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.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Update on Practice State Assessments

As I stated before, ND does not purchase practice tests for the ND State Assessment. ND also does not release the questions from previous tests as other states do.

BUT, I do have some good news. The released tests from many other states' assessments are available online. Although these tests are not exactly like the one North Dakota administers, they are very similar. Remember, most of our questions come from a bank of questions that are available to the entire country and are nationally normed.

Am I saying you should download them and teach to the test? Of course not. I am just simply saying that it makes sense to know what kinds of questions kids are going to be asked. It also makes sense to give them a section or two to practice on. Kids do better on assessments they are familiar with.

Making yourself familiar with the types of questions asked on nationally normed tests can assure that you are using language that is the same as that used on the test. Also, giving kids a sample test or two could uncover an area or two where your curriculum is lacking.

To find the released test questions from other states, visit this website . If you have used any of them in the past, please comment on the pro's and con's you noticed.

Have a great weekend everyone.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Let's Share Thursday - Rubrics

Why use rubrics?

When we consider how well a learner performed a speaking or writing task, we do not think of the performance as being right or wrong. Instead, we place the performance along a continuum from exceptional to not up to expectations. Rubrics help us to set anchor points along a quality continuum so that we can set reasonable and appropriate expectations for learners and consistently judge how well they have met them.

1. Well-designed rubrics increase an assessment's construct and content validity by aligning evaluation criteria to standards, curriculum, instruction, and assessment tasks.
2. Well-designed rubrics increase an assessment's reliability by setting criteria that raters can apply consistently and objectively.

3. Evaluating student work by established criteria reduces bias.

4. Identifying the most salient criteria for evaluating a performance and writing descriptions of excellent performance can help teachers clarify goals and improve their teaching.

5. Rubrics help learners set goals and assume responsibility for their learning—they know what comprises an optimal performance and can strive to achieve it.

6. Rubrics used for self- and peer-assessment help learners develop their ability to judge quality in their own and others' work.

7. Rubrics answer the question "Why did I/my child get a B on this project?"

8. Learners receive specific feedback about their areas of strength and weakness and about how to improve their performance.

9. Learners can use rubrics to assess their own effort and performance, and make adjustments to work before submitting it for a grade.

10. Rubrics allow learners, teachers, and other stakeholders to monitor progress over a period of instruction.

11. Time spent evaluating performance and providing feedback can be reduced.

12. When students participate in designing rubrics, they are empowered to become self-directed learners.

13. Rubrics help teachers move away from subjective grading by allowing them and others, including students themselves, to assess work based on consistent, often agreed upon, and objective criteria.

Find a rubric you love and e-mail it to me at I will change them all to PDF's, and send them out to everyone who contributes.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Bismarck - Day 2 - A Long Road Ahead

Yesterday we reviewed questions from past CTB tests. Many of them seemed mediocre in quality.

Today, we reviewed new test questions that were written specifically for North Dakota. I was impressed. The questions matched our standards and benchmarks, and even more importantly, assessed what we really teach.

Now, the bad news. There were only about fifteen of them. Trust me, we asked where the rest were. There weren't any more.

New questions that are written specifically for North Dakota cost money, lots of money. It is much cheaper to use the questions that are nationally normed.

It is time for North Dakota to ride a little faster down the Mah Dah Hey Trail (the picture above) and pay for more questions that assess what we teach. North Dakota teachers have always held themselves and their students to the highest standards (and benchmarks!). It is time for DPI and the North Dakota Legislature to hold themselves to the highest standards and find the funds to do it.

Until NCLB dies, we will have to push to make the best of a 'not so great' situation. I hope it is not a long road to an assessment that is as high in quality as the students it assesses.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Just a Little Humor

In researching the standards and benchmark documents of the other states, I came across this benchmark that gave me a good chuckle. This is an actual Tennessee benchmark.

CLE 3003.2.3 Identify the thesis and main pints of a complex speech.

I do not know about the rest of you, but I prefer quarts in my complex speech!

Have a good day tomorrow; I mean today. I did not realize how late it was. I will update you all on the second day of our conference tomorrow night. I mean tonight. Oh, I don't know. I need sleep.

Update from Bismarck

I guess I should have taken a picture of something so this post would have a little flair. What would you all have liked to see? The front of the Doublewood? The room we were in? The chicken enchiladas we had for lunch? Really, there was not much to see today. We did work.

