Monthly Archives: January 2013

Writing Basics

After completing the prompt analysis and gathering a diagnostic writing sample, we began teaching the writing process. There was a time when we were supposed to focus on 6+1 Traits of Writing, but I have the sneaky suspicion the focus on those elements left much to be taught in consideration of structuring a paragraph. Next, we were to look at WICR with the AVID focus on writing. After seeing what the students had, we decided to break it down to writing basics.

First, we looked at MLA formatting for an outline. Believe it or not, this seemed like the first time the students had seen an outline. I anticipate they would not see the point of an outline because most students hate using them. After looking at outlines, creating an outline on how to create an outline, and using “Bath Time” to create an outline, the students saw how using an outline would help them to focus their writing and not leave any steps out in the process. You see, “Bath Time” is about giving a dog a bath but the writer forgets the key step of actually getting the dog in the bath. While readers can infer this has happened, we talked about how vital that step would be if it were changing the breaks on your car or setting the beat when laying some freestyle.

Next, the students took their writing diagnostic papers and tried to create an outline based on what they did. This was an amazing step because the kids were able to see the missing components for their own writing and identify steps for revising the essay to better address the prompt. I had them complete the missing steps of the outline, but I did not let them make changes to the papers yet. That would come later…

Our focus was support and elaboration, so I had the students create an essay from a series of sentences. I took an essay and cut out the sentences one by one for the body paragraphs. I knew the activity would be tricky because it tested so many objectives rolled into one: writing, organizing ideas, having a solid introduction, topic sentences, and conclusion just to name a few. They were asked to read the sentences to identify the subject of the overall essay. From there, I had them look for the thesis statement, but that evolved into looking for topic sentences because the students used the topic sentences to find the thesis statement. Next, the students used the sentences as a word sort by topic, and then they used transitions and context clues to arrange the sentences. I had a prize for the first group finished, making it game-like in nature.

All in all, I would say the focus on support and elaboration was a success. Our next steps will be to finish edits on the essay, complete a peer review, and type the final essay on Friday. Then, we get to move on to the rest of the communication standards – rhetoric, persuasive devices, and logical fallacies.

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Resuming the Writing (with a snow day on the side)

The week is over for us, and we managed to complete the Common Core expository writing assignment. Amazing success – all but two students completed essay. The two who did not complete it had everything except the conclusion. Now, this worked because of a little motivational strategy I like to refer to as, “The Goods.” Any time we have a major project or essay due, I have some sort of treat for those who complete it. Such a tiny thing to do, but it means a lot to the students. Today I had brownies.

After turning in the essay, we went to the computer to take the digital Common Core Discovery Education Full Year Test B. Here is the interesting thing about this: We have massive data reports due on a regular basis, but the school/state has not officially transitioned to Common Core yet. The test, therefore, is at a much higher text complexity and proves more of a challenge for many of the kids. I believe all but one student tried his or her best, and I am looking forward to seeing the data. Yet this begs the questions because Common Core assessments tend to not be adequate in predicting mastery of the Tennessee State English I EOC. Based on what I know, I think the data will show lower than what I might have anticipated when the students take the EOC benchmarks. Additionally, I have worked diligently to teacher the RUNNERS reading comprehension strategy and the RAMS testing strategy. I have gone so far as to make students write on the test and REFUSED to give them a scantron until I saw evidence of RUNNERS and RAMS on their tests. I have, as a result, seen great growth over the few years I have used these strategies. Unfortunately, on the computer screen, the students were unable to complete RUNNERS and RAMS. Additionally, the question is on the screen but the passage and not, discouraging students from verifying the answer by consulting the text. And then the readings are incredibly long for the few questions asked. I look forward to the data, but I am skeptical of its predictability.

Alas, the weather has taken a plunge, and we have another snow day tomorrow. I have not used a snow day ever (child of the South), and it is a complete thrill to get to have a snow day to spend with my family and working on stuff for school over the break.

Happy three-day weekend to us!

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Expecting the Unexpected

This entry comes with a heavy heart as we have experienced something that happens everywhere. The first draft I saved because I needed to think on it before posting it. Then, at the close of the day, I decided to post a version of the original post.

We enjoyed the snow day, and I spent tons of time reworking the plans to make sure we could meet the objectives and district expectations of the essay without getting too far off pacing.

But last night, someone did something dumb – made a dumb choice – and we suffered a tragedy. I assure you when the unexpected happens, your best-planned lessons go out the window.

You see, teachers are more than teachers. We are teachers by our paperwork, but in reality our job description is limitless.
We are the instructors, giving your child a chance at competing in a global society.
We are the police officers, redirecting those who go astray when you aren’t there.
We are counselors, pointing out the importance of today on tomorrow’s successes.
We are the nurses, handing out simple things like band-aids, cough drops, hugs, and kind words.
We are the mothers, modeling compassion and all those social skills you have to have to live a productive life.
We are people, fighting each day to show how much we sincerely care.
And in our classroom, we are family. A family in mourning.

So what of instruction today? How does one implement Common Core in light of tragedy? Can it be done? I didn’t think so. I had to lead class the way it went – as close to structure as possible with open heart and open head and open box of tissues. You can’t plan for this and, God knows, no one should have to fluff through it. So, dealing with tragedy in a close-knit high school classroom is today’s thought.

