Preparing for Maternity, Paternity, or Family Leave

IMG_2133Teacher friends, I know that many of you are like me with a serious appetite for control.  Organizing, planing, and assessing variables are some of the things that make us good teachers. They are also some of the exact things we need to let go of when preparing for a maternity, paternity, or family leave sub.  I’m currently in the process of preparing to take maternity leave for my second baby.  It is such a personal decision and a personal process that I can’t emphasize enough how different this experience can be for everyone.  No parent should feel compelled to fit neatly into the model that worked for their co-workers, friends, or even themselves with a previous child.  As a society and as a profession, we should reach out in support for people needing to take family leave no matter if they are: mothers or fathers, biological or adoptive parents, caring for a baby or a relative of another age or in any other circumstance.  That being said, I would like to go through a few things that I think are good to think about when preparing for family leave.

1. Timing: As with many things in life, timing is everything.  Unfortunately, we cannot always plan these things, so here are some time issues to consider:

  • Time of year: If you are going to be gone for the first few weeks of a school year, it may be advantageous to leave some detailed instructions for policies and procedures that will help you transition smoothly into the rest of the year (but be prepared to start over when you come back anyway).  If you will be gone during testing, you can communicate proactively to assure students that they will still be able to do their best.  If you are going to miss the end of the year, be realistic with what a sub can cover!  Fourth quarter is a hard time for all of us.  No matter what period you will be missing, think about what may come up during that time and plan accordingly as much as possible.
  • How much time you have to prepare: Some teachers have 30+ weeks to prepare and some teachers have an emergency that necessitates a quick exit.  Do what you can, but don’t beat yourself up if you need to leave in a hurry.  As much as we love to control our classrooms, sometimes we have to give ourselves an excused assignment and trust that our capable colleagues, administrators, and substitutes will have our back.
  • How much time you will need off: I am a fan of over preparing just in case you need more time than you originally expect.  Over-preparation will also help smooth the transition back since you will have many things already taken care of!

2. The Sub: If you are lucky enough to know who your sub will be in advance of your absence, you can use that information to effectively plan.  Experienced subs may need very little more than an outline of what should be covered during your absence.  Newbies may want more scaffolding and resources.  There can also be a trust factor when preparing for a sub, especially for secondary teachers.  We have spent our careers building, tweaking, and perfecting our curriculum and assessment banks.  It can be scary to hand over the keys and other resources, knowing that a careless steward can result in having to recreate final exams and other sensitive materials.

3. School Culture: Your school may have a well-estabished protocol for preparing for a long-term sub.  It is helpful to ask administrator and any co-workers who have been through the process before you start preparing just in case there is a specific plan already in place or in case they have some time-saving advice for you.

4. The Students: If you have students or parents that will be espeically sensitive to your absence, consider how to best preparing them in advance, but also consider creating something for the sub to share with them while you are gone.  You can pre-write some notes of encouragement or pre-record a video pep talk to pump them up before things like graduation or a big test.

5. Your Situation: It is not fair to compare.  You may be ready to come back sooner or later than your co-workers in similar situations.  You may be dealing with more complicated medical issues or other private factors.  Don’t expect that your path will match the expectations of those around you.  Allow yourself the space to take care of yourself and your family so that when you return, you are ready to take care of the students in front of you.

Our jobs are incredibly important.  We change lives. Many of us count our students as our children.  In the end, though we must let go in order to take care of ourselves and our families.  We have to rely on each other to keep the system moving and care for the young minds entrusted to our care.  The issues above are ever-present in the minds of teachers preparing for leave, but should also be present in the minds of fellow teachers who can choose to be part of the support system.

We’d love to hear your leave stories, advice, and questions in the comment section below.

A Creative Spin on Argument Writing

argumentNo matter which standards you are currently in alignment with, argument writing is an incredibly important mainstay of English curricula.  Arguments can take many forms, and sometimes it is fun to mix up the writing assignments to inspire students to use their creativity and have a little fun (especially during fourth quarter)!  Today I want to share a writing assignment that fell into my lap recently and turned out to be a great experience for my secondary students.  Last week, I was reading the New Yorker and I came across this article that described a couple’s first dinner in the form of a recipe. I thought that it was an interesting social commentary that teenagers could easily relate to (even though the article is geared toward young adults).  So, I decided to mix up the argument writing for the week to include an assignment modeled after this article. We read the article together and discussed the elements of style, content, and convention that were employed as well as the arguments, both explicit and implicit.  A couple of the reasons I liked this assignment were:

  • It allowed students to read a relevant professional model of interesting prose.
  • It engaged students in a creative (dare I say fun) writing assignment.
  •  It still covered some standards that I am always working on (namely CCS 9-12 Writing.1 A,C,D)
    • Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
    • Introduce precise, knowledgeable claim(s), establish the significance of the claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that logically sequences claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.
    • Use words, phrases, and clauses as well as varied syntax to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships between claim(s) and reasons, between reasons and evidence, and between claim(s) and counterclaims.
    • Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing.

