The Power of Words — The Lifelong Learner

The professional goal Chris and I share–reintroducing our students to the love of reading–resulted from a mid-career crisis (of mine) and the reading of three professional texts–texts that changed how Chris and I  viewed what we do in and out of the classroom. Books absolutely change lives. We know this and convince our students of this every day; however, the power of words changes the lives of teachers, too. Read about that by clicking the graphic below or by clicking the hyperlinked title in red, “The Power of Words–The Lifelong Learner,” at the bottom.

I’m a work in progress–both in and out of the classroom. Outside the classroom, I’m still trying to survive navigate each stage of child-rearing, which I’ve decided is only mastered after my own two children have moved on to the next phase of development. But that hasn’t stopped me from trying. Like breathing, I have always turned […]

via The Power of Words — The Lifelong Learner

The “Real-World” Midyear (& Final)

standardized testing

It sounds like an oxymoron. After all, what is “real-world” about taking a midyear exam? Outside of taking the LSAT or sitting for Boards, when in life do we adults ever have to take an exam covering the events of the last 5 months? Or worse, a cumulative test on all of the events in the last 10 months?

As a working mother of two littles, I’ll be the first to admit: I. Would. Fail.

And yet, this is exactly what we are asking our students to tackle twice a year. Every year. To prepare them for the real world–which is largely void of these kinds of assessments.

Some will argue (as I did for years) that traditional midyears and finals prepare our students for college. And isn’t education about college and career readiness? However, the next time you talk to a college student, ask what his midyears and finals look like.

Chris and I did.

And the data we gathered was staggering. (We teach in a Level 1 high school, where approximately 90% of our graduates pursue college, ranging from community college to the Ivies.) Our recent grads said their midyears and finals look nothing like what we had asked them to do in high school. We figured that certainly their more largely populated, freshman-level courses consisted of those pesky multiple-choice tests. Those courses didn’t either. Instead, our former students are creating end-products that demonstrate the application of their learning (Can I get an “Amen”?), rather than completing lengthy, multiple-choice tests that rely heavily on recall–the kinds of midyears and finals I administered, for years, to “prepare my students for college.”

In his Chronicle of Higher Education piece entitled Stop Telling Students to Study for Exams,” David Jaffee asserts, “Authentic assessments involve giving students opportunities to demonstrate their abilities in a real-world context. “

Last year, Chris and I set out to create an authentic assessment that that would assess a myriad of standards while giving our students opportunities to demonstrate the speaking and listening skills our learners will need for the rest of their lives. And the Midyear/Final Exam Book Clubs were born. Here is what they look like.


  1. GROUP.  Chris and I create thoughtful groupings of four students–two from his class and two from mine. Ideally, each group consists of two high-achieving students and two students that require more growth. Our schedules don’t perfectly align, so Chris and I have given exams in which sophomores partner up with juniors and/or inclusion students with honors students. And it is beautiful. The entire exam is outside of everyone’s comfort zone; however, we invite students who are extremely anxious to see us privately, so that we can pair them with students of their choosing. Of the 200+ students we assessed last week, only two students took us up on this.
  2. MODEL. Depending on the class, Chris and I sometimes model each of the Speaking and Listening standards one at a time. With my students last year, we closely read a poem (which was already on the docket) and then processed it via fishbowl discussions. (Small groups took turns discussing the poem, each one modeling a different speaking and listening standard). This year, Chris and I have reconfigured our classrooms so that our students have been practicing these standards–in small groups–all year long.  And last week’s midyears felt much more organic as the students were doing what they always do–but with two new group members.
  3. PREPARE. Chris and I share a Book Club Discussion Guide ahead of time, which is divided into three parts. Part One includes break-the-ice questions about the students’ reading journeys (Remember: Our goal is to foster a love of reading), their reflections on Goodreads (which Chris and I both use in our classes), and their experiences with the ten minutes of choice reading with which Chris and I begin every class.  Part Two requires our students to “integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media or formats” (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.2). (This year, the topic was education, and students synthesized the aforementioned article by David Jaffee, the video Why I Hate School but Love Education by spoken word artist Suli Breaks, and the testing cartoon read ’round the world.)  Prior to the exam, students annotate the pieces, extracting textual evidence to which they will refer in their Book Clubs.  Part Three asks students to discuss the various components of a recent favorite read, demonstrating that they can analyze literature while enjoying it, too! 

