Breakout Bell-Ringers Part I

Featured Image Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

One strand of the ELA curriculum that gets neglected sometimes is “Speaking and Listening.” In the virtual learning/hybrid learning environment, students are – interestingly – hesitant to speak. They don’t want to turn on the microphone and contribute verbally, which astounds me. Since many of my students are active on Instagram and TikTok, so I expected them to want to speak instead of type or remain silent.

Bitmoji Image

I was wrong. I know, it’s shocking…NOT.

I suppose it’s because I am there, speaking and listening. Why? It’s regrettable that kids are somewhat scarred by the wrong-answer penalties levied against them most of their academic careers. The kids I know have learned you cannot take back a wrong answer. Once you provide a wrong answer, it spreads like a stain upon the fabric of the content. Each wrong answer blots out the truth and makes learning more difficult. Students feel they need to silence themselves, fade into the woodwork – or risk more failure.

Why does it bother me that students feel they must silence themselves? It’s simple. Communicating verbally is an important skill we must nurture and develop. Geographical dispersion currently hampers our need to socialize, to vocalize. Not being able to speak with others increases the sense of social isolation we are all feeling, so if we can socialize online using our voices, we may feel more connected.

Addressing the Students’ Needs

So what would happen if I put small groups into breakout rooms and encouraged them to discuss something? Would they continue to type all their responses or remain silent?

I plan to find out.

Hypothesis: For a day or two, some students may continue to be intimidated and reluctant to turn on their microphones, but others are going to speak right away and encourage the other students to participate verbally. The other students will join the conversation verbally, although they may need another day or two.

The Plan


This week, one class is going to transition from bell-ringers to breakout bell-ringers. Below is a screenshot slideshow of the slide deck I’m using to introduce the activity.

On Monday (oh boy, that’s TOMORROW), the students will view the introductory PDF, and I will answer questions. They will open the slide deck to verify that they can access it. On Tuesday, it’s game on!

Tuesday – Thursday

When students arrive, in-person on virtually, they will join the conference and go to their breakout room. Those in the physical classroom will collaborate with those at home to address the questions on their slide of the day. For the first deck, those questions focus on how students navigate their world.

We will spend the first 10 minutes of class on one slide per day, Tuesday – Thursday. The students can add the group’s thoughts into the speaker notes pane of the slide. Meanwhile, I can monitor progress easily because we will all be in the same slide deck.

Here is my first slide deck, with the students’ names removed.

On Thursday, the students to complete a self-assessment on their speaking and listening performance over the week. They will reflect on what they did well, what they could do better, and what it was like to work in a group.

What about Friday?

Friday is Novel Day. These students are reading, independently, a novel from a selection of novels written by Black, Latin-x, or Indigenous writers. Since they all learn from home on Friday, this is a chance for them to put their feet up and get away from the computer for 30 minutes. So far, it has been working well.

The Results

My next post will detail the results of this experiment. Specifically, I will let you know if:

  • The technology works.
  • Students felt more comfortable verbalizing their thoughts out of my hearing.
  • Students were able to generate good ideas in a short period.
  • Students enjoyed themselves.

Thank you for reading. Stay safe. Be well. Be good to you.

Thank You for Asking

Something nice has been happening that I reflected upon this week. Students online have been asking for permission to use the bathroom or to do something that might take them from their desk for a minute. This, combined with students increasingly asking me how my evening or weekend was before I inquire about theirs, warms my heart. I am grateful. It reinforces my notion that these students are aware of their roles in learning and that they are genuinely respectful and polite people.

I’ve been sure to say, “Thank you for asking,” each time students make these requests. I like to think of each class as a team, and such requests support that idea. Each student is a necessary member of our team, and through teamwork, we can help each other learn and master key skills and concepts they need now and for the rest of their lives. Their attendance is critical to their learning as individuals, too. If we don’t work as a team, we risk leaving a student – or students – behind. This year, it seems so much easier for students to be left behind.

Better Than Breadcrumbs: Collaboration

All our coursework is on our LMS and it is easy enough to follow the breadcrumbs and calendar to understand where we have been if one needs to catch up. We also spent two weeks working on tech skills – including how to use the LMS – while also doing coursework. Rather than having some students following those breadcrumbs, however, I believe in purposeful, thoughtful, and challenging collaborative activities that help all students to keep up with everyone on the team. We work better when we work together; all learning is social (eh, Vygotsky?).

This strategy supports students at home and in the physical classroom simultaneously. All coursework is online, which means that all my students have the same access to the material and instruction. The instructional bridge from the classroom to each online student’s home is the collaborative activity delivered synchronously or asynchronously. Each student has a role and can be held accountable. That’s not meant to be punitive; actually, people tend to want to feel purposeful when they are working. Accountability assigns a certain importance to a task, which suggests the performer of the task has a valuable purpose.

Collaborative activities also help mitigate feelings of social isolation that online students experience. As an online learner myself in the early 2000s, I can tell you that the loneliness can be unbearable. Even with the family around, interacting with classmates and the teacher was impossible, which is why I felt so lonely. I do not think I will ever forget that feeling. It still affects me today, on Fridays, when I am the only person in around in my hallway. All the teachers are home, as are the students.

To help my students (and, I admit, me) nowadays, I use polls, group annotation programs, breakout rooms, group slide decks, digital whiteboards, online discussions, quiz sites that allow for teams to compete, the microphone, and the webcam to demonstrate just how much I care about our little community, our little team. Yes, there are times when it must be quiet and students must work independently, but I try to bookend those tasks with community-building and team-building experiences.

