Thursday, April 9, 2009

Every once in a while . . .

Every once in a while there is a kid in one of my classes who is simply fabulous at doing the creative writing assignments that I give. This year, one of my junior high students always does the best job. I look forward to reading everything that he writes. It is always witty and funny and above the norm.

The other day he told me that he does not want to be a teacher, but if he was, he would love reading the creative 'stuff' that students write. I realized that he always puts so much into each assignment that he does not even know that there are students who are turning in just enough to 'get by.' I gave them the 'Me A-Z' assignment that I did on my personal blog a few days ago. I thought I would share what he wrote.

A-dventures: Stories and movies about adventures are always good. Adventure books are my favorite.

B-ananas: Bananas are the grossest fruits. They are always brown and mushy. They squeeze through my teeth and just give me the chills.

C-laustrophobia: I am very claustrophobic. Tube slides? No! Have I ever asked you if I can get in your suitcase and come with you? Did not think so!

D-ownhill dips: Near Lake Upsilon there is a dip that feels like a roller coaster. I love these bumps. They should make them on purpose.

E-agles: Eagles are simply the best. People train them to land on their arm. That is the coolest thing ever.

F-irefighter: I want to be a volunteer firefighter. My cousin is a firefighter, and he really loves it.

G-rades: Grades are not the most important thing to me. They are important, but not my main concern every day. I still get good grades anyway.

H-alo: Halo is the most ultimate video game. I am really good at it. It is not what people think it is - saving the world from aliens. Haha

I-ce cream: Ice cream is a food I eat in my own way. I let it melt into cream, then I mix it and eat it. It tastes a lot different.

J-uice Box: Juice boxes are lame. One gulp and they are gone. At carnivals, etc., they cost like a dollar.

K-ikomen: A sauce that can be found in the Chinese restaurant in a near by town. This is a sauce that has a name I just love to say and make fun of.

L-eo: He is the coolest janitor ever, and he is very mysterious. He drives this machine around to get the floors clean and that makes the school stink.

M-osquitos: No one likes them. They have no point in life. They are gross and annoying. Period.

N-eopets: Neopets are pointless. I do not even know what they are, but they sound dumb.

O-reos: Oreos are the best cookies. Dip them in milk, and they are delicious. Sadly, they run out fast in the cookie box.

P-arellel parking: Everyone makes it sound really hard. I have never done it, (besides video games) and it does not seem hard at all. It just takes practice.

Q-uarters: Quarters are very handy to have around. Whether you are at college doing laundry or at the Chicken Hut playing video games, they are useful.

R-ise Against: Rise against is one of my favorite bands. They have really good songs, and I listen to them all the times.

S-oup: I burned my leg with a pot of soup. I had blisters and everything.

T-rampolines: Trampolines are the best outdoor activity. I wish I could have one, but apparently, "Our insurance does not support that."

U-niverse: It is the most interesting thing to think about. What is really out there?

V-eternarian: I always wanted to be one growing up. I love animals (not insects).

W-ater: Water is the greatest thing to have after spending five hours outside playing kick-the-can. Ice cold water!

X-rays: Looking at broken bones by using an x-ray is the coolest doctor related thing.

Y-outube: I can spend countless hours searching random stuff. Youtube always makes my day.

Z-oos: I could visit a zoo every day and never get bored.

What makes this so good to me? It is not the sentence structure or the length. It is not the wording choice or the punctuation. It is the fact that one of my students can use the letters A-Z (it is a lot, just try it) and come up with interesting, diverse, nouns that describe him to a 't'. (I know many adults that have a hard time describing themselves in a job interview.)

This students is a fabulous musician, a talented athlete, and can easily find diverse words that sum him up. He was able to talk about his likes and his dislikes, his goals and his future, his family life and his past, and give the reader a little piece of him through his writing. That is one of my main goals for my students. I want them to be able to use writing for themselves, for their lives.

To quote 'G', "Grades are not that important to me. They are important, but not my main concern every day." He did this assignment for the sake of the activity, not just to get a grade. Perfect, in my book.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

I love this idea a . . . . lot!

Carla at The English Teacher Blog ( )that I love so much posted this 'lesson' on using the word 'alot.' I love it. Really love it, and thought maybe you would too.

Mr. and Mrs. Alot

Tuesday, April 7th by Carla

A few years back I had a group of students who routinely wrote “a lot” as “alot.” I wanted them to use a more specific adjective, but first I first wanted them to spell “a lot” correctly. The following approach seems to have been helpful.

In advance, I write “alot” in large letters on a long, narrow piece of paper that tears easily. I like to use half a sheet of construction paper for visual appeal.

My spiel goes something like this:

“If you read the paper last night, you might have seen a small notice in the Divorces column. Mr. and Mrs. Alot got a divorce.” (At this point I hold up the sign.)

“Now, divorces usually aren’t friendly events, but this one was especially messy. She caught him running around with other consonants — he accused her of cheating on him with other vowels. He started harassing her, and eventually she had to get a restraining order against him. Now he’s not allowed within 500 feet of her.” (At this point, I tear the paper between the “a” and “lot” and hold them a few inches apart.)

“She has custody of the kids.”

“So when you are using “a lot” in your writing, remember: they got divorced, and there is a restraining order. You have to leave a space.”

I usually tack the two pieces of paper on the tack strip above the blackboard for a few days.

When I run across “alot” again in student writing, I circle it and write “Don’t violate the restraining order” in the margin.

I’ve had good luck with this approach. What do YOU use to help students remember fine points?

Monday, April 6, 2009

North Dakota English Teacher Needed!

I received this e-mail earlier today from Candy Lemer of Velva, ND.


Help!!! I need an English teacher/co-worker in Velva.

Do you know of anyone wanting a change, a challenge, or an adventure? If so, Velva is losing one English teacher to love. (She is moving with her Delta pilot to Atlanta.)

Is it possible to put a quick note on your blog?

Thanks for the help.

Candy Lemer, Velva

As far as small towns in North Dakota go, Velva really has it all. It is located in a beautiful part of the state and only miles from one of the largest cities in ND (OK, ND does not have any large cities, but I think you get my drift!) If you have an English degree and are looking to make a move to the beautiful Midwest, check out Velva's website at and Velva's school website at .

Why I Do This Crazy Job

Two teachers changed me for the rest of my life, and both of them made me want to teach for very different reasons.

When I was in the second grade, I had a very sweet teacher, Miss T. She was as wide as she was tall, and she had these very big eyes that popped out at you. I liked her. I really did.

I was bright and inquisitive, talkative and a little bossy. :) I did everything that was asked of me and to the very best of my ability. We had these little progress charts on the wall that we got to put stars on. I was always in the lead. I was sure that she like me as much as I liked her and her class.

One day, we were going over spelling words that she had written on the chalk board. One of them was the word 'aunt.' She asked me to pronounce it. Now, you have to know that my mom and dad had lived in Iowa until I was five. Then we moved home to Sarles, ND, so my dad could take over his family farm. To me, that word was pronounced 'ant.' So, when Miss T. asked me to pronounce the spelling word, I said 'ant'.

