Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Some Back-to-School Inspiration: "What Teachers Make"

My classroom will be filled with teenagers in exactly four weeks.  It's exciting, and scary, and exhausting.  There's so much to do this time of year that it's easy to lose sight of what we're really here for-- so I wanted to keep this in mind as the insanity ensues.

Taylor Mali, slam poet, wrote and delivered this piece, titled “What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World."  

His take on what teachers really make . . . 

"I make a difference.  Now what about you?"

On a side note, don't forget to check out my Giveaway- only four days left to enter!
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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Controversial Literature: Why I Teach Huck Finn

I just read an interesting article on Education Week's website called "A Dissent on Teaching Huckleberry Finn," written by Kent Oswald.  The author is against the teaching of what I consider to be Mark Twain's greatest work of American literature.  Unlike most opponents of Huck Finn in the classroom, though, Oswald doesn't argue that the novel is racist, or uses inappropriate language, but that it's difficult to understand.  He writes:

 "Potential barriers for teen readers include Twain's use of highly colloquial period-speech and subtle subversion of the religious and slaveholding conventions of his contemporaries, not to mention some highly dense sections. So where is the rationale for forcing teens to read a book whose story is more or less simple but whose context is more complex than most of them are prepared for?"

As a high school English teacher who delights in teaching this book, I have to disagree.  I choose to share Huck with my students for many reasons, and some of them are the exact reasons Oswald is using to argue against it.


I love that Twain uses "colloquial" speech.  In a world where my Appalachian students are told that their regional speech patterns are "wrong" and "backward," I enjoy showing them that there can be a time and place to celebrate the dialects that make us unique.  Yes, it takes time to read and understand the dialogue, but so does Shakespeare.  Anyone want to ban Shakespeare from the English classroom?  Not this girl.

Secondly, Twain's "subtle subversion" of pre-Civil War America's racism is the best teaching tool the novel provides.  By helping my students to understand satire and the subtleties of political speech, I am helping them become stronger decision makers and setting them up for future election campaigns in which they'll need to make important voting decisions (and see through the crap).  Mark Twain also sets an incredible example by making his statement quietly, but with force.  He didn't need violence to get his point across-- just a pen.  What a great lesson for my students!

I, for one, don't see myself setting this book aside anytime soon.  Among the novels I teach with my freshman English classes, this one wins the prize for inspiring real critical thinking and open discussion with my students.  If it's kind of hard to read, so be it. When we stop teaching anything hard, what will become of our kids?

I'd love to hear your feedback on Huck Finn or any other controversial texts-- please be nice and remember that this is a place of peace, love, and learning!

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Monday, July 22, 2013

Blog Gems Brag / Giveaway

I have some awesome news, friends!  

First, my favorite ever blogger, E at E, Myself, and I shared my "Open Letter to New Teachers" in her Blog Gems post for last week.  Sooooo exciting-- really, go look!

I am thrilled . . . over the moon . . . to be recognized like this.  In honor of this little achievement as a new blogger, I'm hosting my first ever giveaway!!!!  I'm an English teacher who hates the over-use of exclamation points, so you can see how excited I really am.  I just used four.

The good folks over at have agreed to share a $25 gift code with one of my lucky readers.  They make beautiful, sophisticated-yet-adorable personalized stationery, life planners . . . and lesson planners.  I have heard nothing but good things about their products, so I'm super excited about sharing this with you all.


Contest ends one week from today, and I'll contact the winner via email within 48 hours of the contest end.  Get to it, y'all!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Monday, July 15, 2013

An Open Letter to New Teachers

Dear New Teacher Class of 2013-14,

   Welcome!  It is so nice to meet you.  Despite what some folks will tell you, you have chosen the best job ever.  Congratulations on your brilliance!  Unfortunately, you aren't prepared.  You can't really be prepared, despite the excellent teacher-prep program you completed, the GPA you fought for, and the semester (or more) of unpaid (but near full-time) teaching experience.  The good news is that no one is ever prepared, so you're not alone. 