Team-Building Tools We Use


Our conferencing system has a polling feature that is so easy to use. We have been fortunate enough to have an Internet connection in our class that hasn’t been too flaky lately. I ask the rest of the team in the physical classroom to join the web conference for two reasons: 1) it’s easier to help the students feel part of a team if they have an easy way to communicate and 2) I get to launch polls and get full participation.

Polls help conjure the feeling of a team, but they are also a good tool to check on student engagement. If students don’t respond to a poll, then I know something has happened. I still don’t know what happened, but I can tell the student isn’t participating and follow-up later. Most of the time, I can get the students back by announcing that I am waiting on [number] of students to respond. Sometimes, though, I have to send a message to the student to find out if all is well.

AP® Lit: Group Annotation

In AP® Lit, students learn how to annotate everything. I think students would annotate grocery lists if given the chance. Annotation is taught in the previous grades as well, but in this class, students learn how to do it as quickly as possible so that they can write complete essays in less than 40 minutes. It’s ridiculous, but it is what it is.

It is my opinion that students can learn how to annotate faster if they learn the skills together, studying and marking up the same document simultaneously. Each person will notice something the others won’t. They can debate the annotation’s veracity and usefulness to build their analytical muscles while also enjoying time together. This isn’t a time to compete, but to cooperate.

Breakout Rooms

I am not a breakout-room master by any stretch, so if you have suggestions for these monsters, please leave me a comment. I’ve used them, though, to facilitate discussions when there are multiple subtopics we are working on, like character and plot archetypes. Students report feeling different – positively or negatively – once they are in the room. Perhaps we need more practice. I know I do!

Online Discussions

Our LMS also has a sound online discussion feature. The students are learning and polishing their writing skills while also learning how to give collaborative, encouraging, and constructive feedback to their peers. These discussion assignments have helped our teams develop, and those who are reluctant to unmute themselves to talk in a conference demonstrate their understanding by writing paragraph after paragraph of their responses and replies to peers. I am truly impressed.

Group Slide Decks

Teachers benefit from using group slide decks, especially in Google Slides. With “grid view,” the teacher can watch the slides being edited in real time, so we can address misconceptions or encourage students to do more almost immediately. The kids are having fun, working together, and forming friendships. Additionally, they are really honing their skills with an important piece of software. What more could you ask for?

Quiz Sites

All I need to say about sites like Quizlet, Kahoot!, and Quizizz is this: Kids love them. If you want student engagement, launch a quiz for teams using this site. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

The Microphone and the Webcam

I saved these for last because they are so important. When I was a lonely, socially isolated online student, it was mostly because there were no synchronous activities. I read the material, completed discussion posts, wrote papers, and read feedback from the professor. Or, I worked with software to help you learn math, statistics, and project management. In other words, I was nothing more than a name to everyone else.

Then, one of my professors called me. His name is John Garot. He called because I emailed him to let him know I was struggling with a text, and he wanted to encourage me to continue reading it. There was a voice to go with the name on the LMS.

In another class, a professor could not take his own isolation, so he decided to hold “live lectures.” The school allowed him to do that, and I think you could hear the collective sigh of relief the first time we all logged in and heard his voice. We, as a team of teacher and students, were grateful for each other.

How do I know the professor needed that interaction as much as we did? Because after the professor asked us how we were, and we responded with something like, “Good, and you?” he said, “Good. Thanks for asking.”

Thank you for reading. Be well. Be safe. Be good to you.

Schools Are Not Businesses. Why Do We Treat Them Like They Are?

“We really have a great product,” I have heard superintendents say. “We have several offerings for the students,” others have said. What is this? A car lot? A factory?
assembly line by Marie Van den Broeck from the Noun Project

For all the talk about differentiation, personalized learning, SAMR (a model for integrating tech into the classroom), UDL (Universal Design for Learning), UbD (Understanding by Design), the LDC (Literacy Design Collaborative) and a whole host of other acronyms for education’s alphabet soup, we are still being urged to use standardized testing and pacing in our classrooms. Why are we still using the assembly line approach?

My First Guess: It’s Easier

It’s easier to use the one-size-fits-all approach, just like it’s easier and possibly more cost effective to push out nightgowns that are one-size-fits-all. No need to re-tool that sewing machine assembly line for different sizes, right?

It’s possibly construed to be more equitable, too, since everyone is tested on the same anchors and eligible content. But have people of all sizes photograph themselves in the nightgown and send the photos to you. Do you really see the same fit for people of all sizes? Or is it only that the fabric covers their bodies, that there is enough coverage?

Coverage and Pacing

We talk about coverage in education as well. “Here’s a textbook,” you are told. Get through Chapters 1-10 and you have covered all you’re expected to cover during a certain time period. Groan… be still my student-centered heart.

That coverage is king is exactly why many of us do not use textbooks. A second reason is that most printed textbooks are not worth the paper they are printed on after they roll off the presses (another assembly line). A third reason: Textbooks are the epitome of “one-size-fits-all” thinking.

Digital versions are better, to a degree. At least authors can update the books with new information, which flows freely thanks to technology. Still, they are standardized, no matter what teaching tips they include. Why? Well, the authors can’t possibly predict what group of kids you will have in front of you!

Pacing is the other problem. I was a long-term substitute in a school that used a reading program I will not name. The idea was that there were levels to the program that did not necessarily correspond to a student’s grade level. Students were placed into a reading class after the diagnostic results came through. That sounded promising.

Once they were in their “appropriate” reading class, however, they “learned” at the same pace as everyone else in their class. The truth is that some kids were still left behind. They did not learn at the same pace as their classmates. They were afraid to ask questions.

Teachers were afraid to take questions, too, because they had to be literally on the same page as their colleagues each day. The curriculum was scripted, too. Yes, you received a script with your curriculum. You were told what to write on the board. You were told what to say. You were told when to pull a Popsicle stick from your apron and call on a student. Yes, you were given an apron to store all your props.