The Prompt:

Write a social commentary that takes the form of a process.  Teacher Note: We extensively brainstormed social issues/situations and process writing forms in class.  Social issues included things like: family dynamics/sibling rivalries, report card season, smart phone use, sports team/club/group hierarchies, college applications, and other topics.  Processes included: writing a recipe, giving directions, giving a formal invitation, and proctoring a test among other ideas.

Would you use this assignment in your class?   What other creative ways do you teach argument writing?   We’d love to hear from you in the comment section below!

Helping Students Manage Testing Stress

test stressDuring this time of year, students across the country feel anxiety levels begin to creep up due to the onslaught of high stakes testing.  Some take it all in stride, while others reach panic mode before the first bubble is even filled in.  Whether they are taking the SAT, ACT, State Proficiency Test, Common Core Assessment, Advanced Placement Test, finals, or any other high stakes test, the pressure on students can be very real.  For some, test results will go a long way toward high school graduation or college acceptance.  So how do we help them deal with the anxiety associated with these tests?  I’m sharing some ideas below, and I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section following this post.

1. Validate their feelings. Especially in the case of high school exit exams and college entrance tests, test scores have become really important to the lives of some teenagers. Others face extreme pressure to excel from home or competitive peers.  Instead of ignoring their anxiety or brushing it off as silly, we can do our best to understand and commiserate.  Sometimes all students need is someone to listen to their frustrations and then develop a solid plan for moving forward.

2. Keep it in perspective. As adults and professionals we have seen the tests come, go, and change over the years.  We know that students have so much more to offer this world than a simple exam score.  We can consciously discuss with our students the idea that the score does not define them and in many meaningful ways doesn’t have long term implications on their lives.  There are almost always options for students struggling with high school standards, and almost all colleges weigh grades, co-curriucular activities, and other considerations more heavily than test scores alone.

3. Practice. Whether you start the class with a practice warm-up question daily, do a full “dress rehearsal”,  or find other ways to familiarize students with test directions and questions, students will benefit from demystifying the test with some solid practice.

4. Build them up. We can (and probably should) spend three quarters of the year giving students critical feedback on their skills, including those which will be tested. We do them no favors by sugar-coating their areas of improvement.  However, there comes a time when we need to switch modes and become their cheerleader.  We want them to go into the test with confidence.  For me, this is usually a couple of weeks before the test.  I like to show this Amy Cuddy TED talk and practice power posing a little:

5. Make sure they have the personal bases covered.  Knowing your students and the context in which you teach, you probably have a good idea if someone is going to struggle with having the pencils/pens, nutritious food, a good night sleep, emotional support, a ride to the test, and other basic needs.  When we can do something to privately and considerately reach out to these students, we can help relieve the survival pressures that pile on top of regular test stress.

What would you add to this list?  How do you keep your students calm in testing season?

How and Why to Try Partner Quizzes in Your Classroom

partner quizzesI love to mix up my assessment strategies to incorporate old, faithful methods as well as creative, new approaches.  Today I want to talk about why and how partner quizzes work for a secondary English classroom.  Note: I have heard of some teachers/professors successfully using small groups of 3-4 on both quizzes and exams, but I only have experience with partners on lower-stakes quizzes.  I’d love to hear your comments, questions, and suggestions below!

Why partner quizzes work:

They work to compel-

  • Engagement: Add the word quiz in place of a normal collaborative assignment and suddenly they really want to get the answers correct.  Even my less motivated students love the idea of getting a great quiz score because they were able to discuss answers with a partner.  They feel like they are cheating the system, when really they are having amazing debates and conversations about the material I want them to master!
  • Collaboration: In partner quizzes students are able to add to each other’s ideas and bring each of their strengths to the table, which usually leads to more complete, thoughtful answers.  As we prepare them for adulthood, learning meaningful collaboration is paramount!
  • Student-led Teaching: We all know that students understand the material better when they can teach/explain it to another student.  Partner quizzes help provide this teaching opportunity.
  • Preparation: Group quizzes can add a little bit of healthy peer pressure to prepare.  This is especially true if the partnerships are not announced until the day of the quiz.  Most teenagers do not want to appear unprepared to their peers (even though they often pretend like they are too cool).  A gentle discussion of the embarrassment that may ensue for an unprepared student can go a long way the day before a quiz.

