Thursday, July 31, 2014

Smash Books

This year one of my biggest changes will be the implementation of interactive student notebooks. For those of you unfamiliar with this, the ISN is a classroom tool that is used for recording classroom notes, but it is also used to help students process new information. The idea is that it encourages students to be creative, independent thinkers while they practice new class skills.

My ultimate goal for our interactive notebooks is that the students will see them as a valuable reference guide and a tool they can use to be successful in English class.

I think calling them "interactive student notebooks" is a bit cumbersome, and I kind of thought that "ISN" was just another acronym to deal with (and God knows we don't have enough of those in education), so I've nicknamed our notebooks "Smash Books" named for these books used for storing mementos and ideas. I want my students' Smash Books to be both extremely useful and personalized.

I want to clarify that very few (if any) of these ideas are new or my own. I've done a LOT of research this summer and I've found loads of amazing resources online. Pinterest is amazing. One of my greatest resources was Sarah over at Everybody is a Genius so a lot of the ideas I'm implementing (and quite a bit of the wording!) are from her site.

What materials are we using for our Smash Books?
Each student is being asked to supply a composition book. I like these instead of spiral bound notebooks because I think they'll last a lot longer. They're hardier. There is a bit of a drawback in using the comp book because they are smaller than standard paper, so I'm having to learn some tricks to resize printables that I want in the Smash Book. More on that later.

To encourage the creativity of the Smash Book, I've brought some class supplies to the table. Remember these cute little bins I talked about briefly in yesterday's post?

Each pod's supplies bin is geared specifically towards maintaining the Smash Book. Each bin contains:

  • scissors (hopefully I'll obtain enough for each person at a pod eventually)
  • glue sticks
  • tape (which we'll probably use more than the glue)
  • a mini-stapler with extra staples
  • a couple of regular pencils
  • highlighters in multiple colors
  • colored pencils
  • fine-tipped markers
  • a ruler
  • a calculator (crazy how often we need these in English class)
  • hand sanitizer because germs
Each pod also has a larger empty bin under the desks for collecting scrap paper for recycling.

How are we using our Smash Books?
The Smash Book will be used for recording our regular classroom notes, but it will also be used to practice skills and work with new information.

For example, one of my early lessons is about how to annotate text while reading. The students will be putting a foldable on the left side that is a chart of annotation symbols, so that is new information. Then they will get a print-out of my Writer's Workshop guidelines to stick on the right side and they will annotate that text while reading it to practice the skill. Left side = reference. Right side = practice. I have a larger version of the above picture hanging in a prominent place in my classroom so the kids can reference back to it early on while we're still getting used to these notebooks.

How do we set up our Smash Books?
During the first full week of school (which I am totally calling "Boot Camp," a term I brazenly stole from Sarah at Kovescence of the Mind) we will be dedicating some time to getting to know our Smash Books. The basic set-up is pretty much identical to what Sarah from Everybody is a Genius does.

  • First page = title page with the student's name, my name beneath that, followed by the class, the period, and the date we began the book (08/11 this year). (Bonus: this is the heading for all of the papers they turn in for my class because it's MLA so they will even be able to use the title page as a reference.)
  • The next four pages = the table of contents. Students will keep track of the topics and the page #. Again, it's supposed to be a reference item!
  • The next six pages = Words Worth Knowning. These are new words we learn that we will actually use throughout the entire school year. (Not to be confused with vocab terms that we learn long enough to pass a test and then blow off... gah...)
  • Inside of the back cover = another reference place. The students will glue in their Depth of Knowledge word chart and their writing rubric.
  • Last two pages = grade record sheets. With my new grading system, I want students to keep track of how they are doing on each skill they learn. They will record those there.
After the Words Worth Knowing section is when the actual page numbers and content begin.

So, that's pretty much where I'm at with our Smash Books right now. I'm really excited to give these a try!

What's your note-keeping method in class?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Classroom Tour 2014 and Changes in A104

If you've been around this blog for a while or if you've checked out my 2013 and 2012 Classroom Tours, you may notice an immediate difference in my room.

I've always been a "desks in rows" kind of teacher and now... well, definitely not rows! I've been calling them pods. There are currently four pods of six students and two pods of five students, though rumor has it my largest class (34!) is continuing to grow (!!) and I'm going to have to try to stuff at least one more desk in here (!!!) if not more!!!! (I hope the grave misuse of exclamation points accurately conveys my freaking-outness over these class sizes.)

