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ELA Buffet Goes Back to School

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an English teacher in possession of great ideas, must be in want of other like-minded teachers.

Hence, the birth of the Literary League.

This English teacher is proud to be a part of the "League." You'll probably agree that it is a teacher's nature to share. We were the only kids in the sandbox without a shovel.


Because some other kid wanted it, and we obliged. We share.

That's how we roll. The Literary League is all about sharing creative ideas, best practices, and fantastic resources.

About Moi: (I do not speak French, but I have read every book the divine Miss Piggy has written.)

I love teaching. When Confucius said, "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life," he could have been speaking about me in one of my past lives as a teacher in 500 BC. My master's degree is from Stony Brook University, and I've taught almost every grade from 3rd through 12th. For the past dozen years I've been teaching middle school English.

I'm not quite certain if I love it because I'm darn good at it, or if I'm good at it because I love it. Either way, it works. I've won teaching awards, my curriculum resources have been successfully used in thousands of classrooms, and my methods have been used in professional development courses for teachers all over the country. But my most precious award is housed in a battered binder. It's a collection of cards and notes from my students. I love that binder, and I pull it out for support when things get rough. If you teach middle school, you know exactly what I mean.

My Favorite Classroom Library Book 

Nay nay. Not going there.

If I say Freak the Mighty, I'll get angry emails from the S.E. Hinton fan club. Pick a Wendy Mass book and the James Patterson fans will complain. If I say Harry Potter, I'll get angry emails from... Rick Riordan.

Just kidding. I've met him and he's quite pleasant.

Nope. Not choosing.

My Favorite Getting to Know You Activity

Most of my students have known each other since they were 5. Ask any one of them who ate the most glue in kindergarten or who is deathly afraid of clowns, and they'll tell you. So a good old game of Two Truths and a Lie won't fly. They can spot those lies like a pink moose in the school cafeteria.

 Back to School Tools of the TradeSince I'm the only one who can't "see the moose," I have the kids make name tents. They love it because they get to write and talk about their favorite topic- themselves. And I learn about their lives, while also getting to know their names. It's a win-win. For those of you interested, it's in my Back to School Tools of the Trade resource, but if you want a no-frills version they're actually easy to make.

A name tent requires kids to fold a sheet of paper (held vertically) into thirds and write their name in the center. They draw pictures of things they love around their name. On the other two thirds they write two positive adjectives to describe themselves, along with supporting details.
 Back to School

Propping the name tents up on their desks allows me to learn their names in a just a couple of days. But the kids like to use them long afterward, and they even take them out when there is a sub in the room.

I hope you enjoy reading about the other fantastic Literary League teachers.

The most exciting part? We're just getting started, people.

Looking Ahead Blog Hop

For years, I have admired and studied a revered philosopher and yogi who once said, 
"If you don't know where you're going, you might wind up someplace else."

Wise words from Yogi Berra.

Through his influence, I've come up with this: 
"Looking ahead is the same as looking back...except it is forward."

Powerful, right? Thank you.

Plan Now, Enjoy Later

I am a planner. During the summer, I find that it's imperative for me to look ahead and spend a little time making plans for the next school year. That's the only way I can sit on the beach with an umbrella drink and truly relax. There are a couple of things I do in order for that delicious relaxation to happen.

First, I expand my classroom library. My students read 8-9 independent selections during the school year, and 2-3 class novels. Many read much more, and it is directly related to the wide selection of books available in my classroom library. Most of the books were acquired because I stop in every thrift store I come across during my summer travels. Thrift stores have wonderful middle grade and young adult books. I always tell the clerk that the books are for my classroom, and they will often throw in a few extra books for free. 

I admit that thrift stores have some garbage too. I always pass up the books that smell like the crazy cat lady's house. And when I bought the books on the right, the sweet little clerk wanted to throw in a National Geographic vhs about woodpeckers, insisting my students would love it.

I was totally honest with her. I said, Darn. I already have that video! I used a similar excuse when she tried to give me some World Book Encyclopedias circa 1972.

But look at the bargains I got! The total came to $4.70, and she told me to just give her $4.00.

I just love little ladies with blue hair and cardigans. I plan on being one myself one day. Maybe I'll be a crazy cat lady with blue hair and cardigans. A girl has to keep her options open.

Second, I sneak into school to make copies of everything I need for the first week of school. I pick a day right after school ends- because NO ONE wants to be there right away- and I usually end up having the machine to myself. My go-to resource to copy is this close reading unit. 

