The (Messy) Art of Writing

For the first time in a long while I am tutoring writing one-on-one. I enjoy it so much, but I forgot how much of a difficult undertaking it really is. Writing is such a murky, fickle art. No two writing pieces are ever the same–save plagiarism, oh my–and in fact, even the same piece of writing from conception to publication is hardly recognizable when comparing the first draft to the last.


As I am tutoring, I find myself saying so many things to my students that are just as amorphous as the task of writing itself. When working with students–especially ones who do not enjoy writing–I find that their goal is to finish the task, usually an essay, as quickly as possible with adherence to the most general rules: five paragraphs, a thesis statement, evidence, and maybe a little analysis. And it doesn’t matter if the ideas are insightful, they are present.


So, I want to try to focus on some other ideas about writing in my teaching practice this year. The ones that aren’t as concrete as the formula we use to teach kids how to compose an essay.


  1. It’s important to know what you are writing about. Make sure you understand the subject of your writing before you start writing about it. If you’re lost when it comes to analyzing the literature or other content, your reader will be lost in your words.


  1. The more you focus on the subject of your writing (i.e. a book, a literary criticism, an historical event) the more you will find that your ideas about it change. When you start analyzing something, it is the time during which you know the least about it. While you are writing and working with the subject you will learn new things about it. Don’t be afraid to change your ideas about a subject. Just because an idea came before another doesn’t make it immalleable.


  1. Stop writing. You need to take breaks. Writing is a huge undertaking that requires a lot of mental energy. Take your time and refresh your brain with a little down time.


  1. Revision is the most important step. Yes, I’m making a judgment here, but I really believe I have a solid point! It takes a lot to get your ideas on the paper, but it takes even more strength and belief in your own work to add, delete, and move around sentences, paragraphs, and ideas in order to improve upon something. Don’t get attached to your words, otherwise, they will rule you and your writing will suffer.


  1. They don’t call it the writing process for nothin’. It is a process, and like any process it takes time. We live in a time of instant gratification, and writing products do not suit such the need for immediate indulgence. It’s a journey and you have to take it if you want to be proud of where you end up.


So, to my students, this art we call writing is messy–as I suppose is the nature of any art. You will see new and different things as you delve deeper in a subject, you will change your mind about what to write and about how to write it. You will understand, eventually, that no piece of writing is ever truly finished. But if you take your time and embrace the challenges that go along with this art I promise you, you will find that the process can be satisfying. Just keep going. Keep reading. Keep learning. And keep writing.

education, grades, grading, high school, learners, scoring, students, teachers, teaching

Amending My Late Work Policy…Because Learning Rules

Since my first year of teaching I have not had a late work policy. I have allowed students to turn in work up until the last day of the marking period without penalty. (The goal with this philosophy is as follows: It takes some students longer to learn material and therefore if they do the work eventually, it should be counted. Also, in the real world, deadlines can be negotiable. And don’t pretend like that’s not true. How many times have you said to your boss “I need more time” and he or she has acquiesced to your request?) I liked this philosophy because it felt very “real world”-esque and isn’t that what I’m preparing my students for? (Well, back to this idea in a minute…)

Ultimately, I have decided that my late work policy needs some serious amending–for a few reasons. First, some students copy their work from a classmate after I have handed it back, which, in the end, doesn’t give me an accurate picture of what they know and are able to do. Second, some students forget about the work and don’t care until they see their (usually very low) grade and THEN they decide they need to do something about it (instead of learning the material in the moment, when the learning is needed). This forces them to care about their grade as opposed to their learning. Third, I get a slew of papers handed to me at the end of the marking period and I become inundated with work to grade that should have been handed in–and handed back–a month earlier and my other responsibilities (such as planning and prepping upcoming lessons) suffer.

Here’s my new idea. My students’ assignments will all have a due date and a deadline date. If students hand in their work on the due date, they will receive all the credit they earned on the assignment–usually determined by an answer key or rubric. Then, those who did not hand it in when it was due, will have a 3-day grace period in which they can still hand in their work–although for reduced (earned) credit. After the deadline date passes, the work will no longer be accepted and will result in the score of a zero. There are, of course, amendments to this policy for students who are absent or have extenuating circumstances.

Here’s the goal concerning this new philosophy: First, please understand that I don’t have students complete assignments for no reason. If there is something that has to be done, it has a purpose and it is relevant, which means I need the students to complete it in a timely manner so I can offer them feedback and determine if they need help. Second, it reduces copying answers from a classmate for credit. By the time I hand back the papers, the grace period is over and the deadline date has arrived. Third, it eliminates the end-of-the-marking-period burden of speed grading for no other reason than to help students recover credit–as opposed to truly offering pointed feedback for learning. Fourth, it emphasizes timeliness and responsibility.