I am not going to go through all of the ways Miss T. could have appropriately handled my mispronunciation, but I will tell you what she did.

She said, "What did you say?" I repeated, "ant." She said, "Danielle, please pronounce that word correctly." I said, "ant," with this funny queasy sickening feeling in my stomach because I knew I was doing something wrong, but was not sure what it was. Finally, after staring at me for what seemed like an eternity, she said in a very stern voice, "That word is pronounced aunt. Your mother's sister is not a small, creepy little bug!" I did not answer. But to this day I remember thinking in my head that I would never make a student feel like I felt right at that moment. I was embarrassed and sick. I was a very strong student and suddenly questioned my intelligence. What happens when those situations happen to students who are not confident at all in the first place?

Fast forward to my junior year in high school.
I had the best English teacher, Mrs. Pederson. She was good to us. She would talk to us about life and literature. We knew when to turn on the work and when we could just 'visit' a little. She created individualized projects for students of different learning levels and spent countless hours after school working with those who were having trouble.

The one thing she did for me was talk to me about the social troubles I was having. I had a boyfriend that my mom and dad hated. He was no good for me, but I was stubborn and did not want to hear it. I saw good in him that really was there even though he was often doing stupid things that hurt me. She would let me come to her room during her prep hour and just talk through what I needed to process about this situation. She did not 'tell' me what I should do.

She would ask questions that would make me explore my own morals. She was not my friend. She was my mentor. I did not really need her to spend countless hours teaching me English. I learned that with lightening speed. What I did need, was someone to care about what was happening to me as a person. She did that.

One year later, that boyfriend died in a drunk-driving car accident. He was the one drunk. I was crushed. I did not want the support or sympathy of my parents because they had never liked him in the first place. In fact, at the time, I did not want anyone near me. But at the burial, as the casket descended into the freshly dug hole, I broke down into sobs that racked my entire body. Suddenly I was wrapped by a very loving and supportive hug. It was Mrs. Pederson. She was there, and I wanted her there. She understood.

In both cases, that of Miss T. and of Mrs. Pederson, what they did right or wrong was not something that a text book on teaching can give you. What they did was see or fail to see me as a person, not just a student. I see my students as people every day. Education is very important to me, and I take my job very seriously. I also take the lives of my students very seriously. I never humiliate them. If I do something that accidentally hurts them, I apologize. I teach them what they need to learn no matter how long it takes. And I am there to care about their lives if they need me.

Friday, April 3, 2009

'In' Boxes

For a long time I had the worst time keeping track of all of the papers that were turned in by all six of my classes. I hated when they would put their work on my desk (disaster area!) or worse yet, hand me their assignments while passing me in the hall.

Where those ended up is anyone's guess. I am pretty sure that where ever I stopped next, whether it was the Principal's office, copy room, lounge, or bathroom, I put it down and it was never seen again.
One summer (summer is my 'thinking' time) I decided that I had to have a really great inbox system. I know there are plenty of them out there on the market, but they are either cheap, expensive, or in some way inconvenient to either my students or me.
Enter Cam.
He is the mastermind who brings my 'needs' to fruition. He took some leftover concrete footing forms from the building of our house, cut them to a little deeper than a sheet of paper, painted them fun colors, riveted on metal tags that could have labels affixed to them, and hot glued them together.
They are great and have been in use for about five years now. You may notice that they are now held together by clips. That is because one of my 'lovelies' tripped and fell on the 'tubes' as we lovingly call them and broke apart the hot glue. BUT, the tubes held up perfectly. The 'crusher' felt so bad that he rounded up a bunch of my black paper clips and put the whole thing back together. Good as new.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Those Students That Make It All Worth It

Kama and her oldest - Eme
Brittney Kaye at My Crazy Beautiful Life wrote a post today entitled "Goodbye." Every teacher who has what it takes to love their students and do everything in their power to make their lives, their hearts, their education, and their world better knows what it is like to worry about having to say goodbye.

Those days are heartbreaking, but once in a great while, one of our students makes it - really makes it. Kama Cutler is just that girl to me.

I remember specifically hoping the best for Kama. She was sweet and so intelligent, especially in English. I loved to read what she wrote, and it was easy to read too. None of those crazed blood stained papers for Kama!

When Kama was a junior in high school, I took her class to Winnipeg to see a theatre production. Kama loved it. On the way home we talked about our upcoming birthdays that were less than a week apart (sadly, I was much, much older!). I am a birthday freak as anyone who has read this blog can attest to.Kama was not looking forward to hers, even though it was her 17th.

As it turned out, she had once loved her birthday, but the year prior, when she turned 16, she was waiting for a party and presents equal to those that her older sister had received.

She was not waiting in greed. She was waiting in anticipation of the attention, the love, the recognition, the significance of reaching 16. The morning of her birthday, no one mentioned the occasion. She assumed it was that they were all waiting to surprise her. Anticipation built. But, when the end of the evening came, no one had remembered.

I'm not sure that any story has bothered me as much as that one. I know there are many kids who do not have lavish birthdays. I know that not everyone goes berserk over every year older. But I will say this. It bothered me that this wonderful, perfect, talented, honest, sweet, and selfless girl was so hurt.

So, on her 17th birthday, her classmates and I gave her a surprise party. We had cake, German Chocolate (her favorite), and presents and candles and decorations. Kama cried so hard that she ended up covered in hives!

Did I use those fifty minutes to teach English. No. I used those minutes to show love. I used those minutes to create for Kama something that I hope she will remember for the rest of her life (in addition to 'dangling participles' hehe).

I love her. I love her like she belongs to me. I am proud of the beautiful articulate woman that she has become. I guess, in a way, she always was. There were about four years where we lost track of each other. I do not even think I can count the number of times I thought of her and wondered how she was. Now I know. She is just as perfect as I remember. She was my student first, but sometimes student is not enough. Sometimes students become family.

Kama, you are my family. I will be here for you always. Never forget that.

Let's Share Thursday

Since we have not shared in a couple of weeks, I felt it was time that we did a little more.

I am enamored with the website .
Read Write Think is sponsored by both NCTE and the International Reading Association and has an amazing plethora of resources for ELA teachers.

One simple visit will open up a world of activities and resources for any grade level K-12. This lesson for grades 3-5 was fascinating to me, and I do not even teach elementary.
And there are many, many more.

“America the Beautiful”: Using Music and Art to Develop Vocabulary


This lesson starts with an online activity to activate students’ prior knowledge about well-known sights and scenery throughout the United States. The activity is followed by a read-aloud and introduction to the song “America the Beautiful.” Next students engage in a vocabulary lesson in which they learn the meanings of the song’s words through shared reading and by reading and using words in a variety of ways. Students then use drawings, descriptive language, and photographs to create a mural shaped like the United States. Finally, through pictures and words, students reflect on what they have learned. This lesson is appropriate and adaptable for any patriotic event or holiday, and many of the vocabulary strategies are adaptable for other texts or word lists, as well.