Some things you should know:

  • Your first year is going to be hard.  Really hard.  So hard you're going to consider new prescription meds, different career paths, and/or moving to Siberia alone.
  • You're going to mess up.  You'll lose your stack of freshly copied tests, spill coffee on your students' papers, forget faculty meetings, and break fire code just as soon as the fire marshal walks in. Not that I've done any of those things.
  • Your classroom that looks so cute in August?  It's going to look like a war zone by September.  Kids are super messy-- no matter what age.
  • You should buy lots of extra pencils and paper, because kids are also thieves.  I would suggest buying in bulk.
  • You should start bladder training now.  You will have to go hours without a restroom, especially if you teach the little ones.
  • Your non-teacher friends will forget what you look like.  Be prepared to work 60 hour weeks.  Unfortunately, lesson plans don't make themselves, and there isn't a Grading Fairy.
But at the end of every day, you should know this:  the work you do is the most important work there is.  Your kids will constantly surprise you, inspire you, and make you laugh.  Your work will be hard, but it will also be fun and incredibly rewarding.  If you've been called to teach, all the bad will become minuscule in comparison to the beautiful.  

Have a crazy, difficult, busy, fantastic first year!

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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Setting Soft Goals for Students

I just read an interesting article from Vicki Davis at the Cool Cat Teacher Blog called "Why you should set soft goals for your classroom this year."  Davis defines "soft goals" as goals that aren't determined by test scores or standards.  Instead, they are "to be" goals that must come before the "to do" goals you set.  We must decide what we want our students to be before we can get them to do.  In response to that post, I did some reflecting and brainstorming of my own.  What do I want for my students of 2013-14?  What do I want them to be?  

I decided I wanted my students to be more:
1. passionate
2. open-minded
3. perseverant
4. focused

Now for the hard part-- how to get them there?

I believe the best way to teach is to model, so I must consistently be all of these things.  That's not terribly hard for me, so what else can I do?  Some ideas . . .

To help my students be passionate about their school, I can use my brand-new newspaper elective class to build school spirit through writing.

To help my students be more open-minded, I can share examples of characters in literature who excel at open-mindedness (like Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird) and host class discussions about the benefits of such a trait.

To help my students be more perseverant, I can hold academic conferences with my students and help them set reachable goals for themselves.  
To help my students be more focused, I can use the new block schedule to divide class time into 15-20 minute mini-lessons.  When attention starts to wane, we'll be on to the next topic.

I'd love to see some of my readers' soft goals.  Please share!

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

DonorsChoose: How to Get Free Stuff for Your Classroom

This four-day blogging hiatus brought to you by the first sunshiny days we've had in 1,988,345 weeks.  (Or something like that).  Now back to rain, and back to business . . . 

How often do you find yourself wishing you had something (novel sets, a new LCD projector, a document camera, art supplies) for your classroom?  That beginning-of-year stipend doesn't go very far, and neither do our paychecks.  I discovered DonorsChoose very early in my teaching career, and it has been my best-kept secret for getting classroom needs met ever since.  So much so that sometimes I am hesitant to share because I'm afraid others' projects will get funded instead of mine.  Getting past my only-child syndrome, I've decided to share.

It's free to sign up for an account.  Once you've done that, go ahead and make your first "project"-- basically a list of materials you need, chosen from their many online options, and an explanation of how you'll use the materials.  Projects take me about 30 minutes to put together, and then they have up to four months to be funded.  More often than not, they actually get funded!  You can even link your account to your Facebook page so that it sends updates there; I've received local donations several times since I made that connection.  DonorsChoose even offers codes sometimes that will double a donation made by a friend or family member.

You can visit my page here to see all of my projects.  I've had the following projects funded during the past several years:

  • Celebrating Home with Local-Interest Appalachian Texts
  • High School Freshmen Need Novels!
  • Spanish Students Need High-Interest Reading Materials!
  • Basic Supplies Needed
  • Inspire My 9th Grade English Students to Love to Read
  • Organization=A Better Learning Experience
Right now, I only have one running (although a teacher can have up to eight), which is titled "New High School Newspaper Class Needs Resources."  It only has 37 days left, and though it's partially funded, it probably won't get there in that time frame.  It happens.  In my years with DonorsChoose, I've created eleven projects.  Six of them were fully funded.  I don't think those odds are bad-- it's certainly worth a try!  Honestly, the projects that seem to get funded most frequently are typically lower-cost (under $400)and more basic.  For example, my projects for high-end technology needs haven't been funded yet.  Books and school supplies rock those donors' socks!  

