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. 

Screenshot 2016-02-05 at 1.31.24 PM

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: 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!

“May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor”

My students used to love reading. Like, really, really  love reading. And then  X changed all of that. (Insert the variable of your choice: school, extracurriculars, dating, gaming, etc.)  In an effort to change that (and after reading the four most powerful books on the market–Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide, Penny Kittle’s Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers, and Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild), Chris and I set out to reintroduce our students to a love of reading: “Students, books. Books, students.”  It has been a year of growth, learning, exhaustion, and, at times, pure euphoria.
Like this morning. (More on that in a minute.)
It’s college recommendation time, which my students affectionately call “Ms. Hughes’ Hunger Games.” Because I have trouble saying “no” to doe-eyed students, a few years ago I agreed to write 58 recommendations. At two to three hours a piece, it was a horrible recommendation-writing season. (I’m convinced there’s a book out there, pointing recommendation-seekers toward their English teachers. But that’s another post.) Because of that awful summer (the effects of which will resurface in my children’s future therapy sessions), I now reserve fifteen spots and require applicants to reflect on a series of prompts. Beyond that, “may the odds be ever in [their] favor.”
So, this morning, before tackling yet another set of essays, I quickly glanced at a student’s reflection:

Ms.Hughes has seen my work ethic improve over the past year and knows how important it is to me. She is always helping me with my projects and papers or anything I need help with which makes me feel like I have someone I can actually rely on. Ms.Hughes is always helping me to improve my work. Recently she gave me a book recommendation for the mystery/thriller choice book project and I really enjoyed the book a lot. She helped me find my love for reading all over again which I have absolutely missed since I was a kid. I used to always love reading then was never a big fan of it and this year she has opened me up to so many book options that I began to love reading. I have noticed my work has improved greatly over the past year due to the help of reading more and this will especially help me in my future. Overall, Ms.Hughes has spread her love of reading on to me which has made me fall in love all over again with reading.

While the work Chris and I are doing is by no means finished–and while this is only one student, this was the perfect energy drink I needed to sustain me for the month-long marathon that is June.

Happy reading, and “may the odds be ever in your favor”!

Book love


Every spring, my littluns’ school holds a book swap, and every spring, I help my children select pre-loved books to trade during said swap. Picture a Zen-filled moment, complete with classical music frolicking in the background, as two avid readers relive their favorite titles with their teacher-mother. Because I’m sure in one of the houses in town, that’s happening. In our house, however, the moment is often a teensy bit stress-filled, as Mommy usually isn’t told about the swap until thirty minutes past bedtime. The night before. And even then, the only background noise is the bickering of two exhausted children.

But I digress.

This year, as we were combing through shelves, on hands and knees (which, as it turns out, is a position from which I can’t as readily rebound as I once could), I started thinking: If our goal is to foster a love of reading in our students, why do book swaps end just because elementary school does? How much more real-world can we get than creating opportunities for our middle and high school students to peruse, interact with, discuss, and get excited about free, new-to-them titles? If students are done with their (Sarah) Dessen, have finished their (F. Scott) Fitzgerald, and/or are contented with their (Tom) Clancy, why can’t they trade them in for something new–and free?

And so there, on my aching hands and throbbing knees, an idea was born: Room 1227’s First-Ever Book Swap! And it’s happening in all of my high school classes next week. The students (and teacher) are pretty excited about it.

Even the ones who are too cool for school.

Emulation 101: For the Love of Writing?

        In her book Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers, the fabulous Ms. Penny Kittle discusses the importance of using mentor texts to guide student writing. In addition to escaping into an intoxicating other-world, students learn to appreciate craft as they read–as well as take their own writing to the next level as they compose. (It goes without saying that the exploration of authorial craft permeates the ELA Common Core State Standards.) As they read, it encourages students to pay attention to diction, syntax, and deliberateness.
       In that vein, I recently asked my high school students to create an Emulation 101 journal to house prompts (both teacher- and self-selected) and student emulations of said prompts. I provided my students with the first prompt, which I excerpted from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird:
Summer was on the way; Jem and I awaited it with impatience. Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the tree house; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colors in a parched landscape; but most of all, summer was Dill. (Lee 34)

I then shared my own emulation as a model (which I do for each entry–partly to see what they will have to do and partly to gauge how long it might take for my lesson planning).