Here are my difficulties with it: It’s not very realistic and it doesn’t give me–or those looking at the student’s performance in class–an accurate depiction of that student’s academic capabilities.

Here is how I justify these things: First, I (and most teachers around the country) work within a system that supports amalgamated grades. If we graded based on separate standards or academic and behavioral skills, I’d reconsider the policy. But until that day comes, I can’t wish we had disaggregated grades because we don’t. (And I can’t work within a wishful philosophy, because it’s actually an injustice to my students and to myself.) The other issue I have with the new late work policy is that it is not realistic (within the post-high school world). There have been many times I have asked a superior for more time to complete a project or to compile data. More often than not I am granted that extension without penalty. And think about it, so many people miss deadlines without penalties as well: new iPhone software creators, mortgage commitment brokers, and real estate closing attorneys. How many times have you missed the deadline for renewing your car registration or driver’s license? Heck, even your mail arrives late some days! But high school is not the real world. It is high school. It’s a different animal that is confined by timelines and due dates. The days go on and so does the curriculum, and there’s not a lot of flexibility when it comes to deadlines and timeliness.

I do my best to prepare my students for what they will encounter after high school, but I realized I’m actually hurting them by allowing them to hand in work weeks–and even months–late. I’m showing them that the assignments and their timeliness are irrelevant, when in fact, the opposite is true. I want a clear picture of what my students know and are able to do at a particular moment in time, and I want to be able to give them feedback on that work that is relevant and helpful. If I allow them to hand in work after deadline and only “grade” it for credit, I send the message that “grades rule”, when in fact, learning does.  

curriculum, education

Curriculum Overhaul

Netflix just came out with a documentary called “Making a Murderer”. Parts of it are profoundly sad; specifically the parts where law enforcement officers manipulate a young man into giving a false confession. How do they do this? One of the worst and best tools at our disposal–and certainly the least costly and most valuable: Language.  


When you think about it, language can start, and end, wars. Language can make or break a relationship. Language gives us access to–or blocks us from–opportunities. Language is love. Language is money. Language is life. If it wasn’t, then we wouldn’t need it to survive.


As a(n American) culture we have gotten away from viewing language with any sort of reverence, and it’s high time we begin to give language the respect it deserves. One way to do that is to offer a curriculum that truly values language and all of its complexities.


Here is my proposal.


Each year, the “themes” for the units would be the same, but the works/content/difficulty of language explored within each unit would vary. Here’s a skeleton outline of what I mean:


Q1: Types and Functions of Language

Essential Questions: Why do we read and write? What is the purpose of language/literature/essays?

Content: Literature and Nonfiction

Focus: varies from 9-12 (depending on the works)

Example: Grade 12: Literature-Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo (propaganda)

        Nonfiction text-Supreme Court case transcripts (complex/specific language)

CCSS: varies from 9-12 (depending on the works); RL.1-10 and RI.1-10

Q2: Manipulation of Language

Essential Questions: How is language used as a means to achieve a particular end? How do we make language effective?

Content: Literature and Nonfiction

Focus: varies from 9-12 (depending on the works)

Example: Grade 10 or 11: Literature- Animal Farm by George Orwell (logical fallacies)

                                             Nonfiction text- Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (satire)

CCSS: varies from 9-12 (depending on the works); RL.1-10 and RI.1-10

Q3: Persuasive Techniques

Essential Questions: What are persuasive strategies and how are they used?

Content: Nonfiction

Focus: varies from 9-12 (depending on the works)

Example: Grade 9: argumentative essays/speeches about various topics and discussion of arguments of definition; use of persuasive strategies such as logos, pathos, ethos, rhetorical questions; argumentative model: debate. (Students will write argumentative essays based on what they examined/learned.)

Example: Grade 12: argumentative essays/speeches about various topics and discussion about and practice with deductive and inductive arguments, use of persuasive strategies such as inclusive and exclusive language and connotation; argumentative models such as Toulmin or Rogerian. (Students will write argumentative essays based on what they examined/learned.)

CCSS: RI.1-10, W.1, and W.2

Q4: Narrative Techniques

Essential Questions: What are narrative strategies and how are they used?