From Theory to Practice

In her introduction to Lively Learning: Using the Arts to Teach the K–8 Curriculum, Linda Crawford describes her personal difficulty in learning geography when she was in elementary school, until one day her teacher gave the students the opportunity to present information in any way they chose. Crawford found that the active and tactile experience of creating a paper-mâché map of North America helped her learn and remember the topography of the United States. Also tapping creative learning strategies to teach content area knowledge, Michael Graves addresses the importance of teaching individual words using strategies such as giving students opportunities to use words more than once and in a variety of ways. In this lesson, students use visual art, music, and multiple vocabulary-related strategies to help them learn vocabulary words that describe many features of the United States. At the same time, they learn one of the most well-known patriotic songs in American culture.

Further ReadingCrawford, Linda. Lively Learning: Using the Arts to Teach the K-8 Curriculum. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children, 2004.Graves, Michael F. The Vocabulary Book. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2006.

Student Objectives

Students will :

* discuss and identify places, features, and landforms throughout the United States.
* use pictures to help them describe places and scenery located throughout the United States.
* create multimodal vocabulary posters that describe, illustrate, and define targeted words from the song “America the Beautiful.”
* demonstrate understanding of the meanings of selected words from “America the Beautiful.”
* draw pictures and write words that exemplify and describe geographic features of the United
States, and use these resources to create a large mural of the United States.
* use pictures and words to demonstrate what they have learned about the United States.

Instructional Plan


America the Beautiful picture book (Scholastic)
a large sheet of butcher paper cut into the shape of the United States
assorted colored markers
Lyrics for “America the Beautiful”
magazines with colored scenic pictures of the United States (such as Sunset, National Geographic, Via, Smithsonian)
white construction paper, crayons, scissors, and glue
photographic essay book showing scenic features of the United States (e.g., America: A Celebration of the United States)
topographical map of the United States
“America the Beautiful” Extended Book List
“America the Beautiful” Reflection Sheet
Sample Paragraphs and Questions
CDs or appropriately accessed downloads of various versions of “America the Beautiful”
CD player, mp3 player, or computer that plays music downloads
ReadWriteThink Multigenre Mapper
Sample Multigenre vocabulary poster Preparation
Bookmark the
National Geographic United States Photo Gallery Web site on the computers students will use for this lesson.
Find several different versions of “America the Beautiful” on CD at the library or downloaded from the Internet.
Gather several magazines with scenic pictures of various locations and landforms throughout the United States.

Use white butcher paper to prepare a large mural shaped liked the United States. (Tip: Print this map, make an overhead and project it onto the butcher paper).

With a black or brown marker, write the words to “America the Beautiful” on chart paper and hang it on the wall. Have colored markers available to highlight and underline key words.

Review the Sample Paragraphs and Questions, which includes a paragraph and multiple-choice question for each word students study during this lesson, including spacious, amber, grain, majesties, plain, and brotherhood.

Prepare overheads of the Sample Paragraphs and Questions for display to students.

Arrange for students to have access to Internet-connected computers for the necessary sessions.

Test the Multigenre Mapper interactive on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tool and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the Technical Support page.

Instruction and Activities

Session One :

Begin the lesson by directing students to the National Geographic United States Photo Gallery to generate their prior knowledge about sights, sounds, and places in the United States. Have students identify and name features of the geography in the pictures they see. Encourage students to use descriptive words and phrases such as “a huge lake” or “a field of purple flowers.”

After some time exploring online, ask students to tell about places they may have visited and the kinds of things they have seen in their travels, as well as the geography of their local area. Chart students’ responses if desired, and keep the chart for later.

Using one word at a time selected from the first verse of “America the Beautiful,” ask students if anyone has ever heard or knows the meanings of the word (e.g., spacious, amber, grain, majesties, plain, and brotherhood). Accept all reasonable responses and tell students they will learn more about these words.

Read aloud the book America the Beautiful, showing the pictures while you read. After reading, do a repeat “picture walk,” and allow students to respond and make connections to the text or the photographs. When students have finished responding, tell them that the words in this book are actually the words to the song “America the Beautiful” which they will learn to sing.

Post and call students’ attention to a chart prepared with the words to “America the Beautiful.”

Play a version of the song for them, or if you are comfortable doing so, sing it. If students know the song, encourage them to sing along while you track the words on the chart.

After singing the song once or twice, ask students to identify any words they do not know.
Underline those words on the chart with a colored marker, and leave the chart posted on the wall. Tell students that they will learn the meanings of these words in the next session.

Session Two :

Gather students into a group where everyone can clearly see the chart with the words to “America the Beautiful.” Have students sing the song with you once or twice while you track the words on the chart.

Then, one at a time, focus on each word you’ve underlined on the chart (i.e., spacious, amber, grain, majesties, plain, and brotherhood). Show students the prepared overhead of each paragraph (from Sample Paragraphs and Questions) for each word, and then read the paragraph aloud.

Next, read aloud to students the prepared multiple-choice question and answer options from the Sample Paragraphs and Questions. Allow enough time for students to consider their answers to the question before giving them the correct answer.

Then discuss the word and any questions students might have about the incorrect answers to the multiple-choice question.

Finally, discuss other ways in which the word might be used, ask a combination of these sample questions and other similar questions.

Repeat steps two through five for each vocabulary word.
Session Three

Review the words students learned in Session Two by writing the words on the board, or have student volunteers write them. Then ask students to read the words and give informal definitions for each word.

Then, have students work in small groups to choose one or two of the words. Alternatively, the teacher can assign words to the groups so that each group will work with a different word, or the teacher can choose just one or two words for all students to work with.

Share with students the Sample Multigenre vocabulary poster, direct students to the Multigenre Mapper, and give the following directions:

Type your word in the space that says “Title of your multigenre text.”
Entitle Space A “Definition” and put the definition of the word there.
Entitle Space B “Sentence 1” and write your first sentence there.
Entitle Space C “Sentence 2” and write your second sentence there.
Draw a picture that shows the meaning of the word in the remaining box.
Check your work and print.

Note: While small groups are working independently, the teacher can ask questions further thinking questions such as these to the student groups orally.
When all students are finished, have them share their vocabulary posters with the entire class. Then display them on the wall.
Add all the words to an existing classroom word wall, or create a thematic word wall just for this lesson’s words. Then encourage students to use the words in their writing and conversations.

Session Four

Before beginning this session, collect magazines with pictures of topographical features or direct students to images available from National Geographic United States Photo Gallery. Also have drawing materials available for students.

Post the cut-out paper for the United States mural on the wall at a height that students can reach.

Review the highlighted words from the song chart and their definitions with students. Ask students to tell you what they might draw to show what the words mean.

Do a picture walk through a photographic essay book of the United States (such as America: A Celebration of the United States) and invite students to comment about the pictures. Be sure to point out any specific photographs that are of places in your own state or places like those mentioned in “America the Beautiful.”