On testing day, Chris and I meet in our respective classrooms to ensure that everyone is familiar with the three texts. We then head to the media center, get into our groups, and watch the magic happen. 

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I wish I could tell you that Chris and I lose ourselves in these rich conversations; and while we are definitely enjoying seeing our students demonstrating HOTS (Higher-Order Thinking Skills), alas, grades still need to be reported out. So, armed with clipboards and rubrics, Chris and I pop in and out of these groups, joining the conversations while jotting down notes.


Once the exams are over, Chris and I meet to share our findings about each of our students. With numbers as large as ours, it has proven to be impossible for both of us to join each group.  We made a conscious decision that we would work from different sections of the room and that we would trust each other’s feedback regarding the students. Quite often, a student who has under-performed in one of our classes has proven to be a vibrant contributor when set into this context. Talk about growth!

If you’ve made it this far in this post, know that Chris and I do not have all of the answers. We administered our third round of Book Club Midyears last week and are constantly refining the process to make it better. However, we do know each time we assess our students this way, we get to witness rich, vibrant learning.

And that is exactly why we do what we do.

Real-World Experiences: Next-Level Student Response with Padlet

We’ve all been in a class of some kind (professional development, undergrad, graduate) where the instructor hands out sticky notes and asks you to write down a quick response as a check for understanding. In my experience, I’ve had to do a variety of things with this sticky note, including but not limited to: post it on the board, put it on my forehead, post it on a peers forehead, crumple it up and throw it to a random person across the room, etc. The conceits of this tried-and-trusted teaching strategy are no-brainers/important buzzwords: check for understanding, making connections or formative assessments. You get the idea. Teaching 101: student responses frame instruction, in the short-term or the long-term.

We English teachers especially love these kinds of strategies. An essential component of our curriculum (although, unfortunately one that is the first to get the chopping block when we get swamped) is the incorporating the reflective practice. As I tell my students, reflecting is a natural, human being thing that we all need to know how to do in order to be successful. In order to be a real person, you have to know how to take in information, consider how you feel about it and then tell someone about it. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

But what if we took this to the next level? Are there ways to extend these reflective moments within our practice? Can we make them even more of a natural part of our teaching using a digital learning tool?

I’ve had a lot of success with a tool called Padlet this year. I first heard about it at a conference a few years ago, but never got around to trying it. To be honest, I first associated it with a more elementary level teaching tool (don’t ask why, I can’t remember), but over the past year as I’ve played around with it, I’ve quickly figured out that this tool could be an essential part of my arsenal of digital learning tools, especially in an ELA classroom.

Essentially, Padlet gives teachers and students an opportunity to quickly share work. Think of it as a digital bulletin board that can put sticky notes on, except these sticky notes are even cooler: you can embed images, videos, hyperlinks, etc. Anything you can attach in an email you can attach to a post on padlet. Here’s a screenshot:

padlet screenshot 1

In this example, my students used Padlet to share how they thought Rebecca Skloot, the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, used primary resource devices to enhance the storytelling.

In my classroom, Padlet has become an essential part of the digital learning landscape. In a flash, students can access my Padlet domain (they have it bookmarked) and can easily add their thoughts to Padlets large and small. I teach my classes in reading groups (students are grouped in fours or fives at all times – inspired by @msbethhughes), so Padlet allows for me to quickly formatively assess my students and the work they are doing in their groups. Plus, it easily allows for me to see where the whole class is at.

Students will often discuss something in their small groups and then add their observations/writing to the Padlet so the whole class can see. I’ve used Padlet in my classes for art critiques, thesis statement sharing, research collaboration and creative writing.

