Blank Slates Are Overrated

Is it even possible to be ready for the first day of school? Seriously, the amount of work that has to be done is astounding. (When you bring your own two kids into the mix, like I had to for three days, the amount of work includes picking up crayons and making emergency potty runs… you can forget getting out by five.)

There is the idea of a blank slate where you can start fresh and create whatever vision you want. This year, I decided that I wanted to reframe my teaching to fall under four main questions and rework my room to make the most effective use of my walls for interactive, educational purposes. (See this post if you don’t remember how difficult that is where I work.) While my slate wasn’t completely blank, I had certainly given it a good washing.

And it’s hard. I know why teachers do the same thing year after year. I especially know why teachers with kids, parents, families and lives do it…if you stick with a pattern, it is possible to do it all in the allotted time since much of the work is done already.

I get the time factor…I don’t have a lot of it myself. I think it’s easy to judge these teachers, to call them lazy and not dedicated, but it’s Saturday and my kids are outside on the slippy-slide. Where am I? Inside working on a parent survey to send out through email. Then on to a video to show my class rules rather than a lecture. I’m making the best choice for my class, but am I making the best choice?

But…if what I’m doing now works well, maybe next year’s slate won’t be so blank.


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New Year, New Goals

Today is the first day back to school. While I still wish summer were a little longer (that feeling intensified the day I had kids), there is still an excitement about the first day of school. Before I listened to all the new policies and procedures and begin the manual labor of getting the classroom ready, I thought I would take a minute to get my thoughts together and list the things I wanted to accomplish in my class this year. (Here’s last year’s list which I came no where near to finishing.)

  1. Start student blogging, at least with advanced kids with the hope of extending in to all classes by next year.
  2. Practice Backward Design by putting the lessons I want students to learn at the forefront of planning.
  3. Organize the class around guiding/essential questions both on the large-scale and the small one.
  4. Provide and use an online place for regular book discussions.
  5. Maintain a class blog and/or podcast.
  6. Find a way to publish both a newspaper and literary magazine for free.
  7. Maintain a positive attitude no matter what my situation is.

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The Right Tool for the Blog

I want to start blogging with my students and I’m trying to find a good tool too use. This year, I’ll only be blogging with around 20 students, but next year I want to expand it to all 90 students.


  • Teach focus and elaboration by having student gear their blog around a specific subject/audience and making each entry interesting (as opposed to my latest blog entries).
  • Encourage voice by having students make editorial and content decision (within reason).
  • Show writing growth.
  • Teach how to respond to writing through polite and appropriate comments.


  • Must be completely monitored-both student posts and comments.
  • Must be able to be made private.
  • Must be able to make separate student accounts without using student email address.
  • Must be easy for students to use.
  • Must be easy for me to grade.



  • Pros: No personal info required, free, looks easy to use, all users able to see all new posts on sign-in screen.
  • Cons: Called Kidblog – M.S. kids hate being called kids, immature template look, no individuality.

22 Classes

  • Pros: Can individualize blogs, creates easy hub for class blogs and information.
  • Cons: Limited to only ten free blogs, costs (8.95/month) for additional blogs, students need to give email address.


  • Gaggle offers no easy free solution any more, but gives a phone number for their ad-based one. Not sure if I want ads on student blogs if there is another solution.


  • Pros: Offers helpful videos on YouTube,
  • Cons: Hard to navigate, small text makes it hard to read, school pass code required (but easy to get once you figure it out), address for students is long and complicated, not easy to use at all.


  • Pros: Student blogs can be individualized, teacher has complete control over blogs, most like a “real” blog.
  • Cons: Fee for class accounts (from 3.33 per month), no central hub for class.

At the moment, I think I’m between Kidblog and Edublogs.


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John Wesley and Me

In VBS the week, we are using a quote by John Wesley as a theme:

  • Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you can.

In writing a piece of for the church, however, I can across a quote I didn’t know:

  • Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn.

This, of course, begs the question, “When I am teaching, am I on fire or only smoldering?”