Ah, yes, change is in the air in Room A104. It may be because my personality profile (according to the work of Jung and Briggs Meyers) identifies me as an INFJ so I feel a constant need to reflect and perfect. It may also be a little bit of nesting instinct thanks to being 25 weeks pregnant. Either way, I've gone hog-wild and decided to make several changes to my room, my curriculum, my class organization, and my grading policies.

Today is just a room tour (with a few sneak peeks at some of my changes I'm making) but I hope to elaborate on some of these changes over the next week or so before I return to school.

So, here are a few more full-room views, from my classroom door.

Here's a closer look at my bulletin board by the door.

1. Consequences List - I keep a list posted of the positive and negative consequences that follow choices made in my classroom. After a conversation with a student at the end of last school year, I realized that I do a really good job following through with the negative consequences and a LOUSY job with the positive ones (a.k.a. "rewards") and that made me fell like a total asshat, so that lead to one of my changes I'm making this year.

2. Classroom Procedures - I keep my classroom procedures posted all year too. A few people have asked about those, so I posted my own classroom procedures and consequences for your viewing pleasure.

3. Lanyard with Rosters - I found this idea somewhere over the summer and for the life of me I can't recall where, but it's a damn good idea. I printed off my class rosters, clipped them to the lanyard, and hung it up by my classroom door. Now, in the event of a fire drill, I can just grab the lanyard on the way out the door instead of hunting for my seating charts.

4. Class Rewards Card Poster - my solution to the positive consequences issue. Students will be issued rewards cards (just like you get at mall stores and gas stations). 10 punches = 1 filled card = incentives. Punches will not necessarily be easy to earn, though. I don't want them working only for incentives. I want the incentives to be a bonus. More details at a later date.

5. Skills Grading Rubric - part of my new grading plan that I was mulling over in this post. I took the idea and most of the wording from here at the Everybody Is a Genius blog. That chick is awesome and has inspired me greatly this summer. Check her out and give her some internet love!

Here are some more pictures of the same old thing, just updated labels. (My old ones were looking a little rough around the edges.)

My board calendar I love so well! I had to ditch the ribbon because it didn't stick well and it goes really fugly as the year went ont.

Homework grid

Homework trays, absent binder, book suggestions binder, paper storage...
Oh, see those pencil pouches in front of the absent binder? I finally put together some storage for the mini-whiteboard fake-whiteboards-that-are-actually-white-cardstock-sheets-stuck-in-a-paper-condom supplies.

Some new bins for handouts, right by the door.

New this year. This wall is doing double-duty as an early finishers wall and a supporting assignments wall.

This is the bin of supplies at each pod. The supplies bins (and the pod seating) found their way into my classroom with the decision to try doing interactive notebooks this year (which I am fondly referring to as Smash Books).

So, that's my room this year! Lots of changes. Are you making any changes to your room this year? Tell us about it in the comments below. I love hearing other teachers' ideas!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The 2014-2015 Calendar Pack is Here!

I've completed the FREE 2014-2015 calendar pack for your Sanity Saver (or however you choose to use it)!

This time around, I have both a PDF file and a Word document available in my account.

  • Easy to use! Just download and print!
  • No need to download any fonts.
  • Cannot be edited.
  • Created in Microsoft Word 2013, so it may look funky (or not show up at all) in other versions of Microsoft Word.
  • You will need to download the free font Rolina for it to look right (available here)
  • You can edit this version. (NOTE: please do not remove my copyright notice from the footer.)
As always, all of my free templates are available to you! Just click the tab at the top of the website that says FREE TEMPLATES FOR YOU to access them.

Happy Planning!

My Grading Philosophy and Trying Something Different

If there is one area of my teaching procedures that has been most contested (by parents), it is definitely my grading philosophy, particularly my use of weighted grades vs. total points grading. (That links to a really excellent article on the topic.)

During my first year of teaching I taught at a school where each department was meant to follow the same grading policy (a good idea, I think), so we managed this by using a weighted system. I no longer remember the percentages, but basically in all of our general English classes, you could count on tests being worth X% of your grade, homework worth Y%, and so on. It didn't matter if you gave a five-point test or a fifty-point test; as long as it was still categorized as a "test" in your grade book, it tied into the X%.

This is a system I have always liked and I continued using it when I switched schools (where it is currently not mandated that our department members grade the same way), despite the fact that very few teachers in our building use a weighted grade system.