You might be thinking: “this all sounds great, but haven’t you heard of a Google Doc?” Yes, the products created in Padlet could be created in a Google Doc, but in Padlet, the interface and ease of use gives the students a more streamlined and accessible experience.

Padlet is free to use, but if you pay $45 a year, you can upgrade to Padlet Backpack. Backpack gives you added functunality and security, including:

  • User management: you can easily create usernames and passwords (don’t worry, you can do this in batches. You don’t have to give up your Saturday) so the experience is more secure and organized for your students.
  • Privacy: your Padlets are automatically private, and only live within your domain.
  • Customization: Backpack allows for you to customize your Padlets with your own logo (for the brand-concious teacher) and even your own custom domain. Mine is, which is very easy for my students to remember.
  • Bigger file uploads (big movies, images, etc.)
  • Analytics: you can check to see if and when students accessed the Padlets you create, to appease the the “big brother” in you.

I don’t work for Padlet. Really. If you haven’t checked it out, I say go for it. The more tools we can leverage for student response, the better. Our students are better for it and we are stronger teachers because of it. If we aren’t finding ways to be responsive in our teaching, we are doing our craft, and more importantly our students, a disservice.

Real-World Experiences: Animoto

Co-authored by Beth & Chris


We love videos. Whether we’re watching an inspiring TED Talk, enjoying the latest Redbox release, or getting hypnotized by those darn YouTube kittens who are at it again, video permeates our culture. And because the digital natives in our classes are fluent in video, Chris & I decided to brush up on their language and meet them where they are.

But first, some background. The professional practice goal that Chris and I share is to foster a love of reading in the classroom. (Sadly, many high schoolers have mastered “fake reading” by the time they get to us.) In order to create a baseline, we have our students “calibrate” with each other where they are with their relationship with reading. This year, our objective remained the same: Share your reading journey. However, our medium did not.  In the past, we used journal entries, class discussions, and conferring to gauge where our students were on their journeys.

This year, we asked our students to write their narratives using Animoto, an online movie-making site.*

Animoto allows us to take this conversation to the next level. It’s easy to use. Drag and drop. Write a caption. That’s it. It’s 1990’s PowerPoint–on (legal) Steroids. Animoto provides hundreds of beautiful themes, enabling students to personalize their narrative.  Students can upload pictures, video, and music, or use the stock ones provided; after, they write a quick caption for each image and then click PRODUCE.  Within minutes, students can create a high-quality video that is easily shared with a link. Within minutes! (And yes, we are just a teensy bit bitter, as we remember schlepping those clunky camcorders around–Adam Goldberg-style– to get the perfect shot and then spending hours mashing it into something that resembled a finished product for our teachers.)

Students are still accomplishing the same objective–the sharing of their reading journeys–while demonstrating their mastery of even more standards: Speaking & Listening (i.e., strategically using digital media, collaborating with their peers in civil discussions), Writing (i.e., creating narratives), and Language (i.e., demonstrating command of conventions).  

But beyond the standards, when students take advantage of digital learning tools, they are activating a set of 21st century skills that are vital to their success.

The best part? They are fully engaged in the learning process! This is because in our teaching, we are speaking the language of our digital natives.

Before we assigned this, both of us created our own exemplar. (Click HERE for Beth’s.) Then we let the students have some class time to play in the digital sandbox.

When the projects were finished, we collected our students’ easily-shareable project links. (Chris uses the new “Question” feature in Classroom to garner the links; Beth uses a Google doc.)

Animoto has a slew of uses–regardless of what you teach. Teachers could:  provide a glimpse into the 1930s before teaching To Kill a Mockingbird;  create an engaging assessment that provides samples of classical music, writing, or real-world math scenarios that students must then associate with a musical genre, a writing style, or a mathematical strategy. Students could create a presentation that answers the age-old “When will I ever need to use this?” question. Or they could share their research on an assigned topic or  include–and correct–images of real-world typos they noticed in their travels. They could also complete a book talk, review, or pitch, which could then be saved in one place for future students looking for something to read. Animoto could  even be a way for teachers to share classroom practices, teaching philosophies, and content updates with parents.  Or Beth’s favorite? Ask students to demonstrate that they’ve met standard X, and see what amazing genius results!