Content: Fiction/Literature

Focus: Varies from 9-12 (depending on the works)

Example:  poems by Maya Angelou, Wm. Shakespeare, our current poet laureate, etc., various short stories, plays, narrative nonfiction, etc. as mentor texts (examining narrative techniques and modeling them) for writing their own poems, narrative nonfiction, and short stories

CCSS: RL.1-10, RI.1-10 (for narrative nonfiction), and W.3


The above is, of course, a rough outline–planning and implementing curricula takes years of prep, practice, and reflection–but I think this is a good start. It still keeps in mind what students will encounter on their state standardized tests and prepares them accordingly, but it makes more logical sense and focuses on the necessity and beauty of language in our culture and in our world. It also allows for a broader use of content depending on what is popular, interesting, or necessary to read (and write). The topics or themes stay the same while the content is flexible. (Which–side note–is part of the beauty of the CCSS.)


Maybe, someday, we can think about English curriculum from the standpoint of language as opposed to making sure we cover the necessary literature and standards. Such things will take care of themselves when language becomes the true focus of the curriculum.


What do you think?

education, effort, engagement, motivation, students, teachers, teaching

Spinning into Motivation

It’s a rare treat when I can go to spin class on a weekday morning (thank you winter break!), and especially one with Gina. Gina is a great instructor. She pushes us to our limits but she also allows for our strengths to shine through. She encourages us to try things that are challenging–hello there simulation of the 20th leg of the Tour de France (I couldn’t walk for 2 days)–and it ends up being so worth it. I like taking her class because I feel motivated to work hard when I’m there. (It’s not that I ever walk into spin thinking, “I’m just going to give it 75% today…”) but Gina helps me go above and beyond during my workout.

Before class, Gina greets everyone by name and introduces herself to new spinners. She helps set up bikes and she even helped me into my new clips today. (A story for another day–what a challenge that was!) Throughout class she looks out into the sea of bikes and picks out someone by name and offers them a compliment–usually that they are kicking some serious butt–and I love it when she zeros in on me. It’s not that I need my fellow riders to know that I am doing well; it’s because once I hear that affirmation from her I begin to work even harder. I think, “if I can do that, I can push it even further,” and I do.

When it comes to assessing students (and teachers, too!) we tend to focus on the weaknesses that are present in the work we see. (Look here again…try it this way…this isn’t quite there yet…) After my students finish an assessment, I score it and automatically look to see which questions they got wrong.

So as I was going into a seated climb–ouch–about halfway through my class this morning, it hit me. Why am I not focusing on student’s strengths as much as I am focusing on their weaknesses?   Well, it makes sense to focus on the areas they need to improve upon because I can begin to help them strengthen those areas. But in the middle of the climb I decided that a better way to bring attention to my student’s weaknesses is to start with their strengths: “hey, I see that you rock at determining author’s choices, but have some trouble determining an author’s diction. It’s a very similar skill. Try applying what you do to determine author’s choices to determine an author’s diction.”

Now, I realize that this isn’t earth shattering people, but I know if Gina said to me, “engage the same muscles you would for a standing climb when you are in the seated climb. It may be a bit tougher at first, but you will work through it and condition your legs to handle it over time,” I would be more apt to follow her advice. First, it makes sense. Second, I’m already going in the right direction–since I have mastered standing climbs–and third, I’m motivated. I’m right in my Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky!) both physically and mentally.

Now my task is to find a way to connect each student’s strengths and weaknesses and motivate them through their strengths to fortify their areas of weakness.

So thanks for the inspiration today, Gina. I’m going to bring it with me when I get back into the classroom in 2016 and I can’t wait to try it out.

education, engagement, high school, learners, students

UDL: Differentiation at Its Best

UDL. Another acronym, I know. But this one I think you’ll like.

Universal Design for Learning has been around since the 90s and at its core, it is really about flexibility, differentiation, and helping students find their “flow”. (I’m a big believer in flow. Basically it’s about being so motivated by something that you don’t even realize the time or space you’re in. You’re essentially locked into what you’re doing and you enjoy this true engagement.)  If you want more info about UDL in general check out this video.

Although purist supporters of UDL believe in creating curricula using the techniques outlined in the philosophy, I find that using it in my classroom regardless of the curriculum for the course is highly effective. (Please note that my district uses a very open design for curricula which allows for such flexibility. It’s really a beautiful thing.) Allow me to offer an example:

We are reading Hamlet. (I know, it’s so exciting!!) This is by far one of my favorite units to teach because it allows for great use of the Multiple Intelligences and UDL theories. For instance, not only do we read important scenes together in class, but we also listen to them and watch them. I want students to see the language, hear it, and see how it is applied on stage or screen with actions. We also watch different interpretations of the play so students can see how the language is used and understood in different ways. (Shakespeare is the perfect vehicle for exploring multiple interpretations of complex language….but, I digress.)