Needless to say, being a long-term sub who had not been formally trained in the program, I pleaded ignorance and went off-script many times. Oops.

The company made a lot of money from this program. The teachers felt better about having a program to lean on, perhaps. Some kids did benefit from it. Some did not. During the “Race to the Top” years, it made sense these programs were flourishing. After all, schools had to prove they were trying to improve, to provide evidence of improvement.

That pesky evidence…

My Second Guess: Observation of Student Engagement Is Hard

The principal and assistant principal of my school are some of the hardest working educators I have ever had the privilege to work with. I could not do their jobs. They have become human octopuses too, especially mentally. There are so many focus points: student engagement, attendance, behavior, building security, building function, staff management, faculty management, compliance, and many others. I do not know how they make it through the many hours of the day they work.

It’s no wonder that observations and evaluations are so stressful and why districts and states strive to standardize the observation process. There is not enough time in the day to understand what is going on in a classroom, with a class of unique students, and still perform all the other duties of an administrator. When faced with many classrooms and many unique groups of students… well, you understand.

Therefore, evidence-gathering has been reduced to a few formal observations, some anecdotal observations, and those pesky test scores.

You know, those test scores don’t tell us a damn thing. For example, the student could have been ill that day, not slept well, been distracted by an argument with a loved one, or been fatigued in general. Perhaps the student didn’t understand the content, but was too afraid to ask a question. Alternatively, perhaps, the teacher needed to go in-depth on a concept or skill he or she knew the students were struggling with and could not “get to” that concept or skill the student is now being tested on.

We need new ways of observing and evaluating teachers. I’m not saying anything that millions of educators don’t already know. So why hasn’t it happened?


Full Circle: Schools Are Treated Like Businesses, and Then They Aren’t

Schools are not businesses, but they are treated like they are. Funding for schools is disparate, because local tax revenues vary district to district. In that way, districts are like businesses, but businesses are in competition and raise revenue at different rates due to their products and offerings. Districts should never talk about products and offerings. Why? Because they aren’t businesses!

There should be enough money to go around to support students’ education, sports programs, and social and emotional programs that will help them contribute to their communities and become the next generation of leaders. There isn’t.

I am amazed that extracurricular programs depend on ticket sales, bake sales, and many, many fundraisers. We could blame our weight gain over the winter on all the chocolate bars we buy (and consume, of course) to support winter sports!

Has anyone considered the fact that we are asking students to go back to the same folks who do not pay much in taxes because they don’t have the same incomes and property values as folks in another district? What a burden we are putting on parents and community members already struggling to stay afloat! Why do we have to do that?

Well, that’s because the distribution of funds for education is unequal and unfair.

One of the few policies of the previous U.S. administration that I disagreed with was “Race to the Top.” It put the schools in competition with one another. It was stupid. Instead of doing that, why not make educational funding equal?

Sure, sure – the federal and state governments are not supposed to dictate the policies and procedures of local districts. Come on, people. It’s not working. We are less competitive than other educational systems in other countries all the time. It needs to stop.

Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), a character on The West Wing (my favorite TV show), summed up how education should be in this country a long time ago. I leave you with this quote graphic, which I found via an article written by Jeffrey Dunn on Medium in 2015.

As always, thank you for reading.

If This Is the “New Normal,” When Does It Begin to Feel Normal?

They promised we would “get used to it,” but we haven’t yet, and it’s so exhausting.

Photo by Julia M Cameron on

“Resistance is futile,” Picard warned us about the Borg, and right now I feel like I’m starting to become part of the Borg Collective… or perhaps a human octopus. I haven’t decided. My laptop, which is supposed to be portable, DOES look like an octopus, and its 8 GB of RAM is maxed out on a regular basis. Close all your applications, I’m told. Really? How am I supposed to teach that way? How can I leave the computer to help someone in class AND see if the kids are chatting questions? I can’t take the thing with me. Remember, it’s now an octopus, with cables coming from every available orifice. How may times should I join the conference so I can manage two things at once with this device and that device and the other device? Oh, and if I ask all the kids to sign onto the conference, my Wi-Fi connection screeches to a halt. So there’s that, too.

What I’m Hearing from Other Teachers, and in My Own Head

Classroom Management

We manage the students joining remotely and manage those who are in the classroom with us by keeping them both as busy as possible while we figuratively split ourselves in three to also manage the logistics of this new normal. Take attendance, let people in the room, remind them all to complete their bell-ringers. Take attendance, let people in the room, remind them all to complete their bell-ringers. (I repeated the sentence on purpose. Most of the time, we have to repeat ourselves and the process.)

Teaching in Two Places at Once

We are on camera and have to remember, too, that we should look like we’re getting cues from a tele-prompter. Don’t forget to look at the kids in the room. Whoops, don’t forget to look at the camera. Okay, back to the kids in the room. Wait, have you looked at the camera lately?

We have to share our screen and ask repeatedly if everyone is seeing what we think we are projecting because the connection freezes. Our camera freezes, too, or completely fails (“Webcam has been disconnected,” or “Screenshare has been disconnected,” the conferencing software tells us.). Then, precious time is wasted reconnecting.

Not Enough Time

We used to have 45 minutes for a class period. Now, it is officially 41. In reality, it’s more like 35. Don’t overload the kids, we are told, so we try to avoid giving homework. So many kids in sports (why are there sports right now?), with multiple games a week, getting home at 10:00 PM. Don’t overload the kids, but make sure you are staying on pace. Oh, and don’t forget to prepare them for the statewide assessments they missed last year! Those are coming soon!