The technology world is your students’ oyster. Now ask them to animate it!

*Note: We do not work for–nor receive any kickbacks from–Animoto. The online software has several educator plans available, ranging from a free 6-month subscription to for-pay options.

Real-World Experiences: Goodreads


Let’s face it: Professional development is sometimes brutal. Except when it’s not. One of the best professional development workshops I attended was a technology session with Dr. Zachary Walker (@lastbackpack). His premise, at The Last Backpack Generation, is that the students in our care are the last cohort to use a backpack filled with real books. Technology permeates the 21st century classroom, as well as the world in which our students dwell. Accordingly, Dr. Walker shared something in that workshop that has stayed with me ever since.

He said, “if we’re preparing our students correctly, the last day of school should be exactly like their first day out of school.”


This forced me to rethink just about everything I do in my room. Since Chris and I share the professional goal of fostering a love of reading in our students, we began thinking of real-world tasks we could assign that adult bibliophiles do in their everyday lives.

Enter Goodreads.

If you are unfamiliar with Goodreads, it is a social network where over 40 million bibliophiles are already cataloging, discussing, reviewing, and sharing great books. Here is how we implemented this real-world experience within our high school classes.

  1. CREATING AN ACCOUNT. Chris and I asked our students to create a free account (for those who were not already members). Because our students are all minors, we always suggest that their usernames consist of their first name and last initial only (for cyber safety).
  2. JOINING OUR ONLINE CLASSES. After a quick set up of groups (one per class), we shared the invitation links for our students to join our private groups. No users outside these groups can see the discussions we have within them.
  3. BUILDING SHELVES. Our students create various bookshelves, including what they are currently enjoying, what they hope to read at some point, the ten titles (one per month) they agree to independently read during their time with us, the books they’ve already read (Adios, reading logs!), etc.
  4. UPDATING THEIR READING. Once a cycle, we ask our students to take two minutes in class to update where they are in their books. This serves as a low-stakes form of accountability. And we make a point to like or at least comment on their reading status updates, so they know we’re taking the time to see what they’ve taken the time to share.
  5. DISCUSSING TOPICS ONLINE. Goodreads allows the group monitors (a/k/a Chris and me) to pose questions, so we have already had interesting, threaded conversations about books. My students, for example, have discussed (sparred about?) what books they would want to have with them if they were stranded on an island. Again, these are private conversations that only the class members can see and join.
  6. INSPIRING EACH OTHER. In the beginning-of-the-year survey that Chris and I ask our students to complete, approximately 75% of our students say that they read titles that are suggested by a friend (not a teacher, not a parent, not a librarian). Goodreads creates a platform that allows students to see what their peers are reading–and enjoying.
  7. WRITING BOOK REVIEWS. Naturally, Goodreads allows students to also review the books that they’ve read–both in short form (with stars) and long form (with written reviews). You can’t get much more real-world than writing book reviews. In doing something that feels beyond-school to our students, they are actually meeting several writing, reading, language, and speaking and listening standards.
  8. FRIENDING. A final step that Chris and I learned last year (and rather by accident) is the beauty of “friending” our students in this platform. (To be safe, we first obtained permission from the Powers-that-Be in our district, as this can be a slippery slope in other forms of social media. However, Goodreads is all books all the time, and no personal information is shared.) Because Chris and I are friends with last year’s students on Goodreads, we can still follow our students–long after they have left our classroom. Just last week I noticed that “John,” now a senior, is currently reading through all things Vonnegut. Seeing this inspired me to add more Vonnegut to my classroom library, since John may have discovered Vonnegut last year had I made him available to John. It also tells me that John has increased his rigor, moving from reading trade sci-fi to more challenging sci-fi. And most importantly, John is still reading books on his own–long after he has left my classroom.

