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These are to re-read, read, and organize: the binders need to be gutted and reorganized. Oh, sticky tabs and Sharpies: how I love thee.

I always have this summer break lag–it takes me a bit to realize it actually is break time, and not only relax, but reflect. And just not think at all.

Last summer I had everything planned out, and offered my time and expertise to go over the CCSS and come up with a menu of critical ones I knew our PLC should take a look at and consider for the common/formative/assessments. Well, that didn’t work, and that’s okay: the team decided to focus on one skill through the lens of one or two standards. Am I going to stop coming up with ideas? Did I learn my lesson? Nah. I can’t help myself. I love designing good curriculum.

Next year I’ve been tapped to construct Computer Essentials for 7th grade, and will be teaching only one class of 8th ELA. (Just can’t quit you, Humanities….). To say our students need the computer skills is an understatement. (I’ll post my ideas on that later.) In the meantime, this post serves as a pledge to myself to read: I have the trifecta of my summer: a hammock, sometimes blue sky, and time. My focus is to create a curriculum map that is more reflective of what ELA students are truly expected to know. The horizontal, silo-approach doesn’t work. I’m actually envisioning a circle map, updated, and global: a way to teach units that are connective and authentic, with a heavy dash of choice and design. Give me a week or two, and I’ll have something figured out.


Oh, and I need to add some new videos to the list:

What is one thing you taught more than one year, and feel it is a “must?”

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WIHWT: Taking Sides

Gustave Dore hercules

I wish I had written this: Taking Sides: Revolution or Oppression.

Our children’s fears indict us all.

Teaching critical thinking skills is not an option. It never was, but seemed to be kept for the elite or college-bound.

One cannot teach a skill in isolation. It cannot be a stand-alone, one-off concept. Skills must always ALWAYS be connected to a bigger understanding and knowledge building. Silo teaching “may help teachers, but does nothing to help students.” It’s imperative to make the distinction between the skill, its assessment, mastery and its application.

About three years ago many teachers collaborated to create a unit on water. Coincidentally, in Ainissa Ramirez’s article “Smashing Silos, water is also used as a cross-content topic: 

One question you might have is: “How do you apply these new ways of teaching to the standards?” There are many topics that can be taught by showing the interrelation and complexity of issues while still teaching the fundamentals and linking to the standards. A key topic in the 21st century is water. This is a challenge that our children will certainly have to face. The topic of water does not fall under just history, science, math, political science or economics — it falls under all of them. As recently as 2012, The Economist2 wrote a special report entirely on water. Why not prepare students now for problems with complexity?

But I cannot explain my abstract pedagogy to others sometimes. That I have the expertise, the volume of work — units, lessons, ideas, texts, etc. I don’t speak the same language, and it gets lost in translation.

But allow me to strive for clarity: skills are critical to teach. The direct instruction of teaching even the deceptively simple task of finding a central idea cannot be separated from content. But it is our job as ELA teachers to teach and assess the skill, and then by grace, goodwill, or sheer determination the other content area teachers will understand it’s not optional. 

Someone asked me a fantastic question today, and asked specifically what and how I teach ‘central idea.’ I have many lessons for this, but I couldn’t answer, because my instruction evolves with new information and learning all the time. It’s like trying to pinpoint the moment where a snake decided to become a skink.
oh hai der

After careful study and reading, my interpretation: 

Main Idea: topic.

Central Idea: topic and author’s purpose – thesis

Theme: complex, universal truth and exploration

Some suggest central idea is intended for informational text, while them is intended for literary works. Some even use these terms interchangeably, which makes teaching it difficult. 





Okay. I’m home now.

My apologies: the gravitas that this post demands slipped past me. It’s still summer, after all. I have one more week, kind of, sort of, but not really.

Here’s where I landed:

The work of a PLC is to focus, with laser intensity, a few things and teach them exceptionally well. Preferences and bias for instruction matter only in the instance of what do they do when they ‘get it’ and when they don’t. And it all matters. My life as a reader and writer serves my students well. It provides authenticity. Someone else’s choice of text is just that: their choice.

