PowerPoint to the Rescue

I spend a lot of my time helping teachers with lesson planning and whenever we come to the point of creating a handout or worksheet for students and I open up PowerPoint on my computer, the teacher inevitably looks at me like I’ve forgotten what we were trying to do.  Once I get started, though, he or she is nodding alongside me, saying, “This is really cool.  I can’t believe I never thought of this.”

After being told many times that I should offer a professional development on using PowerPoint to create classroom documents, I gave it a try at the end of the school year.  I realized as I was preparing the presentation that the ideas would make great blog posts, so here is a little background information, and then I’ll post a couple of screencasts to illustrate the process.

PowerPoint art

Like most of the teachers I work with, one participant at the presentation was a little skeptical and asked why I used PowerPoint instead of Word to create documents.  I gave a rambling answer about manipulating text and images and making professional looking documents, all of which is true, but thinking back on it, I have a much better answer: TIME.   Using PowerPoint saves time.

As I’ll demonstrate in these videos, with PowerPoint, what you see is what you get.  There’s no wasted time tabbing and spacing to align text, only to have it all get shifted around out of alignment when I realize I need to add another word.  And in PowerPoint, a page is a page is a page–when I send something to the printer, I’m not surprised by finding the bottom of page one at the top of page two.  I can create everything I need on my screen and move it all exactly where I want it to be, so I don’t have to take a pair of scissors and tape to the copy machine to cut and paste pieces of the worksheet together.

I could go on and on, but thinking of the time I’ve spent fighting with Word is just more time I’m wasting.  Instead, let’s put that all behind us and get started with setting up PowerPoint to print standard-size documents:

Now, I know that doesn’t seem like much, but believe me, it will start to revolutionize the way you create documents for your classroom.  To give you a little more inspiration, here’s another video showing how I use shapes to create a basic graphic organizer on my worksheets:

Please post any questions you have in the comments below and I’ll try to address them in my next video while demonstrating some of the amazing time-and-sanity-saving uses of tables.

Quick & Easy Reading Checks

“It will be different this time,” we tell ourselves each time we begin a new novel.  No matter how many times we’ve been there before, we go in with a sense of optimism.  We believe that our choice will finally hook the students; they’ll want to read this one.  We read the first three chapters in class, get to that point where they have to know what happens next, and then turn them loose to devour the next two chapters for homework.

10 Reading Checks

And then they don’t do it.

I know I’m not alone when I say that this is one of the most frustrating aspects of teaching English.  Not only have the students cheated themselves out of the opportunity to read a good book, but they’ve thrown our discussion, activity, or lesson completely off track.  How can we talk about this or do that if they haven’t done the reading?

Sadly, I have not discovered a solution.  I do have some band-aids—temporary fixes that might heal the problem for the day, and unlike the standard five-question quiz, these techniques have potential to inspire interest in the reading  so that students will get on board for the rest of the book.

Here are 10 mostly low-prep options to credit those who did the reading and give the others some insight into what they missed.  Give one a try the next time you see students hurriedly flipping through the pages or hear the hushed questions, “Did you read?”  “What happened?”

  • SparkNotes Summary: Want to see who is reading the book as opposed to the SparkNotes?  I learned this amazing idea from Carol Jago at a district inservice:  Project the chapter summary from SparkNotes on your screen and ask the students to read the summary and identify three things that happened in the chapter which are not included in the summary.  Not only will this identify those who did read, it will provide those who didn’t even read the SparkNotes some background so they won’t be completely lost in the discussion.


  • Feeling Response: After a particularly emotional chapter, list four or five “feeling” adjectives on the board (angry, annoyed, outraged, exasperated) and ask the students to choose one (or come up with a better one on their own) that expresses their feelings toward the chapter/character/author. Ask them to explain—in detail—why they feel this way.  After collecting the papers, you can ask students to share their responses, sparking a more thoughtful conversation about the events in the chapter than a standard summary.


