Posted in #Deconstruct, Argumentative Reading and Writing, Being a better teacher, Essays, Reflection, Writing

Dismantling Essays: essays in the wild

I have broken every single one of these rules.

In my continuing effort to change how and why teachers approach essay writing, I’ve come across some amazing resources. One of the most discussed posts was one I shared, via Sarah Donovan, via Three Teachers Talk: Three Reasons to Stop Teaching The Five Paragraph Essay .

I am a huge fan of John Warren’s writing, Why They Can’t Write: I believe it should be required reading and professional development by every high school English and History teacher (and Science, Math, PE, Orchestra, Art, etc.) for one important reason: he provides a road map to where our students are headed. If the five-paragraph essay is the only path and scaffold to instruct students on organization, we have lost our why. So, this is not a hit on the five-paragraph essay structure as much as it is a call to look closely at the why of explaining organization. Continuing the curation of mentor texts and redefining what an essay looks like is of utmost important to me. I am constantly striving to reconsider, rethink, and reflect on the practice of teaching and learning about writing.

Some of my previous posts on this topic:

Essays Revisited:

And Shawna Coppola wrote Writing Redefined (and I’m kicking my lazy, procrastinating self for not getting to my own writing book) and provided this take on multimodal learning: Multimodal is my thing. Here are some more mentor text examples of essays in the wild and using multimodal pathways to redefine what an essay is:

Interactive Projects:
Posted in PBIS

trial by paperwork*

*Or death by a thousand paper cuts. 

**This end with ice cream.

Life moves pretty fast, as the young man said.

For my evaluation process this year, I attempted a feat of strength, a trifecta, a hat trick, lessons of amazement and wonder, never attempted before! I would have three observations in one week, walking through the first-run process of a passion project.

Animated GIF-downsized

3/26 Monday: Originally scheduled to be a testing day, but the schedule changed to a normal day. We moved forward with analyzing data on multitasking we had procured the week before and had time to work on the passion projects. Met with my evaluator to go over our notes from a book study, Better Than Carrots or Sticks. (I thought that was my only book study, but alas, there is more to do this weekend I found out yesterday/Friday.) Here is the link to a few of my annotations.

What students read:

Learning Target and Success Criteria:

This week we’ll be finishing and sharing our passion projects. 

A passion project that combines creativity with technology and personal interests can be open-ended, but doing nothing or no exploration is not acceptable.

Creating projects and designs keeps life interesting!

Success Criteria:

By the end of the week, I’ll have my passion project ready to share in a Gallery Walk. I will write my own reflection on the process, as well as receive feedback from my peers. 

What some of them heard: “I can sit and play Roblox all week, I have plenty of time, I don’t know what to do, I NEED HALP, *scowl* *roll eyes* *scowl some more*

3/27 Tuesday: 1/3 observation

(One thing my evaluator noticed was that I read the Learning Targets and Success Criteria to students: for about eight years that is what I was instructed to do by other evaluators. I guess we have something different in place now. Oftentimes I have them write it in their notebooks, turn and talk, and allow photos of the LT/SC. I also put them on the Canvas site, too, every day. There is a triangulation of students knowing what to do. That doesn’t guarantee, however, they do it.)

IMG_7301 (1)

Okay, I loved this lesson, and am going to tweak it for future use.

Each student received a 3″x5″ index card and talked to each other about their projects. This is not the only opportunity students received, in fact, along the way there were 4-6 chances to talk about their project and publically and partner declare what it might be. There was a brainstorming process, a self-interview, etc. Students still asked me “Is it okay if…” questions. Yes, young padawon. It’s okay.

Aside from one girl who fell backward in her chair, and another new-ish student who is often defiant about seating arrangements, and another who just could not control gravity, I chalked it up to fairly typical middle school stuff. I keep calm and my teacher moves include not adding to the stress or drama, but using humor.


March_27_2018 2


March 27 2018

3/28 Wednesday: 2/3 observation. Wednesdays are shortened schedule days, and the students were a little off. My friend Sharon and I share one student in particular who will not work with others, or in class. If we contact his dad he’ll stay after and work, and I think he appreciates the time and attention.

3/29 Thursday: Back to a 3-hour testing block

3/30 Friday: Final 3/3 observation. The final passion projects are due. Rough estimate 70% are in a panic in every class. One girl who made a YouTube video shared with me in a whisper she was nervous about sharing. And one girl in the sixth period quietly told me how much she loved reading the feedback on her Wows/Wonders form. Throughout the day there were many successes.

Almost forgot one of the best parts: give students who didn’t finish the work an out, and help build community. On the Wow/Wonder feedback sheet, students were directed to write encouraging statements and offers of help/support:


feedback types

Gallery Walks for students the first time through are usually mild chaos. It takes a lot of practice to do them well. Did my students during my observation participate wonderfully? Of course not. But I know the pitfalls: even if the expectations and success are clearly stated, that does not guarantee those targets will be met. I wish sometimes evaluators would look at a lesson more like a rocket launch: it takes a lot of experimentation before that thing flies. Great teachers know this.

