Crossing over

The first week back to school after winter break is usually a tough one. Take for instance, my homeroom. One would have thought they had walked into a busy 20-something bar (minus the alcohol), with all the varying conversations, yelling over each other, and water bottles flipping so hard that they resembled hard-core bass being spun by a stocking-hat wearing D.J.

I was never a fan clubs in my 20s. In my mid-thirties, I have less patience for noise, especially at 7:55 a.m. on a Tuesday. But, I get it. Students needed to hug their friends, gossip about all that had happened in the 10 days since they last saw each other, and generally, be a kid. So, for 25 minutes, Club322 was open for business, that is until breakfast was over and we reverted back to Room 322, Literacy Class.

Engaging students after a break can, flip or flop (HGTV fans, get it?!). My goal – flip students from their vacation brains back to their engaged, critical-thinking school brains. Easy, right?!

Of course, nothing is easy when it comes to middle school students! I knew I had to “hook” them and I had just the tool – Kwame Alexander‘s fantastic novel, The Crossover. Seriously, if you have not read this one, I encourage beg you to do so.

Reasons why I love The Crossover (and why your students will too!)

  • It’s written in poems. Most students (and some teachers, including myself) struggle with writing poetry. Thus, teaching it usually makes me utter things like, “Ughhhhhhhh” – let me just say, the struggle has always been real. Until now.  The Crossover allows students the opportunity to read various types of poems, which obviously lends itself to teaching poetry – it’s a win-win for teachers! My students are so engaged in this book and I’m even learning that my spoken word is pretty on point (a student told me this, so it’s clearly true). I mean, just look at this poem and tell me you’re not dying to read more…img_6593
  • Sports. If you’re a middle schooler, chances are, you’re hype about some kind of sport. If you’re a middle school boy, that sport is probably basketball. The Crossover is about basketball, which will already appeal to many students. But of course, there are those who sit at their desks and glare at me, thinking, I hate sports, therefore I will hate this book. This is where I say, “Not so fast, because aside from basketball, this book also has…”
  • Drama!!!! Lots of drama. Back-stabbing friend/family drama. Girl/boy drama. Sports drama. Rivalry. Okay, now most (if not all) of my students are engaged.
  • Creative opportunities. I assigned a Poetry Book as an ongoing assignment while we read the novel. Alexander does a great job incorporating a variety of poems in this book, so why not use it as a teaching tool?! img_6592
  • Annotating text. My students have annotated and close read text this year, so poetry is a great way for them to practice utilizing those skills. I’m sure they’ll come in handy on some state-wide assessment later this spring, so this is my way of “teaching to the test” without “teaching to the test.”img_6594

I’m using Socratic Seminars with this novel – more about that in another blog post. So far, I’m pleased with how engaged my students are and I’m even more excited that my school got me a class set of Alexander’s novel, Booked! Some of my students spied this in the back of my room and can’t wait to get their hands on it. Now that’s what I call motivation!

How do you engage students after a long break?




Critical thinking with a character analysis

Part of my job is to get students to think critically. This involves students diving deeper into texts we read instead of just answering basic recall and surface questions. I want students asking questions of the text.

This sounds easy. However, in a test-taking culture, where students are trained to locate the correct answer, asking them to justify their responses is harder than it looks. I have found that students are wary of being wrong. They struggle to express they “why” of their answers. They are scared of being incorrect. They think there is only one correct answer.

My job is to get them to view literature and writing as a way of proving themselves. I relate justifying answers to being a detective on Law & Order – you have to find evidence in a case in order to prove a person’s guilt or innocence. My students really relate to this comparison (clearly, Law & Order marathons are not just for adults!).

I start by taking a concept they are familiar with (character traits) and have them justify character traits by locating a quote in the text as support. Once students are able to locate evidence, I walk them through the process of analyzing the trait. This is the critical thinking aspect and it usually requires lots of modeling and re-teaching. I find that students often give surface information as their analysis.


