“Revolution for the Tested”

Yesterday my friend, Bonnie Kaplan posted a link to a poem that I just can’t keep still about. It is about writing and reading, and it says just what I agree with, exactly, only in the words of such a gifted poet. Here is an excerpt from it, and then I hope you’ll follow this link and go read the whole thing. It’s totally worth your time, I promise. It’s hard to pick the best part because it’s all so good. Here is a teaser:

Revolution for the Tested
by Kate Messner

Write for yourself.
Write because until you do,
You will never understand
What it is you mean to say
Or who you want to be.
Write because it makes you whole.

I think excerpting more would be stealing, so please click on the link and go read it. It’s delicious!

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Digital “Making” and the Common Core

Last summer I wrote this post about a day long “Makers Camp,” which I’ve excerpted here:

“We tried things, failed and tried again, a different way. We could see our mistakes, learn from them, and try again.  That kind of learning is largely missing from our academic efforts. We might know that something we’ve written sounds a little weird, but the ‘what’ isn’t always obvious. We might not completely understand something we’ve read, but we often let it go with getting the gist of it. And we accept that as okay.

When you make something and fail, it is obvious.  It works or it doesn’t.  You can see whether the light comes on or it doesn’t.  You try again, and maybe fail again and even again, and you learn something from each failure.  Each time you come out with a new understanding of the project you are working on.  You realize that failure is part of success, part of growth, and you learn not to be diminished by it.  You go back and back until you either get it or don’t, but no matter the outcome you have learned something with every try. And it is in the failure that you find the success of the lesson.”

Morph to Tech Making:

For the past month I have spent every other Saturday with a group of Writing Project colleagues learning to make a web page. Writing HTML code, embedding and linking things, fixing what doesn’t work and exalting at what does. We made Wordles, Bitstrips and videos. The cycle of failure and success was intensified when working digitally, I think. When we were making puff balls and the paper tore, I could just tug the tissue a little differently and cover the error. The exploded paper rocket could be retaped and it worked. As for the chain mail bracelet which I was completely unsuccessful at making, I just never-minded it, because I had successfully made the other stuff.  No big deal, it was all forgiveable or forgettable.

The digital errors were a different story. If we made a mistake the page didn’t work. The link didn’t link, or the embed didn’t embed. Over and over we went back to the drawing board, re-examining the code, changing the dimensions of the thing we were trying to embed, fixing the links so they linked. We collaborated with others to figure it all out, hit the “Undo” button over and over again. Failure wasn’t an option if we were to come out with a web page that worked.  And ultimately, we reached our goal, although I wouldn’t say m page is “finished.” As my friend Rochelle says, “Writing is never done. It’s just due.” The same goes for a web page, apparently.

I’m wondering, how does this type of making, in particular, tie to the Common Core? Consider the K-12 Anchor Standard 5  for Writing: “Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.” In creating this web page I had to revise and revise, every single part of it. With every revision came new understanding of the task I was doing, and with the every new understanding came a feeling of capability, a daring to try something else.

What about Anchor Standard 4: “Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.” In doing this project I used a variety of sites in collaboration to create my interactive page. Wordle, WordPress, Bitstrips, You Tube, Mozilla Thimble all connect to form my page. Every step of the way I collaborated with others, either in the role of teacher or student.

The specific connections to Common Core Standards are rife, and this blogpost could be extremely long if I continue to cite them here. The big answer to my question, “How is making a webpage connected to the Common Core?” is something like this: The Common Core is all about making connections between ideas and formats, collaboration and deep thinking, learning new things and sharing them publicly in a variety of ways. Making a webpage is the same thing. We collaborate with colleagues to solve our problems and celebrate our successes. We fine tune and revise over and over again. We figure out new things by doing them, look for connections between ideas and images and present what we learn as we continue to create and recreate.

Our learning is personal and public at the same time. I learn something new as I present the information in a digital way. If I am writing what I have learned on a piece of paper and handing it to someone else to read, the impact on the larger community conversation is small, confined to myself and whoever is kind enough to read what I’ve written. When I share my learning in a public, digital way I am taking a risk in opening a conversation that I will no longer control. In inviting the opinions and understanding of others I open myself to learning a great deal, and maybe (probably) having to readjust my own thinking. I believe this is the overall goal of the Common Core Standards, that we teach our children to be alert, knowledgeable partakers of the universal conversation, people who are willing to learn and change their minds as their understanding grows. We desperately need the ideas and thoughts of these people as our society grows and changes. I think this bodes well for the future, the one we all hold in common.