Show students a topographical map of the United States, and point out your own region.
Through questioning and direct instruction, identify the mountains, valleys, plains, lakes, and oceans. Compare this map to the blank United States mural, and, with students observing, show them where these areas would be on the blank mural paper. Post the topographical map near the blank mural paper for reference. If desired, with students observing, lightly draw in lines to show where mountains are located.

Explain to students that they will draw and cut out pictures of places in the United States to place on the blank paper shaped like the United States.

Have students volunteer ideas for drawings. Make sure students understand that the pictures they draw need to be large and colorful.

Distribute drawing paper and allow students enough time to draw whatever features they choose. Alternatively, provide words on slips of paper (such as vast, cliffs, ocean, shore, rocky, river, waterfall) that students can select from a basket, and have them draw an illustration for the word they pick. As drawings are finished, have students label their drawings with descriptive words, especially words that are present in the song “America the Beautiful.” Have students cut their drawings into interesting shapes, keeping the word labels intact. Then have students glue their drawings onto the mural in appropriate places.

Give students plenty of time to fill the mural with drawings and/or pictures, adding an additional session if necessary.


Have students work with partners to create “America the Beautiful” crossword puzzles using ReadWriteThink Crossword Puzzlemaker.
Allow students to work with partners to create “America the Beautiful” postcards using the ReadWriteThink Postcard Creator.
Have students do a red, white, and blue collage with stripes, stars, and scenic pictures on a white construction paper background. Display these around the mural.
Encourage students to continue to use the words in their writing and conversations in and out of school.
During the duration of the lesson, play different versions of “America the Beautiful,” encouraging them to listen and also to sing along.
Have students offer additional words that describe or name places in the United States, and make a word list for the wall.
Read aloud additional related books from the “America the Beautiful” Extended Book List to supplement and extend students’ learning about American symbols, songs, and traditions.
Have students “act out” the different vocabulary words: spacious, waves of grain, plain, brotherhood, etc.
Challenge students by moving into an exploration of additional verses of the song.Web Resources
National Geographic United States Photo Gallery
This page provides images of the United States categorized by state and city.
Maps of the United States
This site offers printable topographic and other maps of the continental United States; these maps could be used for reference for placement of pictures on the mural.
Student Assessment/Reflections
Have students complete an “America the Beautiful” Reflection Sheet. Assess the quality of work, considering the following as you discuss the reflections:
Did students use words and pictures to show what they have learned?
How appropriate were the words and pictures?
Observe each student’s participation in discussions. Assess how well students demonstrate their understanding of the vocabulary words from “America the Beautiful” as well as their understanding of the geography of the United States.
Evaluate students’ vocabulary posters.
How well were students able to use the new words in sentences?
Were the pictures they included appropriate in relation to the words’ meanings?
How well did they respond to the questions they were given?
Evaluate students’ drawings and labels for the United States mural.
Did their drawings reflect an understanding of places and features of the United States?
How effective were the descriptions in the students’ labels?
Were their descriptions appropriate in relation to their drawings?

NCTE/IRA Standards
1 - Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.3 - Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).6 - Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts. 10 - Students whose first language is not English make use of their first language to develop competency in the English language arts and to develop understanding of content across the curriculum. 11 - Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Book Report Alternatives

** This has been reposted thanks to Web English Teacher . Please visit their site to see all the other invaluable resources available.

Book reports — we've all been there: "Summarize the plot." "Describe the main character." Explain the most important conflict." Yawn!

What if we responded to reading with a 21st century twist? We could pique student interest and give kids a chance to show off reading, writing, and technology skills!

Here are some possibilities. Some integrate technology; others are inspired by it.

A Bookish Proposal - Students examine uncommon places where books are sold and create proposals to sell and/or display particular books in local venues. Includes an article from the New York Times.

Digital Booktalk - Students create trailers, as if their books were movies. This site provides support for trying this with your students.

Mrs. Ojeda's MyLitSpace Assignment - Students create a MySpace page reflecting people and events from their reading. Requires MS-Word or compatible application for access.

Ten Questions - Students interview the main character of the book they've just read.

Twitter Book Reports - A suggestion for writing book reports in the style of a popular social networking site. Includes a link to a model.

What do you need? - This approach imitates a Facebook meme and requires Google. It should be appropriate for middle school and above.

Other book report ideas - Follow links to lots of nontraditional ways to respond to reading!
I would also love to share my Book Review Unit with anyone who requests it. Just comment below with your e-mail address or send it to and I will send the assignment, rubric, and modeled example right out.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

I Hate Grades.

I hate to admit this, but grades (A,B,C,D,F,I, etc) used to be the one constant in my teaching career. I would give assignments, grade the assignments, put the grades in the grade book, weight the grades to reflect the importance I placed on different kinds of assignments and tests, then determine the final grade based on a mathematical equation.

Truthfully, that is what I did, and I reveled in the certainty of it. When questioned about the English grade of a particular student, I would always refer to the grade book. (The fact that I use the term 'grade book' lets one know how long ago I started!) I would show the grades that fell into each category on my perfectly organized and documented spreadsheet. I would talk about percentages as if they were the law. I would fill in empty blocks in my perfect book the moment that the student had passed the 'allowed' time for make up work. Those zeros were non-negotiable and unquestionable in my opinion.

Slowly, and thankfully, I changed. Somewhere along my teaching path, I found new constants in my career. I learned that I was competent and effective and inspiring and compassionate. I could see learning as a process, a path, a reality that is as different for my students as the age at which babies learn to walk.

I found that my students could teach me as much as I teach them. I learned that learning is a journey that I am a part of, not the end-all-be-all leader of. I guide, I advise, I encourage, but most of all I watch and listen. I tailor what is happening in my room to make my curriculum valid for each different group and each different individual.

I absorb the newest in brain research, and I create assessments that are authentic. I ask my students to think deeper than they ever have and answer questions that there is no real answer to. I encourage them to give a response that they are unsure of. I tell them there are no 'rights' and 'wrongs' as long as their answers are tied to the text and show thought.

Then, I have to give grades. Grades are ridiculous. We have standards and benchmarks that set the goals each student should meet or exceed by the end of each school year. Yet, we have to grade each and every assignment that's sole purpose is to give students the opportunity to practice the skills they are supposed to accomplish in a school year. OK, not each and every assignment.

We do, however, need to give grades at the end of each quarter. I do not segment the standards into four separate quarters. I teach so that my students are able to use the English skills needed for competency in a coordinated manner. I want them to be able to synthesize research, reading, writing, speaking, listening, media, and language into their every day lives. Some of them may be naturally gifted in one area and need to work conscientiously on the others. I do not care how they get there or how fast, as long as they have the language skills they need to accomplish their life goals.

Yet the world continues to focus on those stupid letters. Insurance companies give discounts to students with good grades. Parents reward students who have all A's or all B's. Students ask whether or not an assignment is going to be graded, with the intention of not completing those that will not be. Grades have to be turned in at the end of every quarter. Students want to have all A's because colleges are going to look at these grades for admittance to post-secondary education.

