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!