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Series: Teacher Tombs (the great purging)

Many teachers around the country are out for their unpaid, too-short summer break. We’re not. Due to snow days and very cautious safety folks, we’ll be in until the 27th of June.

And yes: we have half-day that day.

Now, assuming you’ll be back next year, and in these days that’s a mighty big ‘if’ for many educators, what do you purge, prioritize, or plan for? How do you manage your ideas for the next year?

Elena Aquilar posted: How to Make Planning for Next Year Fun

Cult reposted Caitlyn Tucker’s fantastic suggestions. Click link.

Since my last post about the things I hoard, I’ve given a lot of thought to the methods of my madness. Yes, there may be hoarding, for sure, but like the Great Repurposing of Vinyl CD Covers of ’17, hoarding isn’t all bad. It is the art of finding potential in an object. However, going on my 12th year of teaching, it’s time. Some things just don’t fit anymore or can be amended to suit. (I am never getting back in that wedding dress: it did its job, but no need to unbox that baby.)

Here are some tips to how I manage the “next year idea bucket list:”

  • Cute, functional and sturdy journals and good writing pens handy.
    • The trick? Make a “date” with your notebooks and clean and out and highlight key thoughts.
  • I use Evernote and am starting to use Things.
    • The trick? Go through and use consistently.
  • Reorganize digital files: just like when you’re going through your closet, do the same for files. It is time-consuming, but sketch out a plan of attack:
    • Writing
      • Sub-folders per lesson
        • Folder for Grammar, Punctuation, etc.
    • Student Samples
      • Sub-folders per lesson
    • Reading articles/pdfs
      • Sub-folders for genres
      • Sub-folder for graphic organizers like the What It Says document
    • PowerPoints and other media for flipped learning
    • Tried-and-True:
      • Annotation Lessons
      • Argumentative Unit
      • Burning Questions Unit
      • Journey of the Hero Unit
      • Salem Witch Trial Unit
      • Horror/Fear Factor Unit
      • Zombie Unit (needs work)
    • Listening/Speaking ideas
    • Engagement Ideas/Ice Breakers
    • General forms, contacts, etc.
    • District curriculum information
    • Teacher Evaluation information
  • Create a year map: highlight some pitfalls or plan for times of fatigue. Things always look a little weird in January, so put a random event on a calendar to brighten your day.
  • Organize a list of links and ideas from things saved on social media or bookmarked for later.

But one thing — one very important thing — I suggest to all of my colleagues and administrators, please read this:

Knowing where we’ve come from helps us avoid future disasters. Teachers tend to be organized, creative geniuses. Right? Yes! We are the original “makers” in our “spaces.” Keeping track of hundreds of souls is not for the weak. And like the lady said, “Let those teachers go home!”

Almost there.



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Series: Teacher Tombs (the great hoarding)

Capuchin Catacombs, Palermo, Italy, 1926

A colleague who’s new to the building is, above all, hilarious. I’m so glad he’s at our school and has the experience he does. We don’t get to chat as often as I’d like, as I’m teaching six out of six classes this year, and we don’t have common planning time. We do get to share ideas via social media, so before testing, I shared this image:

Hoarding #FTW!

Those purple things are repurposed CD vinyl holders; in my cupboards, nearly a full box of various colors waited patiently for CDs/DVDs that would never be made again. Our new laptops don’t have DVD players in them, and now the staff scrambles for the external CD player. (Technology is weird that way.) During testing, we’re not allowed to hold cell phones in a shoebox with sticky notes on them, as we’ve done in years past, due to the new admin’s rules. They don’t want to be liable for any cell phones that may be lost or damaged during testing. Makes sense, and just because losing or damaging a cell phone has never happened in our building doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t. Not a ‘hill I want to die on,” so to speak. But if students didn’t put their cell phones in their lockers, they must turn them off and place them face down on the desks/tables in front of them. Seeing how students’ addiction to their phones causes them subconscious touching and turning over of phones, I needed to have a means to thwart them just a bit more, hence the plastic sleeves.

