Tag Archives: ELA

Oh, The Questions???

                                                         One of my latest hyperdocs focusing the use of Night.

I began implementing the use of hyperdocs as a way of utilizing our one-to-one computer initiative in a better way. For the most part I have been pleased with the progress my students have made in problem solving, communicating, and working independently but with these successes have come many questions.

  1. This is an ELA class; are the students reading enough?
  2. Despite the fact that I spend a large amount of time creating these resources, am I being left out of the instructional quotient too much?
  3. How can I achieve a balance of the use of hyperdocs and face-to-face explicit instruction?
  4. What about those students who just refuse to do the activities?

Well, here is where my thinking is today (note: It can change!). I have included multiple texts in a variety of genres in the hyperdocs. I have given tools to them that allow the text to be read aloud if necessary. I have created hyperdocs that work with online texts as well as the novels and books we use in class.

I have had students who complain that they don’t understand but I have included screencasts of me explaining material and strategies. I have pulled out small groups to go over areas of concern. I have moved students beside of me so I can quickly guide them to the next step.

The balance question is one that I really struggle with. I have been allowing the subject matter to dictate whether the students would be better served by a hyperdoc or face-to-face explicit instruction.

This has been an unusual year in that I have a high number of students who refuse to do classwork. For the most part I am allowing students to make poor choices. I have contacted and worked with each of their parents but when the parents themselves accept the regular “Fs” and do nothing to encourage students to complete the work, then I am not sure I have any way to counter this with a positive outcome.

I plan to continue to use hyperdocs as I  believe they are great way to implement problem solving and communication as well as creativity. BUT I will also continue to reflect and work to find ways to make instruction more effective.

One of my latest efforts. Elie in Auschwitz-26a7e1h

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.

Transitioning to Common Core

Image courtesy of http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy

I began the school year planning instruction using the Common Core State Standards instead of Tennessee’s. My thinking was that the ability to read and write critically would prepare a student for any type of assessment but more realistically give them strategies for the type of reading needed for authentic literacy situations.

Despite my meager knowledge of the subject at this point, I was amazed at the excitement I felt. Class conversations brought observations that eluded me. I didn’t have to spend an inordinate amount of time hunting for ways to make the learning motivating and meaningful.

But my time was spent on something tedious and that was helping the students to “unlearn” so many bad habits that well meaning instructors had instilled into my learners: a five paragraph response to any prompt, using such mundane phrases as “in my opinion,” and “in conclusion,” introducing the introduction, explaining the assignment rather than responding to it, and summarizing instead of forming a meaningful conclusion.

We rewrote (and when I say we, I mean all of us!) and returned to the same texts, offering new ideas, and sharing revisions. During a recent assignment, a student attached this comment, “Mrs. Shoulders, I now don’t use so much “I believe….” I always state my claim, and I don’t start off with I believe; thanks for teaching me that.”

The small steps are paying off; they (no I mean we) are starting to get it.


Help For Writing Workshop

It seems for some time every school year brings (for me) a new subject (s) and ways to teach it. I am working with an 8th grade ELA block this year that has expanded by twenty minutes. My first thought was – more time to have a writing workshop. And that has been the case but how to go about it?

I decided to consult the experts: Jeff Anderson and Kelly Gallagher. Not in person of course but through these books: Everyday Editing (Stenhouse Publishers, $20.00) and Mechanically Inclined (Stenhouse Publishers, $22.50) by Jeff, his latest – 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know (Stenhouse Publishers, $24.00) and Kelly’s Write Like This, Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling and Mentor Texts. (Stenhouse Publishers, $23.00) No, I do not own stock in Stenhouse; it is just coincidental that I use these publications.

I became aware of Jeff Anderson several years ago through a colleague, beginning with “Everyday Editing.” I was thrilled with the plethora of mentor sentences and Jeff’s concept of “inviting” students to notice and work with the embedded grammar skills.

When conducting mini-lessons on writing, I begin with these mentor sentences but model as well so the students see experts and their teacher trying to make sense of grammar and sentence structure. Although “Mechanically Inclined” was written first, I found it after I began using “Everyday Editing.” It includes concepts not covered in the other. In addition to the mentor sentences, Anderson discusses the rules of these devices and students’ misconceptions, offering ideas for visualization of abstract concepts, as well as scaffolding. Occasionally there are suggestions for extensions, writing a new piece, but when there isn’t I find he has left me feeling secure enough to come up with an idea on my own.

“10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know” is just that! Ideas like motivation, narrowing a topic, organization – all part of writer’s craft, are covered in one word topics: Motion, Models, and Focus are listed as the first three. One of Anderson’s strength’s in all of his books is dispelling the notion that students learn grammar and writing through rigid instruction and the use of workbooks, thus students are taught to view the writing process as a scientist would field explorations.

