Category Archives: Ideas

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

Screen Shot 2014-01-12 at 10.51.53 AM

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.






Getting Help From the Experts, NCTE 13: Argument Unit Part 5

Personal Photo
Personal Photo
The argument unit is in rough draft, very rough. I need more than the web resources I have found.
Knowing I was attending NCTE 13 in Boston this year, I put the unit away until the conference was over. This proved to be a wise decision.

NCTE is one of the best places to learn from the best on literacy topics and issues. I arranged my schedule so that I could attend several sessions on how to teach argument and it paid off!
The following are my notes. I came away with a new perspective and have rearranged some lessons, added new ones, and revised rest of the unit. I know more and feel that I am making some headway on a challenging topic.

Making Argument Matter: Teaching Argumentative Writing as Academic and Artistic Engagement by Jennifer VanDerHeide, Chris Moore, Andrea Vescelius, and Kim Leddy

  • Transformative Thinking (Moor and Vescelius):
    • Need to front load student thinking with belief systems: logic, Toumlin logic, tensions, audience, and counter-argument
    • Students believe what everyone else believes, It’s logical because its logical, So… this is the formula, right? Just give me the answer, you agree, right? Me, me, me!
    • Need reasoning NOT just reasons.
    • Beliefs about Argument
      • Conservation that enlists mature reasoning
      • Responsive because it is based in belief systems
      • Culturally relevant because it pushes use to think deeper
      • Risky because there are things at stake
      • A process that allows rooms for growth and development
      • Transformative because it has the power to change how we think about ourselves, each other, and the world
      • Not a formula – messy
      • Students think about argument in a vacuum, which leads to inability to apply argumentative strategies in a complex, real world writing
      • Create authentic learning situations that set up real world thinking, create ways to engage student to interact within a society of diverse perspectives
      • Create authentic argumentative situation that open doors to the world outside the classroom.
      • Outthink the other person – say to students to “win” their argument
      • Scaffolding:
        • Rosie/Elizabeth “The View” clip to show what argument isn’t
        • Warranting
          • Slip or Trip, Lunchroom Murder (Hillocks, Chapter 1)
          • Why Shouldn’t I put this Puppy in the Microwave?
          • Mr. Ms. ____ is the best teacher because…
          • Jefferson, “The Declaration of Independent”
  • Evidence and Backing
    • Judgments of Murder (Hillocks Chapter 6)
  • Rhetoric and Counterargument
    • Commercials and Counterargument
    • Staples, Black Men in Space
    • Life Boat Activity- begin discussing assignment in whole group, go to small group to reach consensus (coming to consensus is more important than winning), and then put groups together, complete with debriefing (unpack your thinking) and reflection in next less.
      • Because it’s made up it is safe and play.
      • Your own view is shaped by your personal experiences,
      • Complete with writing assignment.
      • Activity leads to students thinking beyond themselves to a worldly view.
      • The Results
        • By challenging what students believe to be true, we access their internal learning instead of surface learning
        • Instead of using Toumlin as a structure that contains ideas, students deploy Toumlin as a thinking process that accesses their abilities to craft logical arguments
        • Instead of rigidly written essays that are one sided, student explore multiple points of view.
        • Empower all learning by creating space for them to explore their beliefs to discus commonality with others and to use their global voice.
        • Transformative Viewing ( Mosaic
          • Students spend at least three hours in front of a screen each day – images are important
          • Understand how media affects awareness
          • Use fine art to look deeper into things “stop and smell the art.” Ex. Guernica
          • Visual Proficiency
            • Engagement with images demand critical thinking
            • Cultural relevant – examines our perspectives and the world that shapes them
            • Social relevant – encourages empathy
  • Initial responses to Art can produce many varied ideas.
  • Use Toumlin as a guide to examine art.
  • Creativity is a way of thinking.
  • How to “argue” a painting
    • What do you see? (Evidence) – students write down all of the things that are seen, facts, do for 5 minutes
    • What does it mean? (Claim) – discussion in small groups
    • Why do you say that? (Warrant)
    • Modern Art is good for argument of policy (Worth Every Penny by Barbara Krueger)
    • Argumentative Writing Instruction
      • Teaching students how to think; learning on the boarder of students’ comfort zones
      • Working with “data sets”
      • Learning about the process of argumentation before the terms
      • Teaching about warranting: a variety of belief systems
      • Teaching students to be confident in their own voices
      • Teaching Argument (Smith and Wilhelm) chapter on literature

Beyond Argument’s Sake: Teaching Students How to Deconstruct, Construct, and Deliver Academic Arguments by Courtnei Freeman, Andrea Gollnick, Lori Kixmiller, and Elizabeth Love,