The sum total of items donated to my classroom since I began in 2011 is $1659.08. I keep a project running all the time-- when one expires or gets funded, I make sure I dream up a new one.  I'm not sure why every public school teacher isn't on DonorsChoose.  There's no time like summertime, y'all!

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Saturday, July 6, 2013

Favorite Things #6: 11 Tips for Using a Classroom Facebook Page

   There is a huge debate about whether or not social media has a place in education.  I understand the concerns involved, but I think it can be handled in a professional and useful way.  Put simply, I am a huge fan of teaching students "where they are," which is on social media.  I started this year with a classroom Facebook page, and it worked beautifully! 

   I use my "teacher page" primarily to post reminders about assignments, study tips, upcoming events, weather changes, etc.  I also found that it was also a great tool to get kids using class materials in a real-world way outside of class.  Offer them a few extra points to research a tidbit from a novel, and you'd be surprised at the number of responses you'll get!

a screen grab from my page

some example posts from my page

examples of student questions and my responses

   There have been many teachers who have lost their jobs because of improper behavior on social media, so the fear is real.  I see great benefits in using social media in a classroom setting, so I've put together a list of my tips for how to use it in a safe, professional way.

1. DO clear everything with administration.  
I checked out my county's policy on social media before beginning, and made sure my plans were approved by my Director of Instruction and my principal.

2. DO get parental approval.
I handed out permission slips at Back-to-School night, and on the first day of school. If a student "liked" my page before I got the form returned with a parent signature, I booted them.  I still have the forms tucked away in my desk, and will save them for at least five years. This was time consuming, but it definitely covered my tracks-- and I never had an issue.

3. DO create a "page," not a "profile."
I have a personal account on Facebook-- which is not the same.  I created a "page," largely because of the controls I would have and the terminology.  In Facebook Land, a student "likes" my page, rather than becoming my "friend."  It's just a matter of wording, but it's important to me that students are clear on where we stand.

4. DO set up security and privacy controls.
Under settings, make sure your page is visible to all.  This is important because I don't want anyone to question what I might be doing under the veil of a hidden page.  Also set your post visibility to "hide posts by others." This allows you to preview posts from others, and publicize them after you've ensured they are appropriate.  Turn off private messaging.  Students can email my school address if they have questions they don't want to publicize.  Otherwise, conversations should take place on the public "wall" for transparency.  Set the profanity filter to strong.

5. DO monitor your page closely.  
Check out each "like."  If a person who is not a student or parent likes your page, remove him/her immediately.  Also remove students who do not have permission.  

6. DO post frequently and professionally.
If you're going to make the page, use it.  Post daily if possible; you want this page to be frequently seen and heard. 

7. DO make sure that students understand the page's purpose.
I make it clear from the beginning that the page is something extra I do-- not a requirement of me-- and that if I am unable to post a homework reminder, it doesn't mean that the assignment isn't still due.

8. DO have clear expectations.
Post expectations on the page, and include them with your permission slip.  Example:

9. DO NOT post about private information.

10. DO NOT use the page for discipline.
My page is for information and help-- not for complaints, frustrations, or calling students out.

11. DO NOT hesitate to remove and block students, parents, or others who post or behave inappropriately online.  
This is a no-tolerance policy for me.  At the first notice of bullying, unacceptable language, or other issues, I would block the person immediately and irrevocably.

If you're still here after that l-o-n-g post, you're dedicated.  Happy Facebooking!

Revision: I've had a lot of demand for my form via email, so I decided to make it a bit easier to access.  If you want a look at my Social Media Consent Form (to get parent permission for students to access your page), follow this link.  
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Friday, July 5, 2013

Pinspiration: Classroom Pins I Can't Wait to Try


   As promised, it's time to follow up on my "Favorite Things: Pinterest" post with some of my favorite pins right now.  I get ideas from Pinterest constantly, so these are just the ones I'm currently most excited to implement when school starts back.