I can’t tell you what the right thing to do is because an exceptional teacher does what he or she believes to be best for the students. When this catches you off guard, you gotta think on your feet. But here’s what we did…

I began class with the grammar, bell ringer, and vocab as normal. It was dreadfully quiet with secret tear and sniffles presiding. No one wanted to share the answers, and using our talking sticks was pointless because how can you call on a kid knowing words won’t come out when choking back strong emotion? Painfully, we made it through a normally 15 minute game-like activity in nearly thirty minutes.

I could tell we needed a brain break, and we transitioned with, “Well, guys, here’s what we were going to do. This sucks, huh?” I heard muffled agreement and an, “Amen to that.” We moved into, “You’re not feeling this crappy mood essay, are ya? What’s on your mind.” Mostly, they just wanted to make sure I knew. I said I did and that it sucked and that I didn’t know what to say or do to make any of it any better on anyone except to be there if I was needed. A few spoke up and one asked if they could “just write” for a minute. I agreed and walked around and talked to a few of the students one-on-one. One called me out from across the room for looking like I was going to cry. Amazingly, as close as I know we will be at the end of the semester, they could not believe I would cry over a student. In all, maybe thirty minutes of mostly silent sniffles and blank stares passed before one of the students made an announcement to break the silence: “So it’s like when Raspberry found her mom with a pole to her heard because of the neighborhood bully, huh?” And with that, we used the text and talking through the mood of the plot to process all that had occurred and to address the fear of what might happen next. When this happens, you expect some behavior problems. The kid’s not being mad or bad – I don’t believe in bad kids – they are dealing with emotions even adults struggle to put to words.

At the end of the block, we did not have a written essay. Pacing got a little off. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.

And today, that’s all I have for you.

My assessment of Common Core Implementation today:
Speaking and Listening – All standards addressed.
Writing –
9-10.W.3 – Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
9-10.W.1 – Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
9-10.W.2 – Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
A – Introduce a topic; organize complex ideas, concepts, and information to make important connections and distinctions; include formatting (e.g., headings) to aid comprehension.
B РDevelop the topic with well-chosen, relevant, information and examples appropriate to the audience’s knowledge of the topic.

Will we revisit these concepts? Yeah.

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Writing: Diagnostic Assessments in Common Core Style

Getting students to write is challenging enough, but throw is a typical state writing assessment prompt and all chaos ensues. One thing I have noticed in eight years, two states, and three schools is that, for some reason, behavior and attendance suffer during writing. When it comes to research papers, it is even worse. With Common Core, though, we want to try to include the citations and text-evidence of the typical research formatting because this is what will help them more in college. Knowing how to back up an argument, even verbally, is going to help them in all aspects of life, so it can’t be ignored.
I started the year by having students take a survey of their past experiences in ELA. Two questions stood out when thinking of what to do to assess their writing:
1. What activity to you like least in an English Language Arts class?
A: Of the 16 students present, 13 students said writing.
2. What do you hope Mrs. Kirk does differently to help you this year?
A: Of the 16 students, 9 said some version of “Help us write better.” One student said, “Don’t assign essays you don’t teach us.”
Clearly, these students have a strong hate for writing. So what am I to do? I know I can increase motivation if I can get them to believe in themselves and see me as a resource, but getting to that point will be a challenge.

Thus come the next week of instruction: Chunking a Writing Assessment.

Step 1: I wanted to give the students a writing assessment, but I quickly realized this might lead to a revolt without proper scaffolding. First, I asked students what they hated about essays. Students agreed the prompts “never make sense,” and that gave the starting point. First, I used the gradual release to model how to break down a writing prompt. I looked at a prompt and broke it down for the students. I modeled by reading it, rereading and annotating it, paraphrasing it, and listing starter ideas. Next, we did one together. Finally, I let the students choose between two prompts to analyze with the knowledge they would be expected to actually write an essay on the prompt they chose.
> Interesting realization: Not a single student in the class knew what “expository” meant, so I did a scale back and had students take notes on the four modes of writing.

Step 2: I didn’t want to give students too much help with the essay, but I needed to make them feel they could be successful. I reviewed thesis statement with the students, and we broke it down to topic+argument/opinion=thesis statement. Students then wrote a proposed thesis statement to guide their writing. At this point, student had to commit to writing the essay on one of two texts. While the content and assignment was the same, the story could be chosen by the student in order to create higher motivation and provide a better assessment of student ability prior to teaching a thorough writing unit.

Step 3: Verbally, we reviewed the basic structure of a five paragraph essay. With this fresh on their minds, we looked back at the prompt to plan what we might need to use as main ideas for each body paragraph. As the prompt was reviewing the mood as reflected in the plot, students determined they were going to break the story into beginning, middle, and end. Students then reviewed their plot maps of the proposed texts (both stories) to see which one they understood and could explain to a partner the best. This was helpful because 4 students ended up deciding to switch to the other text before getting too far along.

Step 4: Looking at the evidence they gathered from the beginning, middle, and end of the text, we went back to our prompt analysis to see if we were ready to write the essay. Luckily, students reread their annotations and noticed they needed to include the mood aspect of the writing. Students were using words like “sad” and “happy” on their evidence, so I did a short version lesson of using a higher-level of vocabulary. I also found out I needed to do a short teaching of what mood actually is.