  • Shift from persuasion and argument:
    • Create new focus on Vocabulary (Claim, evidence, warrant, and counterargument
    • Speaking and listening activities become equal players in the language arts curriculum
    • Inquiry leads to argument
    • Inverted argument construct: Evidence might drive claim (Hillock)
    • Evidence: Information you gather related to a topic
    • Warrants are the heart of the argument
      • Identifies the “So What?”
      • Explains why/how the evidence leads to the claim.
      • Position on the topic, debatable and defensible
      • Analyzing Claim, Evidence, and Counterargument
        • Important to critically read different forms of media
        • Examine both sides of the issue… Ask students to respond through informal writing: video clips, close reading of two articles – looking for evidence
        • Evaluate the evidence presented on both sides – graphic organizer
        • Debate: Philosophical Chairs
        • Shaping a Position: Coaching students to write an argument using graphic organizers and common structures
          • Examine data (the evidence)
          • Narrow down the claim – use the evidence to create a focused claim – graphic organizer
          • Prewriting: Organize the argument – graphic organizer
          • Scaffolding the paragraph – graphic organizer
          • Speaking and Listening
            • Would Your Rather? Support argument first and then suggest counterargument
            • The Argument Game
            • Triple Speak
            • Impromptu Speeches
            • Tag Team Debate

Using Technology and Project-Based Learning to Improve Classroom Talk and Argumentative Writing by Vanessa Astore, Nasia Smith, and Heather Staats,

  • Reasons for Revising Argument Unit
    • Lack of engagement with text
    • Reluctant to participate in discussion
    • Lack of evidence for argument
    • Failure to transfer knowledge from text to assignment
    • Selecting emotions over evidence
    • Argument in CCSS
      • Shift in writing from persuasive to argument
      • Previously allowed to use person opinion
      • Drawing on evidence
      • How can we harness conversation to improve argument writing?
      • Feature of informational text
        • Complex
        • Difficult vocab
        • Complicated text structures
        • Unfamiliar content
        • Problems for students
          • Meaning
          • Inferences
          • Central Ideas
          • Relevant evidence
          • Explaining evidence
          • Improbable arguments
          • Illogical rebuttals
          • Leading to limited textual evidence and plagiarized evidence
          • Step one of the Argument Writing Process: Socratic Seminar
            • Purpose allow student to discuss before writing to get ideas from each other
              • Pre-work
              • Inner Outer Circle
              • Observing each other to get feedback
              • Final written response
              • Reflection
  • Benefits
    • Holds students accountable
    • Safe place to voice ideas
    • Brainstorming
    • Learning from each other
    • Using evidence
    • Challenges reasoning
  • May be need for videotaping and reflection of whether the objectives are being met.
  • Use a prewriting Quickwrite to get started and finish with a post writing prompt.
  • Step Two Argument Writing Process: Project-Based Learning, First Attempt
    • Design Decisions:
      • Roles
        • Annotator – while everyone reads together, someone annotate
        • Drafter – composed paragraphs for analysis
        • Blogger – edited the paragraphs and created site.
        • Tech Tools: Blogging platform
  • Recipe for Engagement
    • Collaborative
    • Choice
    • Appropriate Rigor
    • Shared Ownership
  • Goals: Objective Students will be able to analyze complex text for
    • Claims
    • Evidence
    • Persuasive Techniques
    • Reliability and Validity
    • Created blogs that discuss analysis of the text and comment on each other’s blogs.
  • Step Two Argument Writing Process: Project-Based Learning, Second Attempt
    • Design Decisions:
      • Roles – none, worked together
      • Tech Tools: Google Presentation
  • Goals – Students will be able to analyze complex text for reliability and validity and create a multimedia presentation that discusses analyses and reliability of texts. (Limited the goals for project)
  • Tasks:
    • Choose between two text-related historical topics
    • Devise own subtopics/research question
    • Conduct research and collect information
    • Evaluate sources for reliability
    • Design own slides
    • Debrief on all slides – explained why they chose the evidence – explanation of reliability.
    • Present entire presentation to entire group via “jigsaw” (Each person from each group made of a group from an individual from the other groups)
    • Students provide reflections after presentation via Google Forms (credibility of presentation)
  • Classroom Talk as Digital Discussions (Collaborize Classroom)
    • Assigning groups based on ability
    • Students propose topics of discussion
    • Extend classroom discussion
    • Peer Review Assignment
    • Start or extend a Socratic seminar
    • Allow multiple means of responding: vote, true/false, open forum,
    • How Does All of This Translate to Argument Writing?
      • SS helped students get engaged
      • Notes/responses helped generate ideas to connect to text
      • Aided with objective tone and evidence
      • Helped with different perspectives and interpretations of texts
      • Helped clear up misconceptions
      • Brought more meaning to the text
      • Revised Focus
        • Focus on reasoning
        • Emphasis on meaning
        • Small tasks throughout the year
        • Time for faded scaffolding

Resources for Unit Planning: Argument Unit Part 4

Standards ✓

Summative Assessment ✓

Now it’s time to gather resources. Since I am somewhat of a hoarder when it comes to accumulating vast amounts of potentially useful materials, this can be a daunting task.

I have included a sampling of useful sites for me.


Web Resources:

Common Core Specific Web Resources:

Many of these are collaborative resources offered by teachers who are experiencing the transfer to Common Core. And while I use these resources regularly nothing replaces live collaboration. I am looking forward to NCTE 13 in Boston this week. Many of the leading experts in the field of teaching literacy will be there and I will be taking notes!