Really? I can understand if students and parents need feedback on the 'quality and quantity of effort' being expended while working toward the year-end goals. When have we ever graded a baby who is learning to walk on the walking they are doing at the end of each nine week period? The goal is that they learn to walk. Does it really matter how fast they learn it as long as they eventually get it? True. We call and give updates to all interested parties on each and every unsteady step! We should be able to find a way to give updates on the 'progress' toward the year-end goal without the stigma attached to the A,B,C . . . system.
I have actually worked on this. I have a system for keeping track of my students' progress toward their year end goal. I can mark whether they are novice, partially proficient, proficient, or advanced in each of the benchmarked areas. And they too can decide how proficient they are in each area, and we can discuss what they need to do to do better. They can see their progress after each unit of study or each practice assignment.

How does this work? It does not. Because at the end of each quarter I have to submit the same A,B,C,D,F,I that cause all the fuss in the first place. I hate grades. I love progress and accomplishments. Grades do not show either.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Wordle -- What Fun!

On my personal blog , I follow a really talented artist whose blog is called The Glass Onion. She led me to a really cool website called Wordle.
On Wordle, you can enter any text you want and the site will configure it into the coolest collage of words. Then you can print directly from there. The one I created above is a collage of the words from Poe's "The Raven."
I can not wait to make more, print them, and put them up in my classroom. I can also imagine lots of ways of using them with students. Hope you enjoy!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Covering the State's Standards Quickly and Efficiently

As one of the writers of the newest standards document for the state of North Dakota, I often get a variety of complaints and questions. One of the complaints that I often hear is that there are just too many standards and benchmarks.

I am not sure why this is a complaint. I will admit that the standards and benchmarks document for North Dakota is quite extensive for English Language Arts at each grade level. If the complaints are about the size, why is the size an obstacle?

Is it because it is difficult to maneuver through?

Is it because it is hard to find a particular benchmark that is needed on a lesson plan?

Is it because one school year does not seem long enough to cover all of them?

If the complaint is the first, the standards and benchmark documents are available in different configurations on the DPI website. You can get the entire standard and benchmark document by grade level or you can get an entire standard K-12. Is there another configuration that teachers would appreciate having?

If the complaint is the second, I understand. When I am asked to list the standards and benchmarks covered by a particular lesson I am teaching, I find it daunting to go through each standard, listing all of the benchmarks that a lesson covers. I have remedied this by listing the covered standards by unit and not by daily lesson. I find that the units I create actually cover a very broad number of benchmarks. The better the unit; the broader the scope of standards and benchmarks covered. I am also finding, as I become more proficient at this, that the coverage of a broad range of standards and benchmarks also translates to a better unit for diverse learners. For instance, when writing, reading, speaking, and media benchmarks are used in one unit, the different types and levels of learners can excel in different areas all within the same unit.

Finally, if the complaint is the last, I refer you to the previous paragraph. Units that are thoroughly thought out and well-designed, tend to cover a very broad range of benchmarks. If the unit does not cover an adequate cross-section of benchmarks, it should probably be rethought a little. I, by no means, am advocating scrapping units that have a lot of time and energy invested in them. I am, instead, suggesting that coordinating activities be added to a beloved unit to cover a broader range of benchmarks.

Finally, I have found that many of the benchmarks take very little effort to cover. Case in point:

My six year old entered my 10th grade English class a few weeks ago when we were discussing Edgar Allan Poe's "The Mask of the Red Death." (He comes through every day to get his lunch out of my refrigerator.) At this particular time we were talking about the symbolism of color. ND Standard 2: Students Engage in the Reading Process lists identifying the use of symbolism as a benchmark (10.2.4. Identify author’s use of figurative language including allusion, imagery, and symbolism).

Later that afternoon, as we were driving the one mile to our house, Reid asked why my class had been discussing colors. I told him that colors could symbolize people or objects or feelings. I started with the color green and asked what green could symbolize. He replied, "Grass, money, or 'go.'" We continued through many different colors. He showed understanding of symbolism with each.

Just then, my seventh grade son, Ethan, jumped in and asked how it might be used in a novel. I told him that F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby had a light at the end of a dock that was the color green. I explained that two lovers lived across the water from one another and that the woman had married someone else years before because the other had not been wealthy enough for her. He had gained riches and bought a huge house across the water so her could be near her. I asked him if, based on that little bit, he could tell me what the green light may have stood for. He replied, "Go" for the newly rich lover to come get his love from her husband and probably, "Money," because that was what stood between them before the light did. He then added, to Reid's previous symbolism lesson, that green could also be the symbol for "growth" because grass is green during the growing months.

Now, I am not claiming my two sons became proficient at identifying symbolism in text in those few short 5 to 7 minutes. But I am claiming that my 1st and 7th grade sons both have a 'real' knowledge of symbolism that is above the state standard requirements for their grade levels.

Every minute is a minute to be savored with our youth. They can learn concepts well above the expectations for them if they are taught in a way that has value and makes sense. There may be many, many benchmarks, but fully developed units can cover an amazing variety of them in a short amount of time.
*Please feel free to contact me at anytime by leaving a comment below or e-mailing me at I would love to hear your feedback.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Scoring is Time Consuming and Expensive . . Oh, Really?!

The ND State Standards and I have a love/hate relationship. I was part of the team that helped to establish standards for grade ten soon after No Child Left Behind was developed. I went to the our state capital with the hope of creating standards that would hold North Dakota students accountable for the curriculum that North Dakota teachers found profoundly important.

I did that, sort of.

I then went to the state capital to help choose a vendor to write the state assessment that our students would take yearly to see if they met those standards.

I did that too, sort of.

The truth is, we did a good job writing standards, but we were plagued by many questions that went unanswered by the 'powers that be.' We wondered how our students were going to be tested. We wondered what a question would look like that would test standards that expected students to 'use appropriate body language' or 'edit for meaning.' We really wondered how our students would be asked to show proficiency in writing on a test that was almost completely multiple choice. Hmmmm.

I know most of the answers now from helping to align the CTB test to our standards, and most of them do not make me happy. The truth is that our students are tested on 'using' or 'editing' or 'writing' by choosing the correct answer from a list of four. Choosing answers written by someone else really is not 'using' or 'editing' at all. In fact, on any given day, our students have at minimum a 25% chance of 'using' or 'editing' or 'writing' correctly. I think everyone can see the lack of logic here.

So why? Money. It costs money to score a test that actually has students carrying out real writing tasks. They complain that it is time consuming to score so many writing samples. Hmmm.

The test is only given one time a year, and the state thinks it will be too time consuming and costly to score our students' writings. Maybe they should take a look at their own logic. Teachers all over the state score countless essays and papers in the course of a year. We know that the only way for a student to become proficient at writing is to practice, practice, practice. In addition to the practice, they need educated, understandable, individualized feedback. How time consuming does the state think that is?

North Dakota pays its teachers one of the very lowest salaries in the country. Yet, I know that I would have to look very, very hard to find a teacher who would stoop low enough to score their students' writing ability with a multiple choice test.

