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.

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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  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:

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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.

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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?

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For the Kids!

Last week I had the opportunity to sit on the interview committee for the area Teacher of the Year.  We interviewed 11 secondary teachers, chosen by their peers as Teacher of the Year at their own schools, seeking to identify one to represent us all.  We asked them a fixed set of questions about their daily lives in the classroom—data and differentiation, included—but the thing that became clear, from the first interview all the way through to the last, is not that numbers matter, but that people matter.

The light at the end of the testing tunnel is becoming brighter, but we still have a long way to go, holding ourselves and our students accountable to those who think they know what’s best.  And that’s hard at this time of year.  I read a story about how tough October and November are for new teachers; I think they’re tough months for all of us.  The cheery thoughts of a brand new year with infinite possibilities have worn off and we’re settling in for the long haul with the kids and the classes we’ve got.

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Cast a Spell with Halloween Poetry

When I first started teaching, I avoided holiday-themed lessons and fun, thinking it would help to establish my position of authority.  Luckily, after three years of trying to be the stern high school teacher, I moved to middle school.  Whether it was the younger kids, a relaxed sense of urgency in the curriculum, or just that I was a more experienced teacher,  I felt more comfortable bringing fun into the classroom.  I learned the truth of the old adage about gathering more flies with honey.  When I moved back to high school three years later, there was no turning back.  The Poem-A-Day activity I posted about in August, provides a great chance to show your students that it’s possible for a text to be both fun and complex–just like their English teachers!

Halloween Poetry

Here are a few of my favorite poems for this time of year:

Halloween” by Mac Hammond.  A little spooky, lots of imagery, and a deep thought at the end.

Unconditional Day” by Julie Lechevsky.  Each year, I wonder about sharing this one—sometimes I don’t like to teach tough topics—but rarely do we ever get that deep into our analysis for these quick Poem-A-Day activities.  If someone asks questions, it gives me a chance to say, honestly, “I’m not sure; what do you think?” and then we can have a real conversation to figure it out together.

The witches’ spell at the beginning of Act 4 in Macbeth provides a chance to introduce a classic and have a little fun, too. The Folger Shakespeare’s Shakespeare Set Free series has a choral reading lesson for this spell, including sound effects—blowing winds, hooting owls, and howling dogs.

I love bilingual poems—especially when I have speakers of the other languages in my classroom to help translate!  “Dia de los Muertos” by Abelardo Delgado is included in Cool Salsa.  Bilingual poems help involve students who might otherwise be quiet, and many, like this poem, can help explain cultural beliefs and traditions.

Although we associate his poetry with younger kids, high school students love Shel Silverstein.  He has a lot of short, fun poems that helped me fill my board on days when I really didn’t have time for a poem.  While searching for a link to “The Day after Halloween” from A Light in the Attic to share here, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a new Shel Silverstein book—Everything on It—with a new Halloween poem in it:  “The One Who Invented Trick or Treat.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be Halloween without a little Poe, and “The Raven” is a classic for this time of year.  I would post the first stanza as my poem of the day, and then we’d dig in and really get to know the poem.  I’ve put together a two-day lesson plan which gives each student the opportunity to analyze and illustrate a single stanza, culminating in a whole-group reading experience.  The kids love to see how their section of the text fits in the big picture of the poem.

 Pinterest slide

If we have time at the end of our sharing, I love to celebrate by doing a repeated reading of the poem with The Simpsons.  It’s only a five-minute video, but you would think I had given them the whole day off.  Seeing students mouth the words when the video gets to their stanza makes it all worth it!

Hope you can carve out some time this season to show your spirit, and have a little fun and a lot of learning with these poems.  Bats all, folks!