This was my breakdown for the 2013-2014 school year.
Tests - 50%
Writer's Workshop - 25%
Homework - 15%
Quizzes - 10%

Pros to this setup:
  • I'm a firm believer that the student's grade is supposed to reflect mastery of the content, and tests are meant to assess for mastery. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to me that a large portion (half, in this case) of the class grade be assessment-based.
  • The percentages reflect the effort on the part of the student. Tests require the most effort, so they carry the greatest weight. Writer's Workshop (including all essay drafts, research skills, etc.) requires lots of time, effort, and mastery of skills that are tricky to assess on a standard test, so it was worth the second largest chunk of points. Homework and quizzes require less effort on the part of the student and, to me, are meant to be formative assessments rather than summative, so I didn't want them to tank a student's grade, but I wanted them to pack enough punch that the students took them seriously.
  • Weighting is very flexible. I don't necessarily have to promise 500 test points a quarter (out of a potential 1000 points, so I still have my "weighting"), with each test being worth 100 points. If I need to throw in another summative assessment, I can. If the test should really only be worth 80 points, no big deal. They are all still worth 50% of the student's grade.
  • My grade book software does the math work for me, so I don't really have to think too much about how many points something is worth. (How to properly assign points is definitely a topic for another post... I'm pretty opinionated on that too!)
Cons to this setup:
  • Sometimes you have a quarter that is really heavy on one particular category and really light on another. For example, when my students do their research papers, they get tons of grades in the book categorized as Writer's Workshop grades (25%) but very few categorized as Homework (15%). So if I goof up and only give them one or two Homework assignments, and they goof up and do poorly on those one or two assignments, that has a 15% impact on their grade. This can be problematic.
  • Students (and often their parents) just. Don't. Get it. They often struggle with figuring out why that one zero in the grade book had such a nasty impact on their grade or why a twenty point test is more relevant than a twenty point homework assignment.
[Honestly, those are the only two (albeit major) cons that I've thus far found with this setup.]

As much as I really like how well weighted grades work for me, I recognize that they sometimes don't work for my students and their parents. I'm nothing if not open-minded [in my humble opinion of myself ;) ] so this year I'm willing to try something different. I'm toying with the idea of a total points/standards-based hybrid.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the idea, here's a great article on standards-based grading.

I like a lot of the ideas that go along with standards-based grading, but I'm not ready to go all in yet (and I'm quite certain my not-so-progressive corporation wouldn't be wild about it either). That's why I'm trying a hybrid this year to see how it goes. It's definitely a big experiment. I'm still in the process of designing this, so bear with me. These are some of my ideas.
  • Use a total points system. No weighted system. Help students to keep track of their points in class so it is very clear to them why they have the grade they have. Student data-tracking works great in parent-teacher conferences.
  • Use a list of quarterly standards to guide my teaching (as always). Break those standards into student-friendly objectives (as always).
  • Create formative assessments (homework assignments, exit slips, etc.) for each objective. Make each one of these work W points. (Like, 10 points, and use this 10-point scale to show mastery of the objective.)
  • Create formative assessments (quizzes) to assess groups of learned objectives. Make each one of these worth X points.
  • Create large summative assessments for each standard. Make each worth Y points.
  • Using the standards list, create a quarterly pre-test and post test that tests all standards. Make this worth Z points.
If I do this right, I should be able to come up with a total number of points available for each quarter and it should still technically be "weighted" without all the weird percentages. I feel like this system would also cut back on any kind of "trivial" grades and make the grade all about content mastery.

What do you guys think? Any tips to improve on this idea? Think it will crash and burn? What are your grading philosophies?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014


During my absence, I received tons of wonderful emails, comments, and questions! I wanted to take the time to address some of those questions in one post.

Would you be willing to share a copy of your procedures? As a new teacher I am still learning how to be very specific. :) –Mitchell and Lyndee McKay
I’m in the process of putting together a post on this one, and it will include my own classroom procedures. Stay tuned!

What font are you using (here)? I MUST add it to my collection! –sewgirly
It’s called Rolina and it is available FOR FREE from! (Since I use it SO frequently, I did donate to the creator.) You can find it here.

Can I have a copy of your template for the Absent Binder/Sanity Saver/Yellow Sheet/etc.?
All of my FREE templates are available to you! There is a link on the right sidebar that says LOOKING FOR FREE TEMPLATES? Click that image and it will take you to my account where you can get all that stuff! If you are looking for something more colorful or that uses funky fonts, you can check out my Teachers Pay Teachers store. I recommend the To-Do lists! I use them EVERY SINGLE DAY.