After reviewing student work, such as the example above, I had to re-teach how to analyze a character’s actions. With this particular example, I would put it under my document camera and walk students through the process. I might say, “Max is yelling for help because Kevin can’t breathe – what does this tell you about who Max is as a person?”

After a few teacher-led examples, I hand brainstorm sheets back to students and have them re-work their analysis. Students who still struggle work with me in small groups.

My hope is that the more I allow students to justify and explain themselves, the better equip they will be for life. Also, most of the math on state assessments these days asks students to explain their answer, so essentially I am preparing them for “the test.” They don’t need to know that though 😉

What are some strategies you use to help your students think critically?

Sharing Writing Publicly

Perhaps the most important aspect of writing is when your work is shared publicly. I’m most proud of my writing pieces that have been published in print and online, mostly because it means people besides myself have access to it. Students get the same excitement and pride when their work is shared publicly.

Making time and space for students to share their work is just as important as the work itself. Teaching students how to critique work and how to accept criticism is a life skill they will certainly utilize as they transform into adulthood. In middle school, a time when character development is critical, it is especially meaningful when teachers offer guidance and activities that allow students to become well-rounded individuals.

I’ve used Linda Christensen’s “Read-Around” activity for years (from this book, which is like my teaching bible) and it’s always proven to be a success with students. While I tailor it to my students’ needs each year, I find that with consistent implementation, students, 1.) Find more pleasure in writing; 2.) Learn how to give meaningful feedback; 3.) Learn how to accept feedback that is critical of their work.

A student reading her work during a read-around
A student reading her work during a read-around

My current class had their first read-around last week. I always have students move the desks and put chairs in a circle. This promotes positive classroom community and also ensures that the speaker and audience can see/hear everyone.

I create a rubric so that students are able to critique their peers’ work. It also holds them accountable for actively participating and listening. Since this was our first read-around, the rubric was rather basic, asking students to list one “glow” (something the author did well) and one “grow” (something the author could improve).

Students give feedback on a rubric
Students give feedback on a rubric

Prior to the read-around, we discussed examples of exemplar and non-exemplar “glows” and “grows.” For instance, saying a paper is “good” is not very helpful to the writer; saying their use of statistics helps to persuade readers is a better and more specific “glow.”

Since this was our first read-around, I had students volunteer to read their essays – no pressure! I tell students that my expectation is that everyone reads out loud in a read-around this year. I realize that for some students, public speaking is scary, so I never force them to read aloud at a given time, but I continue to enforce my expectation that they do it at least once and they always rise to meet it. What I’ve found is that with consistent implementation of read-arounds, these students will eventually become comfortable and feel that the space is safe enough for them to face their fear without pressure.

How do you allow students to share their work?

The Power of Peer Editing

“Yessssss!!! OMG, I’ve been waiting for this!”

Comments like the ones above are what I heard when I announced that we were at the peer editing station where students check for conventions. Red pens in hand, they could not wait to tear apart edit their peer’s paper.

It’s natural to get some (tiny) enjoyment out of correcting others’ mistakes, and if you’re a tweenager, the high is likely 100x greater than if you’re a teacher who corrects grammar for a living.

While students generally enjoy the act of peer editing, I have yet to find a flawless way to go about the process. Although this year, I think I am very close.

I had been thinking about using peer station activities and purchased this one from TpT. However, after looking it over, I realized that it may need to be scaffolded for my students. Luckily, my co-teacher shared a peer editing station she used in the past. With a few tweaks, it ended up being a great introduction to peer editing!


Peer editing in action!

Of course, being the first time I used stations for peer editing, there were some kinks that need to be ironed out for next time.

  • Rotating. I had students (not papers) rotate and we all did the same station at the same time. In the future, I hope to have different tables be different stations, but for the sake of going over criteria and setting norms, it worked quite well, although it appeared messy.
  • Skill/Knowledge Level: Some students were confused about thesis statements. They didn’t know what to look for. This let me know that in our next piece of writing, I need to make thesis statements a focus.