Step 5: Students were given a generic outline suggestion to serve as a checklist for writing the essay. For example, under “Introduction” students were reminded to “Have a hook to get your readers interested,” “Include the TAG (Title-Author-Genre) when writing about literature,” and “Did you have a solid thesis statement?” Students were then released to write the essay in one hour as that was the time which matches the actual assessment.

The student reaction to the CC writing prompt was intense. Part of me felt like breaking down the prompt and creating a writing plan was cheating, but the purpose of this semester is to help make Common Core accessible to our students. If they shut down, they won’t learn anything. In order to raise the bar successfully, it is my job to help scaffold the material in a manner which students can understand and feel they can master. I wanted this lesson to take one class, but it ended up taking two classes to help the students properly. They will have to take a district assessment next month, so hopefully the time taken in this activity will stick and prove helpful on their assessments.
As much as I freak out about pacing with my students this semester, I feel for the teachers and students who will be implementing CC as a directive next semester when the stakes are much higher than they are right now. I feel my students’ frustrations, and I hope they believe me when I tell them this will be helpful to them next year. While I support the idea of a common curriculum to put all students at the same level of academic expectations across the country, I worry about teachers leaving students behind in the fury of the year. Also, I worry about how the teachers will break down the objectives and what skills will be a part of the objective and what skills will be forgotten. I wonder if this was a plan we needed more time to plan for in terms of having students prepared for the jump, and I wonder how scores will look with the first round of CC Achievement Testing. Other vocal spokesmen of CC have said implementation with result in a lower score for students, and I wonder how this will affect the students and the teachers.
When entering a round of increase academic standards, I guess there is no perfect way to bring about such educational reform in a manner that does not hurt anyone involved. As I continue my struggles for this semester in terms of implementing CC and doing that which is best for my students, I will have to put forth more effort and work harder than ever before. We can do this. I know it.

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A note on pacing…

With the first week and the first snow days behind us, we will return to school knowing the honeymoon period at the start of all semesters is officially over.

Students have had nearly two weeks to get used to the course, and expectations have been taught, prompted, and rewarded. We have used brain breaks regularly, and behavior has not been a real issue – until they all received the text messages about the early release. We gained four new students this week, which has made the continuum of skills assessments challenging as one lesson has built on the previous lesson.

Academically, I must admit I’m relieved to have the snow day combined with the MLK holiday to revamp my planning and pacing. I learned the students struggle with basic literary elements vocabulary, the desire to complete homework is lower than I have even seen before, and writing is… just as excited as teaching and assessing writing.

Based on my assessments and student surveys, next week marks moving on to Writing Basics. This unit has been designed to teach students writing while working on logic and communication. By teaching rhetoric and reasoning early, it is my hope to be able to readdress these skills as we move through the remainder of the semester. My estimate here is about three weeks, give or take a snow day. And, thinking about pacing is the point of today’s entry.

Pacing is perhaps one of the most challenging parts of designing instruction. When I attended Maryville College, Dr. Simpson, Dr. Lucas, and Dr. Orren all touted the brilliance of over-planning a lesson. After all, chaos ensues when structure is lost and students have nothing to do. Starting out in education nearly ten years ago, this was acceptable. What wasn’t finished one day fluidly became the next day. When we finished early (as rare as that was/is), I extended the learning with an enrichment activity. Here we are, however, eight years and the teaching profession under more scrutiny than even before and pacing seems key to student achievement and teacher evaluations.

The first thing I have learned about pacing is that a solid teacher will teach bell to bell with all lessons starting moments before the bell. I addressed this in my Ten Minutes post, so I won’t go much further on that right now.
Next, I learned that pacing needs to move quickly through the lesson in order to address attention spans. For example, some research suggests students maintain focus for about fifteen minutes. To keep attention, try to plan you lesson in a manner where pacing is broken up between direct instruction (notes), guided practice, and individual task work. I aim for a shift in activity every fifteen to twenty minutes even if it is something as simple as a partnered shoulder discussion to process what we just went over or check a task we just completed. Try to have a coherent structure that is somewhat predictable overall but will keep students guessing about what you will have them do next.
If you are addressing attention spans appropriately, you are going to have to worry about differentiation for individual students who progress at different rates. One easy method for that is a “challenge” question or task an early-finisher can work on while the rest of the class works. This technique will also help with monitoring behavior, but you will have to find a way to keep students motivated to complete the challenge. Most students are not going to fall for the “This IS your job” or “You win by getting an education” argument. You’ll have to do better than that. One technique I have used to address that is by adding required independent reading in the class. Students are required to do SSR three days a week, and when they finish early they can work on that. During our grammar component, I copy a back side to the daily skill. Students who finish early can complete extra practice for one extra point a piece if the answer is correct. This may sound like a lot of extra points, but daily grammar practice is only 10% of the total student grade. A third idea I have used with early finishers is to assign a skill reinforcement packet based on the student’s individual weaknesses (from some data source to get parent and student support). Track this in your grade book as an extra grade opportunity, not extra credit.
While those ideas will help you with students finishing early, there are, inevitably, those who will work at a much slower pace than anticipated. This part was harder to learn to manage than dealing with the early finishers. Part of it was my fault because I was so desperate to see student mastery before moving on. Well, some of my students were in another class bragging about how they could intentionally fail a quiz or act like they did not know answers and I would go back over the same thing over and over, thereby decreasing the work they actually had to do. Hearing this was an eye-opener because it was true. When your students progress slowly, you really have to find out why to help them. For example, is he/she just a perfectionist? Is it a sick/sleepy child? Can he/she really do it? If not, where, exactly, is the dilemma happening? Rotating around the room can help you assess the situation better, but the bottom line is you have to figure out the problem and help the student reach mastery. Extending the deadline and talking with the student and parent both are good strategies.
Finally, pacing must be adaptable for the students within the class block. I can’t put to words how important this is because I am still working to master it. I’m much better at the end of the semester when I have better knowledge of my students, but the start of the semester is much like a guessing game because I need to be well-planned enough to scale back and reteach or skip ahead and move on at a second’s glance. To accommodate this need, start by breaking down the steps of any skill you plan to teach for the day. When I taught plot, I created slides for every single step – plot, character types, setting, components of various settings. Then, when I see students know setting, I just blow through it and tell them how smart they are as I pass through the slides. Typically, I am able to do this on drama and some persuasive devices as well. If the students know it, don’t be the teacher who reteaches it just because that is what was on the lesson plan.