Thanks so much for sharing your creativity with us! I used your calendar and lesson plan templates all year and absolutely LOVED THEM!! I thought I downloaded the calendar in a Word format so I could make it into a 2014-2015 calendar for this year but nope… :( Do you have a file available in a Word doc so I can rework it?? Thanks! –Lisa
My 2013-2014 calendar pack was only available as a PDF because formatting it just right is tricky and I figured a PDF was just simpler for those who would rather be able to just print. I will be uploading the 2014-2015 calendar pack very soon and I will include an editable Word document as well this time. :)

Stephanie, I wondered if you have new comments about how you taught vocabulary last year. How did it turn out? Did it achieve what you thought? –Tammy Trusty
Oh vocabulary, thou art as loathsome as a toad! I would say I made progress on the vocabulary front, but I have yet to achieve my goal of vocab lessons that are not tedious, boring, and useless. There’s a post coming soon about this!

Do students have to make up bell ringers? –Sub Teacher
No, not exactly. My bell ringer procedure for 2013-2014 consisted of doing the daily vocab card (required work that did have to be made up), and then they did silent reading Mondays through Wednesdays and timed free writes on Thursday and Friday. I basically just had to keep an eye on them to make sure they were reading on reading days (and that reading ultimately culminated in quarterly projects anyway) and I rarely had to “babysit” on writing days because they loved doing free writes. Those free writes weren’t worth points, so absent students didn’t have to make them up.

What part of Indiana are you in? –Starla
I live in the very southern part of Indiana that is basically northern Kentucky. :) I’m just a hop, skip, and a jump from Louisville, Kentucky. It’s the part of Indiana with all of the giant hills. It's always been my home. <3

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Teaching While Pregnant: A Lesson Learned

The last five months can basically be summed up by this picture of my sweet puppy dog.

Note: that brother is human.
Well... that escalated quickly.

Yup, it turns out that the mister and I are expecting our first (non-fur) baby. He'll be here in November! My husband loves calling him our little turkey.

Do you find this as awkward/cruel/hilarious as I do or am I just judgy and sleep-deprived?
We found out about the end of life as we know it this big adventure into the wonders of parenthood during Spring Break. I was about six weeks along and feeling crazy horribly ill and like I couldn't possibly sleep enough.

So, like so many other teacher ladies of the past and as so many will do in the future, the show went on and I continued my teaching career while sucking on Jolly Ranchers and mints like my life depended on it and throwing up into my classroom trashcan during lunch.

Oh, and I didn't tell a soul what was happening. I was very nervous during the early part of my pregnancy because of some family history. I couldn't bear the thought of dealing with a loss along with my students and colleagues. (I'm very pleased to report that we hit the 20 week mark last Friday, our second trimester anatomy scan went just great, and it appears that our little turkey is baking nicely.)

I did a lot of digging around the internet trying to find resources for pregnant teachers and *surprise surprise* there are very few. I just wanted someone who's been there during a time when I wasn't telling anyone about the atrocities happening to my body. (I didn't even tell my own mother until I was 11 weeks pregnant.) So, for those of you who are "in the family way" (or plan to be someday), allow me to share with you some tips for dealing with your first trimester while you're also dealing with the fourth quarter (or any quarter, really) of the school year.

Disclaimer: I'm not a doctor or anything remotely close to that. This is my first pregnancy and these are just the things that worked for me and my specific hot mess. Results may vary.

Tip #1: Figure out a way to stay hydrated.
My school's tap water tastes like shit. It made me gag before I was pregnant, so needless to say that sewagey tepid tap water would trigger a round of the pukes faster than chewing tobacco and the Trabant.

The only things that would make me sicker than the taste of that water were tuna fish and being dehydrated. My crazy body was like, "Woah, I'm low on fluids! We should probably do something about that. Let's try puking!" Seriously, you'll feel like crap if you are dehydrated. I ended up bringing my own water from home in a giant insulated cup and it had to be ICE COLD. That was the only way to keep it down. It was a pain, but it worked.

Tip #2: Don't eat "lunch"; eat snacks all day long.
This can be really tricky for a teacher. All the preggers books suggest that you graze all day like a herd out to pasture, but the reactions by your school administrators to eating in front of your students can range from a stern frown to a total "Hulk Smash" moment. Do your best to eat throughout the day, all day. When I sat down for a meal, it kind of went like this:

Not good. So, between passing periods, I snacked on a handful of trail mix, a couple of crackers, pretty much anything I could nibble on quickly that would stay in my system long enough to keep the nausea at bay for the next 45 minutes.