Today CTB-McGraw Hill representatives were present to go through a selection of questions from previous state assessment tests. These were not the questions from the tests that our students took this school year, but rather they were questions that have not been in the test for several years and could be used in the near future. These questions were already aligned to the North Dakota State Standards and Benchmarks. Our task was to read the selections, review the questions, and decide if we agreed with the Standard and Benchmark that each question was assigned. Then, we decided if the level of difficulty was assigned correctly to each question.

That was long and wordy. In a nutshell, what I learned today is:

  1. Each question on the ND State Assessment assesses one benchmark from the standards.
  2. We should remind students before they take the test that the 'topics' of the reading selections are relatively unimportant. It is the 'skill' that each question is assessing that is important. Let me clarify a little. When a student reads a passage, they will not be questioned on their background knowledge of the topic. They will be carrying out skills from the reading or writing benchmarks (identify a particular literary term, analyze a small part of the passage, edit for content, edit for purpose, edit for parallel structure, etc.) As a group, we got caught up in whether or not our students would know a lot about the topics the passages were about. The topics are irrelevant. It is the skills that are assessed.
  3. Questions are constantly being written to fill gaps in covering the benchmarks.
  4. Many states purchase practice tests to give their students the chance to be comfortable with the type of test and review any gaps they may have in knowledge. ND does not.
  5. In the next few months, ND will be going through the process of choosing a vendor for the state assessment (RFP). The contract with CTB is up. Contact DPI if you know of a test vendor they should consider.
  6. There are tests available (some states are already using them) that actually assess a student's ability to write, not fill in a dot. Acuity Writing is an example that West Virginia uses and loves.
  7. We are the ones that need to push for change. E-mail me, each other, DPI, ND Representatives, whoever - just start pushing for the changes we need in testing in our state. We are - SUPER TEACHERS!

I am sure there is more I will think of as I process the day's work. I will update as needed.

We did not and will not be doing any revisions of the ND State Standards and Benchmarks during these two days. The two days are strictly for aligning assessment questions with the standards and benchmarks. I will try to remember to ask if there is going to be any revision work in the future. I better make a list :)

We tried to stress that research shows that students do better when they know the expectation ahead of time. As we were reviewing each item, we were able to see what standard and benchmark each had been assigned to. We stressed that students would do better if they knew which standard and benchmark each question was assessing. Isn't that why we use rubrics and show the students the rubric before they even begin the paper, project, speech, etc? I will try to find someone to listen who has the power to make this happen. On the list!

For those of you who study the individual test reports that come (ours just came a few days ago), you know that the test is broken down by benchmark and the number of questions for each is shown. We voiced serious concern about the benchmarks that are only assessed by one or two questions. One or two, whether right or wrong, does not show mastery or lack of mastery. They swear more questions are currently being written.

The content of the materials my group worked on today is strictly confidential, as it should be. Please do not ask me or any of the team members what questions we reviewed. We signed confidentiality agreements, and we certainly do not want to go to jail!

More tomorrow. Remember - you can contact me at any time via e-mail. My Palm gets all my e-mails as soon as you send them to my sendit address.

Monday, March 2, 2009

What are the Standards in Other States?

As I lay here, contemplating the work that I have to do tomorrow and Wednesday on the ELA Standards and Benchmarks, it occurred to me that I have never read the standards from other states. If you are in the same boat as me, here are the links to a few of the commonly talked about states.

New Jersey;c=3

If you have a chance, take a look at them. I found the differences compelling, not to mention the amount of time it took me just to find them!

I Was 'Almost' Famous With This Idea!

I was at a curriculum mapping conference with Dr. Heidi Hayes Jacobs a couple of years ago and told her about this spelling activity I do with my seventh graders. She promised to put it in her next book. She never did. Boo Hiss! Regardless, I still think this is a great idea that can be used in any grade that has spelling tests.

As we all know, some kids are just natural spellers, and some of the little sweethearts just are not. I know we do everything in our power to help them get better at it, but some never quite catch on. Trust me, I have a phonetic speller in my family. He can study and study those words, and even sometimes come up with a 100% on the spelling test. The next time he goes to use the word in his writing, it is right back to phonetics. :(

On to my 'almost famous idea.'