Tips for How to Make Partner Quizzes Work:

  • Instructions: Make sure to give clear instructions about what successful collaboration looks like and how the process of taking/grading the quiz will work. Explain the most advantageous ways to go about completing the task.
  • Grouping: Decide how you want to create partners- by ability, by choice, by random draw.  There are benefits to each of these methods, which you can play around with given your own classroom context.
  • Multiple Quiz Versions: If you are worried about other groups overhearing and copying answers, you can make multiple versions of the quiz.
  • Individual vs. Group Grades: In my view, you have three main choices here:
    • Each student fills out the quiz and you randomly grade one quiz and enter for both students.  This helps make sure they are checking each other’s work and both participating.  I grade for content and mechanics, so they have to proofread for each other too.
    • Each student fills out the quiz for his/herself and is each quiz is graded.  This allows students to discuss answers, but ultimately come to different conclusions.
    • Each pair fill out one quiz.  This cuts down on paper.
  • Types of Questioning: Generally, open-ended, higher level thinking questions are better for partner quizzes so that students have something meaningful to discuss and write about.  I only use multiple choice for partner quizzes, with my advanced placement class with very difficult rhetorical analysis questions.
  • Sporadic Use:  I think partner quizzes work best when they only happen occasionally.  I only use them for formative quizzes and then have individuals work on tests/exams.  In my experience, when they are used too often, students start finding ways to avoid the work.

What are your questions or experiences?  We’d love to hear them!

7 Assignment Ideas for Movie Day in the English Classroom

moviesMovies days in high school classrooms have a bad reputation for being a waste of time or a teacher cop out, but English teachers show movies for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to:

  • Giving context to a novel unit (e.g. showing the Emmett Till biography during the  TKAM unit).
  • Helping students understand the authors behind their favorite works (e.g. showing the Ken Burns documentary on Twain before starting Huck Finn).
  • Adding to a universal theme that will help students understand literature in a deeper way (e.g. showing an American Dream movie during the Gatsby unit).
  • Helping emerging readers visualize the characters or plot (e.g. showing the 1968 Romeo and Juliet while going through the play).

Even when we have the very best of intentions, adding a student assignment is one way to make movie days even more productive.  Below are 10 ideas for student assignments during movie days.  We’d love to hear your questions, comments and suggestions in the comment section.

  • Write a critique or review of the movie or documentary.  Students can be prompted to think about arrangement/organization, costuming, or other elements of the film.
  • Create a Venn Diagram to spot the similarities and differences between the movie and the book.  This can work with the movie version of a book or a related movie if students look at the similarities/differences in context or theme.
  • Create mock interviews with characters or commentators.
  • Take guided notes. This takes a lot of preparation from the teacher preparing the guide before hand, but it can help students focus in on the important elements that you want them to pay attention to.
  • Ask socratic questions. Students can prepare questions as they watch and participate in a socratic seminar after the movie is over.
  • Write a synthesis essay in which they bring together elements of the novel and the movie to support their argument.
  • Structure a debate around questions raised in the novel and the movie.

What other questions or suggestions do you have for movies in the classroom?  We’d love to hear from you in the comment section below!

The Evaluations Teachers Should Be Getting

Teacher evaluation pin

Teachers are sick and tired of evaluations that focus primarily on standardized test scores or a short observation from an administrator who may not have a full picture of the scope and context of the class.  Most teachers take their work extremely seriously, working long hours to improve curriculum, communication, intervention, and the general quality of life and education for their students.  Below is the evaluation I think we should be getting. What do you think?  What would you add?  Let us know in the comment section below!


Teacher Evaluation



The following questions should be answered after a collaborative discussion between teacher and administrator. (Response boxes can be expanded)

1. What are you Proud of?   Please Share some of the success stories from this school year so far. How have you impacted the life of a student(s)? What creative strategies have you tried? What is going well in your classroom?

2. Let’s talk about overtime and extra-curriculars. Document the clubs, sports, field trips, and extra support services that may not be recognized by the administration or required in your contract. How are you balancing your time planning, grading, contacting parents, and preparing for class? Is there anything the school can do to support you in this area?

3. What kinds of additional support can the school provide? Do students need food, school supplies, emotional support, academic intervention services, or anything else? Do you need resources, professional development, or other work related items? How can the school ensure the financial burden is not solely yours?