So, pacing is tremendously important. So much so that I am still trying to work it out in my own class. Hopefully these ideas will be helpful to you or you can make additional suggestions for my classroom.

Now… back to reevaluating my pacing and planning my instructional delivery. The EOC is coming May 7.

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Ten Minutes Can Make or Break Instructional Delivery

The first ten minutes of class are vital to the success of the lesson. Students enter the room and prepare to start class while the teacher is doing a variety of “housekeeping” tasks designed to keep the documentation, behavior, and academics aligned toward success. So when you are planning for your own class, you really have to think about the first ten minutes.
For the semester, the students have grown accustomed to a very set structure: a Bell Ringer Focus, Lesson Overview, Recap, and then the actual lesson of the day. Today, I shuffled the structure.
When students enter, they know a few things:
1. The door is the point of no return.
2. When you enter, be seated and begin working.
3. Bell ringer work is intended to anchor your butt to the seat.
4. Attendance must be entered within the first fifteen minutes of class.
The change was actually rather simple, and it was a gentle introduction to what happens next. We start each day with a specific task, and previously it had been the Caught ‘Ya warm-up. (This GUM task, designed by Jane Bell Kiester, is similar to DOL except that is works by using paragraphs rather than sentences. Students do not know what to look for but must also master MLA formatting. BRILLIANT!) Now that the students have the structure mastered, I raised the bar by changing the bell ringer to be a grammar worksheet. Now, this is not designed to be the traditional boring thing I did when I was in school. Basically, I have a lovely worksheet from Prentice Hall which is divided into three parts. Students read the instruction (1) and complete section A (2) while I rotate. I’m looking at papers and trying to help students master the information with one-on-one teaching as needed. We go over these answers and either complete section B (3) or not based on class needs. After that mini lesson, we transition into the Caught ‘Ya where students are required to demonstrate further mastery of the grammar skill from the mini lesson. So what’s the point?
While the students are working on the Caught ‘Ya, I use this time to take attendance, hand out anything needing to be handed out, and talk to students individually. Students come in focused and stay focused. It sends an amazing message to the students.

As we close the learning cycle, those final ten minutes are a vital pulse check to help the teacher prepare for a successful day the next day. Students have learned some skill which will be built on tomorrow, so it is imperative the teacher knows where the students are in planning for the next steps of instruction. In the final few minutes, I use SCARE to help me end the lesson with focus.
S – Summarize. Teacher should summarize the learning. This might include asking students questions to require a personal reflection on the learn that occurred.
C – Connections. Either the teacher or the students should connect the day’s learning to some grand idea. Additionally, the teacher can use this time to connect the day’s learning to future learning.
A/R – Assess/Reflection. This would be an actual closure task such as an exit ticket. Usually, we use the Interactive Notebook for this, but some days we are not taking notes and we use an exit ticket of some sort. Ask students not only to show you they can master the objective but to reflect on how they feel about their own ability to have mastered the content. Place some accountability on them.
E – Evaluate. The teacher should look back over the student evidence as to whether or not the objective was mastered. By evaluating the student tasks, the teacher can adequately plan for instructional delivery tomorrow.

This week, I want to focus on making sure the students have mastered the structures of the opening ten minutes and work to refine my closure as we are working on writing the plot analysis essay from Begging for Change. Follow along and work on your openings and closures as well.

I welcome your feedback.

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Recapping and Review the Literature Strand

Academically, the mission for this week has been two fold: recap literature objectives and review typical EOC-styled testing stems. What did we do and how did we pull it off? Here’s a summary of the bundle. While this plan originally was to take three days, I felt I needed a fourth day to make sure the students had a very thorough understanding of the skills and the text itself in order to write the essay.

We started out by completion of the Common Core Story Preview. As I learn more about Common Core and compare that to the more specific objective we currently use, I feel like I need to stick with some combination of both. I also feel like I need to continue to try to find additional information and resources on implementing CC in terms of meshing the skills and developing the content to hit as much information as possible.