When my seventh grade class takes their spelling test, I give it in the normal manner. I say the word, use it in a sentence, and say it again. When the test is over, I ask the students to look at the words they have written carefully while I repeat them all slowly, one after another. I tell them to circle any of the words they have written that they are sure are not spelled right, but at the same time they cannot think of how to spell them correctly. For every mistake they can find, I give them 1/4 of a point back on their final test score.

Although I am sure everyone has figured out what I am doing, I will repeat it just so I can get my entire famous idea published!

For students who cannot spell, the best skill they can acquire is self-editing. If they can tell which words are wrong, they know which ones to look up in the dictionary or pocket speller they carry. Of course, they can always use spell-check, but computers are not available in situations where one has to fill out a job applications sitting on a chair in a corner of a store.

The final thing I do is call up each student individually to talk about the ones they got wrong. I take the time to individually reinforce the rules that would help them spell the word right. I also congratulate them on finding their errors. They walk away feeling good about themselves. Even if they cannot spell, they can edit and fix their writing in the future before a final draft is do.

Oh, watch out for the smart ones who try to circle every word. There is always one of them in the class!

Who Am I?

This is a post from my original blog I thought it would give those of you who do not really know me a little insight.
After nearly 37 years of wondering how I would describe myself if asked to do it in a succinct and perfect fashion, I have found it in the words of Jack Kerouac. Forever, I will be changed by his words.
“Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes... the ones who see things differently -- they're not fond of rules... You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can't do is ignore them because they change things... they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

Thank you, Jack, wherever you are, for writing what I couldn't say myself, and for bringing those of us who want a different and better world together to make real change.

The Word Wall

Check Spelling
Although I am not new to blogging, I do still hate the first post. It always feels like it should be a culmination of entertainment, information, and wit. I probably will not succeed at all three, but here I go.

One of the initiatives that Rolla has put in place this year in the high school is 'The Word Wall.' We decided that there is a bank of words in each curricular area that students need to have a good working knowledge of to be successful in that class. Each teacher was asked to put words that fit their content area on the wall and review them with their students on a regular basis.

I wish I had a picture of my first word wall. I decided to let my students create it.

I do not know why I do this to myself. I know I am a perfectionist. I know what I want. I even think I know how to get my students to create an adequate reproduction of what I want. Sometimes I am very wrong, but I try to follow the motto that students will learn more about a topic that they have invested time and energy into. High school students smell this, I swear, and do the opposite!

Since it was the beginning of the year, I decided to review rubric use. I gave each student a ELA term they would need to know for proficiency and assigned them the task of putting their term on a piece of paper in a clear and easily visible manner, learning the definition of the word, finding an example, and sharing with the class. I developed a simple rubric that would assess these areas.

I did everything I thought I was supposed to do. I gave them the rubric ahead of time, I created a couple of word wall examples myself, I demonstrated how to present the definition and the example, and then I set them loose.

Good Lord. I got a disaster. I forgot to include SIZE in my rubric, so some were tiny and some were huge. Some were colored, and some were not. Some were handwritten (AARRGG!), and some were typed. It was the most horrendous mish-mash of creativity (I use that loosely) I had ever seen.

Resigned, I let them put them on the wall. OOOHHHH. I hated that wall. How do you rip down all that work and effort? And besides, the requirement was to just have a word wall, right? No one said it had to be nice!

Then, Devine intervention. I suddenly remembered my one colorblind student. He couldn't read the word wall!!! Yeah! I took down the offending mess and replaced it with a black and white version that is interactive, not only visible to a very colorblind little boy.

My word wall now consists of white legal sized envelopes separated into groups that are labeled with the ND State ELA Standards. Each envelope has a term written on the outside in easily readable black letters. Inside the envelope is the definition of the term on an index card. As my classes move through the school year, we have been utilizing the word wall, not just for the definition that lives in the envelope, but every time we find a very good example of the term, we write it on a new index card and include it in the envelope. I have to say, we are compiling quite a comprehensive set of definitions and examples that span all grades from 7 to 12.

The lesson. Who knows? Be better prepared. Do not be a perfectionist. Do things yourself if you are going to be really picky. Rejoice in the wonder of revision. All that aside, the 'word wall' concept is a great one if you create a wall that you can use with your students. I love mine . . . now!