Make sure your lessons are posted by Sunday, but also adjust on the fly and hope the kids remember after you tell them and post to the conference whiteboard that things have changed. Never mind they should check their calendars, which you are training them to do by saying the same thing over and over: Check your calendar daily.

Let’s add something new to your routine this week, we are told during a faculty meeting. Crickets from the audience for a moment and then a chorus of legitimate complaints from the brave few who want to defend the rest of us. Come on, folks… there is enough going on. Hire some hall monitors and be done with it. We cannot manage all this alone.

Oh, you don’t have the money in the budget? Why didn’t you think of that before you bought all this technology that no one is going to use the way it was intended? Remember: People matter first. We can’t have a lapel mic on, our laptops tethered to a camera, an iPad projecting to the Apple TV, and actually help kids in the room without broadcasting what’s happening to everyone. Our ability to teach has been hampered by the notion that this tech will help us teach during this weird, unsettling time.

Student Engagement

The carefully laid plans to build community, do tech training, and run diagnostics? Yes, that happened. However, it feels like it was so long ago that even I vaguely remember doing it. It’s frustrating — there is this feeling chewing the inside lining of my stomach, telling me that I should forget everything I’m trying to teach them and spoon-feed. This will not work, though, if the kids are not held accountable! We have to be a team! They have to do something.

MOST of the kids have been impressive. I should say that before people think I am complaining about the students. They have been patient, cooperative, and kind. Some have started to check out, though. How do I get them back? How do I reach them when I can’t see them in person?

Although We Are Doing Everything We Can, We Are Still Considered “The Problem.”

I heard this weekend we teachers are still being blamed for this nightmare. I have something to say to that, but I won’t. What I will say is we still need your grace, your patience, and your help.

Thank you for reading.

This Is What Happens When an English Teacher Has Writer’s Block

It’s not pretty.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

The key to having your voice “heard” is to use it often, but this week’s post topic eludes me. Perhaps it’s fatigue. Maybe it’s this feeling that I’ve already said too much.

Still, I yearn to be part of the conversation. I want to talk about the purpose and goals of education — what they really are and what they should be. I want to scream from the rooftop that ideas such as “patriotic education” are stupid. I want to counter the argument about “patriotic education” with the idea that our history curricula are watered-down versions of the truth (and sometimes lies). We need a civics curriculum, too, but not in the way certain demagogues are imagining it.

“The factory model of education does not work!” I would scream if I could. It will not help students become 21st-century citizens! Grade levels and tracks may have worked last century, but really they didn’t. Which students really felt like they were learning much that was useful in grades K-12, in core classes? Which students felt that teachers were letting them peek behind the curtain to learn WHY something was being taught? Which students honestly felt the teachers were teaching something not only because it needed to be “covered,” but because it had value?

I must admit I was in awe of more than a few of my high school teachers. That said, only three stood out as those who added value to the content by teaching skills we could use the rest of our lives. Those teachers showed us we were capable, helped us learn to think critically, and taught us how to take notes, among many other things.

Pink Floyd performed the song “We Don’t Need No Education,” and it became an anthem. If the education system was working, would that have been the case?

Oh, sure, kids are always going to be cynical about education, you might say. But why is that, actually? We are brought into the world naturally curious and eager to learn. We go into preschool and kindergarten excited about school and all the wonderful things we will learn. And then, it seems, the curiosity, the eagerness, is sucked out of us as if it were pus. By the time kids get to my classroom, years of drainage have passed. Over the summer, each summer, they rediscover curiosity and wonder. It fills their system, and they smile as they rediscover the world. They are happy to be in school for about two days, and then the cynicism kicks in again.

They all want to ask, “Why are we learning this?” but don’t dare to ask it aloud.

I want them to ask! I’m so eager for them to ask that I tell them upfront, and I tell them I have a method to my madness. If they weren’t so tired, I think they might laugh at that.

Why is it that I feel guilty right now for assigning a novel-study portfolio that provided students a healthy list to choose from? Is it because I’m assigning them schoolwork? It’s not supposed to be just “work.” We study literature to better understand the human condition and our place within the world. Great literature is supposed to help us think, dream, and realize. It’s not busywork. It’s not a packet of worksheets. It’s inquiry-based, exploratory… it’s personal. And yet, I still feel like I am imposing.

If education really worked the way it’s supposed to, kids would be eating up the idea of diving into a novel written by an author who won the Pulitzer or the Nobel. Instead, I feel like I’m pulling their teeth.

And don’t get me started about how sports schedules are eating up students’ time outrageously. Why we even have sports happening right now is beyond me!

Ok, rant over.

I have questions.

  1. What have we learned from this experience of virtual or hybrid teaching and learning that we can use if things return to “normal”?
  2. Will we use technology to redefine and redesign educational activities? In other words, are we looking at the SAMR model to transform teaching and learning?
  3. How will we emphasize acquiring 21st-century skills, appreciating diversity, celebrating differences, acknowledging that we are all part of the human family, facing our history and ourselves, and helping each other cut through all the noise?
  4. Can we finally stop death-by-testing? Have the powers-that-be noticed that testing is uber-stressful and a waste of precious class time?
  5. Can we finally adopt more authentic forms of learning and assessment? Wouldn’t it be better if students created more, and we created less?
  6. Do education leaders recognize that ownership of learning is more valuable than playing the GPA game?
  7. Have the education leaders realized that teachers are ready to lose their minds? Are they prepared to review all the plans around the country and call out those that are insane? There are many.

Thank You!

Someday, I will end my blog posts better. For now, please accept my thanks for reading this post. It did help me to overcome my writer’s block.