  • Essential Question: You chose the book to connect to the Essential Question. Why write new questions?  Direct students back to your essential question and ask them to make connections (or predictions) based on last night’s homework.  See if they’re heading in the right direction and redirect as needed.


  • Quotable Quote: Choose a quote that relates to character motivation, conflict, or theme from the chapter and ask students to explain the quote in the context of the chapter.  If you are teaching more than one class, try to come up with different quotes for each period!  Usually, you’ll find powerful quotes near the end of a chapter or section.  For example, you could use, “There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired” for Chapter Four of The Great Gatsby—Nick thinks of this quote after Jordan reveals the backstory between Daisy and Gatsby.  Asking students to explain this quote in the context of the chapter would allow them to address all five characters.


  • Student Questions: Rather than quizzing students with questions of our own device, let their entrance slips serve as the discussion starters for the day.  I use Thick & Thin questions with students all the time; with practice, they can write some very solid questions.  You can put together your own question starters (just Google Thick & Thin questions) or use my reference cards that include question stems and guide students to look at specific text features for literary or informational text.


  • Twenty in Ten: I saw this idea on a blog post about creating meaningful worksheets. The teacher gives the students 20 thought-provoking questions about an aspect of the book (a character, key idea, or the plot) and asks them to answer the questions in ten minutes.  Combine questions from  teaching guides with your own questions and student-developed questions from the Thick & Thin activities to come up with twenty different (but maybe somewhat overlapping) questions about an element of the book.  Check out his sample questions on Caliban in The Tempest to get a feel for the approach.


  • Oral Discussion: Use the same questions you would use for the Twenty in Ten activity to turn a written task into a class discussion. You can use the tried-and-true popsicle stick technique to select random students to answer your questions.  Record tally marks on a roster to track their responses (points?) throughout the reading of the book.  Another option is to record each student’s name on an index card, shuffle the cards, and choose one at random.  You can record a plus, check, or minus and the date on the card to track their reading responses.


  • Chalk Talk (Silent Collaboration): I’ve seen many variations of this idea, but my favorite for a reading check is the whole-class approach. To track individual contributions, you can make notes on your roster/index cards, or just sit back and let it happen and then use the written responses to award credit.  Students take turns visiting the board and adding to a word web about the idea/character/event started by the teacher.  Once the board is full, students can use the ideas on the board to write a response to the reading.  You might ask them to use five words from the board, for example, in their response.  The written responses will show you who has read; those who haven’t read may be inspired by the ideas on the board to begin reading.


  • Connections: This strategy might take a little work, but it’s worth it. Start collecting connections—photographs, songs, poems, video clips, or news articles—that relate to particular sections of the book and then use these as a “thinking prompt” to get students started at the beginning of class.  Ask them to make the connection between a photograph and the characters, events, or ideas from last night’s reading.  You can build your collection by asking students to bring in connections, too.


  • Moments: Ask students to specify the most important “moment” in the assigned reading and then explain why they think it is important.  They should relate their chosen moment to other events within the selection to illustrate its significance.   Even though they get to choose their own moment, their explanation should make it clear whether they have or have not read the rest of the text.  To start discussion for the day, share a few of the moments from the class and let others debate their significance.

One final suggestion—mix it up!  Use different strategies with each period each day to keep your “quiz questions” from being shared between classes.  It should be pretty easy to do, too, because these are all rather easy-to-implement reading checks.  Do you have any quick checks you can add to the list?  Please share them in the comments!

AIWATT – Say What?

“Am I willing, at this time, to make the investment required to make a positive difference on this topic?” 

Marshall Goldsmith introduced me to this gem of a question in his book Triggers.  He abbreviates it as AIWATT—rhymes with say what—and uses it in his coaching of business executives to help them focus their attention on the areas in which they can have a positive impact.