- This pin links to a color-coded, chunked system of planning for block schedules.  This year will be my first year working with a block, so I'm happy for any colorful help I can get! It even comes with downloads for Microsoft Word to get you started.  

- A Teacher's Plan Book ($8.50 for download at TeachersPayTeachers) is going to help me get and keep my act together this year!  It doesn't hurt that it's really cute, and can be printed in black and white so that I don't have to buy a color ink cartridge.  It's even editable, so I can adapt some parts to better suit my high school block schedule.

Credit: The Teacher Wife

- This poster would help me fight a never-ending battle against a word I call "the R word."

- I want to meet this teacher, who uses memes to help go over rules on Day 1.  Totally stealing this idea.  Sometimes my freshmen look so small and frightened while I'm detailing expectations and syllabi and rules . .. this could definitely lighten the mood.

- This pin from Secondary Solutions links to a detailed plan for using Literature Circles in a high school English classroom-- complete with free downloadable Word documents!  I've been intrigued by Literature Circles for a while, but I've only used them in single-class activities for short pieces.  I think I'm finally going to take the plunge into Novel Circles this year!

- I just took a class at my alma mater on Modern Grammar, and these grammar journals might just be the coolest thing ever.  It's an idea from Scholastic, and is listed for grades 3-8, but I can definitely adapt it for use in high school.  What a way for kids to finally use grammar in context and in a meaningful way!

- More memes!  I love that these allow me to take something from pop culture, and something the kids identify with, and put it to use in the classroom.  This pin links to Hunger Games lessons in which students create memes to discuss serious topics.  This could easily work for any novel.

- This Push-Pin Poetry board would cost basically nothing, and would be an awesome interactive board for my kids.  So excited about this one!  

What are some of your favorite pins right now?

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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Favorite Things #5: The First Days of School by Harry K. Wong and Rosemary T. Wong

Now that I've found some motivation again, it's time to move on with my Favorite Things series.  I'm not doing this series in any particular order, but- if I were?  This book- The First Days of School- would definitely top the list.  

Quite literally, this book walks you, step-by-step, through the first days of school.  I don't know about you, but my first day of school as a new teacher was on the terror scale somewhere between an encounter with a king cobra and falling off a 20-story building.  This book gave me tips, tricks, and the confidence to get through it.  I still reference it every year before school begins.  

The First Days is broken up into five "units":
1. Basic Understandings- The Teacher
2. First Characteristic- Positive Expectations
3. Second Characteristic- Classroom Management
4. Third Characteristic- Lesson Mastery
5. Future Understandings- The Professional

My favorite units are those in the middle, which really deal with the day-to-day functions of  a classroom.  Wong and Wong cover a lot of that "stuff" no one teaches in college-- how to introduce yourself, best practices to keep your classroom running smoothly and how to implement them, etc.  There's a large focus on "the first days of school" because they're so crucial in laying the groundwork for the rest of the year.

My favorite thing about The First Days is that it reminds us of the importance of positivity with our students.  This book is a classroom management and lesson-planning Bible.  No wonder it's one of my Favorite Things!  

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Linking up with Tales of a Teacherista- click the button for more "teacher book" recommendations!  


Midweek Confessions Link-Up: What I Haven't Done This Week

Hey there!  To break me out of this rainy day funk I'm in, I just had to link up with one of my favorite blogs, E, Myself, and I, for Midweek Confessions.  

My confessions come more as things I haven't done-- because there are quite a few.

What I Haven't Done This Week:
1. cleaned my house
2. cooked any decent meals
3. read the 514,354 "teacher books" on my summer list
4. written any questions for my academic team
5. made any lesson plans
6. responded to most emails
7. written any blog posts (until now)
8. mailed off important paperwork or bills

What I Have Done:
1. watched guilty-pleasure tv
2. pinned lots of things on Pinterest, without actually doing any
3. read lots of blogs, a stack of pointless magazines, and a novel

Obviously, my not-done list is much bigger than my done list.  I'm a little ashamed, and more than a little thrilled that it's July and I can get by with this.  Productivity resumes . . . now!

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