Tip #3: Rest whenever humanly possible.
Close your eyes during your prep period for a few minutes. Teach from a chair that allows you to roll around the room so you don't have to walk as much. Simplify wherever you can in your lessons without reducing quality. This is a good time to practice saying "no" to all of those extra hours you spend in the building. If you feel at your very best in the morning, try to make it in just a bit early and do all prep work when you feel well. If afternoons work better for you, try to squeeze everything in during that time. Trust me on this: you are going to be flat exhausted at the end of a school day. I still kept up theatre practices, but I had to shorten them substantially and I had to cancel some of the extra ones. My husband's memories of my first trimester basically consist of "she went to work, she came home, she slept." When I wasn't teaching, I was crashed out on the couch. If you are anything like me, you will feel as guilty as a hooker in church when you have to cut back on your obligations and do a lot more sleeping. I just had to keep reminding myself that I was making a human. It's hard work making a human!

Tip #4: Get help!
Find helpers however you can. I'm so fortunate to work in a building where students can sign up to be TAs (teacher's assistants). I'm even more fortunate to always have really awesome kids sign up to be my TAs. Those kids busted their butts last spring for me, and I was SO grateful to have them! I had them do all kinds of things that I just frankly didn't have the energy or the will to do. Assign any of your tedious or simple tasks to any helpers you have and repay them in cookies and funny stories about your life (that aren't TMI).

Tip #5: Spill the beans as soon as you are ready!
I finally felt comfortable telling my news when I hit the twelve week mark and life got a whole hell of a lot easier once I told! I told my principal first, then my teacher buddies in the building, then my drama club kids (who I see more than my own family and who were greatly affected by my pregnancy... they actually were terribly worried something was wrong with me!) and then I let the rest of the school find out organically. Once I told everyone what was up, life got better. My students are seriously amazing, guys. They were wonderful! They jumped up to help me any chance they got, they were better behaved because they were terrified of my crazy-ass pregnancy mood swings, and some of them were absolutely fascinated by the whole thing. My coworkers are pretty wonderful people anyway, but they were very patient with my pregnancy brain (I SWEAR TO GOD THAT IT IS A REAL THING AND IT IS STILL HAPPENING!!!). So share that awesome news, pregnant teacher-ladies, because school communities are wonderfully supportive!


Teacher-mommies and teacher-daddies, anybody have any other tips about dealing with first trimester fun and teaching?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Making Up Late Quizzes and Tests... a Breakthrough!

Oh, yeah!
Okay, I'm not sure that this is that dramatic. It's not even original, I'm certain. But ehrmahgerd guys, this has been revolutionary in my classroom!

You guys already know how I manage absent student information (or, if you don't, check out this post and this template), but I've still continued to struggle in keeping up with make-up quizzes and tests. For apparent reasons, I don't feel comfortable putting a blank test or quiz in my absent binder. I just never really came up with a good landing spot or a good system for dealing with this problem, so by the end of the quarter, the office is always dragging up these incomplete test scores and wondering what happened and I'm like oh yeah... Not good.

So, here's my new system. It is not stunning or ingenious and it's still pretty new, but it's working out beautifully so far. My landing spot for those blank tests/quizzes is a pocket folder hanging on the bulletin board. I put the kiddo's name on the test and put it in the pocket folder. The thing that's keeping me on track, though, is this little schedule hanging on my filing cabinet. I make a note in my Absent Binder on quiz/test days telling the students they need to schedule their make-up day. I put their names on the schedule when they are absent, along with the item they missed and the original date. Students just have to fill in the date they plan to make-up the missed item (within five days of the absence) and the time period that day they intend to take it (during advisory period, lunch, after school, or another time). Here's a sample below.

Like I said, this isn't earth-shattering or particularly clever, but my goodness it has been helpful! (Especially with all of this crazy snowy/cold weather.) If you've been looking for a solution like this one, I've added this schedule to my collection of templates. You can find it here.

Happy Teaching! We're getting yet another two-hour delay in the morning. :)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Planning Week 3: Planning for the Long Term (Pacing Guides)

In this blog series, we will be working towards our 2014 vision: being a highly-effective teacher. This month, we will focus on the planning aspect of being effective educators. We will look at four areas of planning:
  1. Planning each day.
  2. Planning a unit.
  3. Planning for the long term.
  4. Planning for the unexpected.