It is time consuming to score hundred and hundreds of essays and papers. I know. I teach ELA. I do it for next to nothing every day. I know when my students are proficient in writing because I actually have them write. And I do not appreciate being told by a state that cannot part with its surplus to provide an adequate test, let alone teachers' salaries even within range of the national average, whether my students are proficient or not.

I know if they are proficient. I am their teacher. I will do whatever I can to make each and every one proficient, if it is at all possible. Will North Dakota ever do the same?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Kindle Update! She Needs a Name and More . . .

  1. My Kindle needs a name so I can refer to her properly. If she is going to be a constant companion, she needs to have a name. My son named his laptop Helen. That's a good solid name. Any suggestions would be welcome.
  2. Love it.
  3. None of that 'hard to hold open the new hard cover book' difficulty. I do not have to feel guilty that I am breaking the books binding for the convenience of holding it open easily.
  4. The digitized man voice will not be reading to me unless I feel the need to be entertained by a computer's pronunciation. Not good. On a bright side, I do not want anyone reading to me anyway.
  5. Love that it always knows where I am in the book.
  6. Love that I can have many books with me all the time and can switch from one to another. I have ADD and cannot stay on one book for long. I can jump from one to the other super easily.
  7. I am going to download the Bible. I cannot ever find mine. Maybe this will get me reading it more often.
  8. Love the dictionary feature. Just navigate to any word and the definition shows up at the bottom. Genius. I wonder how many words I have missed learning because I was reading and did not have a dictionary or thesaurus handy?
  9. Have not used the 'notes' feature yet. I hope it works well as I am counting on that for the works of literature I teach.
  10. Love it. I already said that.

More later.

Tech Freak Finds a New Love!

As my new pride and joy sits on the counter waiting for me to come 'give it a little love' after it finishes its first battery charge, I feel like I have to make a few comments about my feelings as I opened the Amazon box that arrived about an hour ago.

I was honestly thrilled to death to hear the dogs bark at the Fed Ex truck as it made its way up my long driveway. I never say that about the dogs! I could not wait to get into the box and see my new friend. I was especially excited because I had ordered about six books last night (way too easy to do, by the way) after I found out that Amazon would 'send' my books to my Kindle en route to my home.

What do I think, now that it is out of its box? I love how it feels. It is light, but very sturdy feeling, just like Amazon promised. It is super, super easy to use. I did not look once at the 'get started' instructions that came with it. The books they promised were all there, just waiting for me. I am now dying to pick it up and get reading.

The only drawback so far - I miss the 'flipping through' of the new books. I kind of guessed I would have that feeling. I like to sit and look at my new purchases all stacked up on my counter. I like how books feel and smell. I just like books. I am probably just feeling a little out of joint because my new prize has to sit and charge before I can carry it all over the house while I go about my day.

We will see. It is definitely just what I expected. I just have to get over what it felt like to order paper books! Stay tuned for what I think of using it.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Concentrating on the Individual

Yesterday, on I detailed the way our family celebrates the individuals in our family on their birthdays. As I think about the way we take the time to concentrate on each person's individuality, I realize that I carry that belief into my classroom every day.

I catch myself saying things like, "Jill, you are going to be sooo mad at the end of this short story. I can almost predict what you are going to say about it tomorrow." I know how each and every one of my students is going to react to the literature that I put in front of them because I take the time to know each and every one of them from the inside out. I think this is why I do not ever accept 'zero' as a plausible grade. If I do not find out what they know or do not know, I cannot really know them. I also can 'predict' what kind of problems they are going to have, which vocabulary will be new and difficult, why one student loves grammar and the other hates it, etc . . . Taking the time to know them helps me in ways that are too extensive to list here.

Yesterday I was asked by the elementary principal if there were areas of deficiency in the writing of the students who entered junior high. It took me a long time to answer. I sat there, contemplating this very vague question, thinking about each of my students, one by one, trying to make connections between them regarding their writing ability. I did not even consider that I should be thinking about them 'as a class.' I rarely think about my students as a class. That would be doing a great injustice to the individuals that just happen to sit in the same room at the same time and have the same chronological age. Each individual brings with them strengths and weaknesses that can only be discovered by looking at their work and actually KNOWING them as individuals.

Let me explain more:

One of my classes has a child who is very colorblind. When he enters my classroom, I just 'know' that part of what makes him unique is this one aspect of his being. I do not use anything but black and white during instruction in that period. If I happen to, I correct the mistake, even if it means redoing something that took me hours to do in the first place. The other students in the class KNOW him too. They are sure to remind anyone who uses color, to correct her error. There is no stigma attached to this disability because we have all taken the time to know him for who he is, not what color his eyes see.

In the same class, there is a student who is almost exclusively an auditory learner. He has a very difficult time synthesizing written text in silence. He needs to either read the text aloud to himself or have someone else read to him. Because I have taken the time to know him as a person, he trusts me. I can compare his difficulty in visual processing with the color-blindness of his friend. He accepts that this is just a difference in his learning that is the same as needing black and white. The class knows that we do a lot of oral activities for one classmate, just as we worked almost exclusively in black and white for the other. They also jump in when needed. If I do not read an entire passage to them, one of the students will jump in to read aloud. They are also intelligent enough and articulate enough to comment on the fact that reading aloud helps not only the listener to understand, but the reader too.

I could continue on and on with examples of how I accommodate for all of the different learners in my classes. I make accommodations for those with all kinds of learning disabilities, personalities, strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, family backgrounds and situations, behavior issues . . . you name it. The ability to make them is directly related to taking the time to know the person first, so he/she knows that the disability is not all I am concerned with.

So why, you may ask, is my Evan at the top of the page? That handsome little face also needs accommodations. Evan has been 'running in the red' on his Dibbles tests since the time they started testing his reading speed. He is not a fluent reader according to the regular tests. Evan will probably never read quickly. Why? He is thinking ALL THE TIME! When I read a book with him, he will stop mid-sentence to predict what is going to happen in the story. He will stop mid-sentence to tell me how the action of the plot is directly related to the title. He will sometimes just stop to think or react. And sometimes, he does stop because he is having a hard time figuring out a word. God forbid he go on until he does!!!

BUT. . .

Evan scores proficient on any reading comprehension test he takes as long as he is allowed the time to finish the reading. He understands, really understands, no matter how painfully slow his reading speed seems to those around him. Isn't that what really matters in the end.

Concentrating on our students as individuals allows us to know them in a way that fosters trust and understanding. It feeds a teaching style and classroom environment that sees disabilities as simple differences. It removes stigmas. It gives each student what they need to succeed.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

'Late Work' - by Mr. Bibo of Cal Teacher Blog

I certainly do not advocate reinventing the wheel when it comes to teaching strategies. When I find great ideas related to teaching and learning, I apply them to my own teaching. I also believe in sharing and giving credit where credit is due. With that said . . . .

I have always been a big believer in accepting late student work. If I do not get the work, then I do not know if the student has learned the concepts I have been teaching. Sure, zeros are easy to make and take no effort to correct, but they really do not tell me anything about the learning that has or has not taken place.

I was really happy to stumble upon Mr. Bibo's approach to late work. He does a wonderful job of rewarding students who get work done early, having consequences for late work, and assuring that he always knows if students are really learning.