The lesson started with a Common Core Story Preview activity. By using this, I did not tell them what to expect or what would happen. Instead, I used a guiding worksheet and timer to have students preview the text and text features for characters, setting, conflict, and any other story information. I also provided some words from the text for students to use in making a 25-word GIST statement of their story prediction. Students then shared their predictions.

Next, I gave an introduction to Richard Connell. First, we looked at a photo of him with the dates he lived. I planned to have students judge him and tell me about his life based on his picture and the story preview in order to work on life skills, but given the time constraints I decided that would be too much of a side bar to entertain. Instead, I gave a bulleted list of facts and included the tidbit about use of the same set to film the original “MDG” and “King Kong” in studios in order to save money. I connected this information by showing a video clip of the island in the more recent “King Kong” to get students to visualize the text.

Our data shows we really need to work on vocabulary, so I have come up with a vocabulary strategy to try to help students see how to use context clues. I’ve noticed they know words when they hear them, but they may not be able figure them out just by looking at them. Basically, they look at the word and I have them raise hands if they know it. Someone says the word and we see who knows the right definition to the term. Next, we look at the sentences and make a prediction about the meaning. I have students give evidence and justify their thoughts using the sentence. Some sentences are not helpful, and I modeled using the previous or following sentence in those cases. Then, I show the real definition. While this takes a lot of time, I hope it will help the students be able to do this on their own on other texts as well as the EOC test.

Finally, we read the text and use a reading guide. I always have students track the story with a story guide which requires the page number on which the answer can be found or inferred. This helps hold them accountable for using the text to provide evidence from the text as well as acts as a resource for gathering information in the event we are going to write an essay on the text later. At first, they hated this. When the first essay rolls around, I know they will appreciate having those pages to go back and get quotes for the paper.

After reading, we discussed the story in terms of the plot. I had two versions of the story analysis form for the students. In an inclusion class, I had guiding questions through the plot map itself and we talked through each component of plot as we can to it in the text. At some parts, we would talk through it and I used questioning to help the students come to the correct answers. This was challenging because my goal was not to give them a single answer. All in all, I think I did much better than normal at this. One of the students called me out and said he was frustrated because other teachers will just give them the answers if they ask enough and I would not give in and give it to them. He said he hated me for this, but when I called his mother for a positive call that afternoon, she told me he told her about the situation and she respected my position on not giving answers.
In a standard class, I gave graphic organizers to guide the analysis of the Focus Five (plot, character, conflict, setting, and theme). I planned to have students complete this in stations with me rotating around to help the students, but they were incredibly confused over the vocabulary and style in which the text was written. This made analysis of the plot difficult for them. Instead, I redrafted the plan and took the plot component out of the stations. I modeled the expectations by completing one step for the character and setting sections. Students completed that much more successfully, and then we came together as a class to review those parts and work through the plot together. Then, students completed SWBS and Theme Statements individually as homework.

We did not have time to assess the story on Friday, so we will review the story, share our SWBS and Theme Statements, and then move into assessing the reading with an EOC-Style Reading Quiz next week. I designed the quiz using possible EOC-stem multiple choice questions. I will update this entry after giving the test, but I anticipate a much higher level of mastery of plot after this plan for reviewing the elements of plot the students were expected to have mastered in eighth grade. Of course, I will have lessons to recap these skills, but at least I now know where the students stand in these skills. Also, to get a writing diagnosis, I have created a CC writing assignment for the students to complete.

UPDATE UPON COMPLETION: Students did decently with analyzing the plot, setting, conflict, and characters of this text. I think all five key elements are sort of “in your face” with this example. I am interested to see what students know when looking at another text because the data from the testing was not as great as I had hoped. I have come to a few conclusions which will greatly affect my future testing: 1. students do not seem to know simple vocabulary; 2. students do not appear to be able to break down complex test questions. As we move on to the writing assessment, stick with our journey to academic excellence.

Now that I have updated what I did with this one, I will get back to planning for the rest of the story. Any suggestions?

Files/Resources from this entry:
1. MDG Bundle – Now available is the MDG Bundle at This is a huge file, but you can see what I did with it over the course of a week. Plus, the way it is set up, teachers can pick and choose which parts of the packet to use.

Motivating Students: Get them to give more.

Today students took a knowledge-based quiz over basic story elements. The majority of the class scored a perfect 100%. For those who did not, I called the parents and explained exactly what the test was and why anything less than 100% was unacceptable. Those students will retake a different version of the same test next week.

The point of this entry stems from the test. As lame as it sounds, I wanted to do something special for those who did well because, as most teachers can, I was able to predict who would not do well. Because other students were still testing, I quietly rotated through the room with my pen and drew a smiley face on the exposed hand of the students who scored 100%. They didn’t know what it was for, and I just gave them the silent signal when they looked at me confused. Now, you might be wondering how well this went over. First of all, a very wise colleague did this and I took it from her. It was not until I was telling another teacher about this that I gave writing on a student’s hand a second thought. I feel like I have established a solid reputation in the school, and I have had the siblings and cousins of many of these students before. Maybe that is why no one had a problem with it. In fact, the girls were waving their hands about to see the smile in the differerent light because it was — get this — a glitter pen. It was unreal how happy a tiny smiley face made them. I even caught a few of the guys smiling at it. Sure, some just ignored it. But it was worth it to those who felt it mattered.
Anyway, for students who scored a perfect 100%, I also gave their page a giant red stamp reading “100%”. YOU WOULD NOT BELIEVE HOW THESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS FREAKED OUT EXCITED OVER A STAMP! It was the same stamp in mostly the same place. They loved it. They even called me out when one of them noticed I put the stamp in the ink once and stamped two (sometimes three) pages and the ink was faded.