I cannot teach without the support and collaboration from other content areas. I cannot teach in isolation. The compelling urgency to make connections and allow for talk lightens the shadows and the burden.

A mentor said to me years ago that their grades can’t be more important to me than they are to them. I finally really understand that now. It’s not about ‘accountability’ or ‘responsibility’ –two words that are used as code for ‘lazy’ and ‘poverty problems.’

It is my job to make the learning important to one and all because it is their life.

Their life.

That’s the only side.


PS “Kick these instructional strategies to the curb.”


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Film Friday



What was the first movie you ever saw? What was the one that made you cry? Which one terrified you so much you nearly ran, or did run, out of the theatre, or kept the lights on all night? Films and books/texts are not in conflict with one another, they act as pillars on a strong brain and heart. Our instructional time is eroded by so many other agendas, however, that when we’re mentally drained, and the desire to just pop in a movie overwhelms us, our good admin remind us that students have plenty of time to guzzle large doses of media. So bear with me here: this isn’t about popping in Mulan when you have nothing else planned. (Although I absolve you: I love Mulan.) And I guess I can make a strong case for Lion King (Hamlet), Cinderella (good chance to explain about blended families and friction), the Little Mermaid and how tragic fairy tales Hans Christian Andersen wrote are sanitized by Disney, and why. I could go on. And we all know that seldom is the movie as good as the book. That’s because they’re different species from the same phylum. Those are grand discussions in and of themselves.

But this is about those little films that get us to understand themes. Ideas. Beliefs. Movements. I’ll try to post as many as I have collected here, but am sure to leave some out. If you find some good ones, please click on the post and add a comment.

Expanding Gender: Youth Out Front from Frameline Distribution on Vimeo.

Nuit Blanche from Arev Manoukian on Vimeo.

Descendants from Goro Fujita on Vimeo.

Pixar – One Man Band from Ricardo Pereira on Vimeo.

Toonocalypse from The 2D Workshop on Vimeo.

2016 OSCAR® Nominated Short Films – Live Action and select Animation from SHORTS HD on Vimeo.

The Boy with a Camera for a Face from Spencer Brown on Vimeo.

Lights Out – Who’s There Film Challenge (2013) from David F. Sandberg on Vimeo.

Parvati Saves the World, Act1 from Rattapallax on Vimeo.

Taking the Plunge from Taking The Plunge on Vimeo.


“The World Is As Big Or As Small As You Make It” | Sundance Institute from Sundance Institute on Vimeo.

Valley of Dolls from Fritz Schumann on Vimeo.

Confessions of an Idiom from Amanda Koh on Vimeo.

THE MONKEY’S PAW (2011) from Ricky Lewis Jr on Vimeo.

In the Beginning from Arthur Metcalf on Vimeo.

1982 from Gina Breslau on Vimeo.

Dust – Short film starring Alan Rickman & Jodie Whittaker from Jake Russell on Vimeo.

There’s a Man in the Woods from Jacob Streilein on Vimeo.

Ormie from Ormie Pig on Vimeo.

Heartless: The Story of the Tin Man from Whitestone Motion Pictures on Vimeo.

DreamGiver from Tyler Carter on Vimeo.

Mitología / Mythology from Rafita Films on Vimeo.

Short Film ‘The Black Hole’ from PHOTOPLAY FILMS on Vimeo.

Return of the Cicadas from motionkicker on Vimeo.

The Man Who Was Afraid of Falling from Joseph Wallace on Vimeo.

Slug Invasion from The Animation Workshop on Vimeo.

The Lost & Found Shop [film] from Caleb Slain on Vimeo.

Invention of Love (2010) – Animated Short Film from Bujang_Cadiak on Vimeo.

Chris Garneau – Dirty Night Clowns from ROCK*iT FiLMS on Vimeo.

VIVA LUCHA from Team Mighty on Vimeo.

Procrastination from Johnny Kelly on Vimeo.


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Write-It-Right Wednesday

Anything, and I mean anything, can be a writing prompt. While waiting for a friend the other day, this Pokestop popped up on my screen. What other amazing things/places are out there in the world I never saw before?

We are writers.