He asked me if I felt some sense of grand vindication that my teacher-hoarding had paid off!?



All year I felt like I was standing on a treasure trove of accessible and important curriculum/instructional ideas that were just out of reach, this nagging feeling that the time and year were too fragmented or…something. I could never put my finger on it. (Maybe because I have mountains of data in Google Drives, OneDrives, Dropboxes, and external hard drives.) Where did the time go? Nailing down multiple approaches to student learning is like hanging an octopus on the wall. No one agrees where it should go, and doesn’t make the room look any better.

via GIPHY Power Points from the Past….

This year because of other instructional directions I didn’t spend as much time on thesis and argumentative writing as I should have. I needed help and support: help in terms of not how to teach it, but in terms of our whole PLC working on it.

But here are some links and goodies. They are based on information that is open to the public. Use if you want, change, alter, etc., feel free. Email me with questions. Right now I just need to focus on getting through the end of the year with students and make them feel like they’re reading for high school because I can tell many do not. I’m going to listen to my instincts about that one. I know how they’re feeling now: scared, anxious, excited, and ready to move on. What is in the past will only inform the future, but the present needs my focus.

Multiple-Source Essay Writing PowerPoint

Thesis Lesson: Brooklyn CUNY

Common Core Thesis Lesson link

How to Write a Good Thesis Statement



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Grades gone wild…

The Keys

Cult of Pedagogy turned my attention to this fantastic post by Arthur Chiaravalli, “Teachers Going Gradeless.” 

Gratitude for my PLN for helping me stay fresh, excited and wise: things have been tricky at my school recently, and while we’re on spring break I am determined to relax, dangit. Refresh, Renew. All that good stuff. People are worried about me (turns out middle school girls and boys think I’m crying when I am having a hot flash–thanks, menopause). I was beginning to get a little worried about myself: have I taught them enough? Is testing going to be okay? Will the boy who won’t allow me to help him be a better reader be okay? Will that girl who has given up on herself understand that we won’t give up on her?

Perhaps this may be the simple answer to those complex, emotional questions: as we strive to allow for our students to be independent, the most obvious path is the timeless practice of self-assessment. Their emotional responses to learned helplessness and inner-dialogue of shame may be cooled by simply allowing them the space that they are in more control than they believe. 

Things on teachers’ minds must be washed and dried before break ends–otherwise, it’s not a break. So just in the nick of time here are some ideas about having students self-assess. Chiaravelli draws from the great minds of pedagogy:

Drawing on the research of Ruth Butler, Dylan Wiliam, John Hattie, Daniel Pink, Carol Dweck, Alfie Kohn, Linda McNeil, Linda Mabry, Maja Wilson and countless others, we are teachers who are convinced that teaching and learning can be better when we grade less.

For some of us, the word gradeless means to grade less, that is, limiting the impact of grades within the context of current constraints. Some are just trying to get away from toxic assessment and grading practices, like assessments with no opportunity to redo or retake or zeroes on the mathematically disproportionate 100-point scale.

Okay, cool. I have always allowed for redos, and never marked things down for being late, etc. Okay. Instincts without research don’t mean anything – so he provides the research.

