Category Archives: Ideas

Self-Paced Learning: Part One

My school system decided to go one-to-one this year and with middle school that means that each student receives a Lenova laptop computer. They are housed in the student’s homeroom and are used only at school.

With the availability of technology on a daily basis came a sense of responsibility to use it for a purpose. Before Fall Break this took the form of Nearpod presentations. I enjoyed the ability to get instant feedback from the entire class in the many forms that Nearpod offers – short answer, multiple-choice, drawing, finding an image, collaborative discussions, surveys, etc. A drawback was that students with poor keyboarding skills often needed more time and some checks for understandings might have been better executed with class discussion. By the end of the nine weeks, I was a bit burnt out and am sure my students were more burned out by the pattern of sameness even if I had different tasks for each lesson, so I searched for something else.

I found Blended Learning in Action by Caitlyn R. Tucker and The HyperDoc Handbook: Digital Lesson Design Using Google Apps by LIsa Highfill, Kelly Hilton, and Sarah Landis. With these resources I considered the idea of implementing hyperdocs, a phrase coined by Highfill, Hilton, and Landis. A hyperdoc is a self-paced lesson that includes opportunities for students to work through a variety of resources to master strategies and skills. Here is a link to one that I created soon after discovering this idea.

Teacher Karly Moura created a wonderful graphic that helps to understand the difference between a hyperdoc and a document with hyperlinks.

After helping students work through their first ones, I became more concerned about the format and did not believe that my walking around while students worked was the best use of my time. Upon reflection, I realized that this lesson format offered wonderful opportunities for meeting with small groups.

  • I use feedback from the hyperdoc tasks to pull in students who need more help.
  • I pull heterogenous groups together to introduce ideas like how to blog or writing techniques, for example, “show don’t tell” which are better presented in this way.

With my hyperdoc lessons I began to incorporate the 5 E’s – Engagement, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate. This seems to best correspond to the EDI model used by the school system. Here is my latest hyperdoc. I have also let up on things like deadlines trying to emphasize the “self-paced” aspect. The year is early but things seem to be looking up!

*** Here is a link to a repository for hyperdocs. ***

I am Thankful…..

This is my 27th year of teaching, so it was with great surprise to find myself working with a class filled with students who make instruction a challenge on a daily basis.

At first I tried to use the tools I have gathered over the many years of working with the hundreds of students who have been a part of my teaching journey. I have reflected, revised, talked to admin and mentors and occasionally resorted to assuming the fetal position under covers where I feel like an absolute failure.

Hyperbole aside, I am thankful because these students have forced me to really think about teaching and how I can best help the needs of my students. And for most part while many of the things I have implemented or revised have not been as successful as I would have liked with these students, they have definitely had a positive impact on my other classes.

So, I continue to read other’s blogs, find books with best practices, dialogue with peers, and be pragmatic. While I may never find the way to help this particular group of children, I have grown as an educator. Most of my classes are benefiting by this growth and for that I am thankful.

What is a “BE”?

“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.”

Yesterday, my grandson came over for dinner with his mother. With a few minutes to spare before eating, they decided to complete his Kindergarten homework for the night. Yes, that’s right, he had homework!!!! Despite his claim that he “didn’t like homework,” his mom persevered and it was completed – two sheets of handwriting practice (He had trouble with “baby m’s”) and several pages of sight words, to which I heard over and over the refrain, “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.” I wondered what was being done so that he would now them?????

At one point Jonas remarked that he wanted his letters to be perfect because he did not wish to receive a “BE.” His mom replied, “You want to get an OT, right?” I was thoroughly confused at this point. Well…. upon further examination of system documents, an “OT” is “on target” and a “BE’ is “below expectations.” There is also the chance of receiving an “AE” “approaching expectations.” This is part of standards-based grading that is the format of the primary report card in our school system.

I supposed the idea is that these terms help to clarify the expectations of each objective or as we call them “clear targets.” But despite the fancy new language, the implication is that an “OT” is the goal = “A” and a “BE” means not succeeding = “F.” Do we really need Kindergarteners to experience the stress of success that early????

I teach 8th grade students and an overwhelming concern is student apathy. Could this be a clue? How long does it take to expect students to perform at some human made standard until they tire of it and give up?

Coincidentally a colleague shared concerns over the multiple-choice common assessments required of our ELA students. Specifically how we are asking students to choose the BEST response as decided by central office staff. Their ideas do not always correlate with ours. My peer wondered how this prepares students for the real world when they will have to reason and write out their ideas versus taking a test.

Despite my musings, Jonas will still have to try to get those “baby m’s” and sight words to an “OT” level and I will have to continue to work at getting my students to proficiency (80% or above) on common assessments. Good luck real world problems!!!

Rethinking the Challenges

2016 was a challenging year. Living in a red state with a blue ideology was tough. Several Facebook purges incurred and I was grateful to my Twittersphere for showing me that not all believed as those around me and in fact they were downright scared as I was and am.