We do this somewhat naturally in the classroom, right?  Pick your battles, we say.  We may overlook the gum-chewing student texting in the back row to avoid the disruption of our otherwise peaceful and focused classroom.  We’ll also reschedule our test to accommodate the basketball team (and spirit busses) traveling to the state tournament on Friday, even finding a way to stream the game into the classroom since we know everyone who stayed behind will be constantly checking their phones anyway.


Making the conscious decision to consider AIWATT, though, provides us with a sense of control and the ability to make positive differences in our lives as well.  Twice yesterday I realized the power of this simple reflection.

First, I decided to skip a meeting about a possible policy change at my school.   Sometimes I have a hard time deciding whether I need to be present—not because I can make a difference, but because presence communicates interest/concern/involvement.  As I approached the media center, notepad and coffee in hand at 7:55 yesterday morning, I saw a room full of my colleagues and an assistant principal standing in front, preparing to speak.  I paused, asked myself the AIWATT question and realized that I did not have the energy or the desire to make a positive difference: I was only going for appearances; I could get the Cliff’s Notes from anyone else at that meeting; I had better uses for my time.

Sure enough, reports from the meeting detailed the unfulfilling data, repetitive complaints, and general uncertainty about going forward with this plan.  It’s clear to me that I made the better choice to review my ACT strategy lesson and share ListenCurrent through email with other reading coaches—both of which made positive differences for students.  It’s not often that we have the option to attend a meeting or not, but when we do, it’s definitely worth pausing to ask AIWATT.

Not only did the AIWATT question help me avoid an energy-depleting meeting, but it helped me find a positive at the end of the day.   I used the question to guide my choice to send out an email, offering peer observations to teachers as they prepare their Professional Growth Plan self-evaluations.  I’ve been doing the same for years (as a peer coach, this is part of my responsibility), but with little authentic buy-in—those that do seek an observation are just doing it to check the box on the eval.  Rather than letting the frustration of past experiences prevent me from doing something I know is valuable, I decided I would try to make a positive difference and send the email.

One teacher responded that she would love an observation and feedback and wondered if I was available during 7th period.  We had a brief conversation about her goals and the lesson during her planning period and then I went to observe her students as they began drafting their essays explaining how Ayn Rand and Franz Kafka convey their personal philosophies through the protagonists in their novels.  Talk about energy-giving.   Watching these students reminded me of the reasons we do what we do.   They were completely engaged in the content, and their practices clearly showed mastery of the writing process.  The teacher spent some time clarifying her expectations—third person, present tense, MLA citations—and the students knew how to do it and why they should.  When she set them loose, they got right to work—turning to each other for genuine conversations about objectivism and existentialism, flipping to passages within books to back up their ideas, and turning back to their notes to scribble new ideas.

Not only did I get to invest my time in an experience that turned out very positively for me, I saw how AIWATT can work in the classroom.  This teacher chose to turn the challenge of preparing students for the academic writing demands of the Florida Standards Assessment into something that will make a positive difference for her students, long beyond the test.  Rather than just sticking with the standard test prep, she found an authentic way to integrate the skills these student need into a meaningful context.  I’m glad my AIWATT moment delivered me to her classroom to see it in action.

Pinning for the People

The first time I heard our new superintendent speak last summer, he told us that he felt there were only three groups of people who worked in schools: teachers, principals, and everyone else.  I, along with the superintendent, am part of the third group–everyone else–and our job, according to him, is to support the first two groups to help them do their jobs better.

Continue reading “Pinning for the People”

Searching for Simplicity

Earlier this month, I heard a story on NPR about a very successful calculus teacher in Los Angeles.  Throughout the interview, Anthony Yom, reiterated that he was just an average guy who was trying to do right by kids—like all teachers.  He was energized by his students and really worked to make calculus relevant to them.  At the end of the interview, he said something that has really stuck with me:  “If we could start recognizing good teachers and give them a little more energy, I think we could change the game of education.”

Energy.  Isn’t that the truth?  We’re up to three pots of coffee each morning in the media center now.  At the start of the year, we barely finished one.  Teachers are coming from all buildings in our sprawling campus to get that extra shot of caffeine each morning.  And tonight is parent conference night!  Better plan on four tomorrow!