Hopefully, I have peeked your interest. You can learn all about this approach at . You will be glad you did!

Thanks to for the clip art!

A 'Kindle' In My Classroom! What do you think?

I just finished ordering my first ever Kindle, and I cannot tell you how excited I am. For the past couple of days I have been mesmerized by the possibilities the Kindle offers to me and my classroom.

I was thrilled to find out that my school district would pay for the purchase of the novels I teach on a yearly basis. In fact, my superintendent has suggested we write a technology grant to pilot a set in my classroom next year.

Until I get it, I cannot tell you if I love, love it or not. So I am wondering . . . what do you all think?

Photo thanks to

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Real Evaluation.

Since my yearly formal evaluation, I have been thinking about how I would want to be evaluated in a perfect world. 'A perfect world' is a phrase I use when I wish for things that could not possibly come true. Or can they?

I dug out some letters I have received over the fourteen years of my career. Each is from one of my students who, for one reason or another, felt the urge to write to me. I find that I, like many people, focus on the negative. I can remember every parent complaint, every talk with the principal or superintendent, every disgruntled so-and-so. I more often forget or push aside the compliments. Stupid, stupid, stupid. (I say that a lot!)

Below is a letter I received sometime in the last 14 years. For even more anonymity, I have left off the name of the student. I will say that this particular student is still in my community and is currently raising a child of his/her own. He/she has turned into a wonderful person who I am proud to say wrote this about me.

Dear Mrs. Mickelson,

I have been going to school for twelve years now, and I have not known a teacher with as much spirit, enthusiasm, and knowledge as you seem to possess. Though I have only had you for two classes and a summer session, I have never learned and been inspired by a teacher quite like you. You always made going to class fun, instead of my usual feeling, dreading English class.

I have picked up many habits from your teaching. One was that I have begun to be aware that if I take the time and really concentrate, I am able to write my reports with real profound meaning. I have also learned how to see what I was reading. I used to be able to just read what the author was saying. Now, I feel I can grasp the true meaning and hidden significance in each book.

Unlike my other teachers, you take the time to take explanations to a whole new level. You did not only explain what we could not understand, but you also added real depth to your words, making us think harder, and realize there was so much more to the words than just what was being read.

It was truly a great experience being in your class.


Name withheld

Letters like this one are the real evaluation. If you have one or hundreds, take them out regularly to remind yourself what you are capable of and why you do this crazy job. Students are the ones who should be doing our evaluations. They are the ones who really know. Period.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Yearly Teacher Evaluation Day Has Arrived!

Today I signed my yearly teacher evaluation.

For those of you who are from states other than North Dakota, the requirement for teacher evaluation is one written evaluation per year for each teacher who has been teaching more than 3 years (hmmm. I should check that, maybe it is 2 or 5). Anyway, in my case, it is one per year as this is my fourteenth year.

I do not like Yearly Teacher Evaluation Day. I never have. I do not like this one little snapshot of all of the effort and work I put into my job on a daily and monthly and yearly basis. Over the years, I have had many different forms used on me.

Sometimes I was asked to evaluate myself; sometimes I was not.

Sometimes I was shown the sheet ahead of time; sometimes I was not.

Sometimes I was told when the principal would be visiting; sometimes it was just a drop-in.

None of those factors contribute to my liking or disliking being evaluated. Each form is what it is. Each visit is what it is. What I do not like about teacher evaluations is the tiny window of what I do and what I am that it actually evaluates. Most of the time the evaluation is based on one or two visits to my classroom. One time it was based on NO visits to my classroom. Even if you have administration who stop in 6, 7, or 10 times a year to watch and evaluate, they are still getting such a tiny, tiny picture of what you do, who you are, what you believe in, what you expect, how you assess it, etc. etc. etc.

Then it gets put in your personnel file where it is free for public inspection. In the fourteen years that I have been teaching, only two people have asked to see my file. For the most part it just sits in there waiting for me to finally decide to apply at another school, so it can 'effectively' show my next employer what a good teacher I am or am not.

I wish it were different. I wish the evaluation showcased my personal successes and failures. I wish it offered me the opportunity to list my strengths and weaknesses. I wish it then had a suggestion box to help me improve. Would that make me happy? Probably not.

I have only gotten sound improvement advice a few times in my career from my administration. I get some sound advice from my colleagues or from classes I take and books that I read. I have gotten some good suggestions and advice from parents. The best advice I have gotten has always been from my students themselves. They paint the clearest picture of who I am and what I do. They say it best. They know me and my strengths and my weaknesses. They know.

Should my students do my evaluation? Maybe. Part of me rejoices in the idea; part of me shudders! :)

I will keep looking for the answer. For now, here is the 2009 evaluation of Danielle Mickelson (High School English) dated January 24, 2009. (I just now noticed the date. What the heck?!)

Choices for the first 11 statement about my teaching were Y(yes), N(no), or NA(not applicable)

1. Clearly states lesson objectives. Answer on form: Y

2. This teacher speaks clearly. Y

3. This teacher explains things clearly. Y

4. This teacher is stimulating and interesting to listen to. Y

5. Presents material in an organized manner. Y

6. This teacher sets high expectations for students. Y

7. This teacher seems to understand the subject matter. Y

8. This teacher encourages participation. Y

9. This teacher has a sub-folder accessible. Y

10. This teacher uses a variety of instructional methods. Y

11. This teacher is available for students before and after school if assistance is needed. Y

12. This teacher's explanations are: a. ___too technical b.____too simplified c._X_ satisfactory

13. Time spent on lecturing: a.___too much b.__too little c._X_ satisfactory

14. Student time on task: a._X_ Satisfactory b.___ Needs Improvement

Overall Evaluation Statement:

Mrs. Mickelson has done an outstanding job in the use of her "word wall," which is something that all our high school teachers are required to do. Mrs. Mickelson makes use of her word wall in her classes, which makes it valid for her students, rather than just having a bunch of words up in her classroom.

Mrs. Mickelson is active in the state and has worked on both state standards for English and also has worked on the North Dakota State Assessment. Mrs. Mickelson has a very firm grasp of the State Standards and Benchmarks, and uses them on a daily basis for her classroom instruction.

I would encourage Mrs. Mickelson to continue to stress the importance of the standards to her students, and to hold students up to a very high standard in the learning of these standards. I would also encourage Mrs. Mickelson to continue to hold students accountable for staying on task for the whole period, and make sure students are engaging in appropriate conversations that deal directly with the subject matter.

Mrs. Mickelson is very knowledgeable in her subject matter and has a lot to offer the students of Rolla High School. Mrs. Mickelson does a very good job of accommodating for students with disabilities as well as accommodating for the different learning styles of her students. She is the first one to admit when something doesn't go as well as she would have liked, but that doesn't discourage her from expanding the ways in which she presents material to her students.

Signed by me and my principal.

How do I feel about my evaluation? It is an evaluation. Does it accurately evaluate the kind of teacher I am? Yes, in the tiny little window that it looked through.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

It is still "Let's Share Thursday!"