2 Ways That Waiting for the First Day of School Is Nerve-Wracking

Some Advice to Help Calm Your Nervous Mind

Photo by Deleece Cook on Unsplash

I was recently honored by a request to do an interview as a teacher representative of my district regarding school reopening. It was a surprise for many reasons: receiving the invitation the day before; receiving the invitation at all; having only an hour to get my disaster, otherwise known as my classroom, into shape before the reporter arrived; and having to demonstrate a lesson among them. Fortunately, it was a relatively painless process. During the interview, Alyssa Kratz asked me if I was nervous about coming back to school.

“I’m nervous, I am,” I said. “I would hate to think that anyone would get sick on my watch.” I have said this numerous times before. It’s just the first reason why waiting for the first day is so nerve-wracking.

1: We Don’t Know What Is Going to Happen

As I have been running through the scenarios in my mind, the only conclusion I can come to is: We don’t know what is going to happen. That said, I have also decided that I am going to have faith in the learning community. After the interview, I said I have faith in everyone.

“I’m going to believe that everybody is going to do their part and we’re going to get through it. Because we’re going to take care of each other, and we’re going to take care of ourselves,” added Edick.

To have that faith is the only way I know to quell the fears I have about something going horribly wrong. 

Therefore, my advice is to have faith. Be kind and patient. Give grace. Additionally, you can be kind and patient while also being firm and consistent with rules that protect everyone’s health and safety.

2: Teachers Aren’t Counselors, So How Do We Address Our Students’ Trauma?

Over the summer – indeed, even before the last marking period of 2019–2020 ended – numerous members of the education community sounded the alarm about student trauma. We heard some terrible stories, including those about domestic violence increasing during the “stay-at-home” period. We heard stories about parents losing their jobs. We heard stories about older siblings caring for younger siblings, having to sacrifice their learning to support the younger children. We heard stories about students’ frustration with a new learning model thrust upon them. 

Then, we heard about the inequities of education in this country. So many children and teachers did not have the tools to transition to virtual teaching and learning. They had to make do with what they had, and everyone suffered. I hope the education community will address these inequities, as they have been a problem in education for too long. Funding disparities should be eradicated. Everyone should have equal access to the excellent tools available, not just the fortunate districts who can afford them. 

The most heartbreaking news focused on food insecurity. My district and many, many others provided lunches to families each day during the last marking period. They will continue to distribute lunches to those who chose virtual learning this fall. I am so proud to be part of a district that considers addressing food insecurity to be a priority.

When I told my son about the lunch program in our district, he said, “How is it that in this rich country we have so many hungry people and so much money in so few pockets?” 

As Cassandra Fox said in her brilliant article: “You’ve got to Maslow before you Bloom.” A learning team cannot work on teaching and learning until all members feel physically and psychologically secure.

Teachers were traumatized too. Many teachers have young children they needed to teach while also teaching their students. Teachers struggled with the new instruction model. We were working with changes to policy daily. Some teachers, I think, also had to deal with domestic troubles, and may have partners who lost their jobs. It was difficult all around.

How do we deal with all the trauma then, while also staying in our lane? We are not licensed counselors. Before I was a teacher in traditional K-12, I taught at a residential facility for those in the juvenile justice system and with an alternative education program. One of the first things I learned was to report observable facts, not try to diagnose the person, and never dispense advice. As a teacher, it was my job to report what I could see to the appropriate personnel. 

My advice on this is simple. Prepare the tools and develop the routines you will use to demonstrate compassion and caring. Ask the students every day how they are doing, but teach them not to share too much personal information. Deal in adverbs and adjectives, rather than details. For example, they can share they are feeling down, and request to see the guidance counselor (which should be arranged immediately). Alternatively, they could share they are feeling hopeful today, or they are feeling better than yesterday. Perhaps create a form with suggested “feeling words.” At the end of the form, ask them if they would like to get an appointment with the guidance counselor. Make sure the form is private, so other students cannot see the responses. 

You can also integrate some Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) activities into your curriculum, but I advise that you are very careful and use activities from reputable sources. There are many such sources out there. Don’t try to create activities unless you are experienced with SEL. In fact, I would look to your district for guidance on SEL activities.

Show you care about them by being you. Teachers enter the profession to help others. You are a wonderful person: caring, kind, generous, thankful, and loving. Show them yourself, gain their trust, and develop solid relationships with your “kids.” 

If you have these tools and routines in place for the first day of school, you will feel more secure.

Final Thoughts

I would like to thank everyone in the education community for their response to the crisis and their continued efforts to, essentially, reinvent education as we have known it. There are so many brilliant minds involved. We can make this work and we will if we take care of each other and ourselves.

Best wishes to everyone for the best school year ever. 


I Did It Again. I Made Something Too Complicated.

The novel study portfolio project I have planned needs a lot of work to be effective for the students. The project should be fun, thought-provoking, and memorable – not painful.

Holy Post-It® Notes! This is what I did to a very good book.

To introduce the novel study portfolio project to my AP® Lit students, I decided to create one of my own. I’m glad I did because I saved myself and my students a great deal of frustration. I saved myself a good deal of embarrassment, too. In the image above, I captured how the book I’m reading, Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, now looks after I used almost an entire pack of Post-It® Flags to help myself remember everything. My husband actually laughed at me when he saw the book.

My husband said, “Heather, your kids aren’t in graduate school, and you aren’t either.” He still remembers my days on end in front of the computer, researching, writing, and having NO FUN AT ALL.

Fair enough. We are supposed to help students find joy in reading great literature, not induce panic attacks. Besides, my hand hurts and the image below shows why.

My hand hurts from writing and rewriting these notes.

I love this book. I posted in an AP® Lit teacher’s group that I’m exhausted thinking about it, but that I am in love. My approach to these things, however, is not going to work for 16 – 18 year olds. I will end up making what should be transformative into something that reaffirms why they don’t want to read: It’s too hard.