This resource is #1 in my teaching bag of tricks. My content area teammates also count on it, so I know I am setting my students up for success in ALL of their classes by teaching them what to look for in fiction and nonfiction. Once they practice how to read closely and annotate, we can move forward to tackle challenging texts.

It's important for kids to have a plan when they read. It's important for them to know where they are going with a that they don't end up someplace else.

Now go and have an umbrella drink. It's on me. After all, I've saved all that money at the thrift store.

Teaching the Value of Gratitude

I teach wonderful kids from good families that are doing their best to instill positive values and the importance of manners. That being said, over the past few years, my darling students have brought countless school personnel to tears. That's right. Janitors, teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria aides, secretaries, guidance counselors (What? They always cry, you say? That's not nice.). Big, sloppy, blubbery, runny nosed tears.

And I couldn't be more proud.

Those tears fell because my students showed heartfelt appreciation for all the hard work school employees do to make the school run smoothly.

After reading a thank you note by George Washington Carver, the kids make a list of the many ways that the adults in the building have helped, inspired, or challenged them. I encourage them to think of the folks behind the scenes, the people who rarely get any credit but who make a real difference in the way the school runs. Maybe the bus driver has made crummy Monday mornings a little less crummy by singing along to Taylor Swift songs all the way to school. Maybe it's the friendly secretary at the front desk who always has a smile and a kind word.

Once the kids figure out who they're writing to, they use specific words and evidence to support exactly how the person has benefited them.

Generic "thank you very much, I really appreciate all you've done, and I will remember you until I'm old and my memory goes south, blah blah blah" notes will just not do.

We customize the note and elaborate by telling the person exactly what we are thankful for.

I point out that it's unacceptable to just write "Thank you for being my teacher." Instead, we write something specific, such as "Thank you for creating social studies lessons that encouraged me to love history. Your reenactments never failed to keep my attention. I especially enjoyed the one that had us acting out the immigrants' entry onto Ellis Island..."

We even talk about the past and the future by writing what the kids thought when they first met the person and how the person will influence them in the future. For example, "I admit that on the first day of practice I was nervous because you seemed so strict. Now I realize that you were just trying to help us take soccer seriously. You didn't want us to get hurt..."

After we design and decorate a custom, one of a kind 3D card, the fun really starts. Delivery day is quite a fun time. Especially if you don't mind watching some blubbering.

10 Tips to Tame the Grading Monster

I almost titled this piece, How to Grade a Boatload of Papers During a Commercial Break. My fear was that people would start leaving questions, asking me what size the boat is, and is it a barge or a cruiser, and do I prefer fresh or saltwater.

So I went the safe route. Please don't ask me about the boat.

If you are an ELA teacher, stick around. I'm fighting the same paper monster you are.  If you are a phys ed teacher, or a computer teacher, please stop laughing at us when you see us squirreled away in our classrooms grading papers during lunch. And go away. We have a wicked battle ahead. We need our strength.

Tame the Monster Tip #1: Give Kids Options

You never took an oath promising you would always grade everything. (And if you did, you really should talk to a union representative.) After your kids have completed several similar assignments, present them with the evaluation criteria you're using, and have them evaluate their own work. Then, give them the option of choosing which one is worthy of a grade. The kids benefit from this, because they learn to be critical readers. You benefit because  you've dramatically reduced the grading. Plus, you've given kids additional opportunities to flex their writing muscles. Everybody wins.

              Tame the Monster Tip #2: Give Away the Answers

If you're dealing with a short answer assignment, have the kids work in groups, and provide each group with the answers. You can even set up answer stations, with each station "hosting" a different section of the assignment. Let the kids check their work and discuss the answers along the way. 

                   Tame the Monster Tip #3: Pick Your Battles

Tell students ahead of time that you will give them credit for completing the assignment, but you will only be grading one specific component. For example, during a recent narrative writing unit, I told my students that while I conferred with them over one of their drafts, I would also be grading it based on how they punctuated the dialogue, which we'd covered in one of our mini-lessons. This was perfect, because during our conference I was reading the paper anyway, so I might as well choose something I could grade as I went along. The kids got their feedback, and since they were prepared to be assessed on the dialogue, they were able to refer to their notes to make it perfect.

                         Tame the Monster Tip #4: Take Turns

This is an oldie but a goodie. Check to see if everyone has the assignment completed, but only collect a handful to grade. For the next assignment, collect papers from a different group of kids.Everyone gets a turn, everyone gets a grade, and maybe you'll get to each lunch without smearing sriracha on Brittany's vocabulary assignment.