While it is discouraged to talk about controversial issues that didn’t stop my students from blogging and voiced their concerns in class discussions. I found that even when I didn’t agree with them, their ideas were carefully thought out and for that I was pleased.

I am in my 26th year of teaching and the stakes have never been higher. I feel like I am being asked to teach with one arm tied behind my back. Whenever I reach a goal, the powers that be throw a wrench into so that I am not sure I actually met the goal or they actually prevented it from being met.

So.. how does one go on to instruct and inspire? At this point I don’t have any other ideas except to take it one step at a time. BUT I vow that when I reflect  – this year I will look for those positive things that do happen and be grateful. I hope by focusing on the little things, the dread of future will lessen a bit.


It’s Good To Be Alive!

It’s August and I am feeling more like Andy Grammer and less like Twenty-One Pilots, at least for now. Students arrive tomorrow and I like the new – new classroom decorations, new plans, new people to get to know and help develop a passion for reading and writing.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t had my moments. Our school system micromanages more and more each year. This time it is grade books, common assessments, and advisories. BUT I am going to work hard to remember it is what I do that makes the difference and I want my students to learn more about the world through reading and writing. I want them to problem solve, which will help them to be more effective in whatever they choose to do.

So here’s to the final day to sit back and read for pleasure, enjoy a Netflix offering, or just generally relax. Onward to try to make a difference.


Data Driven Instruction = Stress

It is the middle of October and I have not posted one entry to this blog for the present school year. Why? Well that is not a simple answer.

I decided to make the change from full time Computer Literacy and part time ELA teacher to full time ELA. I moved out of a fully staffed computer lab to a classroom that has seen better days.

But I was able with some creative lighting and help from the custodial staff to build a cozy environment. I didn’t realize that I needed to accommodate up to 39 students in this traditional classroom.

I was asked to attend some NMSI training this summer that helped me to finally get a grasp on close reading and how I could dig deeper. In August I was excited and ready to greet my 8th grade ELA students.

While the admin welcomed us back with fanfare, it was soon apparent that things were changing. Poor test scores resulted in our system adopting a data driven approach to instruction. Teachers learned to create better tests to accompany the pre/post assessments that would be administered every three weeks. ELA plans to four modules with three units each. In addition to the multiple-choice tests, students must learn how to do the kind of writing assessed by Tennessee in February. That means writing assessments must be regular as well. In addition to these tests, students have taken the ACT EXPLORE test as well as a universal screener in ELA and Math for RTI placement.

Almost all of our weekly collaborative planning has been spent developing common clear targets, pre-assessments, and post assessments. While one teacher in our department was named facilitator, it is clear that the academic coach, who also attends these meetings, is really in charge.

I receive regular pop-in visits from the three building administrators, the academic coach, and the district middle school director. The feedback from these people has been minimal so I am not sure what they are there to observe.

My students are scoring no better nor worse than my peers and they are making progress but the scores are not high and parents are concerned. I have spent much time defending a practice I am not sure how to defend.

To say I am stressed is putting it mildly. My blood pressure has now reached the point where I refuse to take it. Just looking at the cuff of the machine raises my anxiety.

Despite all this I keep trying. I read anything that seems like it will offer a better way to help students  to read and write critically. I listen to my students, their parents, and my peers in person and online. I  still have hope when most days my twenty plus years of experience seem useless.

End of the School Year Reflection

Wow, I just looked and February was the last time I posted here. Preparing for state mandated assessments and the end of the year seemed to have filled my extra time.

I thought I’d reflect on some of the highs and the challenges of this school year.

I fully implemented the Common Core standards. There was some initial push back from students and their parents but as both began to see improvement that lessened. Tennessee has not initiated the PARCC assessment yet so this may prove to be a challenge in years to come.

The students and I worked hard to be ready to complete a Writing Assessment based on the new standards. While I was unable to see the prompt, they seemed pleased with the first writing but thought the second piece difficult. Today is the final day of school for teachers and writing scores have not yet arrived. The students also did not receive their quick scores for the state ELA assessment. I am discouraged for them as much as me. How do you rationalize spending so much time prepping for something that everyone seems to think is so important but be so cavalier about reporting results? To say the students were disappointed is an understatement.

The journey while challenging reinvigorated my teaching. I had to rethink the explicit teaching model and decided how to correlate it better toward things like a close reading lesson. That kind of deep reading takes time and I discovered that I can adapt the model but it will cover several sessions of instruction vs. a daily lesson.

I am also rethinking my choices for anchor books. I have two advanced classes next year and realized that they need more challenging material. I am looking for text complexity in ideas every bit as much as vocabulary and sentence structure.