What Was I Trying to Do, You Ask?

AP® Lit is hard and there is not a lot of time to do anything. To expose the students to a variety of novels, I created the novel study portfolio project that the students will complete three times, once every three units. Meanwhile, in class, we will complete units on short fiction, poetry, and longer fiction. The longer fiction units will focus on drama instead of novels, because it is better to work on drama together, I think. At the end of the longer fiction units, students will submit their portfolio.

The portfolio has several components:

  • Reader’s journal (the second image in this post shows my attempt at a reader’s journal)
  • An annotated bibliography for three articles about the book . These articles need to be from peer-reviewed journals.
  • Two responses to Free-Response prompts. We have a document of prompts used in past exams from which the students can choose, which is cross-referenced with a list of novels used in past exams and the years in which they were used. These responses will be drafted, revised, and edited. Peers will then evaluate the responses and use the rubric to assign a score. Before turning in the responses, the students will create a final draft using feedback from their peers.
A Refocus on the POINT of This Exercise

What’s the POINT?

As I was bike riding today, I revisited this assignment and asked myself what I really want the students to do and WHY. I was thinking about the unit planning acronym I’m using this year called POINT (Purpose, Objectives/Standards, Indicators of Learning, Negotiables, and Tasks/Steps). Thinking about what and why also reminded me of literary analysis and annotation of texts. What are we looking for when we annotate a text? We are looking for the WHAT, the HOW, and the WHY.

A new reader’s journal idea was born, and I think it’s better. A sample entry shows in the image above. Below, I have included an image of a blank chart. Students can hand write or type their notes. I prefer to take notes by hand. Students may actually want to take notes by hand, too, if only to take their eyes off the computer for a while.


WHAT – What happened? Briefly describe what happened that struck you as important.

HOW – How was the “what” conveyed? Include your “quote jimmies”! I’m from Philadelphia, so they aren’t sprinkles. “Quote jimmies” are a few words, not entire sentences or paragraphs that can be woven into an analyst’s original sentence to prove a claim.

WHY – Why is it important to remember and process the WHAT and HOW? In other words, try to answer the question, “So what?”

At the top of the page, I included the codes for the Big Ideas of AP® Literature: Character, Setting, Structure (Plot), Narration, Figurative Language, and Literary Argumentation. We will be visiting these Big Ideas continuously.

What Do YOU Think?

Am I on the right track? Will this new format help students deepen their love and appreciation of literature, which will help them better understand the human condition and their place within the human family? Please feel free to comment below.

Teaching a Hybrid Class? Bell Ringers Might Save Your Sanity.

Last year, bell ringers featured prominently in my instruction for about a month. This year WILL be different. Right? 

What Are These Bell Ringers of Which You Speak?

Most teachers will already know the term, but the explanation below is for those who might know it by another name. Please comment below if you know it by another name. I would be willing to adopt a new term, as I am not a fan of this one. I am, however, a fan of the idea, so please read on.

A bell ringer is an opening activity that students complete without assistance while teachers are transitioning from class to class. Teachers need time to take attendance, for example, so they fill that time with something that will keep the students productively occupied. Each minute is precious in live instruction, and teachers try to fill each minute with something pertinent to the curriculum.

Bell ringers in ELA could include reviewing the previous day’s instruction, vocabulary activities, grammar exercises, or mini-lessons on topics like theme. Last year, I used sample questions from the Keystone exams as bell ringers, vocabulary learning, and grammar exercises. I will do that again this year and use the rest of the instructional time to address more particular student needs and the curriculum. Diagnostics and benchmarks will tell me what those needs are.

Plan Your Bell Ringers 

A Google Slides or PowerPoint presentation would be perfect for this. Create one slide for each bell ringer, share the slide within the conference, and use a projector. If all your students, no matter their location, join the conference, you do not need to project. (On a side note, teachers already in the classroom are finding that students cannot hear them over the HVAC blower and because of the mask they have to wear. They are asking all students to bring earbuds with them and join the conference, thereby eliminating this problem. It sounds odd, but I recommend you try it.)

Here is an example of a Google Slides bell ringer I used last year.

You could also use a service for vocabulary and grammar instruction There are numerous flashcard services available now. Students can work on vocabulary during the bell ringer using a link provided or by signing into your LMS (learning management system) classroom. Some services make grammar exercises fun. Well, as fun as grammar can be.

Another idea is to produce a video of yourself introducing the topic of today’s lesson. Students will get to see you without the mask. There is recording software available, free to teachers forever. Other software is low cost. Students would sign into the LMS, play the video using their earbuds, and then be ready to learn. At some point, I will edit this post to include an example of a video introduction.

Be Consistent

Considering the rollercoaster ride we are going to be on most of this year, I am imploring myself to be consistent. A former supervisor of mine gave me sage advice: Make sure that everything you plan to do is sustainable. Therefore, the question I put to myself is, “Is this plan sustainable?” Since I lasted a month last year, can I last longer this year?

Be Helpful

The next question I’m asking myself: “Is this going to be helpful?” Is the activity relevant, or just busywork? Reconsider assigning busy work at the beginning of class, as it might tire or bore the students. That does not bode well for the rest of the period.

Be Concise

When planning your bell ringer, be sure to plan something that is short, well-explained, and within the students’ ability to complete independently. 

What Do You Think?

Please comment on the post. Thank you for reading!

One Multifaceted Way to Reduce Cheating When Teaching Remotely

No, it’s not by using a lock-down browser.

Let’s Be Real…Cheating Happens

Let’s think about what is going to happen when you combine online students with in-person students in a synchronous classroom. The students online have the advantage of being able to cheat without the teacher being able to see what they are doing, even if the teacher is closely monitoring the virtual meeting.

