a note: “This is the highest quiz grade you’ve earned all year! Why? Because you did your work and put in the effort! So impressed!” During the next quiz, he seemed discouraged, so I reminded him how much his hard work had paid off and that perhaps his goal this time should just be to get a 3/6 to show improvement. I could tell that changed his attitude and he worked harder on it than he had been.

Give growth grading a try and see if it changes your students’ motivation and self-concept.

How I Use a Calendar and Long-Term Planning to Improve Student Achievement

My first year of teaching I taught from the book. Every day I’d move on to the next page and at the end of the unit I’d give the test and then move on. I felt like I was living by the seat of my pants. It didn’t go that well.

My second year I realized I had to do a little more planning to be more successful. I started writing my lesson plans out for the week. This was better than the first year, but still not enough to make me feel calm about walking into class every day. My mother used a program called Calendar Creator to plan family stuff and write down important dates, etc. I decided to give it a try. I began planning a month at a time. Lessons, quizzes, tests, homework…everything. I loved it so much I actually began planning out entire quarters – and even semesters at a time.

Other teachers didn’t understand why I did it. They assumed I wasn’t open to shifting the plan if my students demonstrated a need. This wasn’t the case. If something happened, I’d rework things to accommodate my students’ needs. The thing was, that hardly ever happened. The more I planned, the more in tune I was with my students. Because I was planning so far in advance, I was forced to take the time to actually go through the lessons and look at the material, decide on classwork assignments, homework, projects, quizzes, and tests. I began to anticipate where students would struggle and where they would excel. Of course it was a learning curve, but now, a decade into my teaching career, I am to the point where I only have to revise a calendar once or twice a year.

Now I plan by breaks: summer is my time to plan from August through December. Winter break is time for me to plan January through Spring break. Spring break is the time for me to plan through the end of the year. I give students calendars at the start of every month. I email that calendar to parents every month as well, and I post it on my class website. On the calendar is the unit we’re on, the bell work for each day (sometimes very specific, sometimes generic), the class work for the day, and any homework for the day. The quizzes and tests for the month are on there as well.

Jan 2016 calendar

In addition to making me feel more prepared and a like I was a better teacher, it also had some unexpected benefits for my students. It increased their achievement in a few different ways. First of all, they had access to quiz and test dates, so they were more prepared for them and did better on them. Additionally, students who were missing school had access to the work we were doing so they didn’t fall behind. This worked very well for students who had absences planned in advance, too. I would get requests from parents like, “We’re going out of town next week, can you give my student work?” and I would respond that they could just follow the calendar and be pretty much caught up by the time they got back. Parents LOVED that. It also helped with missing work because students could go back and look at what they were supposed to do and turn it in if they were missing it.

Is it a lot of work? Yes. Does it pay off? Yes.

Why I Assign Seats in My Secondary Classroom

I began my teaching career in 7th and 8th grade math. I taught that for a few years and then switched to 7th grade English. Then, I moved up to high school English and Reading. After a 2.5 year break working in administration, I’m back in a 7th grade math classroom. I’ve found, through the years, that in the secondary (and most especially, high school) world, I am among the minority of teachers who assign seats.

I’m sure any teacher who doesn’t assign seats has a good reason for it, but I’ve found that for me, assigning seats helps my classes run more smoothly and more effectively. Here are some reasons I assign seats in my secondary classroom (the only grade I did NOT assign seats was 12th, because I felt like as adults, assigning seats was a bit much for them):

Housekeeping: Attendance is quick and easy with a seating chart. I don’t have to call out names or waste time trying to figure out who isn’t present. I look at the empty seats and match them to the names on the chart and attendance is done in 10 seconds.

Variety: I get bored easily and changing seats allows me to stay interested. Kids also get bored with who they sit next to (or get too chummy and chatty), so changing seats prevents social issues.

Scaffolding: One of the seating arrangements I employ is to seat a struggling student with a successful student (if my desks are in pairs – if they’re in rows, I seat every other student high-low by grade). This provides good modeling for the struggling student and someone to help them if I can’t.

Behavior management: Figuring out who can’t sit next to who in order for class to go smoothly is important. By assigning seats I can make sure troublemakers don’t sit next to each other and I stop problems before they start.

Life skills: Assigning seats teaches the life skill of working with someone you may not like. Students learn quickly not to complain about or ask to change their seat. I tell them, “It’s not a marriage. You don’t have to be next to him/her forever. I’m not asking you to be best friends, I’m asking you to sit next to him/her. You’ll move again in a few weeks. Deal with it.” And they do – for the most part.

Structure: Students like structure. It helps them be efficient. They feel secure. They don’t have to choose where to sit when they come into the room. Instead, they get right to work and it saves a lot of time (and trouble with seat fighting).

Not sure how to seat your students? Here are some of the ways I order them (and I change seats every 2 weeks in my room, so I rotate through this list several times a year):

By last name, by first name, by gender (alternating boy-girl or boys on one side, girls on the other), by grade/average (low-high alternating or low in front and high in back), by behavior/participation (I use the corners to seat behavior problems and make sure focused, quiet students surround them to keep them from drawing others in).

How do you seat your students? Do you assign seats? Why or why not?