Unfortunately, outside of coffee, I don’t have much to offer in terms of a solution for finding energy.  We’ve all heard that cliché, “the students should be working harder than you are,” but I’m afraid it takes a whole lot of work to get to that point; if it even exists.  I kind of think it’s like that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow—you think you can see it on the horizon, but it’s always just out of reach.

One thing I’ve been thinking about, though, is lightening our load.  Not in the traditional sense—an extra planning period or one less prep—but taking control and doing it on our own.  Eliminating the nonessential aspects of our work; cutting the fat.*


It seems to me that we always think we need to add something to our routines to make them better: bellwork, additional complex texts, Socratic seminars, whatever we saw on Pinterest last weekend.  What if we did away with the daily oral grammar exercise we do every Tuesday and just used the sentences in our texts as models of good writing?  Digging in rather than piling on?  Can’t we teach our students to ask deep and thoughtful questions without rearranging the desks in a circle (and then rushing to rearrange them before next period comes in because that’s a different class)?

Think about it.  Is there something you could edit out of your daily/weekly routines that might give you a little more energy?  Please share in the comments!

*The impetus for this idea was my fourth book—one that will make me smarter—Essentialism by Greg McKeown

My Reading Challenge

I read all the time, but I rarely finish a book.  A month ago, I had a stack of unfinished books at least eight inches high by my bed, another unfinished book in my school bag, a few by my desk at school, and too many to count in my Kindle.  Last November or December I started to see references to reading challenges on Pinterest and decided that I could tackle one as part of a New Year’s Resolution that would be good for me and good for my blog.  In addition to following the guidelines set forth on the 26-book challenge I chose, I would write about the books, applying the lessons learned from the books to the classroom.

book challenge

While reading a magazine in December, I saw a reference to Marie Kondo’s system of organizing your closet by keeping only the clothes that bring you joy.  I’d seen Kondo’s approach in magazines and on tv, but never really understood how it could be so effective.  I went to Amazon, ordered The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and planned for that to be my first book of the challenge.  It has a bluish cover, so I’m counting it for my “book with a blue cover.”

I started the book on January 1st and on January 9th I cleaned out my closet.  Two weeks later, I tackled my books—that’s why I can’t give an exact measurement for the stack of books by my bed: it’s gone!  Both tidying sessions were hard, but strangely liberating.  Although I finished the book quickly, the process is going to take a while—Kondo calls it a marathon.  I’m still in the Komono stage and am working on cleaning out the papers in my life.  Teachers have a lot of papers.  To keep me going, I’ve purchased and am currently reading her follow-up book, Spark Joy, as my “book that was published this year.”

book challenge graphic

Between these two, I read my second book—“a book I loved before”—The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo.   I thought I was going to teach a critical thinking elective at school this semester.  A friend had suggested the title as a good assignment for the class and I wanted to be prepared.  Although the class didn’t make, I think it was a definitely a good omen to rediscover the book.

Now it’s February, and although I’m doing the reading, I haven’t been doing the writing.  As the boy understands in The Alchemist: “making a decision [is] only the start of things.  When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he had never dreamed of when he first made the decision.”  I hope you’ll swim along with me as I continue to read and write my way through these 26 books.  Can’t wait to see where we end up!

For & Against: An Organizer for Argument

Working to prepare our students for upcoming writing assessments, we’re focused on teaching them to argue for or against an issue.  This is a shift from the old methods of teaching persuasion. Persuasion involves changing a reader’s (or listener’s) mind, attempting to convince him/her to feel a certain way.  In argument, the writer attempts to reveal a truth using evidence to support his/her position (regardless of the way the writer actually feels about the issue).