Eventually, the bell rang and students sat there asking about our text. Not a single student stood. I had eye contact. And it was just Tuesday I explained quickly (so as to avoid argumentation) that dismissal was by me and not the bell. I thanked the students for their effort and work, announced that I loved them already, and sent them on their way. It was then that it happened. I heard the one who was supposedly trouble say it: “She ain’t as bad as I thought. I like how she tries to make it fun.”

I have spent the first week trying to show them how awesome class can be, and as I reflected on class today, I wanted to take a moment to track those action steps.

First, I used a selection from “Roughing It” as a text to have the students explain to me why authority was needed. We used a consensus map to create our class wide definition of respect, all signing the document to make a large class poster to hang. Then, I gave very directed expectations for behavior and procedures for classroom actions. I explained the system of postivie and negative consequences. And I demonstrated consistency. When students goofed, I did not send them out. I gave them the look. I gave the hand signal. I spoke to them in the hall. And the one time I thought ot might go astray, I won by calmly whispering a simple sentence: “I respect you too much to address this in front of your classmates. Why don’t you stay after class.” You should try it.

After the set up and behavior aspect, I let them know I hear their opinions. I had each student complete a course evaluation exit ticket to describe actions they hoped I did and did not do, things they needed to do or not to both academically and behaviorally, and their favorite and least favorite type of activity in the classroom. That night, I took every single response and created a powerpoint listing every response to every question whether I thought it was fact or crap. I grouped similar responses on the slide and addressed student concerns in class the next day. There were some laughs and some exhasperated gasps (no, I will not let you get out of writing an essay or doing research), but there were no angry kids. One of the students thanked me for “caring” about their thoughts on how class should go and for explaining why I would not bend on some rules and expectations. You see, not only did I give my list of three key expectations, I gave a list of three non-negotiables. I also gave my three what’s-its for group work.

Key Expecatations:
1. Respect yourself.
2. Respect others.
3. Respect our community.

1. You will not interfere with the rights of another student’s education.
2. You will not interfere with the safety of anyone in the building.
3. You will not be disrespectful.

1. All students will be held accountable for individual and group work.
2. Grouping depends on you.
3. Fun depends on you.

During transitions of learning cycles, I have tried to use a variety of engaging activities. Because You see, when you start to recognize trend in student behavior, you can easily pick the moment to do any activity. I’m trying to rotate through with three primary types of brain break activities. Now, I use these activities to serve as the brain break as well as serving to teach students 21st century skills such as how to talk to each other respectfully, how to following increasingly complex directions upon request, and how to use social skills in the real world.
1. Class builders/Team builders. For these, we are doing a musical partner rotation with the good ‘ole fashioned “Stand Up, Hand Up, Pair Up” method. Students are then practicing the process of an assigned roles partner share guided by my verbal direction. We have learned a lot about each other during this activity. Since I have an odd number, I stepped in to be partners which was a nice change.
2. Physical activity brain breaks. This is something simple like having the students move hands in a very focused method to alter the brain activity for a moment and allow the students time to refocus. (Find some at These are great because they literally take less than a minute if you do an individual one, but the students are much more alert after doing it.
3. Video clips. Logic and communication are pretty important in our state, so I have used youtube to create a DVD of commericals I can use in class. Taking less than a minute each, we can quickly watch the video and identify persuasives devices, logical fallacies, and rhetoric on a daily basis. So far we have used funny commercials. In fact, I’m looking forward to the Superbowl so I can get my DVD for the rest of the semester.

During instruction, I have tried to include some form of creative thought or grouping activity in each lesson. This week we used cooperative learning to create Essential Vocabulary Trading Cards. To review the terms for the test I mentioned earlier, students worked with Clock Partners to pick their “best play” cards. After playing, students asked if we could do the same thing again some time. I’m not sure what type of grouping we will do next week to keep them interested as we transition into Writing Basics, our next unit. Any ideas?

Files/Resources Mentioned:
1. Clock Partners can be found at
2. The exit ticket survey task can be found at
3. Essential Vocabulary Trading Cards: Story Elements Edition can be found at
4. I’m working on finalizing a packet for PD on Grouping and Cooperative Learning. It’s in que.

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Starting Right: SEDRC

Each semester I try to think about five key components for success of the students: SEDRC.


With these five things always on the forefront of a teacher’s mind, the students will be set for success.