Employee Signature

Administrator Signature



Tracking Color Symbolism in The Great Gatsby

GatsbyThe Great Gatsby is widely-regarded as one of the great American novels and many of us teach it every year to secondary students who seem to instantly get the feeling of lost dreams, the feeling of being “within and without” and the feeling that the American Dream is too good to be true.  If you are looking for thoughtful, creative, standards-based (NCTE/IRA National ELA and Common Core) lessons and assessments that will engage your students and save you a ton of time, I recommend you head over to buy it in print or pdf from Secondary Solutions!

Today, I want to share a strategy that can help students track the color symbolism as it develops in The Great Gatsby. Students will “analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.” (CCS 11-12.2)

I do this activity once students are finished with the novel, but it can be adapted to do half way through and then again at the end so that there is a more manageable amount of data to work with.  To go through this thoroughly, this usually takes me a couple of days in class.

Step 1: Assign students to 9 jigsaw groups. Give each group a chapter and ask them to make a list of ALL of the times anything is described by color. For example in chapter 2:

  • Valley of Ashes (men, cars, landscape)- grey
  • TJ Eckleburg’s eyes – blue
  • TJ Eckleburg’s glasses- yellow

Step 2: Create large posters for each major color. I use poster sized sticky notes so that I can easily put them around the room during the analysis phase, but any large paper would work. I make the following 9 posters (since there are 9 chapters and 9 groups):

  • Gold
  • Yellow
  • Blue
  • Green
  • White
  • Pink and Red (Separately, but the lists are short so I put both on the same poster)
  • Grey/Black (I combine them)
  • Silver and Multi-colored (separate)
  • Other (This will include brown, lavender, and everything else they find)

Step 3: Have students add their evidence, passing the papers from group to group until all evidence is added. I give a couple of minutes per color and let students know that they may not have found every color in every chapter.


Step 4: Go through the colors, one by one analyzing the significance of the colors. I usually lead this as a whole group discussion, but it could also be done at a small group level for more advanced students.  Although there are many interpretations, I usually go with some version of the following:

  • Gold: Old Money, Class, The Unattainable
  • Yellow: New Money, Social Climbing, Fakeness
  • Blue: Illusion, Unreality
  • Green: Hope, Future, American Dream (Not purely positive connotations)
  • White: Rigidity, Lack of Substance
  • Pink: Fresh, New, Beginnings and Red: Passion, Anger, Lust, Tension
  • Grey/Black: Hopelessness, Poverty, Corruption of the American Dream, Consequences
  • Silver: Money and Multi-colored: Opportunity
  • Other: This one depends on which colors students discuss.  I only discuss these if time permits.


Step 5: Look at the big picture. After all of the pain-staking close analysis of color symbolism, I do a think-pair-share about author’s purpose and the overall effect on the novel.

Extension/Assessment: Have students write about the meaning behind one or more of the colors discussed in class.

What do you think of this strategy?  We’d love to hear your comments, questions, or insights below!

Don’t forget to go over to Secondary Solutions for the Gatsby Reading Guide and much more!

7 Tips for Acing a Formal Observation

observatonMy school is in an accreditation year, so we have been preparing in many ways for formal observations within our school community and from the accreditation team.  (I’m on the west coast, so we are governed by WASC.) I normally really enjoy informal observations by department members and colleagues because I find that they are a great feedback tool for my own reflection and professional growth.  During informal observations, I like to try out new methodologies or focus on meeting the needs of a particular group of students. Then, I like to debrief with my observer and brainstorm ideas for future tweaks.  However, formal observations can have a very different plan and purpose.  These are the types of observations you know will occur in advance and typically are not followed by collaborative feedback.  These are the observations that you want to knock out of the park with a home run. Below are 7 tips for acing a formal evaluation.  I’d love to hear your comments or concerns in the comment section below.

7 Tips for Acing a Formal Observation:

1. Practice the Strategy: When you are trying to guarantee an observation win, it is probably best to not to schedule the observation for the first day of a complex strategy like literature circles or your first day using a particular technology.  Pick something for which students understand the expectations and you have worked out most of the bugs.  The more comfortable you and the students are, the smoother the lesson will seem to an outside observer.

2. Set out Lesson Plans and Handouts: Have lesson plans and handouts ready for the observer so that the objectives, standards, and procedures are clear even if they do not stay for the whole lesson.  I like to include the whole week’s lesson plan so that they can see how the lesson is part of a larger unit of study with multiple means of teaching and assessment.

3. Be Early: On the day of your formal observation, be early so you can put out any fires that come up and be both physically and mentally prepared for the lesson.