Here is what how the assessments informed my future instruction:

  1. They still need practice with specific feedback. For their first Wow/Wonder attempt, not too shabby. I’ll pull together some quotes and have them revise and evaluate what they think is helpful feedback and what isn’t.
  2. There will be another passion project/genius hour project soon. This takes repetitive practice. Although this one was all about choice, that left many flailing. As they become stronger with the technology tools at their disposal, their craft will be better, too.
  3. When they wrote their reflections on their rubrics, many struggled on what to say. This is not uncommon when self-assessment is a rote answer and not necessarily about a creative process.
  4. When I shared my observations, the one thing I said from the heart is that to do something on one’s own is scary, that I understand that many of them just want ‘the worksheet’ and fill in the blank, and when a teacher offers choice, the fear of the blank canvas can be overwhelming. Some students are overconfident and think they can make something last minute just to get it done, and then realize that others have things they’re proud of, and it becomes a sour grapes moment for them.

This is the altered rubric I used from PBL:

Creativity Rubric BIE

But the biggest success of all was one student who has barely done a single assignment all semester. He put together a presentation on fun cooking ideas that completely rocked! I am so proud of this kid! That was a perfect launch and landing, and I can’t ask for more than that. Next time the turn-in rate will go from 50% on time to much higher, I have no doubt.

I told you this would end with ice cream:

I will never mark down for late work, but there are some good ideas in here.

17 tips

Oh, and yes: I had a few kids text or call their parents.

This one sounds a little dreamy, but it might work.

Posted in Being a better teacher, burning questions



I’ve been doing a post-a-day faithfully since January 1, 2010. I skipped yesterday’s post. Instead, I spent from about 8am-3pm writing for one of my own personal BIG projects. And then I went with my family to watch “Alice in Wonderland” at the IMAX theatre in 3-D. (Kind of a disappointment, but visually breathtaking. Maybe Mrs. Wagner is right, and Tim Burton should just stick to set design; he can’t pick scripts.)

ANYWAY…in order to meet a big deadline, things, life, people, have been pushed aside while I focus on this…ONE….BIG….THING….and it does have a hard and fast deadline.

“Deadline” sounds so much more ominous than “due date.” Due date sounds kind of like, well, great if you get it done, but if not, it’s flexible. “Deadline” has the word “dead” in it, as in all life will cease to exist unless this task is completed on this metaphorical line. I keep thinking, “When this is over…I will…(fill in the blank).” The blank is filled in with everything from getting the oven fixed, paying bills on time, going shopping, spending more time with my sons, husband, and friends; spring-cleaning the house and writing the great American novel. (Or, at least a new script for “Alice”- maybe Burton can take a mulligan on that one.)

Sometimes I wonder if we (teachers) are doing you (students) a disservice when it comes to project-based learning.  Project-based learning is when the assignments are layered, building on one another to create one final project, like our Burning Questions unit. You had several steps along the way, and for the most part, you did a really good job. But I’m sure some of your other classes’ work/assignments were pushed aside. Now that you’re done with that, your focus went to other classes. We really are poor at multi-tasking, no matter what we say. But maybe we should embrace this more, recognize it, admit it, and deal with it:  wouldn’t it be great if in all of your classes, Math, Science, Social Studies, your Elective, Language Arts, and PE/Health, what you were learning was all connected at any one time? That’s called “integration.” It’s when your classes all work together to teach the BIG ideas.

For example, if you were studying Ancient Greece in World History, we would do our Greek mythology unit, and you would learn about Ancient Greece’s contributions to Math and Science, and maybe play Olympic style games in PE, and in your art elective, learn about classical art and architecture, and its influences on our own government buildings, including the White House. You would definitely have a deeper understanding of culture and influences over time, wouldn’t you?

Well, that’s just a dream of mine, to really have integrated curriculum, where you apply your learning across many areas. I cringe every time I have tried this and a student says, “This isn’t MATH CLASS!”

It’s not? Then why do I need to know how to read a bank statement, a mortgage loan document, understand my taxes, and be able to read contracts?

Those deadlines and due dates wouldn’t seem so scary if you knew that everything you were learning worked together, would they?

Deadlines and due dates aren’t going to go away. They will be part of your life from now on. When you work, you will have to meet goals in order to keep your job. Even if you’re a barista at Starbucks, they time you from when the order’s taken to the time you call the drink out to the customer. (I know, because I was a barista.) Each drink has specifications – extra foamy non-fat drinks need to weigh this many grams, and need to be at specific temperatures. And yes, there is a supervisor who comes around to all of the stores and checks to make sure you’re meeting quality standards. Thanks a latte.

In any job or career you choose there are standards and levels of quality performance. It may not be funny or fun to think about right now, and you don’t really have to. Dig into your learning now. I wish someone had said to me, “Gee, why don’t you go read a novel instead of cleaning the bathrooms?” but alas, that won’t happen.

Next time you’re grumbling about your free, public education with highly qualified teachers who are pushing you toward meeting and exceeding academic standards, perhaps you will think to yourself this is one deadline you can handle, and you don’t have to clean a toilet.