Saturday, January 18, 2014

Best of Secondary ELA

For those who may not know, I am a seller on  Since becoming a part of this community, I have been amazed at the number of fantastic resources offered for free or at very little cost.  I would like to take this opportunity to introduce you to some of the best high school English resources offered.  Enjoy!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Teaching to the Test

One of the biggest complaints that educators receive from society is “teaching to the test.”  With the government increasing the frequency in testing and raising the stakes for the students (making the results of standardized testing as part of their grade, for example), it is easy to see why parents are frustrated with the system (especially when they feel like their child is not prepared for such high-stakes exams).  And I have found that many educators are equally as frustrated, feeling like they can never teach what they would like to in the fashion they see fit because of having to prepare for the next assessment.  However, I do not necessarily disagree with the idea of teaching with the assessment in mind. 

There are not many professions in life that do not require some kind of certification.  And what is the purpose of these various certifications?  To demonstrate knowledge and retention of skills necessary to complete a job.  Testing is no different from that.  When I teach, I make sure that I am hitting the skills that I know my students will be tested on and I will let them know that these skills will be assessed in their standardized exams.  Yet I have never been accused of teaching to the test.  How is that possible?  I continue to teach the skill in an engaging way, catering to the needs and interests of my students.  Yes, I create summative assessments that model the standardized assessment that they will encounter at the end of the year.  Yes, I openly tell my students what to expect from the exam and often remind them of the skills they will be tested on, but I have never seen this as a road block in my creativity as a teacher. 

I have also found that the educator’s attitude toward a standardized test is often the attitude the student will adopt.  I see the test as an opportunity for my students to shine and I do my best to make my students feel this way about it, too.  I remind them that they are prepared and that they are completely capable of doing well, so all they have to do is relax and show how awesome they are (and if you have to resort to your old cheerleader ways, do not feel ashamed—I never do).  One of my colleagues encourages all of his students to wear the same color on the day of the test.  I love this idea and how it creates a sense of camaraderie.  Suddenly the test feels like a team effort and a bit like a game.  If a student goes into an exam with confidence, they will perform better.

I am not saying that it is a good idea to excessively test students just to show progress, but I do believe that the idea of teaching to the test has received a bad rap due to its misuse.  Teaching with the test in mind does not create bad teaching; it gives specific goals to help direct learning.  How the teacher chooses to deliver this content is up to them.    

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Few of My Favorite Things: Sparkle and Shine

It’s time for school again.  Some of us have already started back from winter break, while others are going back for the first time tomorrow, but regardless, we are all struggling with getting back into a routine (and not to mention the ridiculously cold weather that the east coast is currently experiencing).  Considering this, I figured we could all use a little sparkle in our day to make us feel fresh and put pep in our step.

Wishing all of you a happy and safe first full week back to school.  Stay warm and sparkle on!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Teaching Shakespeare: Keep It Exciting!

I can remember when I was in high school, I hated when the Shakespeare unit would roll around each year in English class, because I knew that I would be bored and confused for at least the next six weeks. And because I had such distaste for Shakespeare in high school, I avoided all Shakespearean courses in college (which I now sincerely regret).  Since becoming a teacher, however, I have really fallen in love with his plays and poetry.  How did that happen, you ask?  I’ve learned that in order to appreciate Shakespeare, you have to become interactive with his work.

I bet that if Shakespeare could see how some educators teach his work—students reading the play silently to themselves, heads down, desperately trying (or not trying) to keep their eyes open—he would be sincerely disappointed.  These are plays we are teaching, for goodness sake.  To not have students get up and act out the work is doing his masterpiece a sincere disservice.  When the Shakespeare unit rolls around in my class, I pull out all the stops: I move furniture around so that there is more room for a stage, I pull out props and some costumes, and I try to set the stage as best I can.  At the beginning of each class, I have a list of character names written on the board and ask for volunteers to read each character.  In order to make sure everyone participates, I set the guideline that each person in the class must read at least three times before the play is over (maybe more if it is a smaller class) and I keep track of it.  That way each student knows that they are going to have to read and they can choose the character they feel most comfortable with.  I have also found that students tend to cheer the more shy students on, which is a huge confidence boost for these kids.

Now, if you are looking for more of a cognitive challenge for your students, you could have them read more difficult scenes on their own and complete a formative assessment.  I like to give short chunks for them to read independently and then have them answer multiple choice questions written in the Quality Core style, which assesses their ability to both comprehend and analyze the passage, then the last question will ask for a written analysis of what they have read.  This is always challenging for them and gives them the opportunity to problem-solve on their own.  An example of this type of assessment can be found here.