Posted in Teaching, Writing Project events | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Keyword Summaries

Hey Everyone, I’m back! Today I have an activity I’d like to share. I didn’t make this up – does anyone actually make things up anymore? I have probably modified it a little, but that’s it. This is a good way to teach students to write summaries without just copying the thing they are summarizing. In the student work I’m going to show you here, we were doing a unit on the Titanic. The assignment was to read an article about it and write a summary. In retrospect, I would slow it down and spend more time building into the assignment. Still, it worked fairly well and has huge potential, I believe.  Here goes:

First,  I show them how to make a shutterfold with a piece of construction paper. The cute squiggly line is so you can see the edges of the paper in this photo.


On the inside you do this:


First, attach the article to the center section of the construction paper. On the left shutter, write “Keywords” and on the right, “Summary.” Next, working together, everyone numbers the paragraphs of the article or story. Once you have done this, go through and have them all read the first couple of words of each paragraph to make sure that everyone has numbered the same places. Then number the keywords shutter with the same numbers as there are paragraphs in the article. (Wow a picture really is worth a thousand words. Or a hundred.)

Next, have the students read the first paragraph of the article. (Or you read it to them, or they read with a partner or outloud – whatever works best with your students. With mine, we would do some outloud reading, if I really want them to read it.) Help them find three to five words that are critical to the meaning of the paragraph. The number of words they find depends on the length of the paragraph, but they should not copy a single sentence. Only key words. Do this for as many paragraphs as you feel they need your support, but eventually turn them loose to do some with a partner, and then alone. (Gradual release, yeah.)

Once they have key words for each paragraph, have them turn the shutterfold paper inside out, like this:


This is clearly a work in progress.

This puts the keywords on one side, and their summary right next to them, and the article is not visible. They then, without looking back at the article, write what they remember, using their keywords to jog their memory. Once they have done a draft of the summary on the shutters, you can have them do a more complete summary on a full sheet of paper. They can then affix that on top of the original article, inside the shutter fold.

I didn’t have my students decorate the outside folds of this project, as I just wanted to focus on the summarizing activity, but they certainly wanted to decorate it, and doing so would be a nice completion of the project, and could be a good way of further showing their understanding of the text.

You can see from the example above, that my student is an English learner, and that he or she could have used more support than I gave. At the beginning, when I was working with them, it is pretty clear that they understood what they read, but later not so much.  In the future I will use a close reading strategy with the article before doing this keyword strategy, to make sure that the student has a better understanding of the text before they try to summarize it.

I hope you’ll try this, and let me know how you modify it to make it work better for your students. Enjoy your day.


Posted in Teaching English Learners, Teaching Middle School | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Classroom


One of my favorite poems is “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” by Wallace Stevens. One reason I like it is that it is a list. I’m a sucker for a good list. I fall every time. I also like it because I don’t get it. It’s so simple and so complex it defies analysis, which I think might have been the poet’s intention. (Yes, I’m sure that many scholars have analyzed it ad infinitum, and they truly believe they have it right.  No, I don’t want to read those analyses.) The language is beautiful and cryptic and everyone gets to see in it what they will.

A few years ago I used this poem with my class of Juniors and Seniors. I told them straight up that I didn’t get it, and suggested that we investigate what we could do with it.  They wrote some marvelous lists of Thirteen.  Recently my friend, Tanya committed to writing 50 blog posts in 50 days, and she has “hacked” various writers in delightful ways. I have followed along with a couple of them, and had a great time doing so. Today I decided to write my own hack, this time of Wallace Stevens’ lovely poem.  So here goes:

Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Classroom

Among twenty talking children
The only stationary thing
Was the eye of the teacher.

I was of three minds
Like a meeting
In which there are three teachers.

The teacher moved fluidly between scattered desks.
It was all part of her act.

A teacher and a child
Are one.
A teacher and a child and a parent
Are one.

I do not know which to acknowledge,
The beauty of quiet receptiveness
Or the swirl of growing meaning
The child talking,
Or just after.

Blinds fill the long window
With horizontal shafts of light.
The shadow of the teacher
Crossed it to and fro.
The mood,
Traced in the shadow
Of an incomprehensible origin.

O, critics of a flagging school system
Why do you imagine different, more perfect children?
Do you not see those we have now,
As they move about the classrooms
Of the schools we have today?