I’ve just posted a new FREE product on TeachersPayTeachers—a graphic organizer to introduce students to the process of analyzing a written argument or planning their own argument.  In addition to the graphic organizer, I’ve provided some strategies for incorporating argument into your content area.  Here are some of the highlights:

Essential Questions & Argument

One of the most important criteria for an essential question is that is arguable.  There should be no single “right” answer; instead, through the course of the unit of study, students are able to explore the concept and make connections across texts to help them determine their own position on the issue.

For example, the essential question in Chapter 6 of the U.S. History book is “Can politics fix social problems?”  After reading and discussing the chapter, students should be able to argue both sides of this issue.  In chemistry, students can provide evidence to support the essential question “Why was Avogadro’s concept so important to chemistry?” or they may be able to refute it.  In either case, the For and Against Graphic Organizer will help students outline the reasons and the evidence.

Talk It Through

Use these three questions to help students analyze an argument:

  • What does the author think? (Is he/she “for” or “against” the issue?)
  • Why does the author think this way? (the reasons)
  • How do facts in the text support the author’s thinking? (the evidence)

You can use these questions to evaluate students’ written arguments and to discuss professional texts.  Here are three great sources of argumentative texts you may want to use as models:

Professional Blogs. The New York Times bloggers cover news, politics, technology, business, health, culture, sports, and everything else.   Most major news media outlets have bloggers you can trust (but sometimes an unreliable source can provide an interesting lesson, too!)

SpeechesAmerican Rhetoric offers transcripts of speeches as well as audio and video.  A searchable database of the over 5,000 speeches can help you locate a specific topic:

Magazines.  Talk to your media specialist about which online database subscriptions you can access at your school.  He/she should be able to help you find journal and magazine articles, content-focused databases, and even the Opposing Viewpoints database that offers opinions on today’s hottest social issues.


You can download this FREE tool from my TpT store.  If you give it a try, please post a response here or in the TpT feedback to let me know how it worked for you!


In Case of (Classroom) Emergency

I saw a pin on Pinterest last week—a list of Do’s and Don’ts for Classroom Management by BusyTeacher.org.  As a peer coach, it spoke to me and I saved it for future reference when working with new (and experienced) teachers.

Most of the Do’s are what you would expect (respect your students, use routines), but I kept coming back to the last one on the list:  “Keep a bag of tricks up your sleeve.”  It mentions songs, finger plays, and games, most of which sound like they are for elementary school, but this Do is just as important for secondary teachers.

Fun and Educational Time Fillers for Secondary Classrooms

Middle and high school teachers also need last minute sub plans, something to fill five extra minutes at the end of class, or sometimes a whole period when the copy machine breaks or the network goes down.  It takes time, though, to accumulate a file folder full of tricks, so I thought I’d share a few of my favorites to help you build your collection:

Continue reading “In Case of (Classroom) Emergency”

Poems for the New Year

At the start of this school year, I blogged about casually sharing poetry with students to inspire appreciation and to reduce anxiety.  I hope that you’ve found the practice to be as fulfilling as I do.  If you haven’t started yet, the new semester offers a great opportunity to introduce this routine—and not a minute too soon, with testing season just around the corner!

Happy New Year! (Poems)

Here’s a list of poems you may want to use to kick off the New Year.  Remember, the main purpose is just the sharing, but if you’re like me and can’t stand to waste the opportunity to talk a little bit about text, my free list of questions may help guide your discussion.

Continue reading “Poems for the New Year”

Goal Setting for the New Year

I was watching TED talks, looking for texts to support a Habits of Mind unit, and I came across a Tony Robbins talk entitled “Why We Do What We Do.”  I watched it.  I took some notes.  I thought about my lesson and tried to connect some of the talk to the Habits, and I couldn’t.  I kept going back to the transcript because I wanted to make it work.

Then, I realized that the talk wasn’t speaking to me as a unit-planner, but as a teacher—not as a teacher of students, but as a teacher among teachers, and, unlike Robbins’s statement, I’m hearing it in the form of a question:  Why Do We Do What We Do?

Continue reading “Goal Setting for the New Year”