I think most teachers start the first week with a review and recap of the foundation skills of the course. In keeping with the practice, we started out with a review of plot, character, conflict, theme, and setting as well. To try to keep students interested, we started out with “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell. I identified the CC Standards and linked them to the SPIs of the lesson. To help the students see what we were doing, I showed them the standards and had them tell me which objectives looked more achievable. Every student in class felt the CC standards were “overwhelming” or “just too much” for a lesson, but when showing them the SPIs, the students had much more confidence they could do the task. It was an important lesson learned because even I can get frustrated at complex text segments and need to take a break before breaking them down into manageable segments. After all, have you tried mulling through PARCC’s Mondel Content Frameworks? I think the point of this is seeing the imperative breakdown of an objective into manageable chunks written in student-friendly terms.
How will I communicate my objectives?
On the board, I think I will track the day’s CC standard using “I can” statement posters. I created them, printed them in color, laminated them, and placed a magnet on the back so I could easily stick them to the board. Beside this 8×11, I will post my daily objective in the same formula since my days in North Carolina: “Through the study of (material) I will be able to (skill), and demonstrate understanding by (assessment piece).” Beneath this I will continue to post the agenda.
Considering the powerpoints, I will continue to put the CC standard and the SPI list for the day. This is a good practice as it provides the structure for the lesson and works as a solid “teaching transition” to review the objective when progressing through activities or learning cycles of the 100 minute block.
For closure, I will continue the teacher recap and summary of the skills combined with some form of exit ticket or closure task for the day’s lesson. I am really going to work to increase the effectiveness of this part of class because I have read research on the way the brain continues to work if given an unanswered, thought-provoking question.
Bottom line? Post them. Explain them. Connect them. Teach them. Track them. Assess them.

Setting the Expectations
Looking at the standards and the testing window scheduled for May, I feel a time crunch already. I want to spend time working on teaching my procedures and expectations, but I also want to get the students into the content as quickly as possible. I have tracked their data as far back as my system will let me go, and I have analyzed their pretesting data enough to have a pretty good idea of what we need to work on as a class and as individuals or small groups.
To establish the need for rules and expectations, I modeled reading of “Humpty Dumpty” and provided discussion questions as to the fate he suffered and what might have allowed a better outcome. I feel like this is too soon to give them a text and expect them to think critically at the level I desire, so for a “we do” or guided practice, we used a section of text from Mark Twain’s Roughing It to look at the need for authority, rules, procedures, and expectations, and consequences. Now, this seems odd, but the students at my urban school actually got into the story and wanted to read more than the short excerpt. This gave the opportunity to create a consensus map on respect. The class definition is “thinking about what you say or do before doing or saying it and questioning whether or not that would be tolerated if it happened to you.” Nice. For an explanation, our class agreed on, “The Golden Rule.” Even better. I have a feeling this is going to be a great semester.
Now, with all of this, we reviewed the three primary expectations and I gave a hand signal for each. I will be able to use that motion later to prompt behavior without saying a word. Basically, the saying it, “Respect yourself, others, and the community.” For the motions, “respect” occurs with both hands out and fingers crossed (R in sign language). Drop the cross and point thumbs to chest for “yourself”. Point to classmates with pointer finger to say “others”, and take both hands outward in a circle as in “community”. With these expectations, everything is included. As you probably read in my previous entry, prodecures come with a User’s Guide and we practice those procedures regularly.
A final note on the expectations… I used to think it was commonsense not to act a certain way or do certain things. I can remember being in public, raised so modestly myself, and being astonished by some behaviors, blurting out, “I is just commonsense not to do that!” My Grandma Dunlap, in her infinite wisdom, always taught me that commonsense was not so common nowadays. Once during a parent conference, the student zoned out. The parent picked up a pencil and threw it across the room and hit him in the head. While I thought not throwing pencils at faces was commonsense, this child had come to know this action as commonsense. And throughout my teaching career in multiple areas of incredibly low SES, I realized “classroom” behaviors really are not commonsense. As a result, I made it a point to spend a fair amount of time on teaching and practicing my expectations BEFORE I could consequence them. I also use the positive discipline structure, and I would recommend that to you as well.

Using Data
I know right now exactly where my students stand on past testing, the English I Benchmark I gave, and specific SPIs (skills). I have seen their projected scores for the EOC. What will I do? Show them. Next week, I am going to meet with each student to discuss their data and come up with a plan to help master all areas. My class has been approved to work on standards-based grading, and I am certain this will be most beneficial to the students if they understand their data. So how do you get the data?
Someone in your school has access to a ton of data. You can talk to guidance about looking at cumulative records. You can talk to an administrator about past testing scores. You can track what happens in your class and get your department to track across grade levels. And in Tennessee, we have TVAAS. So what I have learned about the data is ask for it and use it.

You know how if you like the person you are most apt to help them out but if you don’t like them you get that secret pleasure of watching them suffer? Well, students are the way. Think about the best teacher you ever had. You probably love that teacher because you connected on some level, even if it was just that you thought she was a giant jerk who always picked on you and it took years to see what she was talking about. So build those relationships. Show the students you care and you are a human being too. Be honest with them. Believe in them. Make them believe in each other.
Once again, I could go on and on about the importance of relationships and the strategies I use, but those will come in time.