What my grading practices are now:
  1. Non-negotiable assignments:
    • Weekly Vocabulary worth 50 points
      • If they don’t turn it in, it goes in zero and missing in Skyward.
      • They have one to two weeks to turn it in and receive full points. I never mark down work simply for being late, and never have.
      • Positive: Once they see they are in control of their non-negotiables and have choice and flexibility,  they get in a routine of learning and diving into new words.
      • Negative: Students still don’t understand that the zero, which is horrible but the only way they and their parents pay attention or get a notification, can be easily remedied by doing the work. I will ask other students in the class who have turned things in late and subsequently turn them in, and their grade changes, to share that with the class. In addition, I still need to track students down.
  2. Grading every two weeks as required.
  3. Grading assessments (especially the Common Formative Assessments created by our ELA PLC 8th grade as ‘no count.’
How are they evolving:
  1. I created a unit/module in Canvas called “Top Ten Things” for ELA. Its intended purpose allows for student flexibility: if they are done with something, they can explore ten lessons in a ‘flipped’ way.
    • Positive: Students who seek them out enjoy doing them as “extra credit.”
    • Allows for self-exploration and questions– great opportunity for metacognition and independent work.
    • Negative: Students have been confused — understandable. These absolutely require my guidance, and that’s fine. Another issue is students requiring more guidance than time allows. After the break this is something I will address.
  2. Provided a ‘create your own rubric lesson’ in the fall: this is a concept I plan on bringing back this spring after the break.
  3. Allowing students to assess student work—now that there is student work to share based on current projects!
Next level:
  1. Paraphrasing and crafting metrics and rubrics based on CCSS, standardized assessments (from the OSPI/SBA)
  2. Crafting choice projects/burning questions metrics based on CCSS
  3. Crafting and self-assessing on both low stakes and high stakes assignments they create and produce.
  4. Continuing to provide curriculum maps to students — visible checklists to help guide them.
Clarifying goals:

The second finding comes from John Hattie (2012) whose synthesis of 800 meta-studies showed that student self-assessment/self-grading topped the list of educational interventions with the highest effect size. By teaching students how to accurately self-assess based on clear criteria, teachers empower them to become “self-regulated learners” able to monitor, regulate, and guide their own learning. The reason students never develop these traits is that our monopoly on assessment, feedback, and grading has trained students to adopt an attitude of total passivity in the learning process.


Let us all “grade less” so students can learn more. Just like in any creative pursuit, the linear qualities of rubrics do not have to constrain, but to guide.

PS Not sure where I found this:

This could be a good approach to student-created rubrics.
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The Work in Workshop…

Throwing this out there: I need a writing group. I need the accountability and presence of other ideas. I am wondering if my lack of writing with any regularity, except for this blog, is a result of no structure, the end of PSWP, and not finding another NWP. Writing Workshop works. It is an exceptional means to help students grow as readers and writers. I’ve tried to sell colleagues on it, and because they haven’t been to the mountaintop and met with gurus of enlightenment like my friends Holly Stein and Kim Norton, they don’t believe me.

So I just have to make sure it fits with my students, and keep proving it, time and again.

Our school is trying to do many things in a hurry to get students at grade level: PLC work is the big focus, and for math and ELA, the district provides rough ‘frameworks’ but at least for the ELA group, they’re never done, or if they are, there is a conflict or confusion between the PLC created Common Formative Assessments and the district created ones. These are not mutually exclusive, but nor does this jive with the spirit of a PLC, and that is to be agile and responsive to student needs in an intentional means. Assessments that might be best for students at one middle school in the district may not be what’s most needed for ours.

Along with the PLC work, the administration wants us to focus on our grading practices, and the discussion is open and collaborative. It has always been my personal policy not to mark things down for being ‘late.’ Convoluted systems and make-up work tangles up the process, so I make it simple: there is a due date, and the assignment will ‘close’ a week afterward. It’s marked zero and missing to affect grades because if it’s not, the student isn’t aware it’s missing. These are middle school kids, remember. Once it’s done, I give it full credit. If it’s an assignment that is rubric based, they have time to redo it for a better grade. Assessments for our PLC and district are scored accordingly, but marked as “no count.”

Recently Ethical ELA posted an article about flexibility and student learning:

Deadlines and “Late” Work: The Potential of the Provisional

The writer used my favorite quote that I use as my tagline, and this–this is a fantastic idea:

What will you do with your one precious life? They reflected on their values, dreamed about what, who, and where they wanted to be, took a career quiz, read biographies, explored opportunities in high school, looked into part-time jobs, explored colleges, searched apartments, created a budget, read about philanthropic options, developed mottos, wrote a speech to synthesize the research in the voice of their future self (see an example below), and created a slideshow with images to support the content (e.g., Slides, A Life as an Artist, also see below). I set up a schedule for three students to be “guest speakers” each Friday through January, February, and March.