Writing serves my creative mania. In my classroom, historically, we write more than we read. Do I love books? Of course! Am I passionate and excited about passages, excerpts, themes, patterns, characters, and juicy plots? Naturally! But in my experience, if you truly want to a student, a person– to engage, spill their guts, bare their soul and express themselves, writing is it.

Write-It-Right Wednesdays are mini-lesson moments and writing workshop days. Mini lessons are those quick, here is a “thing you need to know” thing. Writing Workshop is a very different animal, and all I’ve learned is from my mentors Holly Stein and Kim Norton through the PSWP (part of the National Writing Project). The Puget Sound Writing Project is no longer, unfortunately, but Holly and Kim began a new venture, PSW Consortium.

Here is Writing Workshop:

  1. You write.
  2. Your students write.
  3. What do you write about? Whatever is on folks’ minds, part of the content, etc. Or what my friend Holly calls “Rule #10: write what you want.”
  4. Use images, news stories, personal anecdotes, objects, postcards, whatever.
  5. Writing is sacred time.
  6. If someone comes in the room to observe during this, they are asked to write, too.
  7. In small groups, each person takes a turn to read their writing. Nothing is in the listeners’ hands. Nothing.
  8. Second read: the listeners give feedback. Never, ever hand your writing over to someone else to read. Yes, it can get noisy. This is not about spelling or editing.
  9. The listeners take a few minutes to verbally give feedback, and hand over the feedback slips to the writer.
  10. The writer says “thank you.” That’s it. They can choose to take the listeners’ advice or not. This is important to teach in terms of preparing writers for criticism and to understand their own craft.


This is Holly’s Power Point. I hope she doesn’t mind me sharing it.

Writing Partner Feedback Sheet I have a format in Publisher where I put these two up on a page, and double-side photocopy. This document contains the essential information.

Two Writing Teachers


For the grammar lessons, I may try to use Grammarly in the classroom.

Here is an example from a student from a memoir unit:

7 feedback
This was from a modeling portion where I wrote the story, and students acted as my writing partner for feedback.

And for heaven’s sake, start a writing blog for your students:

Update: Two Writing Teachers wrote a great piece on Writing Workshop. Read and keep.

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Lay of the land…

Somewhere West of Here lies East of Awesome…


Update 7/21/15: Edutopia put together a comprehensive guide, too.

Over they years multiple “big projects” have been my honor to lead, collaborate, and work on: novel units, curriculum maps, and curriculum adoption to name a few. In an effort to help clarify the sometimes subtle differences between the terms, I’ve endeavored to set sail and navigate some of these stormy seas. This may be one pivotal reason why I continue to appreciate the culture of my district, because by and large it appreciates and, outwardly at least, respects qualified teachers to make flexible instructional decisions without being in a lock-step or canned curriculum. This flexibility and agency to steer instruction as needed is not without some peril, and requires a great deal of preparation and reflection. It’s work I love to do, and is my passion, and whether I’m the ‘captain’ or a dinghy rower, it’s all part of a greater armada.

Okay, enough with the sea metaphor. Onward!

So to help clarify some terms, and get us out of the rock and hard place discussion, here is the best guidance I can offer:

Curriculum Maps

They’re not called maps by mistake. Think of any great map: it doesn’t necessarily tell you where or why to go, but how to get there, and what you may encounter along the way. Consider the range or scope of maps, too: universal, global, to the smallest micro-view of any terrain. Maps have keys, legends, scales of time and distance, too. So do strong curriculum maps. My district is in the process of creating a new curriculum map/units of study guide. I conflate the two because they are using the term ‘units’ to contain a set of related standards and suggested texts.

If you are working in a group, here is a guideline of steps/phases.

Most curriculum maps are ‘larger views’ of units of study: create a curriculum map with the goal of taking each unit and then, like Russian nesting dolls, creating sub-maps of each unit. Curriculum maps that include: Title, Suggested Time, Big Idea, Essential Questions, Assessment/Performance Task, and Suggest Texts serve us well.

Note: I might include place for related media, too: short films, photographs or paintings, etc. This would carry these standards:

Analyze the extent to which a filmed or live production of a story or drama stays faithful to or departs from the text or script, evaluating the choices made by the director or actors.