It is my belief that proper planning can make all the difference in how smoothly your school year runs. We began our journey this month by looking at our daily practices, and then continued by looking at our unit plans. Today, I'm going to cheat a little bit because the best thing you can really do to plan for the long term is to create those pacing guides. I shared my step-by-step guide to creating pacing guides back in July and I'm going to send you back there again today.

Click here for the pacing guides post and then check out the challenge below!

This week's challenge:

  • Do you have a pacing guide established for this section of the school year (this nine weeks or six weeks or however your year is broken up)? If not, give it a try!
  • What about a pacing guide for the rest of the year? Maybe try that one if you don't have one yet.
  • If you're feeling ultra adventurous (and you live in a magical world where your school schedule never changes), you could always try making a pacing guide for next year. :)

Happy teaching!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Planning Week 2: Planning a Unit (The Eat.Write.Teach. Rules of Unit-Planning Magic)

In this blog series, we will be working towards our 2014 vision: being a highly-effective teacher. This month, we will focus on the planning aspect of being effective educators. We will look at four areas of planning:
  1. Planning each day.
  2. Planning a unit.
  3. Planning for the long term.
  4. Planning for the unexpected.

It is my belief that proper planning can make all the difference in how smoothly your school year runs. Last week we took a look at our daily planning practices and, in particular, our student learning objectives that should be guiding our daily plans. Now that we are in the practice of effectively gearing our day towards a goal, we can start taking a look at our units and how we can plan those effectively.

Did you ever have a teacher in your career as a student that spent too much time on a unit? Sweet mercy, I know I did. I think we often forget that our students (at the jr. high/high school level) are teenagers and they don't get quite as wrapped up in our content as we do. Not only that, but the current generation of kids going through schools (my generation, actually) are over-caffeinated, over-stimulated, and overgrown. These guys become bored very easily because they are either energy-deficient or energy-abundant, they have spent their whole lives being stimulated by external sources (television, video games, light-up noisy toys), and they are very "grown up" for being so young (which can be a great and terrible thing, which is a conversation for another day).

I had a teacher who spent six weeks on a Shakespeare unit. Six weeks. I loved Shakespeare even as a teenager, but I didn't love six weeks' worth of Shakespeare. I was so bored of it by the end that I was willing to do anything but read/write/discuss Shakespeare.

So, so bored.

I have a great advantage as a high school teacher. I'm still young. I am biologically young and I am young at heart. Often times I think veterans think of this as a disadvantage, but I think it is a great advantage because I remember being a high school student very clearly. Because I remember hating my very existence twenty-nine days into a Shakespeare unit, I think I'm really good at planning with my students in mind. I try really hard to plan my units for effectiveness, efficiency, and enjoyment.

The Eat.Write.Teach. Rules of Unit-Planning Magic

1. The curriculum should be broken up into two-week or four-week units. No less, no more. Use those two-week pieces for your smaller units of study or units that will bore your students to death. (For me, that includes pretty much any and all grammar lessons. If I get bored discussing comma rules after two days, I know my students will too.) Use those four-week chunks for your longer units of study (Shakespeare). Please, oh please, do not exceed four weeks. I've never taught anything besides high school English, but I think it's pretty fair to say that novel units and research paper units are some of the lengthiest units taught in a high school building. Still, there really is no reason for them to exceed four weeks. Your students will be ready to pluck their eyelashes out one by one if you go longer than four weeks.

2. Be strategic in your timing. Unit planning requires strategy. May I suggest that you strategize around potential pitfalls such as extended breaks? It is always my goal to be completely finished with a unit before spring break, for example, because when they return their little brains are fried. It's pretty intense to expect your kids to remember the events of the first three acts of Romeo and Juliet, for example, when they were busy creating their own Shakespeare moments during their break. In addition to extended breaks, consider the time of year. Do you really want to assign a research paper as the last unit of the school year? You might think so, because that way it is as far away from your present as possible, but this is bad planning. Doing something like this will cause you to pull several all-nighters because you had a research paper due the last day of school and grades are due two days later.

3. Remember those SLOs we talked about? Your unit as a whole needs those too. Richard and Rebecca DuFour talk about the Four Essential Questions of a PLC (professional learning community) and whether you are in a PLC building or not, these questions just make sense. The first questions asks, "What do we expect our students to learn?" When we create daily student learning objectives, we are answering that question. When we plan our units, though, we should be asking ourselves the same question. What is it we are wanting the students to learn in this unit? Before we ever begin teaching a unit, we need to answer this question. Create a checklist of the skills you want your students to learn in the unit. You will be able to use this checklist to generate your specific daily SLOs.