I may start off with my ‘ambassador of the table’ and then move to the guest speaker idea.

Before the break, the well-laid plans included a quick version of Greek mythology, then onto Box of Destiny! Ah, well. Add three snow days, a studio teacher workshop for the ELA department, the ‘no immigrants’ protest day, things did not go as planned. Do they ever? So, instead of the full-blown BoD presentations, I asked them to focus on just the story of their character from first-person perspective. Developmentally, this shift is very difficult for some students, and that makes it all the more valuable. Many had their stories done, many had them started, and many couldn’t get out of the starting gate, with all the scaffolds available. We did a modified writing workshop protocol on Friday, and I took the papers home to write feedback for one and all. Between my hand-written and typed feedback in Canvas, I hope to see some growth for the next project.

Life is not linear, that’s for sure. Maybe that’s why whenever I watch a Marzano or other expert they always use a math example, not an ELA or social studies one, because reading, writing, and history are messy indeed. But that’s okay: I know other experts to draw from, including my own knowledge and experience. If you want to come to the mountaintop with me, I’ll take you there.

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Absolutely True Attempt at Journey of the Hero

Illustration by Ellen Forney Students decided she was one part of supernatural aid on advice.

Ah, the never-ending struggle, challenge, and balance with what has proven to work with what’s new.

Teaching Joseph Campbell’s Journey of the Hero structural pattern works — it works because students understand truly what plot is, they can apply it to multiple mediums, stories, and their own lives, and wait…no more needs to be said. They can apply it to their own lives.

Having to let go of my curriculum baby — you know that baby–the one you work on for months, craft, shape, support with standards and engaging lessons, scope-it, and sequence-it and tie it all up with a bow, and share it with the world, only to have the world think it’s slightly funny looking or outdated. Well, I still think this baby, the Journey of the Hero unit, has merit and value, so thought I would try something different a few years ago and ‘chunk the Hobbit.’ No, that’s not some new Lord of the Rings drinking game, but I broke down the Hobbit into bite-sized pieces for groups of three chapters each. It kind of worked, but kind of didn’t. (Recently, though, I had a sibling of one of my former students ask me on behalf of her sister if I was still teaching that — she loved it.)

We have a full class set of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, so this month I’ve devoted time to reading this extraordinary novel through the idea of the monomyth.


So far…it’s kind of working. I say kind of because there have been some obstacles, our own Road of Trials:

  • Too quick of an introduction of what JOTH is and entails
  • Jumped right into reading, and students not getting the message they need their books with them every day, to class and to home. They are allowed backpacks in my room so the carrying of a $15 paperback may be too much…but they have all gotten the message again.
  • We had two mornings of ice delays, so that threw off our schedule a bit.
  • Students are still not looking to Canvas for work, or at least the majority are not.
  • Students are still expressing too much “learned helplessness” (and it’s making me a little crazy). In fact, I gave students their first quote as scaffolding and one student stopped dead in her thinking tracks and said “I don’t get it” and then kept talking over me when I said let’s work this out. So now I need to go back and teach a lesson on what ‘central idea’ is. Never again will I not have multiple lessons on the basics at the beginning of the year. 

Here is what is starting to work:

We walked through the first three sections together, scaffolded and intentional:

Smartnotebook file (which I can’t embed here, but if you need it email me or contact me in the comments)

JOTH Reader Response Tracker

After we worked on it by hand, this weekend I’ve given them a scaffolded digital version that displays the work they’ve come up with : JOTH Part Time Indian Support

Laura Randazzo’s Prezi:

So we’ll see. We’re on our own journey through the novel, trying my best to allow them to discover what they think and find. I’ll keep you posted.


PS It’s not an accident that Penelope is named Penelope. Think about it.

Google Docs Links:

Journey of the Hero Support Doc

Journey of the Hero PowerPoint

Archetypes PowerPoint




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