Yes, you can scramble the questions and answer choices.

Yes, you can create two forms of the test.

They will still figure out how to cheat, especially if you are testing them to death, which many teachers are wont to do. Many of us are trying to give students many opportunities to earn points and earn a good grade, so there are multiple quizzes and tests within a marking period. We have good intentions. We are helping them play the GPA game, maintain their rank, etc. However, if each test is an essay test, most teachers would go crazy trying to grade them all fairly and effectively. Therefore, we use methods that are almost always graded for us: multiple choice, short answer, matching, and so forth. Right?

Human beings learn to be more efficient in many ways; some of them are at the expense of others. Cheating is one. In the business world, managers will try to take credit for the work of their team, even if they had nothing to do with the work product. That’s cheating too. Nothing is more repulsive to me than that behavior. I don’t care if managers also say they have to take full responsibility for team failures too. That reasoning isn’t good enough.

In the programming world, a world from which I came, people have mastered the art of efficiency. It’s what has made open source so popular. Please, take my code! Make it work for you! We allow people to take code snippets and widgets and put them into their programs, all for the sake of convenience and rapid development. Think Bootstrap. Think jQuery. Think of all the queries you’ve done against data. In my opinion, that is ok. People expect you won’t reinvent the wheel with each program. The developers hand out their code willingly, and even produce links to embed style sheets and code into your own code so it will call their site instead of asking you to put their code into yours. If they know and approve, is it still plagiarism?

In the academic world, it sure is. In the programming world, eh, not so much. It’s sharing and no one expects every developer to start from the beginning each time they start a new project. In academics though, especially when sources aren’t cited, it is plagiarism. It’s cheating. In my mind, it’s as repulsive as the manager taking credit for a team’s success without acknowledging the hard work of individuals.

When I catch a plagiarist, I go ballistic.

The More They Create, and the Less You Create, the More Ownership They Will Assume.

Since we already have enough this year to be wary of and upset about, shouldn’t we try to eliminate at least one source of frustration? I’m going to do my best.

Use Multiple Choice, Fill-in-the Blank, and Matching Quizzes for Formative Assessment Only

These type of assessment questions have their place and fit nicely with other forms of formative assessment. Instead of entering a score for the number correct, give the students a handful of completion points. Students can identify their strengths and weakness so that they can focus their studies on personal needs. Teachers can identify class and individual strengths and weaknesses so they can reteach what the students need retaught. This prep work can help everyone be more successful. Teachers and students will feel more confident approaching a more rigorous examination. That extra confidence might curtail cheating, because the students will feel they can do the work on their own since they are prepared.

Use Authentic Assessments That Help Students Express Pride in Their Progress

Authentic assessments, those which ask “the student to ‘do’ the subject”; simulates ways in adults work in the adult world (yes, that includes guidance for future teachers!); are rigorous and require critical thinking and other 21st century skills; and allow “appropriate opportunities to rehearse, practice, consult resources, and get feedback on and refine performances and products.”

For some reason, as I typing the previous paragraph, I was thinking of Hogwarts. What if the wizards had released Harry, Hermione, and Ron into the world with ONLY textbook knowledge or other vicarious experiences? Sure, they tried to protect the young wizards by forbidding magic outside school. Still, they had authentic experiences. But do you think they would have fared well without them? I just remember all those crazy experiments and other activities they sprinkled through the books and in the movies. What if the young wizards only had those experiences through video, passive learning, or reading? I shudder as I think about it, even though it might prove to be great fiction.

Authentic assessments are not just teacher-created. That is what makes them cool. Teachers and students work together on it, so both understand what is expected from the other. How it works in the adult world: a manager sits down with a teammate for a conversation about what is expected, provides resources for the teammate to be successful, and establishes regular check-in meetings with the teammate to support progress. Additionally, a good manager listens to the teammate express concerns and answers questions; a good manager also changes course upon feedback from the teammate. Teachers and students can replicate this process with a conference during which they develop the assessment together, develop the rubric together from a sample, and discuss the challenges the student will face. They can also establish future conferences to discuss emerging challenges and celebrate victories.

But Heather, you might say, I have 150 students! How am I supposed to do this? I would say it could be done this way.

  • Pick a course or section you think will benefit MOST from this type of assessment. You don’t have to do this with each class you have at the same time.
  • Design a general “authentic assessment” that offers choices to students that they can mix for their own project. Hyperdocs are good for this. Use a theme, a concept, or a skill to focus the students. Try to ensure that it can apply to future experiences, so it answers the question, “Why do I have to do this?”
  • Hold a “group” conference for each class, during which you introduce the assessment and the sample rubric for the assessment.
  • Show them a sample project plan, which will help them to organize their time, tasks, and steps. Project planning is a terrific 21st century skill to foster.
  • Explain to them that you want them to come up with an assessment that suits them using the general guidelines you provided.
  • Let them work on project development in a collaborative document they share with you (Google Docs or Google Sheets, for example) and respond to the comments as they come up. Some students will be fine; others will need a bit of help. Set a deadline and be sure to give them credit for their hard work.
  • Evaluate their progress and rubric before they start the project. Once you release them to start working, continue to be open to asynchronous communication about their progress.
  • Let students help each other. Provide class time for them to work with their peers before coming to you with questions. Sometimes, peers can explain things to each other better than teachers can (the same is true with managers and reports).
  • Be generous with deadlines, especially the first time around.
  • Celebrate everyone’s work, especially the first time around.
  • Put their work to use, so it does feel authentic.
    • For example:
      • Infographics: If you are lucky enough to have a poster printer, print them and display them. Ask the students to present their infographic to the class. Many students need help with public speaking. The more we have to social distance, the more we need to collaborate verbally. Students will need these skills to succeed.
      • Presentations: Ask the students to walk through the presentation with the class. Perhaps the students could even create a short quiz for the students to take after the presentation. Future teachers will appreciate the practice!
      • Podcasts and Videos: Assign the media to the other students and have them complete discussion postings in which they offer constructive, respectful feedback. Discussion forums are still a thing; learning how to create posts that don’t “flame” other people is a critical skill.
      • Portfolios: Help the students create a virtual gallery walk with their portfolios. Tools like Wakelet, Padlet, and others can help with this. Let the other students evaluate the portfolios, like aspects of them, and make constructive comments about portfolio elements.
      • Reports: Compile reports into an e-book that students can share with friends, family, and others in school.