4. Organize skills from the ground up and teach them in that order. Once you have a list of skills for the unit, it is necessary to organize them so that they build on each other. Think of it like building a house. You start with foundation lessons, add structural lessons on top of a strong foundation, and finish off with the decor and other fancy things. This happens kind of organically in some classes, like math classes. There is a very recognizable foundation for most math courses and you must have a strong foundation before you can start building. When the foundation isn't strong, the whole structure crumbles. Other classes, like literature, have necessary skills that may be more challenging to organize this way, but it is critical we examine our plans as closely as possible to figure out what students will need to know before they can move on.

Example: my students are currently involved in a poetry unit, where they will be analyzing poetry and ultimately writing their own pieces. However, in order to be able to have an educational conversation about poetry, there are some things they need to know first, like terminology. If I ask them to identify the metaphors used by the author in the second stanza of the poem, they will first have to have a working knowledge of words like "identify," "metaphor," and "stanza." Most of my English units begin with a lesson on terminology; this is necessary for understanding in the unit.

5. Fish Standards are friends, not food the enemy. I know there are teachers out there who hate their state standards or the Common Core standards, depending on your situation, and it kind of boggles my mind. I wonder if the hatred isn't necessarily for the standards themselves, but the powers that be who create them. Anyway, that's another post for another day. The fact of the matter is, there are standards, and we should try to use them. They are in place with good intentions and, honestly, it was a huge relief for me as a new teacher that these standards existed because they tell me the kinds of skills I should be teaching. They are also more flexible than a lot of people think, if you just think outside of the box a little bit. When you are creating that skills checklist from Rule #3, align them to standards.* I really don't get it when I hear a disgruntled teacher saying that the standards are "telling them what to teach." I live in the great state of Indiana (Hoo. Hoo. Hoo. Hoosiers!) where the kids play basketball, the climate is bizarre, and the department of education is a mess. (We had this guy in charge for a while. Gah.) I think it's fair to say, though, that our standards don't tell us what to teach. We don't have a state-mandated required reading list or anything like that. Instead, the standards tell us the skills we should be teaching our students, but how we do that is up to us (or, in unfortunate circumstances, up to your school). Use the standards as a tool to guide your planning, not the solution to your planning problems.

*DISCLAIMER: I strongly believe that there is a time and place for lessons that are not standards-based in the classroom. I believe in the teachable moment, where we can use our time to teach lessons about trivial stuff like whether or not snails have vocal chords (actual class conversation last week) and big stuff like culture and kindness. I do think, though, that it is our job to prepare our students for the next step in their academic lives, and the standards help us do that.

This week's challenge:
Examine your weekly unit and ask yourself the following questions.
  • Is this unit too long or too short? If it isn't in the two to four week range, why not? Is it necessary for it to be this long/short?
  • Is my timing okay, or am I going to run into problems with breaks or getting things graded in a timely manner?
  • Do I have a checklist of skills/content my students should know by the end of this unit?
  • Is my skills checklist organized with a strong foundation first, great structural material second, and a little bit of fancy flair last?
  • Are (most of) the items on the checklist aligned to standards?
Update (01/22/14) - I completely forgot to do this originally, but I wanted to link to this weekly template for helping you plan.

Feel free to leave questions, comments, feedback, and other ideas below! I'd love to hear how you guys make your units come together.

Happy Teaching!

Friday, January 3, 2014

Planning Week 1: Planning Each Day (Creating the SLO)

In this blog series, we will be working towards our 2014 vision: being a highly-effective teacher. This month, we will focus on the planning aspect of being effective educators. We will look at four areas of planning:
  1. Planning each day.
  2. Planning a unit.
  3. Planning for the long term.
  4. Planning for the unexpected.

It is my belief that proper planning can make all the difference in how smoothly your school year runs. I confessed in A Letter to First-Year Teachers that I planned my school year on the fly my first year of teaching and it was a disaster! Like, improperly deep-frying a turkey DISASTER.


To assess ourselves as planners, we have to look at the the smallest increment of planning, and that is how we plan each day. This ties directly into time management, which we'll talk more about in February, but let's take a look at how we construct our daily lesson plans.