I don’t work for Goodreads and will not receive any commissions for recommending the platform. (I would be, however, open to any donations Goodreads wanted to throw my way.) However, through this vehicle, Chris and I are asking our students to do–in school–what many adults do in the real world. As interesting as a celebrity Twitter feed might be, Chris and I are glad that our students are socially networking about literacy.

For the love of reading…



Summer is so close, I can practically feel the warmth of the morning sun while referreeing the Tween Drama Cup that is currently my life savoring the next book on my TBR (To-Be-Read) list. Of course, a lot needs to happen between now and that first, delicious day of summer (i.e., final exams, grading, classroom clean-up, more grading, end-of-the-year meetings, and did I mention grading?).  For my students, June means end-of-the-year class surveys, and some of my poor learners curse the invention of Google Forms. Nonetheless, they humor me–as long I keep my surveys short. Which I do. Occasionally.

With this year’s emphasis on reintroducing our students to the love of reading, the end-of-the-year surveys looked a little different this year. Naturally, Chris and I wanted to know what worked and what didn’t with respect to our own professional practice in general; however, we were really curious about the efficacy of this year-long Literary Sandbox in which we allowed our students to play.

The results are in–and are overwhelming: Our students enjoyed reading for the first ten minutes of every class (Thank you, Donalyn Miller!), choosing many of their own titles (Thank you, Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, and Donalyn Miller!), and replacing reading check quizzes and worksheets with real-world tasks like book clubs, research symposiums, and talking and writing about books. Almost all of the surveys validated how hard Chris and I have worked this year.

Except for one.

I’m not sure who wrote it. And while I’d like to pretend that I dismissively thought, It doesn’t matter who wrote it, I absolutely put on my super-sleuth hat and tried–to no avail–to figure out who it was. My pride desperately needed it to be Angry Andy or Sarcastic Samantha or Troubled Tom–anything to invalidate the outlier’s response. (Because accepting the alternative–that I failed to meet this student where he or she was during the entire ten months I was allotted–was too much.)

I’ve connected with many students this year. I have proof. And yet, I am absolutely drawn to those outliers. I don’t, however, think I’m alone in this. I wonder how many hardworking teachers and other professionals allow the negatives to overshadow the victories, robbing ourselves of joy by choosing to obsess focus on the outliers instead.

While licking my wounds, I came across a great article, by @lindakardamis, that discusses the two choices we have when we receive constructive criticism: We can either “get defensive” and “dig in our heels,” or we can allow it to “catapult us to the next level of excellence.” In my personal life, I sadly opt for the former, taking my proverbial bat (book?) while sprinting home. I’m not proud of that and am a work in progress. Professionally, however, I aim (with bruised ego in tow) to embrace the latter. Summer is the perfect time to reflect on the year as a whole, allowing especially the constructive to shape the instructive.

Incidentally, the constructive comment was: “I feel like all we did this year was focus on reading.” On one hand, that comment affirms what Chris and I set out to do in our classrooms. But on the other hand, it’s a slice of humble pie that I hope will “catapult [me] to the next level of excellence.” And isn’t that professional development in the truest form?

So, as I slather my kids and myself with SPF 30 this summer, I will also reflect. And hopefully catapult.

Ready. Set. Launch!

Why any of this works.

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One of the elements that has made our collaborative research project so interesting this year has been the diversity of our separate class schedules. While Beth taught all honors classes this year, I taught one honors class and two inclusion English classes, one of which being co-taught, meaning that I co-teach the class with a full-time Moderate Special Needs teacher. The co-taught model is especially effective in English Language Arts, and even more so because of the “project-based” mindset of my teaching practice for that particular course: students own their learning and work independently and collaboratively on a daily basis and work to achieve their individual goals. More on that later.