What worked well?

  • Green/Red pens. I had students use green pens to fix errors in capitalization, since that was a skill we had just studied. Red pens were used for other grammar errors. Next time, I will provide a list of editing symbols because even though we do a Daily Edit using the symbols each day, some students were a bit fuzzy on the symbols.
  • Reading different papers. In the past, students read one paper. With stations, they were able to read five different papers, which allowed them to see many writing styles, which will (hopefully) help them in the future!

How does peer editing work in your classroom? Let me know in the comments!

To (Exit) Ticket or Not to (Exit) Ticket

Exit tickets. In some ways, this method of checking for understanding is a no-brainer. As teachers, we obviously want to know if our students have mastered the skills in the day’s lesson. A short informal assessment, or exit ticket, at the end of class often lets teachers know who mastered the objective and who needs further instruction.


I’ve struggled (for years) to fit exit tickets into my ELA lesson plan. Sure, some days it works, especially if we are focused on one skill (main idea, for instance). However, in literature, we are often discussing many skills at once. Sometimes we are engaged in literature circle and class discussions where many inquiries are taking place. Still, I’m supposed to choose one skill for my students to “master?!”

In my opinion, the discussion of literature cannot be “mastered.” Discussions about text, characters, motivations, and the like should be organic, especially when the students are middle-school age and older and discussing novels. While there is often a great deal of scaffolding during these discussions, oftentimes, the outcomes are not what I anticipated, as students will often bring up points that are not necessarily connected to the day’s objective. Instead of discouraging their discussion and swaying it in the direction of the day’s objective, I let it flow organically. Wouldn’t you dislike it if someone tried to moderate your discussion of books?!

Despite my love/hate relationship with exit tickets, I have found some unique, open-ended ways to incorporate them into my ELA class. One such way is through the use of Twitter posts. I found this gem in one of my weekend Pinterest binges and the students love it. There are sentence starters about the day’s lesson, such as:

  • Something I learned today…
  • I didn’t know…
  • A question I have is…

I display these “tweets” on a bulletin board for all students to see. It also gives me easy access to answer student questions about the lessons!


Do I do this every day with every class? Nope! Honestly, it takes a good portion of time to do, so doing it every day is not feasible. However, I try to do it a couple of times a week with different classes. Already, one student asked when his class was going to “tweet” after seeing the board of tweets!

Other versions of this could be to have all students write responses to a question or finish a sentence starter on a post-it, then have them post their notes to a designated space.

How do exit tickets work in your classroom?

How students learn vs. how schools teach

If you ask a teacher how students learn, chances are, their responses will not include what is typically seen in schools across the nation.

While the majority of my school learning was done seated in rows, taking copious notes and memorizing said notes for upcoming tests, (most of which I would quickly forget) as an educator I now realize what my schooling lacked – inquiry.

Instead of asking questions during class, students are often instructed to locate answers to questions that teachers, textbooks or worksheets propose. They are forced to learn calculus instead of more practical, real-world math, such as balancing a checkbook.

If I had received some practical instruction in my formative high school years that was both tailored to my interests and pertinent to my future as a working class adult, I suspect that my credit card debt would be lower and my vocabulary far superior than it is now. For, instead of spending hours trying to decipher what x equals, I would have been reading. I was a voracious reader as a young adolescent, but once I entered high school, I typically only read what was required for class, mostly because any free time I had involved sitting at the kitchen table with my dad trying to explain my math homework to me, all the while wondering, When am I ever going to use this in real-life?!

Even back then, an angst-ridden teen, I realized what I excelled in (analyzing everything/everyone) and what I loathed (numbers, the periodic table, the Macarena). So why then, nearly two decades later, are schools still fixated on educating students in a way that is not effective?

As an educator, I see the disconnect between common sense teaching and what schools consider teaching. Will Richardson’s TedX talk has many salient points, but this one stood out to me.


In my mind, the “common sense” list is a no-brainer and is a truthful snapshot of how students learn. However, I often find myself adhering to many of the items on the “????” side because they are mandated by schools, districts, administration.

If you’re not a teacher, I’m sure this is difficult to grasp. You’re probably wondering, “Why don’t teachers take a stand? Let their voices be heard to their administration/school districts and boards of education? Couldn’t they just teach the way they know best behind closed doors?”

The truth is, I’ve done all of the above. I’ve taught social justice in secret and seen my students engaged, curious and pondering over real-world questions. I’ve spoken up when my views were not popular, despite pushback from colleagues and administration. I’ve held my tongue (to the point where it bleeds) because despite what I know is right, what I think doesn’t always matter. Also, I have student loans to pay, bills and need health insurance.

Common sense is not necessarily common, especially to those with power.

Richardson’s talk is convincing, but it’s nothing that teachers have not heard before or seen with their own eyes. As a former teacher himself, I am sure he understands the stress, pressure, and ridiculous amount of work that teachers put forth in order to ensure their students are learning in an organic, fun, inquiry-based setting.

However, the debate about how students learn best versus how school has been taught for decades is one that will continue until actual teachers are respected and given autonomy by states, government and politicians.

Until then, teachers try to squeeze as much “common sense” beliefs about teaching into the “????” side of teaching and learning. If this means we turn a blind eye to the “????” of teaching, then so be it.

The Grammar Files

Growing up, grammar was something that was explicitly taught. I specifically recall my ninth grade English class when it comes to grammar instruction. While we read literature (Great Expectations comes to mind), the teacher devoted a good portion of class time to grammar instruction. After ninth grade, we were apparently supposed to know everything we needed to know about grammar because it disappeared from my English courses.

I thought I had a pretty good understanding of grammar – until college where I was forced to take a class called “Grammar and Usage.” It was the only “C” I ever earned in college. But now I am able to diagram sentences! Wait – when do I ever do that?!

Never. I never diagram sentences. Nor am I ever asked to point out the gerund, preposition, or infinitive.


Grammar is something I’m passionate about, but just how much of it do today’s students need to know in order to be avid readers and writers?

I’ve worked at four schools over the course of 12 years and none of them incorporated grammar into the curriculum. When I tried to teach the basic parts of speech, I found that student knowledge was all over the place. Some of my students’ previous teachers clearly thought grammar was important, but others did not. So half of my class knew what I meant when I said, “Add adjectives to your writing,” while others stared at me blankly.

I have always struggled with teaching grammar  – what do I teach? How do I differentiate instruction when student knowledge is so varied?

I have tried mini-lessons, but sometimes those are more than mini in that they often take longer than 10 minutes due to students having questions. For some, if it’s the first time being exposed to the material, I have to back-up and teach the basics. Before I know it, class is over and all we did was silent read and practice how to find verbs in sentences.

I’ve also assigned grammar as homework. However, the students who already know the skills end up completing it in record time while the students who are confused copy the work on the bus to school.

Is grammar important? Yes and no. I believe that students can organically learn much of what they need to know about sentence structure, parts of speech, comma placement, etc. by reading. But of course, not all students are wild about reading. (Those who are, I find, are typically the best writers in the class. But that’s another post!)

So this year, I’m trashing my mini-lessons. I’m revamping my curriculum and teaching grammar that matters. I’m asking myself questions, such as, What grammar skills will help my students become better writers? How can I infuse grammar instruction with the teaching of literature?

So while learning the parts of speech is something I likely won’t be spending time on this coming school year, you can bet my students will learn how to liven up their writing by using adjectives. You can also bet your bottom dollar that they will not be reading sentences and underlining adjectives; instead, they will create the sentences themselves. Grammar instruction should be meaningful and useful.

No one diagrams sentences these days. Perhaps that’s the most important lesson I learned from my college grammar class.

Throughout the year I’ll post “The Grammar Files,” which will discuss my triumphs (hopefully) and tribulations with grammar instruction. I welcome your feedback!

Do you teach grammar? I’d love to hear your ideas!