When I was doing my student teaching back in 2010, part of my university's program requirements was that I had to submit lesson plans for review to my instructor. I had to show her my lesson plans before I began student teaching and I had to have them prepared for her observations. My university had a pretty strict format for those lesson plans. They had to include the lesson objective, the standards applied to the lesson, a materials list, the procedure for the lesson, and an assessment method to show that the method was effective. While these lesson plans were a pain in the neck to create because they were so time-consuming and extensive, they were important because it really made me consider how I was going to use class time, how I was going to drive the lesson home for my students, and how I was going to make sure they learned.

The key to creating a strong daily lesson plan is writing a good student learning objective. For those who are unclear with the term, the student learning objective (SLO) is what the student will be doing during the lesson. A good SLO has the following traits:
  • It sums up the purpose of the lesson in one sentence.
  • It is action-oriented and uses one of the action words for Bloom's Taxonomy.
  • It is not what you, the teacher, will do; it is what the students will do.
  • It sometimes lists the expected result or the product.
  • It should be posted in your classroom!
  • It should be assessable. 
One-sentence summary: Can't fit it in one sentence? Maybe the lesson is too complicated! Maybe the reason you feel like you never get anything done during class time is you are over-planning. This one sentence rule can set some boundaries on your plans. Maybe you have no idea how to put your lesson plan into one sentence? This suggests you might not really have a very good idea of what the game plan is for the day! That's a red flag too. This one sentence needs to be the essence of the day's lesson.

Action-oriented: Action-oriented means that we can't just let those kiddos be little sponges! If your objective says "students will learn about Mars" that isn't action-oriented. What are the kids going to do to "learn" about Mars? Instead, you could say:
  • Students will compare and contrast the planet Mars with the planet Earth.
  • Students will analyze the environment on Mars and evaluate its suitability for life.
  • Students will create a model of Mars.
Student-oriented: Right along with being action-oriented, it is important that your objectives are student-oriented. It isn't what you are going to do. ("I am going to present facts about Mars.") The kids have to do in order to learn.

Results or product: Sometimes our SLO will include a product. (Students will create a model of Mars.) Your administrators may ask you to include your projected results in your SLO (85% of students will be able to identify Mars in a map of the solar system) but I would recommend not including that projection in your SLO that you will post for the class.

Posted in the classroom: You work really hard crafting your SLO... put that bad boy on the board! Show the kids the finish line at the get-go, so they know what they are working towards. Take the mystery out of the lesson and say, "Hey guys! This is exactly what we are doing today!" Class time will be much more tolerable (at least) for your students when they can see the light at the end of the tunnel and they know it isn't a train barreling their way.

Assessable: By the end of the lesson, you will need to assess student learning, formally or informally. You can't assess "students will learn about Mars." It's too vague, and it isn't action-oriented. But you can assess a product (students will create a model of Mars), you can assess an evaluation (students will analyze the environment on Mars and evaluate its suitability for life), and you can assess a compare/contrast activity (students will compare and contrast the planet Mars with the planet Earth).

SLOs are your one-sentence game plan and your goal. We can only begin to build effective lesson plans when we have a goal in mind. Once we have the goal, we can start planning the procedure for how we will attain that goal.

When I started regularly writing SLOs for my lesson plans, I discovered some things that the SLO did not allow me to do. It did not allow me to:
  • create teacher-centered lessons; The lessons have to be focused on the student.
  • have a "spring cleaning" or a "housekeeping" day without a guilty conscience; Sometimes we have to have those days, but writing SLOs will keep you from accidentally abusing those days and plugging in too many.
  • ignore my students' needs; SLOs force you to be active in your classroom!

The weekly challenge is meant to be applied to the upcoming school week. So, for example, this week's challenge is being posted on Friday, January 3rd, so you'll start this challenge for the week of January 6 - January 10.

This week's challenge:
If you have not been writing student learning objectives in your lesson plans, add it into your lesson plans for next week. Write your SLO and check it against the requirements. If it fits the requirements and it fits your lesson plan, great! If you discover you are having difficulty applying a SLO to your lesson plan, you've got some work to do. Write your SLO first, and then tinker with your lesson plans to make it all fit together.

If you have been writing student learning objectives in your lesson plans, check them against those six traits? Are your SLOs weak in any of those six traits? See if you can fix them! Everything's syncing up and looking great? Congratulations! You are on your way to being that highly-effective teacher. :)

As always, feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions, concerns, or something to add!