Many of the comments and e-mails I have received have been from teachers in the first or second year of their careers. I love new teachers. (Maybe I just secretly wish I was still 22!) Seriously. I love that there are people out there still willing to put in the time and effort it takes to become a 'good' teacher. I love their enthusiasm and excitement. I think I feed off it a little.

Many 'experienced' teachers (notice I did not say 'old') assume that if 'we' know about a good resource then 'everyone' knows about that good resource.

While pondering this, I tried to think back to my first year of teaching. All I remember is being pregnant, throwing up, and praying to keep my head above water in the classroom. It could not have been that bad, could it?! I do not remember anyone stopping by with good resources or ideas or websites. That is sad. I really could have used the help.

I will end all this rambling and get to the point. I wanted to share the website for the Purdue Online Writing Lab. The resources at the OWL are seemingly endless; a site worth bookmarking, for sure.

A Comment on a Comment

John Spencer from Arizona posted a very good comment on a previous blog entry entitled "Bismarck - Day 2 - A Long Road Ahead." He said:

Part of what this proves is that local often means better. I feel that the AIMS test would be better if teachers from Arizona wrote the questions. Instead, we end up with McGraw-Hill -created questions that fail to address our state's actual standards.

I found myself responding in a comment that was much too long to say the least. Since I had sooo much to say about it, I thought maybe I should document it here.

To sum up my answer:

While we were reviewing the test questions with the McGraw-Hill representative, we asked if we (the ND English teachers present) could be hired as test writers for McGraw-Hill. The answer was a resounding "Yes!" BUT, we could not write for our own state because that would be a conflict of interest. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

In our tiny neck of the woods we have a county competition called the Knowledge Bowl. Teachers from the curricular areas write 2 or 3 questions each that are put in an ever-increasing pool of questions. The teams from the county compete using questions drawn from the question pool. Rarely do my student report back that they have gotten more than one of my questions during the entire competition.

If teachers from each state were able to write questions specific to their own standards and benchmarks, students would then be assessed on what each state believes is the most important in curriculum and what they 'actually' teach each and every day.

A 'conflict of interest' they call it. Really?! Is it really a conflict of interest to have students assessed by the people who teach them?

Maybe I am just being idealistic. Maybe there really are teachers out there that are so bad that they are not teaching anything during the school day. Maybe there are multitudes of them who know nothing of what should be taught in their curricular areas. Maybe they are completely unable to write a question that accurately assesses the curriculum they teach.


I do know that McGraw-Hill hires teachers from all over the country to write questions for the tests. What I do not understand is why these teachers who are writing cannot simply write for the state they teach in?

Oh yeah, I remember. Conflict of interest. Hmmm.

Let's Share Thursday - Creative Writing

Today is Thursday, and you know what that means. . . It is time to SHARE again!!!!!

I found two resources for teaching creative writing that are both very different, but also very useful. is a list of 329 creative writing prompts that can be used in the classroom. is a wonderful site that has many, many complete lesson and unit plans to teach all aspects of creative writing.

If you would like to share a lesson or site that has worked well for you or offers great ideas, comment below or e-mail an attachment to me at . I will compile them and send them out to all that participate. Have a great day, everyone!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Education Should Be Fair

Hello. Sorry I missed yesterday, but I was not in school yesterday. I had a day that I am only willing to 'replay' on my Out of Control Life blog!!! Yes, it was that bad. Maybe by tonight I will be far enough from the trauma that I will be able to document it. :)

Back to education.

One thing that I truly believe and always will is that education needs to be 'fair.' I know that there have been times in my own career when a lesson that I have created has been unfair to one student or another.

Sometimes I am too focused on lecturing, at the expense of my creative types.
Sometimes I am too focused on creative writing, at the expense of my technical learners.
Sometimes I am too focused on my special education students, at the expense of my high achievers.

I could continue this list, but that is not the point.

What is most important about my growth as an educator is that I recognize these 'truths' and work constantly and consistently to change my preparation and teach in a way that is fair to all.

Fair is when everyone gets the instruction they need to succeed - not when everyone gets the same instruction.

My critics will inevitably be thinking or saying that it is impossible to individualize instruction for each and every student who comes through the classroom door. I agree. It is easier for me than it is for many of my colleagues across the state and nation because my largest class is twenty-one, and my smallest is twelve. I also have the advantage of teaching the same students from the time they are in junior high until graduation.

I am only at a disadvantage in the number of levels I must prepare for each day. During a normal school year, I prepare for grades 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 daily. That is a lot of preparation, especially when small schools are notoriously understaffed in special education areas.

None of this matters. O.K., I will clarify. It does, and it does not. These factors matter in the day to day challenges each and every teacher faces. The factors do not matter when the education of students is concerned. Each of them deserves what they need to be successful. Period.

Do I have all the answers? No way. Do I have some suggestions? Yes. I cannot pretend to know what will make each and every individual teacher a success. I do know what has worked to help me improve, and I want to share.

1. Know the standards and benchmarks. Having a healthy working knowledge of the standards and benchmarks of the curriculum you teach, along with the ones above and below your grade level/levels allows for a consistent scope and sequence of curriculum. I am not saying 'memorize' them word for word. Just be able to attach one or more standards to each lesson you teach. It will keep you grounded.

2. Be open minded to new brain research and actively seek out the new discoveries. Try not to get stuck in the belief that, "If it was good 20 years ago, it is still good now." This may be true, but think of it this way. Would you want the doctor operating on your two year old child who has tragically been diagnosed with a brain tumor to use the technology and resources that were available 20 years ago, or those on the cutting edge today?

3. Try to make a connection that establishes trust and respect with each student that you teach. This is not always easy, believe me! I have learned that common kindness and courtesy go a long way. Students notice when you take the time to say "hello" every time you see them, or reexplain an assignment without any condescension or sarcasm. Study their faces. A face can show understanding, confusion, sickness, worry, fear, or satisfaction. Taking the time to understand how they are feeling on a particular day may make or break the quality and quantity of the work they will do for you. (I do know they should be doing the work for personal benefit, not 'for me,' but many of them do not see it that way.)

4. Take classes whether you need the credit or not. I began writing lesson plans that focus on different kinds of learning and personality styles only after I took 4MAT training. I love 4MAT and recommend it, but there are many different, wonderful planning strategies that can clarify and improve your teaching. Find a class that peeks your interest and take what works for you from it.

5. Work closely with the special education specialists in your school. They know where to find the information you need about your special education students. They can give you strategies to help them that are easy to implement into your daily routine. Many of the accommodations for students with special needs are useful to regular education students.

6. Use authentic assessments.

7. Find assignments that are valid for assessing students of differing levels.

I feel like I am getting long-winded. No, I KNOW I am being long-winded. It is one of my weaknesses. I have other suggestions; I have been trying to improve my teaching for at least 13 years. I have been teaching 14, but I am pretty sure the first year I just tried to survive! :) I will continue and elaborate later. For now, I am off to enjoy my family for the evening.