Another fun activity I like to do with students when we start a new Shakespearean unit is for them to “insult” one another with Shakespearean words.  They have a lot of fun doing this in partners, and then I will allow each student to come up with an insult for me and then share.  This activity does not take long, but it will capture their attention and intrigue them to hear more of what this “Shakespeare dude” has to say.

These are just a few of the things I like to do to engage and challenge my students during a Shakespearean unit.  I’m sure that you all have some great ideas out there, so share the wealth!  What are some of your favorite Shakespeare lessons?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

My 2014 Teacher Resolution

Day to day, a high school teacher works very hard and receives very little gratitude.  We stay late to tutor students, we deal with behavioral issues both inside the classroom and out, and we sometimes get called names.  All of this began to weigh on me last semester.  I would come home feeling deflated and unable to stop thinking about work.  I felt like I wasn’t really making a difference.

But then the week before Christmas break, little bits of gratitude began to roll in.  My seniors’ scores in reading comprehension rose pretty dramatically (there are few things more satisfying than witnessing students feeling proud of themselves for improving, knowing you played a part in that).  Then came the student made cookies, candy, and brownies with little notes that thanked me for being their teacher.  By Christmas break, I had quite a stack of notes and gifts of thanks and well wishes piled on the corner of my desk.  As I placed them in my bag to take home, my heart felt full.

Going into the next semester, I resolve to take these good feelings with me.  And when I’m feeling low, I will read these notes from my students to remind myself what this job is really about: taking care of my students and making them feel special.

What is your teacher resolution for 2014?

Friday, December 27, 2013

A Few of My Favorite Things: Monograms

It is no secret that teachers love monograms.  After all, our names are a huge part of our identity in this career.  With Christmas money burning a hole in my pocket, I’ve been making a long list of pretty monogram items to spend it on.  Here are a few of my favorites:



Thursday, December 26, 2013

My Teacher Zen: How I Keep from Getting Burned Out

Those who are not in the business of education just don't understand how hard it is to be a teacher.  Sure, school may be dismissed mid-afternoon, but that does not mean that teachers are dismissed.  Most of us arrive to school well before 8:00 a.m. and do not leave until 5:00 p.m. or later.  Sure, we have a planning period, but it is spent grading, planning lessons, making copies, emailing, contacting parents, and in meetings (just to name a few of the tasks).  And during class time, we have to be completely on point, helping one student with their work while keeping an eye on several other students off task across the room.  In a school day, there is not a single moment of rest for a teacher, leaving us feeling drained by the final bell.  But for many of us, we still keep working when we come home, finishing up grading, lesson planning, writing letters of recommendation for students, or whatever else the bureaucracy demands we complete by a certain date.  Or, if there is not some kind of paperwork to complete, we come home and think about what still needs to be done at school or continue to worry about a student that we still haven't been able to reach.  The reality is that teaching can and will rule our entire lives if we let it.  And because of this, many teachers (usually of quality) become burned out after a few years and call it quits.  But I have found that there are some ways to approach these tasks so that this doesn't happen.

First, you have to leave school at school.  I teach 130 seniors and 50 sophomores, and I bring home grading maybe twice each school year.  How is this possible you ask?  I stay late at school.  I usually do not leave the building until 5:00 or 5:30, which is a little painful sometimes, but I am much more likely to get work done in an empty school building with Pandora playing softly in the background than I am seated in my comfortable chair at home with my adorable dog who is wanting to play.  And let's be real, when I'm watching television, I want to focus on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, not the pile of papers sitting in my lap.  Now, I realize that staying late at school is not possible for some teachers because of children or some other obligation, so maybe coming to school early would be a better option; you just have to figure out what works for your schedule.  But I promise, spending a little more time in the school building will make for a happier, more balanced life at home.

Also, let me let you in on a little secret: if you don't get that pile of papers graded before the end of the grading period, no one will know or care.  In my first year of teaching, I can remember working like a maniac, trying to get every little piece of work graded before the end of each grading period.  But then I finally realized that I am essentially my own boss in the classroom and that it was my own deadlines that I was trying to meet.  Since this revelation, I have given myself a bit of a break.  This is not to say that you should let work sit around for long periods of time, but if you've been working on a stack of essays and they still aren't done when it's time to go home on Friday, odds are they can wait until Monday to be finished.

Another thing I like to do is keep a running list of everything I need to do, from grading to planning to little menial tasks.  Each day at school, I tackle the next most important item on the list and focus on just that task until it is complete.  These lists keep me from forgetting what needs to be done and help me to prioritize.  Also, it feels awesome to cross things off.

Although teaching is time consuming, you have to remember to make yourself a priority.  If you are feeling run-down, it is hard to be your best self in the classroom and at home.  What are some things you do to keep your sanity during the school year?