I know fluent, fluid understanding
And smart, thoughtful questioning,
But I know too
That the children are involved
In what I know.

When the children ran out of sight
It marked the border
Of that which we already thought was correct.

At the sight of children
Chasing a soccer ball on wet asphalt
Even the most idealistic
Would laugh deeply.

She drove over Northern California
In a red Prius.
Once, a sharp thought assailed her,
In that she mistook
The quiet of the day
For children learning.

The classroom is moving.
The children must be learning.

It was morning all day.
It was windy,
And the rain was about to fall.
The teacher stood outside her door
Watching them scamper away.


Posted in Generally Speaking, Teaching, Teaching Middle School | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

He’s Ba-a-ack!

Wow, what an interesting realization I had today. A week ago Friday, one of the boys (I’ll call him Mikey) from my difficult seventh grade class got in a fight and was suspended for five days. I will confess to being just a little bit happy at the idea of his impending weeklong absence. (remember, I am “that” teacher, and he is the one I yelled at. But this fight and suspension had nothing at all to do with me or my classroom.) All last week, while he was gone, we read Hunger Games during 4th period, and everyone, every single student, was completely rapt for as long as I wanted to read.  During 5th period, after lunch, it was a little louder, but I could deal with that.  I just had to read before lunch and do something more verbal, more active after lunch.  What a revelation – I couldn’t believe I hadn’t figured that out earlier than February.

Today Mikey came back from suspension, and the classroom reverted to its earlier chaos. Reading Hunger Games only lasted about ten minutes, and accomplishing the other work of the day was incredibly difficult. This time I managed to keep my wits about me, and observe him. What is so different when this one boy is present?

As I watched (and took notes) I realized that he makes sure to keep the attention of the boys in the class at all times.  He makes little faces, rolls his eyes, and never releases them from his grasp, even when he is in his own seat and isn’t even near them. Occasionally he gets up to sharpen his pencil or get a paper towel. It doesn’t matter that I redirect him to his seat immediately. He didn’t really need those things, he just needed to maintain the attention of the other students.  Eventually, it didn’t matter what he did, because they were launched.

Balls of paper flew around the room, I gave out lunch detention immediately, and he was as happy as can be. The detention didn’t go to him, so he had nothing to complain about. At one point I sent him outside the room to do his work, but again, they were launched so it didn’t really change anything.

I wonder how I can use this realization to reclaim the class. I don’t want to just wait for him to fight again!

Posted in Teaching Middle School Boys | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

What About “That” Reading Program?

This year, in an effort to help turn around the non-reading habits of our students, our administration decided to try using a certain reading program. It was announced to the staff like this: “We are going to be using ____________ program this year. I don’t care if you don’t like it, this is not up for discussion. Our kids don’t read and that is unacceptable, so we’re doing it.” I kind of admired that, actually, even though I’d heard differing opinions about the value of the program to achieve lifelong reading habits.

This program is one where you test the students at the beginning of the school year to determine their current reading level, and then they read books at or just beyond that level. As they finish a book they take a short 10 question test on it and points are awarded according to the length and complexity of the book. You probably know what it is; you may even have experience with it. If so I’d be interested to hear your experience with it.

As an incentive to read, students are required to earn a certain number of points each quarter in order to be able to attend school rallies, assemblies and dances. This is in coordination with having greater than a 2.0 GPA and good behavior. The point levels are pretty high, I think. 20 points per quarter minimum, no matter what the student’s reading level.  That’s a lot of Little Golden Books for our low level readers. This sounded good on paper, I suppose. I mean, if a kid wants points, he or she will have to read, thus eventually creating lifelong readers, right? I mean if you read, you naturally get better at it and if you are better at it you like it more and do more of it, right?

For me, the jury is out on this. I have a competitive 18 year old son who was an avid point getter when he was in elementary school. He says he always got all his points. I ask if he liked it, and it is clear that it wasn’t about liking it. It was about points and he got all of them, always. He’s still proud of that.  And I ask, (already knowing the answer, of course) “So, then that led you to become a lifelong reader, right? It taught you to read better and love reading?” Oh. No. He never reads of his own will.  Ever. But he got all his points and some to spare. Hm. Maybe he is an anomaly.