So how does that apply to the love of reading? Good question. You might say that the majority of my English classes this year have a bit of a “tough crowd.” We’re talking about a few students who, while the principal is sitting in a desk next to them observing me, decided it would be at this very moment the best time to start making animal noises in response to our group reading of a scene from A Raisin in the Sun. I’m not kidding.

This morning, I’m going to talk about the foundation of this whole project. Why does it work for Beth and me? Because we believe in the power of meaningful, effective and authentic relationships with our students. Beth isn’t giving herself enough credit… why does she have fifty plus requests for letters of recommendation? Because she is a teacher who genuinely cares about the students in front of her. Whenever a student walks into her room, they feel like her favorite student. And that’s a good thing.

I’ve learned that the most impactful form of discipline isn’t a reactionary approach, but a proactive one. A mentor teacher of mine once told me something that I think about every day:

“Always remember that there are twenty five more important people in the room than you.”

In my first five years of teaching, I haven’t thrown a student out of my room yet. Don’t misinterpret: I’ve come close. I’ve been lucky enough to figure something out pretty early on in my career about the way I want to teach. I certainly don’t think I have found the way to promote a culture of respect and authenticity in my classes, but the very least, I’ve figured something out that works for me, something that’s at the root of who I am as a teacher and what I think the profession of teaching should be all about.

I work every day to build and maintain positive, meaningful relationships with my students. It’s a long, hard process that often takes a while. I’ve noticed that when mutual respect is achieved between me and a class of high school students, great things can happen. Powerful conversations take place. The best part? The need for “discipline” disappears. You just don’t need it. There’s no room for it. My classes are respectful of me and interested in what I have to say simply because I reciprocate.

When I was in high school, I respected the teachers who respected me back. I took interest in those teachers who took interest in me. When we reminisce on the “glory days” of high school, I’m sure we all can think of a teacher or two who was more interested in hearing their own voice than relating to teenagers. It’s funny, because we often forget that students (really at any age) are much keener than we presume – they know who which of theirs teachers are are interested in establishing relationships, and those who aren’t.

As teachers, we show up at work every day for one reason: our students. We are invested in them: their well-being, comfort and learning rest and rely on the learning community that we establish in our classroom every day. It’s our responsibility to give those students a safe place where they feel valued, accepted and cared for.

Students need fewer people in their lives telling them “this is how it’s supposed to be” and more trusted adults saying “this is who you are right now, and thats okay.” I try to meet my students where they are when they walk in the door, but not forgetting about where they could be going.

At some point during any given school day, I’ll hear or read about an initiative that doesn’t necessarily make me uncomfortable, but perks up my ears. Don’t get me wrong: I firmly believe that new ideas or policy in education are important and promote and foster change in the “business” of what we do. Common Core is a good thing. New policies and procedures in educator supervision and evaluation are good things. It is important for the culture of education to continue to evolve, shift and change based on the world in which our students live. This is a fact. Things are changing, so teachers must too.

But, with that being said, one thing that shouldn’t change is our commitment to the social and emotional well-being of our students. This is at the center of what I do.

High school, like many of us can remember, is a weird time for a lot of reasons. Spoiler alert: most teenagers are more worried about who they are going to sit next to at lunch rather than their English homework. Instead of condemning this mindset, only continuing to fulfill the role of being the mean adult looking over your shoulder, it’s important for trusted adults (in and out of school) to recognize that adolescence is a critical point in a young person’s life. Neurons are firing on overtime trying to make sense of the stresses of seeking a place to fit in. Of course social pressures and mores take precedent. It’s natural.

As teachers, we have to make a choice: We can either ignore this behavior, putting it off as just a “phase” and playing down the social-emotional needs of our students, or, we can recognize that this stress has a direct impact on student learning, and develop and implement effective strategies that teach our students how to cope with this very normal time. The strategy I’ve chosen to focus on is creating and maintaining positive and meaningful relationships with my students, and I leverage these relationships to promote a culture of understanding and respect in my classes.

It works for me, and the results are awesome.