Also, as a grade level team, my colleagues and I came up with various creative projects for students to complete to prove their understanding of the text and more specifically their understandings of the functions of the language, characters, and settings. Students can rewrite the script and create a movie, choose songs that characters might listen to that describe their relationships with others, create a comic book that details scenes and soliloquies, or create a scrapbook of character relationships and how those relationships relate to and function within the various settings of the play.

Now, these projects are nothing new. Teachers have been using them for decades, but what I find to be so great about them is their ability to appeal to all different types of learners. For instance, there are several students in my classes who participate in our school’s morning news show. They are interested in visual media and its construction, so the movie project is perfect for them. It serves their interests and they have access to the proper equipment in order to do justice to such a project. When they feel they can properly complete the assignment, make it their own, and enjoy working on it, they are achieving “flow”. And that type of motivation is what we want for our students in school. Learning has to be engaging, or students will lack the buy-in needed to make learning happen in the first place. (And please don’t get me wrong, not every assignment is like this, but I work in the fun where I can!)

In everyday classroom life–whether we are working on Hamlet or not–I use UDL to appeal to students’ interests. I will present to them the goal of the class (I call it “The End Game”) and I will allow them multiple pathways in order to achieve that goal. (Note: I teach seniors and they have enough independence and know-how to complete a task in whatever way they please. This does not always work as well with freshmen and sophomores unless you spend time “training” them.) I give students hard copies of things, I post assignments on Google Classroom, I offer helpful websites, allow them access to multimedia, and various texts, etc. I also allow them to work at their own pace, yet within a time constraint. For example, during the research paper unit, I will teach a mini lesson and then allow students time to write; I call it “workshop”. Some students will keep up with the pace and work on what they learned in the mini lesson, and others may be behind or ahead. Either way, students can sign up for writing conferences with me during their workshop time and I will help guide them through the process. In the end though, the due date stands–so they must find ways to finish on time–and I am there to help during lunch and after school.

Ultimately, I truly enjoy using UDL. It allows for differentiation, emphasizes that we all learn differently and are motivated by different things, and allows for reaching goals in multifaceted ways. It’s not always easy, and it is a lot of work for me, but it’s worth it in order to help kids see that learning is fun and worthwhile. And that’s what I want for them. I want them to see that learning is not a one-size-fits-all activity. And when they walk into my classroom, I want them to know that I will do whatever it takes to help them see that.

college, education, effort, high school

An Open Letter to the Class of 2016

Dear Class of 2016 (and more specifically my lovely, kind, sarcastic, amiable, crazy, sweet, nutty, wonderful seniors),

It’s fall of 2015. An exciting time for you. And a scary one. Many of you are working hard at putting the finishing touches on your high school resumes and college essays. You are dreaming of acceptance letters, but having nightmares about standardized tests that require bubbling answers with #2 pencils. I know. I get it. I did it. I lived it. And it was rough. I’m with you.  

But I want to take a moment to make something very clear. If writing those essays, refining those resumes, and taking those bubble tests are not things you are worried about because you don’t need to be, that’s perfectly fine. Don’t let all this fall-time hype make you think that those things are the key to life. College is not the main route to success. Don’t feel ashamed–or let others shame you–because traditional post-secondary education is not your path. And certainly, very certainly, do not go to college if is not something you want for yourself.

Let’s talk about college. It was fun. Like, really, really fun. If I could go back, I would. But it was A LOT of work, too. I spent hours partying with my friends, but exponentially more time reading, writing, discussing, and presenting while I was in school. I stayed up all night laughing with my friends, but I worked the next two to make sure my psych project was worthy of a professor’s critique. I spent countless hours in the library looking for credible sources to round out my semester-long research projects. I took 4-hour exams, bombed papers I spent weeks writing, and cried over “bad” grades more than I care to remember. (Thank God my friends and frozen yogurt were accessible 24 hours a day.)

My point is: College is an academic institution. It’s for those who want to pursue careers that require (at least some sort of) scholarly prowess. You want to be a teacher? Go to college. Lawyer? Go to college. Rocket physicist engineer with a concentration in micro something-or-other? Go. To. College. But if your interests are more practical than academic, pursue something that fulfills your desire to use your hands or mind in different ways.