Communication: Part 1
This goes back to the data. You know when you talk to someone who doesn’t really say a thing? That is sort of what data is to students and parents. If you take the time to find it, you need to share it with the parents and students – explaining exactly what is it, what is means, and what you can do to help it increase. And track it down as much as you can. Considering previous data, I track PLAN and EXPLORE tests, 8th grade TCAP scores in ELA areas. I look at their trend lines on TVAAS and see where they fell behind and what I can do to try to fix it. I look at TVASS projections for the English I EOC and use them to motivate me to do more to help the students master the objectives. During class, I break every teacher-created test question down by the standard and use standards-based grading. Then, I add the student mastery level to my data spreadsheets. At the start of the year and just prior to the actual EOCs, we take “Benchmark” tests. By going down to the skill on each test, you can actually encourage kids to do better. For example, if you score a 24% the first time and a 34% the next one, why try? You’re still failing. However, if you can break down the strands and know exactly what skill to work on, that overall percentage will increase. Also, an added bonus is that students will be able to see small gains in individual SPIs as a positive thing, not just give up over the feeling of never being good enough anyway. Finally, every single thing we do, I communicate that in terms of a percentage of 100 to the students even if I just enter it as 7/15 in the gradebook. Why? Because I drill “THE PROFICIENCY PERCENT” into their heads all year long. Every test.

Communication: Part 2
Outside of the data, you still have to communicate with parents. Call them to introduce yourself and tell them how excited you are about the year (even if you’re concerned on the first day). Pick a system and call a set number of parents a week for something nice. It will go far when you need the parent on your side when a research paper wasn’t turned in or a test is failed. Speaking of failing tests, call parents of students who fail a test with a positive twist on what you can send home to study and how much you think the child needs just a little more encouragement and confidence. Are students going to get the benefit of a solid education if they just apply themselves and do what you ask? Yes. But if you were not getting paid you probably would not come to work just because you knew you were doing what was right by helping out our future leaders. Think about how good it feels when someone helps you out or when you get some kind of recognition for all the work you do. Students need that too. Consider a monthly newsletter with important information about upcoming test or skills of the new unit. Why not print this on the back of a student progress report?
A couple of tools to try: – Awesome text messaging system for parents and students. Set up an account to remind students of deadlines or a bonus question of the day. Remind parents the end of the grading period is coming and all missing work must be turned in before the deadline. Your personal number is not revealed. – I can’t say enough. It is Facebook on steroids for education. I have found students are much more likely to text in homework on the bus on the way home when they act as mom or dad when they get home. Check it out.
A class web page – Many schools and districts have a server to help you, but there are also sources where you can get free or practically free sites.

Activites/Resources mentioned in this entry:
1. ELA 9-10 Common Core Bundle with Mastery Checklists and “I can” Statement Posters. This file is available at
2. Lesson for Expectations and Authority using “Roughing It” excerpt is available at

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First Day!

Today was a great day! I was very excited to get to see my students after a long break, and, though I was somewhat anxious about the new classroom dynamics, I was amazed at how the day went.
Typically, the first day in a class can be very boring – going over expectations and the like – but I really wanted to jazz it up for the students.
For Learning Cycle (LC) 1, students completed a Student Information Sheet and we went over the important items from the syllabus. In looking at the expectations, I had the students tell me what they thought my expectations for behavior and rules were before I told them. Every reasonable response earned a ticket and positive verbal praise. Students freaked out about how many rules I had, but they were surprised to see I only have three simple expectations: Respect yourself; Respect others; Respect our community. We then looked over a User’s Guide with if/then statements for procedural situations which might come up in class. The students seemed to appreciate the effort I took. One even commented that she liked having three plain rules and a “creative” User’s Guide.
For LC 2, we needed to work from the beginning to get the vocabulary terms mastered. In planning, we analyzed previous testing data and determined our students did not have the basic knowledge of academic vocabulary associated with English I. While other teachers used the flashcard template I used in the past, I wanted to do something a little more exciting with the students. After hours of work, I ended up with Essential Vocabulary Trading Cards: Basic Story Elements Edition. In short, this served as a multi-step review process in which students were assigned four terms to create a trading card about. Each student had the rubric, and for individual accountability the students were going to be scored on their cards. Then, they gathered in groups based on the words they were assigned in order to evaluate the cards and propose a “best play” card. Using the provided rubric, students then went back and tried to create the perfect “best play” to submit. The timing ran over on this so I will have to tweak my pacing for tomorrow, but I am going to collect the “best play” cards, review them, copy them, and distribute the copies to the groups. Groups will then have 3 minutes to prepare to present the trading cards and answer any questions the class might have. For an added kicker, I explained that I knew who would present which word but I was not sharing that until the presentation was called. They quickly realized it would be their task to make sure everyone in the group knew the trading cards well enough to present it since they did not know who would be called to present.

Files/Activities referenced in this blog:

1. Student Information Sheet. This can be found online at

2. User’s Guide. This can be found in two places. I have worked on it and tweaked it a little bit every year for several years. You can find it in my course syllabus (found at or in the Classroom Management Training Bundle (found at

3. Essential Vocabulary Trading Cards: Story Elements Edition. While I have uploaded the third version of this file, sometime tonight I will upload the most recent one with the tweaks from today’s implementation notes. This file will have the trading cards with terms, trading card template for you/students to list your own term, a generic lesson plan with directions, and the powerpoint file I used to model through the process and guide the completion of each step. This bundle can be found at