                      Tame the Monster Tip #5: Simplified Rubrics

Make a simple, easy to use, rubric. This works especially well when you just want to be sure the students completed something, such as homework assignments. Make multiple copies on a page, cut them out, and attach them to the assignment. Voila. If you'd like the one above, you can click it to download.

                        Tame the Monster Tip #6: Grade As You Go

Sometimes, before I collect something, I'll assign a "Do Now" and circulate around the room scoring papers as I go. Even if I only get to a few, those are papers I won't have to grade later. Plus, I'm circulating, not sitting at my desk with my feet up. That's never a good look.

                   Tame the Monster Tip #7: Use an App like Plickers

Plickers is an app that lets teachers collect formative assessment data in real time, right in the classroom. All you have to do is download the app and print out the Plickers scan cards. I printed mine on card-stock for durability. Give students multiple choice questions, and have them hold up an answer card. Scan the class with your phone or tablet, and you can immediately see which answers they have. It's great.

                                 Tame the Monster Tip #8: 

When scoring essays, use proofreading symbols and shorthand comments in the margins, rather than full words and phrases. This is not just a time-saver, it also helps students much more than circled words or x's. Most of my students like to rewrite for a higher score. If I circle their errors, there's no way for them to figure out what they did wrong, because I've done their work for them. I like the rewrite to be a learning experience, not a copying experience.

                                   Tame the Monster Tip #9:

Go over the answers as a class. I don't know why some teachers are hesitant to do this and feel like they have to collect everything. Sometimes, going over work together is the best way for the kids to get feedback. If it's an writing piece with no definitive "answers," use a document camera to show sample responses from a few brave volunteers. Or simply read them aloud and practice listening, as well.

                                  Tame the Monster Tip #10:

An esteemed colleague once gave me the most valuable advice ever. She said that every year, a teacher is entitled to forget a stack of papers on the seat of a train. If you don't take a train, feel free to leave your papers on a bus, airplane, bar-stool, stagecoach...or even a barge. 

Just please don't ask me what size the barge is.

Is That a Poem in Your Pocket?

After two weeks of state testing my kids are ready to move on. That's right. We're moving on here, people! Moving toward one of my FAVORITE days of the year.

Nope. Not my birthday. Try again.

Here are some clues: It has to do with poetry. I've blogged about it before, but I'm just so darn excited, I have to mention it again!  By now we've studied poetry. We've written some. And now we will share it!

If you guessed Poem in Your Pocket Day, give yourself a pat on the back. 

I introduced it today, and it went infinitely better than the first time I introduced it a couple of years ago. That time it went something like this. 

Me: In a few days we are going to celebrate Poem in Your Pocket Day. Have any of you ever heard of it before?

Clueless Little Girl in My Class: I have! Isn't that a saying? Isn't that why people ask, "Is that a poem..."

Oh.  No. Could this be going where I think?

Clueless Little Girl continues: " your pocket, or are you ha..."

Ooohhhh nooooo....... Think fast! Faster!

Little Girl: "...appy..."

Me, totally, rudely interrupting Clueless Little Girl in My Class: Happy! Happy! Yes, Poem in Your Pocket Day is such a happy day! Let's talk about how we will share our poems so we can make people happy....

Disaster averted. But let me tell you. I broke out in a sweat. AND I'm sure at least three gray hairs sprouted as I spoke. Maybe five. Yes, I'm sure five.

You've got to love middle schoolers.

Anyway, last year we had a blast. I told the kids that they should share a poem that they carry, and they should plant a poetry "garden."  This means choosing a line from the poem and writing it in an unexpected place. They were really excited to do this, and likened it to secretly leaving a treasure for someone to find. 

A few days after last year's Poem in Your Pocket Day, I was in the bagel store and several of the employees were grinning ear to ear as they told me that kids came in to share poems with them. They shared with bus drivers, neighbors, the principal, and more. It was great fun.

Poetry gardens were planted all over! On fruit, on seashells, and even on the bathroom mirror, written with soap. One student wrote a line on an expensive car. I'm still trying to figure that one out. I suspected it was a Matchbox, but I can't get confirmation on that. I'll try to post more pics later in the week. 

It’s fun! It’s also a great way to celebrate and discuss poetry!

If you celebrate, be sure to tweet and share pictures on Instagram. Use #pocketpoem. And please share them with me on my Facebook page!!! 

I hope there's a poem in your pocket!

Click the image below for a freebie.