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Weighty Matters

Two weeks until I go back to school. This is the time I start mulling over how I want to set my class up. One item always on this list is the matter of grade weighting.

I weight grades because I want students to get credit for trying. Not trying in that half-hearted  “Well, at least I did something…” way, but trying in the of “I’m not sure if it works, but I did something new.”  But I also want students to gain big points for final projects, the things that take tons of work.

For the past few years, I’ve used the following system and tweaked the percentages slightly each year: Classwork 30%, Reading 30%, Portfolios 20% and Projects 20%. I give two portfolio assignments  and two projects each term to make sure that one grade doesn’ t make or break you.

But I’m thinking of ditching that system. Since my lesson plans have become more open-ended and I’ve started allowing more student choice into my class, it has become harder for me to tell what skills a student has mastered by looking at my gradebook. This matters at the end of the year when I have to fill out paperwork on students who did poorly on the state test. (For the record, when teaching a concept, I use a variety of assessment methods to check student progress.)

So here’s what I’m working with for the upcoming year:

  • Reading – 30%: Including literacy letters, RC points/book reviews, and tests/activities based on reading.
  • Writing – 30%: Including portfolios which will count double, writing practice and quick writes/journaling.
  • Grammar/Vocabulary – 20%: Including vocab tests/activities and grammar work.
  • Projects – 20%: There will be a final project for each quarter, but students will complete many activities before the due date so there will be a few grades in this category.

I’m thinking this will give me (and the administrators who look at them at the end of the year) a better overview of where a student may be struggling.

What do you think?

(Photo credit: tompagenet)


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To Read or Not to Read

Actually, that isn’t the question.

The question is do I put the book I just read on the shelf for students to read?

This summer I read two wonderful books that I would love to pass on to students I think might like them. One was The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. The other Crank. Both told great stories that I was drawn into and loved.

Both had scenes in them completely inappropriate for immature readers. If I taught high school,  I would put them on the shelf immediately. I teach middle school, however. Sure I have kids would read and enjoy them, even learn from them, but I also have students who wouldn’t really get them, and parents who would be offended that I gave their baby a book this graphic. (Although it needs to be said, the sex and drug use described in the books is not gratuitous and is necessary to understand the characters.)

So what do I do with these books? Do I put them on the shelves and say tough luck to the parents who don’t want their kids exposed to them (I’m a parent and would be outraged if a teacher ignored my concerns)? Do I pass them on to another teacher whose students might be more ready for them? Do I keep them in a special bin in the back and only pass them out to the students who I know are ready for them and whose parents won’t mind?

Any ideas? Please?

(Adding How I Made it to Eighteen to the list.)


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The Future of Teachers?

I love my Ipod. So does my four-year-old daughter. She loves it so much that she pickpockets it out of my purse regularly to play games. The other day she was showing my mom the kindergarten readiness game she likes. She pointed to the little mouse at the top of the screen and said, “She’s my teacher.”

Later that night (because these kinds of things happen together), I was reading the chapter on “Wiring” in the book Brain Rules. The author, John Medina, shares a study that showed students who used a computer-based reading program improved their reading ability. Since he isn’t selling anything, I have to assume that this was a real study and not just a “look how well our workbook works” kind of study.

As a real live, flesh and blood teacher, this kind of bothers me. All the work I put into making strong lessons and interesting classes…can I really be replaced by a machine? Of course my instinct is to yell, “No, I’m too valuable a commodidty to be replaced no matter how cute the virtual teacher may be.” I’m sure factory workers thought this as well before being booted out to make room for robots. I am sort of feeling like a relic of the past. Someday my students will be saying to their kids, “When I was your age, we had to go listen to PEOPLE at school, not like your fancy, shmancy avatar teachers.”

I should say that this morning, my daughter brought the Ipod to me so we could do the reading flash cards together (she has other games, I swear), and in the book, Medina goes on to state that students who had both teachers and computer software gained the most in reading-both were necessary, so perhaps there’s hope.

But maybe I should work on my resume just in case. Sigh.

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