There is an important distinction that must be made concerning college educated people versus those who are not. Those with a degree from a post-secondary institution are not better, kinder, more helpful, more honest, or happier than those who don’t have one. And honestly, they are certainly not more successful merely because they went to college. (Success is an attitude; a way of life. It’s not represented by a piece of paper covered in soft plastic.) Yes, those with a degree spent years learning how to apply theory by writing about it in hypothetical situations, but that doesn’t make them any smarter or more successful than the young electricians, plumbers, entrepreneurs, military personnel, and mechanics out there who chose not to go to college.

In the end, my advice to you is this: Go to college if you want to go to college. Don’t go for your mom or dad. Or to make someone else proud. Do it because you want to do it. And if college isn’t your thing (whether it be now, or later, or never) don’t be ashamed. Be an apprentice. Travel the world. Join the military. Go to trade school. Make a plan and follow it by working hard. It’s your life. You are the only one who can live it. You are the only one who can shape it. You will succeed if you want to. College doesn’t make you a success. You do.

So enjoy the rest of this year before you step off the stage as a high school graduate. Your life is just beginning; and college or not, go forth with gusto, energy, sincerity, humility, and grace. Those qualities will help you find success more than college ever could.

I will always be here to support you, and I can’t wait to see how it all turns out. Work hard.



education, grades, grading, teachers, teaching

Professional Discussions

When I was in college my professors warned against extended stays in the teacher’s room, and for a long time I avoided this meeting place, but recently, I have been spending a lot of time there. More so for the need of air conditioning and the desire for a sounding board or two, than for anything else.

On a particular day a few weeks ago two of my colleagues were chatting about a student who cheated on an assessment in their class. They were trying to determine the consequence he would endure for such a desperate act and here is what they came up with: The student would receive a bit more than half credit (of the grade earned) on the assessment. The justification for the decision was as follows:

“If we give him half credit, it will kill his grade.”

“Okay, so we will give him a little more than half.”

“Should we allow him to retake it?”

“No. He knows what is on the test now, so it wouldn’t make sense to have him redo it.”

“Okay. So his grade on the assessment is a 65.”

“Sounds good.”

I did not comment on their decision, but I was thinking about what I would do in the same situation.

I try to make sure that my professional decisions concerning assessments and grades are fair and thought out. So I took some time to reflect upon the situation I overheard and decided that this is what I would do if I were faced with the same dilemma: I would allow the student to retake a different test that focused on the same skills. Now, I don’t know if the assessment that was administered in the other teachers’ class was skills-based or otherwise; I didn’t ask, but my assessments are skills-based, and since the hypothetical situation I was exploring was based purely on what I would do in my classroom, I used only that information to form my decision.  

Here are the reasons why I would allow a retake:

  1. I try not to mix behavioral consequences with academics. If a student is talking to their peers, on their phone, or cheating in some way on an assessment, they deserve a consequence for that misbehavior; they do not deserve a reduced grade or a zero on the test. This muddles their grade and does not accurately show what they know about the concepts on which they are being tested.
  1. When a student cheats it means a few things could be occurring. The student was lazy and/or did not study. The student doesn’t care about school–or my class–and just wants to get through. The student felt desperate. The student lacks confidence. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.  Yes, I want and need to know why the student cheated so I can help him/her, but I also need evidence of what they know and are able to do, so in this case a retake is a necessary means to an end.
  1. It is not my job to score a student’s assessment–or any assignment for that matter–based upon their behavior or anything else but their work. It is my job to objectively assess their performance on assignments so they (and all stakeholders, really) have an accurate understanding of their achievement. I can’t do that if I sacrifice their grade for their misbehavior.

I don’t presume to know the answer to the student cheating situation, but I know that when my students and their parents see the grades from my class assessments and assignments I want those grades to reflect each student’s knowledge, skills, and abilities, which is why I would require a retake.

Regardless of the decision that was made between the two teachers, or the one I would make, I wish I could have found a way to say something about the situation without sounding abrasive, intrusive, or holier-than-thou because we need to be willing to have these professional conversations–even if we are uncomfortable “butting in”. (Good thing I have this blog, right?) I just didn’t feel it was my place to say anything; these teachers know their classroom procedures and assessments best, but I do hope that we start challenging different types of thinking in non-abrasive, non-intrusive, and humble ways. Not because one way is right and the other wrong, but because we need to consider different perspectives, listen to others’ professional opinions and evidence, and consider the procedures and norms of each other in order to find the best solution to any situation. My goal is to take what I outlined here, and bring that into professional conversations with my colleagues. Because I don’t know whose decision was “right”, but I do know it’s worth discussing.