Today we spent some time in the computer lab with our staff members creating “teams” of our students. This will enable us to look at their points at any time. We can adjust the calendar to certain dates, to see how many points they’ve gotten in a week or a quarter. I love this kind of stuff, the putting things in neat boxes that I can grasp.  After we made the teams, I went to look at how many points my classes have, overall, this quarter. My eighth graders have 53 point total. The whole class! (Compare this with my colleague’s Honors English class who have earned close to 500 points this quarter.) And our 53 points include one kid who has 33 points on his own. Another kid failed the test on “One Fish Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish,” but passed the test on “War of the Worlds, The Unabridged Edition.” Wait, what??

In my seventh grade class one of my students who has a very hard time following along with any class discussion, who likes to read the Diary of a Wimpy Kid over and over, failed some children’s book tests but passed the test on “Breaking Dawn” to earn 20 points.  Now I know that this boy did not read Breaking Dawn, and I seriously doubt  that the other one read War of the Worlds.  So what is truly going on here? Is this the sign of some readers being born?

Today a colleague found one of her students taking a test on Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins.  This is a bright young man, and she would have never questioned his having read that book. Except when his reading quiz crashed and she went to help him, she noticed another tab he had open. Can you guess what it was? Yeah. The questions and answers for Catching Fire, found easily on Google.

So, what are we accomplishing here? Last month the circus came to our school and not quite half the student body got to go see it. There were about 180 students who had greater than a 2.0 who sat out the circus because they didn’t have reading points. And now they are learning how to get points so that doesn’t happen again.  But apparently they aren’t all actually reading to get those points.

Recently a group of students were called into the library to take tests. When the librarian told me about this, I asked her how they could take tests if they hadn’t read anything. She answered that they either sat them down and handed them a children’s book  to read (value .5 point) or read it to them and then made them take the test. I could not keep still. I asked her, what is our point with all this? Are we after readers or point earners? Do you think that sitting them down like that is going to create a person who reads or a person who gets empty points? To her credit, she wasn’t sure. She said she thought maybe some would keep reading. I wish I shared her optimism.

Presently I am reading Hunger Games aloud to my seventh graders, and Catching Fire to the eighth graders. We spend a good 15 – 20 minutes each day on this. The books are worth 15 and 17 points, respectively.  I give all the characters different voices, as I want it to be interesting enough to them that they might catch fire.  I want them to realize somehow what treasures are found in books if you give them a chance. Maybe you are thinking that I’m just as bad as the other cheating that is apparently going on. I mean, they are not reading these books either.  But, they are quietly listening, captivated by a story that is bigger and bolder than anything they have in their imaginations. They will find that it is not what they saw in the movie, that this story is bigger, more detailed, the characters deeper and more real. They will learn that they can see the story in their heads without any pictures and they can remember the storyline longer than an hour or a day.  And maybe, just maybe, someday they will give another book a try, just because once someone shared their love of reading a good book, and they found it good too.  It’s what I hope.

Posted in Reading, Teaching English Learners | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Guest Post: Jamie Ayres, YA Author

Today I’m happy to feature a guest post by Jamie Ayres, author of 18 Things and 18 Truths. I enjoyed both books so much, and I’m happy to share some great ideas Jamie has come up with for using these books in your classroom. Here’s a little bit about 18 Truths, which was published on January 28, 2014:

“Lying is unbearable, betrayal is inevitable, and choosing which path to take is impossible.

Olga Gay Worontzoff ended her senior year as an eighteen-year-old girl totally in love with Nate, enjoying their new romance and about to attend the university of her dreams. Now she’s spending her summer in the weird subculture of the Underworld, with charmingly witty and powerful angels, and problematic demons, trying to rescue Connor, the best friend and secret crush she was unable to save during a freak accident.

But Nate has other things on his mind, mainly Grace. She’s their first assignment as joint spirit guides, and Olga’s feeling hurt and jealous. His mysterious behavior has Olga questioning everything she believed about him and now she must decide whether to stick to their plan, or follow her heart.

Unfortunately, a series of mistakes threatens everyone around her and plants Olga in the center of cosmic events much larger than she ever imagined.

Only one thing is certain: the chilling truths uncovered during her journey will leave no one untouched.”