4. Dress for the Job: Of course, we think about this all the time as professional teachers, but be especially careful about the optics on observation days.  If your lesson involves a lot of circulating the room, are your shoes comfortable but professional?  If you need to lean in to join collaborative groups, will your choice of clothing remain modest?

5. Be Aware of your Energy Levels: Don’t let nervous energy start you off talking a mile a minute.  Also, don’t get so focused on controlling behavior issues that you forget to smile and enjoy the lesson.  No matter how you feel in the pit of your stomach, let your positive energy rub off on students and the observer.

6. Structure the Transitions: Transitions between activities are the most chaotic part of most lessons. While a minute or two of chaos does not bother me on most days, when I am planning a formal observation, I make sure that my transitions are even more structured than normal with explicit instructions and time limits.

7. Pick Engaging Lessons that are Appropriate to the Unit: You know yourself and your class best.  I don’t think that you have to include teacher centered lecture or collaborative group work, but you should play to your strengths. If you have an amazing lecture on the Trojan War that precedes the Odyssey unit, a group of students who shine in Literature Circles / Socratic Seminar, or a technology that engages students in meaningful learning, then go for it!  However, make sure that your lesson fits into the unit or flow of your curriculum schedule.  It would be really embarrassing for students to point out a lesson that doesn’t seem to flow with non-observed curriculum!

What are your questions, tips, or experiences with formal observation?  We’d love to hear them in the comment section below!

Tips for Keeping Students Healthy

HealthyAs teachers, we all know that we tend to be so much more than curriculum delivery people.  We are nurses, counselors, food distributors, cheerleaders, disciplinarians, parental figures, and so much more.  As a collective, we know that effective teaching and learning can only happen when the classroom is a safe and healthy environment.  Today, let’s talk about ways to help our students stay healthy.  Of course, we will not irradiate the common cold before our next Chaucer lecture, but we can take some steps toward healthier students without taking too much time out of our already packed agendas.  Below are a few tips that I’ve put together.  Feel free to add your tips in the comment section!

1. Clean the room. I like to stock up on the disinfecting wipes from costco or target when I see them on sale.  Then, I set a routine to clean at intervals.  Some years I have required detention students to wipe down my room and other years I have given myself the task for Friday mornings when I am less motivated by piles of paper and so a little grunt work and mental reflection time does me well.  Areas to be sure to clean:

  • Desks
  • Pencil sharpeners/Staplers
  • Door knobs/Railings
  • Phones/iPads/etc (If you have a class set of devices, it is a very good idea to clean them regularly- I read somewhere that our phones are usually dirtier than a public toilet!  I also encourage students to clean their own devices, especially when the cold and flu season hits.  Be sure that whatever you are using to clean is approved for use on electronics.)

2. Encourage good habits. We are busy with teaching, testing, and other daily classroom chores, but teachers can make it a habit to encourage healthy behavior through a quick announcement routine, poster, or a tip of the day on the board.  Some tips to include for high school students include:

  • Washing hands: This is not just a rule for the preschoolers!
  • Drinking water: Consider allowing and encouraging students to drink water in class.
  • Eating right/Exercising: Teens probably hear this from their parents all the time, but we can be another voice in their heads working for good.
  • Getting enough sleep: Staying up all night is main stay of teenage life whether they are texting, gaming, studying, or doing anything else.  Help reinforce the value of a good night’s sleep.  Some of them may hear you.
  • Coughing/Sneezing ettiquette: In my son’s preschool class, the students are well trained to avoid coughing and sneezing on each other or on their own hands.  In my high school class, not so much.  I think overall high schoolers just need a gentle reminder here and there.

3. Be mindful of stressors. We see in study after study that stress has a negative effect on health.  We cannot eliminate all stress from teenage life, but we can be mindful of the things in our control that may exacerbate the problem.

  • Homework: I saw this CNN article recently that looked at the issue of homework and sickness in students. Homework is inevitable in most secondary classrooms, but as teachers we can still be mindful of the quantity and timelines of assignments.  I do my best to give students a schedule of homework with advance notice so that they can plan their schedules accordingly.
  • Missing class: When students need to miss class for illness, sports, clubs, or other reasons, it can be very stressful to catch up on all 6 subjects while staying up on current work.  For these students, communication is key to keeping them on track.  Posting assignments on a calendar/website/social media account or answering emails in a timely fashion can keep students from falling too far behind and then falling into the cycle of stress and sickness.
  • Big projects: Some students make themselves sick with worry over big projects.  Ramping up to a major presentation or giving small steps for a larger research paper can help students manage the stress.

What do you do to help students stay healthy?   We’d love to hear from you in the comment section below!