When I made the move to middle school ten years ago, I was open to teaching anything. The principal was impressed with my background in computers and placed me in that position. It was soon very clear to her where my passion was (hint – not the work stations) and she encouraged me to integrate literacy skills wherever I could. Before long, I began to pick up overflow classes in ELA. I have tried hard to make this situation work. I truly believed I could not teach the way I wanted to unless I had the computers. All of that changed this year. I realized that none of what I thought was important mattered. What mattered was my students and helping them learn to become better readers and writers. So.. I am moving out of the lab to a full time 8th grade ELA position and couldn’t be happier. An added plus is my daughter coincidentally teaches at my school and will be right across the hall. We are giddy with all of the possibilities!

I am writing this from the airport, ready to fly to my vacation home in Italy. I hope to rest, eat good food, and investigate some new places. When I return it will be for numerous trainings and planning for the wonderful (and challenging) school year to come.

Word Clouds, Can They Help?


Word Clouds have been around for years. I have seen these visualizations used in various ways and enjoyed them but never applied the idea seriously to classroom use until this week.

I am working with my students to reduce the amount of passive verbs they use. Despite my modeling, sharing exemplars, and practice, “is” and “was” are their “go to” verbs. So when I gave feedback for the latest assignment I wondered if a picture really is worth a thousand words. I created word clouds for each student’s work using ABCYA Word Clouds for Kids. I chose this tool because it allows you to include common words.

Later as I was preparing the quickwrite for tomorrow I reflected on the question: Someone chose to call the book “Night.” Why do you think this name was selected? Please think first, go back to the book and look for text evidence, and then explain. Look beyond the obvious.

How can I get students to go beyond the obvious? Could word clouds of the text of the book help students?  I was lucky to find a .pdf file of the book and then chose Tagxedo to create the word cloud as it was able to handle the large amount of text.

The feedback has not been seen nor the quickwrite written but I am curious as to whether the addition of these visualization aids will demonstrate my expectations.

A final note: Looking at a word cloud of this post, I noticed some revision of word choice needed on my part.

Paraphrasing the Writing Assessment Rubric

If you have to create work for assessment, it helps to understand how it will be assessed. The TN Writing Assessment uses a rubric designed to complement the CCSS outcomes.

To prepare for this important test of student writing, I thought an examination of the rubric would help. The language of this document is “teacher speak,” often difficult for young learners to grasp its meaning. We performed a close reading of the rubric.

Because this is an advanced ELA class, we specifically focused on the Level Four expectation, the goal for each student. That did not mean the rest of the rubric was ignored but the goal of the lesson was to comprehend the expectations of the highest level of the rubric.

Step One: Read each category of the performance level four section and highlight the words you do not understand OR you believe the average student would not understand.

Step Two: Decide what the words means used in context and then look for a synonym of the word that is student friendly. Replace each of the words with the synonyms.

Step Three: Read each of the performance levels of the categories: Development, Focus/Organization, Language, and Conventions. Underline the words/phrases that changed as the level performances grew. Identify the key ideas of the each performance category.

Step Four: Paraphrase the Level Four expectations. Students worked in small groups with a place mat strategy to come up with the paraphrasing.

Step Five: I then put all of their ideas together and recreated a paraphrased Level Four Rubric. Students copied their ideas onto a new rubric grid.

Based on an idea from Crazy Lady Teacher,  I have implemented a weekly self-assessment based on the clear targets for the week. The following is a very thorough example of one’s student’s ideas.

SW 1








Preparing for the State Writing Assessment

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My ELA students will be taking the TCAP Writing Assessment the first week of February. In the past the prompts were rather silly and except for having students practice with past prompts, one hoped for the best.

Last year Tennessee provided its first CCSS based prompt. Students compared two pieces of nonfiction text. My preparation was minimal as that was the kind of writing they had done most of the year. They did quite well for a first attempt at this kind of writing assessment.

This year the assessment will be more rigorous. Students will have to write two essays. The first will be an analytical summary of a text and then some type of expository or argument prompt that analyzes the first text with a second text. Preparing students for a two-hour assessment is something to ponder.

Although, my students have been composing text-dependent writings all year I believe they needs some instruction on how to be successful on this assessment. Based on some suggestions from a fellow teacher who also happens to be my daughter, I am going to begin with these activities.

a. I have divided the rubric for the assessment into its sixteen parts. Students will be given one part and asked to find the three other sections that match their category and share out their observations.

b. Students will conduct a close reading of the language of the rubric, annotate unfamiliar words, locate the definitions of those words, and then paraphrase so that they understand better what is expected of them.

c. Students will conduct a close reading of a sample prompt and directions for writing an analytical summary, annotating for key ideas. I will ask several text-dependent questions so assess understanding.

What is the difference between a summary and an analytical summary?

What are central ideas?

What practices will prevent an adequate score?

What is the best way to cite the text?

d. Students will assess an exemplar of an analytical summary using the TCAP Writing rubric.

e. Students will write an analytical summary on how to write an analytical summary.


Of course these are just plans. I look forward to how it plays out.