That concept is part of Gallagher’s “Write Like This, Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling and Mentor Texts.” Beginning with an enlightening discussion of the writing expected of potential California police officers, Gallagher stresses the importance of students realizing that writing is a real-world skill and should be presented in that light. Real world writing can be categorized into six ways: Express and Reflect, Inform and Explain, Evaluate and Judge, Inquire and Explore, Analyze and Interpret, and Take a Stand/Propose a Position. He demonstrates how to take a topic of interest and create potential writing prompts for these types of writing. It was quite easy for me to personalize it and create a model for the students. They in turn created their own organizer filled with a year’s worth of writing ideas on things that are motivating to them. Furthering the scientist analogy, Gallagher includes a table comparing the scientific method and how it looks in writing.

I have asked students to treat their writer’s notebooks in this way. They are places for the recording of observations, making inferences on grammar rules and application, or playing with words or sentence structure. Hopefully you can tell that my students are generating quite a bit of writing – this in addition to any writing done during standard’s based explicit instruction. It becomes easy for me to ask them to take a section of the writing to work with on any day.

While I have been doing some sort of writing workshop for over twenty years, I still feel like a newbie. I change “the how” and “the what” often but these two gentlemen have offered me resources to keep my students motivated and writing. I thank both of you!



Reflections On This School Year

This was my first year to have a schedule that included only 8th Grade ELA students. It didn’t hit me until last Monday, that things would be different. Eighth grade students leave for the summer and don’t return. It made their last day a bit more sentimental and from the hugs I got in return, I think they felt the same way.

I had the challenges and successes of the average teacher in this 21st century classroom. My class list favored boys therefore I like to say that I had students who “kept me on my toes.” While frustrating sometimes, I think I learned much more. Motivation, a sense of community, a hands-on approach, these things were equally important to teaching the standards.

In no particular order these are the things I found to be true.

  • Sometimes it’s OK to allow students to chew gum; it helps to dispel energy.
  • Everyone LOVES “The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton.
  • Trying to make grammar interesting is a challenge.
  • Pandora and Rhapsody are fairly inexpensive ways to bring all kinds of music into your classroom.
  • Even though you teach in a lab filled with eMacs, its fine to own and write in a paper journal.
  • Goodreads is a wonderful way to share a love of reading, what you are reading, and meet new friends.
  • 8th Graders LOVE to be read to. You MUST be an interesting reader though.
  • What looks like play may be actually wonderful work – see blog entry
  • I need the summer to read all the professional literature I have accumulated to try to undo the mistakes I made this year.

Off to my bed to read….

Choice Makes All the Difference

Silent Sustained Reading

Silent Sustained Reading

Recently I observed one of my 8th grade students heavily involved in the book, “Notes From A Totally Lame Vampire” (Aladdin, $12.99) by Tim Collins. After a year of working with this young man, I had never seen him that involved in any book. Two weeks later I had to remind him that the bell to go home had rung as he and another classmate were deep in a discussion of “Milkweed” by Jerry Spinelli. This is every teacher’s dream, to have students feel passionately about your curriculum.

Number one in my class is you have to read to become a reader. In order to read, you need books and time. I provide both BUT it would be pointless unless the readers had choice in their reading opportunities. Now here comes the tricky part – how do you provide that?

To me the answer is natural, make your classroom a haven for reading material but I used the word “tricky” because until I read “The Book Whisperer” (Josey-Bass, $22.99) by Donalyn Miller I had only known one other ELA teacher who did this seriously. Why?

  • Money
  • Time
  • Being a book expert

Let me address each one as I see it. Providing many copies of various different titles can be challenging but here are some ways to bring those tomes into your classroom.

  • Spend any class monies on books rather than supplies, games, consumables, etc.
  • Go to garage sales.
  • Ask parents to donate.
  • Take advantage of Scholastic warehouse sales.
  • Borrow from the library (school or public)
  • Buy from Amazon used books – many are a penny plus shipping of $3.99
  • Share with peers

Silent sustained reading MUST be an integral part of each day’s activities. How can one become better at something unless you do it. I assign reading for pleasure as homework each night but how do I really know that is being done? By integrating this so very important idea into the daily routine I see with my own eyes what and how my students read. Rethink your own day’s routines – do students really need to do morning work or daily oral anything?

Now here is the really scandalous part, being the book expert. I read everyday all kinds of titles, and am still not an expert on YA books BUT I don’t believe that I have to be. I need to set an example but do not need to read every book in my classroom. But you ask, how do I know that students have read the book? Provide assessments that demonstrate their knowledge of the book. I NEVER give a test on a book. I am presently reading for pleasure “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” by Steig Larsson and wouldn’t want to complete it if I knew a test was coming. I assess in multiple ways one of which is a book review. This allows students to share and persuade other readers to have a look at their book. Here are a few samples.

“Elephant Run is a great book, so far. Roland Smith did a great job on Sasquatch, Thunder Cave, and the I.Q. series, it’s no surprise Elephant Run would be great.”

“Have you ever wanted to hit that perfect home run? Have you ever wanted to have a summer job with a major league baseball team? Well for Brian these can possibly both come true only in the fascinating book The Batboy by Mike Lupica. …..I like this book because it shows you to never give up hope.”

Can you tell who read their book? As the teacher it is your job to introduce the classics like “The Outsiders” or “Night” but when it comes to independent reading, allow your students to read what suits them and I think you will be amazed with the results.