18  Ways to Use The 18 Things Trilogy in Your Classroom










  1. Pick a theme in the novel (ex. Compassion, acceptance, friendship, cooperation, honesty, kindness, perseverance, responsibility, family, love, courage) and make a folded flapper to use for discussion in literature circles, literacy centers, or guided reading groups. Fold a blank sheet into 4 equal parts. Cut the top flap on each fold to create equal flaps. Open the flaps & draw a vertical line below each cut to divide the inside area into sections. Write the word ‘clue’ on top of each flap. On the last flap write ‘theme.’ Then lift up the flaps & write the information underneath.
  2. Make a T-chart for the 5 senses: 18 Things and 18 Truths makes me feel . . . sounds like . . . looks like . . . tastes like . . . smells like . . .
  3. Create a Story Map for 3 Themes, 3 Conflicts (Person Against Self, Person Against Society, Person Against Person), Characterization, and Settings
  4. Look up details about the setting (Michigan for 18 Things; North Carolina for 18 Truths) or facts about lightning strikes and list 18 tidbits of information.
  5. Create a Story Timeline—one event for each chapter
  6. Research details about sailing and make a chart comparing/contrasting it to another hobby/sport you can do on the water
  7. Make a Venn Diagram comparing two animals found in Lake Michigan or in the mountains on North Carolina.
  8. Create a Character, Trait, & Quote Map: List 5 character traits for one of the characters in the Jedi Order and then list quotes for that person, cited with their page numbers.
  9. Bring A Character To Life Poster: What _____ does, says, thinks, feels, and looks (how they see themselves)
  10. Look up obituaries online or in the newspaper and then write one for Olga.
  11. Find an example of figurative language in the novel: onomatopoeia, simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, alliteration, or idiom. Give the definition for whichever figurative language device you choose, write the example you found in the book, and then write your own example.
  12. Design a T-shirt for the fictional band in the book, Cantankerous Monkey Squad
  13. Students present a 3-minute persuasive speech addressing a social issue from 18 Things or 18 Truths: suicide, bullying, peer pressure, underage drinking, skipping school, drag racing, being dishonest. The purpose is to consider what they want the audience to do because of listening to their speech. Their position statement should be one sentence: As teens, we must take action against the issue of ________ because of _____, ________, and ______.
  14. Quotes played a big part in the telling of this trilogy. Find an inspirational quote that could be the theme for your life, and then write a paragraph explaining why you picked that particular quote.
  15. Find Someone Who (Kagan Structure) . . . Give each student a worksheet with 18 boxes to write in their life list. Then students mix with hand up until they find a partner—“Hi 5.” Students stay standing. Partner A and Partner B switch papers and initials or signs next to a life list item they either have in common, or would like to add to their own list. Switch papers again. Partners “Hi 5” or “Fist Bump” or “Shake Hands” ect . . . then raise their hand again to find a new partner. Each box should be initialed by a different person. When their worksheet is complete, they sit down at their seat, but classmates can still approach them to sign their own sheet. When time is up, teacher asks questions about the activity. For example, were they surprised by what item they had in common with a classmate? Will they make any plans to complete a particular item with a classmate?
  16. Work in teams to create a rap about 18 Things or 18 Truths. Each person writes 4 lines of rhyming verse. Team memorizes the rap and performs it in front of the class.
  17. Culminating Activity: Kagan “Graffiti Board”: 1) Place a large sheet of butcher paper and markers on each team’s table. Each team member takes a corner of the paper and begins writing and drawing their thoughts about the book in graffiti-like fashion. The responses, ideas, comments, sketches, quotes, and connections don’t need to be organized in any way. 2) Teammates round robin in their team to explain their graffiti. 3) Teams share by a “Gallery Tour”: graffiti posters can be displayed around the room or kept on tables. Students move around the room as a team to look over, discuss, and give positive feedback on the products of other teams by using sticky notes (or a blank feedback sheet is placed by each poster). *Provide time limitations for writing/drawing and sharing. Maybe use a sound or signal for changing during tour time.*
  18. Culminating Activity: Make a Video using Movie Maker. It could be a music video, a book trailer, a character interview, a slide show centering on life lists or the Underworld, a skit, etc . . . . email jamiema@leeschools.net if you need directions on how to make a video using movie maker.

Teaching Resources were found at:  www.lauracandler.com; http://languageartsreading.dadeschools.net/  and www.KaganOnline.com

About Jamie:

Jamie Ayres writes young adult love stories by night and teaches young adults as a middle school teacher by day. She lives in southwest Florida with her husband and two daughters. Her books include 18 Things and 18 Truths. Visit her website at www.jamieayres.com.

Thanks Jamie!

Posted in Generally Speaking, Teaching, Teaching Middle School | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments