Saturday, February 28, 2009

Post #10 - Discussion Response

Question: Is it correct to separate classes by perceived skill level, i.e. "honors" and "standard"? Do you think schools should differentiate between alleged achievement levels? Or do you think all classes should reflect a variety of these levels?

I let the post wait 5 days before providing my own response; I could try and do what one teacher once told me to do: wait 'em out and SOMEONE will eventually respond (I actually pulled up a chair during my 2nd period last year! That's a story for another day). Sometimes even teachers are afraid to raise their hands in the classroom, I suppose! However, I want to keep in a habit of updating this blog more than once a week.

I'll first admit that I didn't word the question perfectly. I didn't want to show bias towards one side or the other; I didn't like that word choice of "correct" but couldn't think of another way to phrase it without bias.

Here's my initial reaction to this question: it's unfair to say absolutely one way or another. Idealistically speaking, class sizes would range from 10-15 students per class, providing the students with equal teacher attention. Idealistically speaking, then, it would be acceptable - nay, favorable - for classes to reflect a diverse range of skill levels. Upper level learners could use their advanced understanding to help support weaker learners, leaving the teacher free to focus on the weakest learners.

But that one word trips us up: Idealistically. Realistically, schools aren't like that: teachers are fortunate if they have less than 25 in a class. For example in my school next year, the school board has designated that each class must be initially scheduled for at least 20 breathing bodies. I don't intend to deliver a woebegone statement of over-crowded classrooms, but my response to the posed question does hinge on class size.

My experiences last year largely shape my opinion on this. I taught "standard" and within those classes, I had anywhere from 2-6 English Language Learners. I was never entirely sure how much of the material they were actually absorbing. A month before the state test, I gathered these precarious pupils during "study hall" for group tutoring (13 students) focused on passing the Gateway*. Even though I tried to help these students whenever we had classwork, they needed more individualized attention than I had time for in 50 minutes. Besides, they weren't my only weak learners; they were just the weakest. I had to also help other struggling classmates. If I'd had a roster of 15 or fewer, my attention wouldn't have been so divided; then, yes, I could have helped them. I was able to assist them best in that small group tutoring of 13, when we could all go at the same pace.

In class they were falling behind because I couldn't go slowly enough. I had 23-25 other students who couldn't go any slower; after all, didn't that other 25 deserve to be challenged? When we have that many students, we are forced to teach to the majority. What is that majority? Well...the average.
By tossing those outliers into that majority, we then end up leaving behind lower learners and failing to propel the advanced. Wouldn't it be better to differentiate between the levels somewhat, allowing each to push themselves on a conceivable scale?

Perhaps that's the issue at hand here: somehow we've said "just because they're average/below, that's okay, we don't have to expect much." Not true! We can still hold them to higher standards, challenging them appropriately without expecting an impossible or overwhelming ideal. They don't have to be THE HIGHEST standards -- just sufficiently pushing them toward the next level. What we need to set ourselves to do, then, is to make each class appropriately challenging for the skill level recognized. The importance is that we are continually challenging; we must support what they are capable of, all the while pushing them just a little further. Our job, after all, is to become progressively unnecessary (ooh, plug!) by teaching them how to think.

Are there benefits to incorporating these different levels? Yes, for reasons I think any decent educator can recognize. Ultimately, in our current educational structure with our current restrictions (i.e. teacher numbers), I don't think it works. If schools integrated ALL learners and had NO honors classes, upper and lower level students would be cheated; we wouldn't properly push or support those who needed it. Given a class of 25-30 students, a single teacher doesn't have time to keep advanced level students properly challenged, develop average level students' knowledge, and support lower level learners. Realistically, there just isn't enough time to properly address all the learning levels when you have 50 minutes and 28 learners; you wear out your teacher by "scraping butter over too much bread." I'd still be skeptical of this in 90 minute classes if the class size remains the same. Until schools can do right by their teachers and students by providing smaller class sizes, I support the idea of having "honors" and "standard" classes.

*Just because I'm so proud of them, I wanted to share: all of those students passed the state test, and 12 of the 13 passed "Advanced"! I danced down the hall when I got results; I'm still so proud of them.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Post #9 - Discuss Amongst Yourselves

OK, readers, I want to hear you.

Here's my discussion question - take your time to mull it over, but please do write me a response. I'm interested in creating a dialogue with others through this blog.

Question: Is it correct to separate classes by perceived skill level, i.e. "honors" and "standard"? Do you think schools should differentiate between alleged achievement levels? Or do you think all classes should reflect a variety of these levels?

Once I get some responses, I'll give my two cents. ;)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Post #8 - Reading Activity: Postcard

Objective: To display comprehension of material read and analyze a character through the creative production of a postcard.
Materials: 3X5 (or 4x6) index cards, colored pencils/markers/crayons
This is always a sure-winner. I've done it with standard and honors students; I'm always amazed at the hidden gems of snark & humor that come out in this activity. All my students love this activity*, and you'll get a kick out of the results. It's so easy and creative but can speak volumes about their understanding of a novel.

1. Give students index cards (or have them measure/cut out blank paper approximately the size of a postcard).
2. Inform them that they are to choose one character within the novel you are currently reading, and write a postcard AS that character TO another character in the novel. Example: "If you choose to be Snowball in Animal Farm, decide who would Snowball be most likely to write to and what would he say if he could?"
3. Show them how to set up the postcard on the lined side (for writing). I have them divide the lined side a little more than half, so they have lots of room to write. On the right hand side, they are supposed to supply the address, and put their name where the stamp would be. I encourage them to make up silly addresses if they don't know where the receiver is located (Ex: Mollie, Third Stall Down, Animal Farm; or Snowball, 1 Traitor Lane, Disloyal 53321).
4. Their letter should be short & to the point. They don't have a lot of room to write - so tell them, "Don't waste time with 'How are you. I wish you were here'!"
5. On the back they can draw a picture (I always require color otherwise I get half-butt work from my non-artistes). Remind students that postcard pictures are reflective of where the sender (character writing the card) is located. The image side should show something about where the letter-writer is located or what is happening in his/her life.

Before all this, I make an example of my own to show them. They really get a kick out of my artistic attempts. Here's some examples you could rip off of my students, if you don't feel like making your own. (We did these when reading Animal Farm by Orwell - if you've read the novel, you might appreciate the humor in these a little more).

This one reads: Dear Pigs, It seems you have been outwitted by the Raven as you see I've been spying on you and the farm and have plotted your demise and the rise of my own cult! We will recover Sugarcandy Mountain and live in prosperity while you lot die in vain and labor! (addressed to: Tree on the Other End of the Farm)

This one was written by Mr. Jones! I thought the depicted scene was clever.

This one reads: Clover, I am having a marvelous time! I get all the sugar and ribbons I want! I don't understand why 2 legs are bad. They give us all we want! Write back soon, Mollie (Addressed to 312 Little Way Down Rd.)

*disclaimer: Progressively Unnecessary does not guarantee 100% satisfaction in student response to this activity. Progressively Unnecessary is not responsible for any student dissatisfaction in your classroom.

source: adapted from 103 Things to do Before/During/After Reading Reading Rockets article

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Post #7 - Literary Analysis Writing

Objective: Learn the elements & structure of a well-argued literary analysis
Materials: Practice Essay Handout (to be marked up); Teacher Notes
(You'll also need highlighters & pens/pencils, but I ain't made out of money. Get 'em yourself.)

It has been a long-term goal of mine this year to introduce my students to literary analysis. By now, they have a steady grasp of what the basic literary elements are. Now the challenge is getting them to see & talk about how those elements are significant to a text.

I thought my students knew how to write a basic comparison & contrast essay. They've been writing 5-paragraph essays for several years, so I thought they would easily adapt that knowledge to this. Uh-huh. Nope. I sometimes forget that even though my students are The Honors Kids, they are only sophomores. There's still some foundation to lay.

Their compare/contrast theme essays brought all this to my attention last week. I knew we had to get down to some basic Writing 101; and, boy, it was absolutely worth it! The light bulbs over their furiously whirring brains went on one-by-one --sometimes in sudden bursts all together! Which, as any teacher knows, is the ultimate reward.

1. To do this, we looked at a good (but imperfect) literary analysis: Practice Essay handout, below.
2. I made copies of this practice essay, which we marked up in class. You'll notice on the handout I post that page one is the write-up (copy/paste it into a Word Document & double-space it), and the 2nd page outline the steps.
3. Since this was a "learn as we go," I guided them through those steps as a class.
4. Each time the steps require them to write a new sentence, I wrote one, too! I made sure they were working on their own first, and then I turned to the board and created mine. Then we shared - offering candy to the willing volunteers (it's my ultimate motivator!)
5. The directions on the back are great because it allows absent students to perform this activity as well.

This was totally worth the day - it took us all class period to do (roughly 45 minutes) - but the students definitely had a better understanding. Though I hate having to make all the copies, I love when we can mark up a writing, and it was absolutely necessary. Their homework that night was to look at another literary analysis and break it apart into a graphic organizer. The links to those are also posted below.

Compare/Contrast Theme Literary Analysis Practice Essay
Compare/Contrast Theme Literary Analysis Teacher Notes

Literary Analysis Essay #2 Homework
Literary Analysis Essay Graphic Organizer Homework

Source: my brain

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Post #6

Let's return to those posters, shall we?

Objective: Synthesize learned information

I've set forth a general purpose for this particular activity because it's so versatile! You can use these to have students teach and review material. In addition to what you'll see here, I've used it with grammar and poetic devices at the beginning of a unit; that way, throughout the unit, students can look up at their posters to say "Oh, yeah!" I encourage them to use these to "cheat" when I'm asking questions or they're completing activities. The more they refer to it, the more they refresh the concept!

For this particular application, my students were studying propaganda techniques while reading Animal Farm. Each group had to choose one of the propaganda techniques we had studied and make a poster for Animal Farm, either from Napoleon's campaign or from Snowball's/Human's campaign. They presented the posters and classmates had to identify which technique was used. Correct answers received candy, supplied by Mrs. P. (another classroom strategy: get them to bring candy in for extra credit, so you can give it out for correct answers. The punks darlings will do anything for some sugar.)

Every time I use the posters strategy, the students have fun, and it comes through in their work.

Source: My SHS co-worker's poster idea, my adaptation to

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Post #5

So, with my technology topic complete, do you feel that you incorporate technology well enough in your classroom?

Do you have any great tech resources you could share?

Post #4

So I'm not really original with these post titles. Does that honestly matter to y'all?

OK, I think this is my last technology post for now.

In my panic-induced labor to reduce my carbon footprint, I've tried to reduce my number of copies. OK, that's a lie. I'm completely self-serving: I just don't want to get yelled at for high copy numbers. But still, ol' Mother Earth gets some benefits here, so just take your judgmental stare somewhere else.

One way I have done this is by posting homework online so students don't need to get a copy of a reading passage, etc. "But how in the world do I do that?" you ask.

"Google Documents," I say, "Google. Documents."

Now, if you don't have a Google account, get one. If you already have a mail server you like, no problem, you don't have to use their mail. Google accounts have plenty of other neat features --like hosting documents!

I'm sure there's a way to embed a word document in my webpage. But I don't know how to do it. And Dreamweaver confuses the heck out of me. But I know how to hyperlink, so linking away it shall be. On Google documents, I set up whatever assignment I want them to complete, and "publish it." Google gives me a link, which I use on my website to hyperlink. For instance, a few weeks ago, students had to read this passage about Greek burial and then answer the questions that followed. They answered the questions on looseleaf paper and turned it in for homework, and I didn't have to worry about exerting the copy machine!

So, go forth! Sign up for Google!

...and if you need an invitation to sign up, ask me.

Source: My ingenuity. Be in awe.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Post #3

More technology...

As promised, I'm delivering another little technology tool that I discovered. This one is purely for you, teacher, although you could use it to convey links to your students. offers you an online database where you can sort & organize all your important links. It enables you to save & organize all your lesson plan webpage ideas in one place! I found this at an in-service our county mandated for new teachers, and it's one of the few things they offered that I use regularly. I am forever gleaning ideas from the internet; my bookmarks sidebar became increasingly cluttered as I tried to keep everything organized & saved. Portaportal is better. The layout is just a little bit more file-friendly than "my favorites," though it's essentially the same idea.

Take a peek at my links on the right. Go on, give 'em a quick click - what will it hurt? I've put the my most frequently-employed webpages in that toolbar, and I promise they're awesome. They're my number one recommendations to my fellow colleagues when they ask for lesson plan ideas. In that list is my portaportal, so you can see what I'm talking about here. Just give it a shot; I promise: it's fab-u-lous.

Source: County in-service

Friday, February 6, 2009

Post #2

In honor of this particular entry, I would like to start with a few wise words from a deeply influential man...

I don't know about you, but my school is always trying to get us to use more technology. Schools recognize that with each passing year, technology becomes more ingrained in our students' lives. As a result, we have to take on the task of adapting our lessons to utilize it. Ultimately, we are responsible for showing them how to use technology and use it wisely; but we also need to weave it into our lessons merely because it is the way this generation communicates. The next few posts will carry this theme, mostly because it's too much for one.

I'm not pretending to be an expert in tech options; there's plenty out there that I might not even touch on (Moodle, for instance) because I haven't used them or they just plain intimidate me. But I'm at least trying to do more. Let's forget for an instant the complaints and arguments of a lack of school resources, or students' resources at home. We're keeping it positive. I know you have limitations; I do, too. I offer the idea; you figure out how to make it work for you. They want us to use more technology, so here's one option:

Online quizzes! Think outside the box here. I'm not saying take a regular in-class quiz and post it online (although you could). Last week my students had a homework assignment which entailed completing a "Which character are you?" personality quiz for Oedipus Rex. (Try it out!) The kids complete quizzes like these all the time for Myspace & Facebook, so why not tap into it? It's a great way to talk about characterization or do some anticipatory activities. After their results, they have to write a brief paragraph about whether or not they agree/disagree with the results, so I know there's some brain stimulation. This was something that was fun to create and gave me a great sense of accomplishment when I finished. I had a lot of fun getting creative and a little silly with the questions and answers.

I used and will probably go back. It's free and it offered a variety of quiz options. But hunt through Google! There are plenty of options out there. And if you find one you like...tell me about it!

Source: I stole this idea from a coworker at SHS

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Post #1

Let's get this party started!

Here's a little introduction to my classroom and my first suggestion for fellow teachers: have the students do the decorating.

I got this tip from SHS compatriot Ms. Taylor. Now, unfortunately, I took these pictures when my room was still in the stages of decoration transition. But you'll get the idea. I'm always trying to add more color to my walls. So, I love to have the students make posters for me. Just grab that bulletin-board butcher paper, cut (or have students cut) into approximately determined sizes-of-choice and voila! This is an excellent tool for all kinds of activities; I'll share one a little later in how I used these posters in Animal Farm. But my point here is just to use those posters to decorate.

View from my desk, looking left. Note posters on computer, ready to be put up.
View from desk, straight ahead.

View from desk, to the right. Note the bulletin board...
Blurry picture of bulletin board. This is a class assignment they did awhile ago. Saves me from having to make a themed bulletin board!

So there you have it. Suggestion number one: turn students into interior decorating apprentices.

Question: What is one thing you would change about your classroom? (If you have one! If you're a roaming teacher, what is your ideal classroom like?)

My answer: If given the option of only ONE thing to change in my classroom (and I think any of us could think of more than one), I would have my walls sanded & repainted. You might not be able to see it in the pictures, but the paint on my walls is chipping off. I try not to lean against the wall because it will come away with me! You can't see it in the pictures taken from my phone, but those walls are in a sad state.

Sunday, February 1, 2009


Welcome, friends & potential readers! I don't intend to create some kind of fancy mission statement for this blog, but I would like to explain the purpose a bit.

I love to write; thus, I have kept journals & diaries since first or second grade. Once I entered college, I learned about online journals. I started my first at Xanga, and I still have this blog. It is a more personal-made-public journal of my thoughts and daily life. If you are a teacher, you know that most of those tales of daily life might will include education in some way!

Indeed, my blog began follow just such a trend. Tales from the classroom filled my entries, ranging from the mundane this-is-what-I-have-to-grade lists to this-student-got-my-mercury-up. While I know that some people outside the classroom can still enjoy an amusing teacher anecdote, they may not always want to know the cool lesson plans I (or a colleague) used in a certain lesson. Quite frequently, when I come across something that just works - maybe the kids employ upper levels of Bloom's taxonomy, maybe the kids really "got it," or maybe the kids just had fun - I want to share it! I want to claim my bragging rights or relive a wonderful reflection.  As a first year teacher, I was starving for any ideas or strategies that were interesting and effective.  I want to offer what I've found so others need not be as hungry as I.

So, by and large, I established this journal to allow me to comprehensively share ideas, activities, and strategies that worked in my high school English II classroom. I might even talk about things that didn't work, and reflect on changes I would make; however, in general I want this to be an upbeat, positive blog and not one that focuses on my insecurities or frustrations in regards to pedagogy. I hope to attract some fellow teachers - ones I know in real life or ones that just stop in, where we can occasionally discuss questions relevant to our occupation. On that note, feel free to leave comments making suggestions for lessons if you feel so moved! I borrow most of my material from the recommendation & guidance of friends, colleagues, and online sources.

On the topic of sources, I want to offer a disclaimer. I have gleaned ideas from the internet, co-workers, and friends. In general, I can no longer remember what came whence. Some ideas I know for sure are my own, but others I just have no idea. I do not claim everything as my own.  If I don't know where it came from, I can't give proper credit. So I ask that if you know the originator of a piece, please enlighten me, so I can properly credit their work.  I would like this place to be a place to share lessons; if you are ever curious to get any of my hard copies, just speak up.

I will conclude with the quote that inspired the title of this blog. "A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary." (Thomas Carruthers) I have no idea who Thomas Carruthers is.  Regardless, I like this quote. It sums up my ideas and my hopes for my time in the classroom. It is my ultimate goal not merely to teach my students English and proper grammar, but how to think --  analyze, ask why, and take a stand. It is when I am no longer necessary that I know I've done my job.