My attempt at emulating the untouchable Ms. Lee (with borrowed Lee-isms in caps):

Autumn WAS ON THE WAY; Amy AND I AWAITED IT WITH IMPATIENCE. Autumn WAS OUR BEST SEASON; IT WAS “helping” Dad rake the leaf-carpeted yard, OR worrying about whether or not my new teacher would like me; autumn WAS the intoxicating baby-doll smell of new plastic binders; IT WAS A THOUSAND fiery crimsons and bursting oranges in the boasting trees; BUT MOST OF ALL, autumn WAS my annual Do-Over.

     I was thrilled with what the students produced, four of which are represented below:  

       Summer was on the way; Josh and I awaited the beaches with impatience. Summer was by far our best season: it was letting sunshine and volleyball dictate our days, and trying to find songs everyone can sing around the fire; it was the very best of the hot and the very refreshing of the cold; it was the ocean breeze and new sunglasses and smiles of new friends in a kaleidoscope of aqua and gold; but mostly, it was the renewed hope that change and excitement was right around the corner.
       Summer was on the way; Matthew, Mia, and I awaited it restlessly. Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the porch in Maine, or imploring our parents to put the air conditioner in; summer was endless days stretched out in front of us; it was the silhouette of the Rocky Mountains from the window; but most of all, summer was growing up.

       Winter was on the way, and Nolan and I awaited it with impatience. Winter was our best season. The trees were bare of leaves, and any day now snow would cover the town, making it unrecognizable from its former self. Winter was the holiday season and we’d be stuck inside for days on end, but most of all, winter was a time of celebration for holidays and a new year,

        Summer was on the way; my brothers and I awaited it with impatience. Summer was our favorite season together: it was going down the Cape, or running on the beach at sunrise; summer was a plethora of ice cream to eat; it was a thousand people together encompassed in the Cape Cod elbow; but most of all, summer was precious time spent with the family.

Remember: These are English students, not Creative Writing ones. So, without regular practice, they might not otherwise include sophisticated techniques like repetition and metaphor in their narratives. And while they may not hereafter, it’s a start–and one of the very reasons we read.

Finally, a Reading Challenge for the Rest of Us!

Since the beginning of time the year, there have been a slew of reading challenges circulating. However, most of them made me (Beth) feel like a complete failure as a reader. “Tackle a book a day!” (Which I assumed was a joke, since I’m lucky to read through everything my kids schlep home from school each day.) “Enjoy a book a week!” (More humor, as I am often trapped under piles of student essays each week.) While I absolutely love reading, most of my pleasure reading happens during summer vacation–which is the same for many of my busy students. (That is, until the fabulous, book-whispering Donalyn Miller challenged what I did in the classroom–which now includes setting aside ten minutes in the beginning of each class to read for pleasure.) Until recently, no reading challenge had felt attainable.

Enter book-loving blogger Modern Mrs. Darcy.

Her 2015 Reading Challenge calls for devouring twelve books in twelve months. Finally, a reading challenge for the rest of us! In fact, it was so feasible that I turned it into a class activity to promote a love of literacy. I recreated her list in chart form, asking my high school students to select a title that fulfilled each category. (And dang it, her categories are fun!) The next step required my students to log into their Goodreads accounts (which we set up earlier this year), create a new bookshelf entitled “2015 Reading Challenge,” and then add these twelve new titles to their shelves. The catch? They will cull their next few independent reading assignments from this list. (Next year, I will have my students create a similar version in September and independently enjoy one book a month–regardless of what we are studying together in class. I’m still ironing out the details; however, I know that reading conferences and the standards will play a role.)

Assignments like this are what I call “Literary Sandbox” activities: quick, real-world tasks in which my students get to “play.” Often technology is involved, as it is here, but only when it fits. (And fit it did right before the holidays, when my students created their own Amazon Wish Lists called “What-to-get-for-the-adolescent-who-has-everything.”) These Literary Sandbox activities promote and foster a love of reading–the professional goal Chris and I have committed to this year–and the reason many bibliophiles pursue a career in teaching in the first place.

Feel free to beg, steal, borrow, modify, or ignore the assignment.

Happy reading!