Introduce a topic clearly, previewing what is to follow; organize ideas, concepts, and information into broader categories; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., charts, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.

Analyze the purpose of information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and evaluate the motives (e.g., social, commercial, political) behind its presentation.

When using your curriculum cartographical skills, my advice includes a hefty dose of flexibility and assessment strategies, and an intentional place/space for data collection. Strong curriculum maps include a variety of CCSS, hitting the big targets.


Novel Units

Novel Units may focus on one novel, but that one novel may be part of a larger text comparison unit, or an even larger Unit of Study (Journey of the Hero with leveled/varying interests texts, etc.) The novel unit may focus on one thematic enduring understanding, or again, take part in a larger scope. There is really only one unbreakable rule when teaching a novel unit, and that is to read the novel first. Creating anticipatory guides, pre and post assessments, create a space for literature response groups (small group instruction, Socratic seminars, book projects, individual and group work, potential vocabulary lessons, character development, literary terms, etc. all play a crucial role in novel unit creation. But most importantly: what are students going to walk away with from their time spent on this novel?

Caution: when you read novels with the purpose of teaching novels, it’s hard to put those wings back on the butterfly:

Professors also read, and think, symbolically. Everything is a symbol of something, it seems, until proven otherwise. We ask, Is this a metaphor? Is that an analogy? What does the thing over there signify? The kind of mind that works its way through undergraduate and then graduate classes in literature and criticism has a predisposition to see things as existing in themselves while simultaneously also representing something else. Grendel, the monster in the medieval epic Beowulf (eighth century a.d.), is an actual monster, but he can also symbolize (a) the hostility of the universe to human existence (a hostility that medieval Anglo-Saxons would have felt acutely) and (b) a darkness in human nature that only some higher aspect of ourselves (as symbolized by the title hero) can conquer. This predisposition to understand the world in symbolic terms is reinforced, of course, by years of training that encourages and rewards the symbolic imagination.

Foster, Thomas C. (2014-02-25). How to Read Literature Like a Professor Revised: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines . HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Units of Study

Though I am certain there are a legion of approaches to Units of Study design, please first consider McTighe and Wiggins’ Understanding by Design approach. They are to curriculum planning what Franklin, Watson and Crick are to our understanding of DNA. Units of Study can be defined in a few ways, but there are key characteristics: several dove-tailed lesson plans that serve the greater or essential question/enduring understanding, authentic and meaningful assessments, and resources. Whereas a novel unit is based on a lens of literature, and curriculum maps serve all content areas, units of study also can be modified for all content areas. The difference may be units of study do not necessarily constrict to a time frame. 

Problem Based Learning and Project Based Learning

There are multiple sources for PBL and PBL, and Maker-Space Learning. Project-Based Learning can include Problem based, but Problem-based is specifically a ‘real world’ issue with an applicable outcome. Maker-spaces allow us all to find flexibility and creativity within a physical dimension.

Project Based Learning Links:

NAE Grand Challenges

Problem Based Learning


89cf89a06f760f1ca7f2aa1fcfc4361aAn expert inthis conversation is John Spencer. I admit I was doing ‘maker spaces’ long before this term was coined, but I just called it blending art and literacy. (Learning how to make Japanese folded books is one of my favorites.) If you have a principal who is not fond of messes, this can be problematic, but I am grateful that the term “maker space” is in place now so those who don’t like to see chaos and mess can now be told it’s ‘research based.’ (Nothing like getting validation for the best practices you were doing anyway!)


Constructive and Deconstructive Approaches

Now underlying all of this is a soup of making meaning, engagement, and critical thinking skills.  I encourage during the process of creating any unit or map to consider constructivism, and deconstructivsim. During the assessment data analysis, if you see students are in the ‘I don’t get it’ spot still, have them pull the lesson apart. That’s when it is clearly time for the ‘teacher talk’ to cease, and approach the learning from a different view point.

Any other thoughts about the essential pieces of curriculum planning? Oh yes – my mentor’s superlative pearl of wisdom: ask how can things go wrong: try to anticipate those scenarios, and it should be relatively smooth sailing. And then be prepared for those teachable moments!

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