If you have more ideas, I would love to read them!

Final Words

Once we acknowledge humans are efficient creatures, but we also want to be proud of ourselves and our work, I think we can see possibilities for assessment that go beyond our comfort zone. Authentic and open-ended assessments bolstered by formative assessments are one way to help students build the confidence they need to put the urge to cheat aside and produce work of which they can be proud.

Unit 0: Building Community

One Way to Adjust to Teaching in 2020-2021

Feature Image by J. Kelly Brito on Unsplash

Note: I teach in a district fortunate enough to have a 1:1 program. Therefore, I can implement a Unit 0 completely online knowing my students have access to the technology they need to be successful.

Dear Students, Parents, Community Members, Fellow Educators, Staff, Administration, and School Board Members,

Welcome to the 2020-2021 school year, one in which we reaffirm the purpose of education, build learning communities in novel ways, and discover new ways of schooling together. Administrators, teachers, and staff have been working diligently to redefine what school is for each district, both physically and academically. Soon, if not already, school doors will open to students. This unprecedented school year will begin.

There are so many concerns to address.

  • How do we keep those in the building and those who live with them safe from this highly contagious virus?
  • How do we address fears and concerns the stakeholders have?
  • How do we organize the physical environment?
  • What is the first day going to look like?
  • How do we ensure rules are followed?
  • What about the COVID-19 slide that exacerbates the typical summer slide? How will students catch up?
  • What are the expectations for teaching and learning?
  • How are we as a learning community going to overcome the challenges of multiple modes of learning (online (synchronous/asynchronous), in-person, hybrid, etc.)?
  • How can we assist families during this time?

Certainly there are many more to address, but these questions might cover most of the major categories of questions.

To facilitate this process, I offer “Unit 0 – Building Community.”

What Is Unit 0?

Instead of starting with unit 1 in our curriculum, we can start with a unit that prepares us all to adjust to new ways of “doing school,” teaching, and learning. Since many school districts are having meetings with all the stakeholders, issues of safety, conduct, policy, and procedures can be introduced during those meetings and reinforced in real time. For example, monitors in the hallway can reinforce unidirectional movement, social distancing, and mask compliance.

Many school districts have posted their reopening plans, complete with contingency plans for when infection rates increase. They are sharing videos of what the online options look like. In other words, school districts are attempting to be as transparent and helpful as possible.

What happens the first day in any particular classroom? I believe we will all have procedures to follow, but that there will be slight differences in each classroom. Hopefully, there won’t be too many, because consistency is key. I want to be doing everything properly and like the other teachers so that students are not overly confused or have to hold too many rules in their heads. Learning is hard enough. Learning during a pandemic is harder.

In Unit 0, which could be implemented by any teacher, these are the issues that remain.

  • Seating arrangements
  • Introductions
  • Examination of Feelings
  • Team Formation and Agreements (Norms and Rules)
  • Technology Training
  • Syllabus and Curriculum
  • Diagnostics / Benchmarks

Seating Arrangements

Since we need to maintain six feet between students, every teacher’s room needs reconfiguration. Most teachers will tell you it is going to be challenging; our rooms aren’t huge and some of us don’t have the furniture we need. Smaller class sizes have alleviated some concern about space. Something I thought of last week is to number each desk I have (22 in all) with even numbers in red and odd numbers in blue. Odd-numbered periods can sit in the odd-number desks; even-numbered periods can sit in the even-number desks. That will give me time to make sure all the desks from the last period are cleaned before another student sits in it.

If I have more than 11 students in the class, I need to use the tables I have, of which I only have a few. Keep your fingers crossed; I hope this works. If this plan is sustainable, on the first day I will explain to the students which seats to take as I greet them at the door. I can complete seating charts once everyone is settled.

In the LMS course, I will upload a document explaining seating arrangements. This is in support of my contention that everything should be online. I will not upload seating charts however; that can be completed in the gradebook.


To facilitate introductions, I plan to use our LMS’ discussion feature because some students chose the online-only option. The question I am going to pose for discussion is “What is your avatar? Why does it best represent you?” Most students should know what an avatar is, I expect. They will be asked to search for a picture that best represents them, save it to their desktop, and then upload it as a response to the discussion, along with some commentary about why they chose that picture. Students will then respond to a few classmates’ posts in a positive way. I will also respond to each posting with a positive message.

Not only are the students going to learn about their classmates, but they are learning how to use the discussion feature of the LMS and they are stretching their writing and response muscles.

I doubt this will be a silent exercise. I am banking on the students already knowing several classmates. If it starts out silently, I will do my best to ensure that there is some sort of chatter. We will need to start forming our class team. Speaking of which…

Examination of Feelings

This exercise combines practice with assessments in the LMS with students sharing their feelings about our current situation. What is on their mind? What questions do they have? How are they feeling? Assessment tools might be the best to use because the results are private. This assessment would not be graded, of course!

Team Formation and Agreements (Norms and Rules)

This is a PNG of a poster I am going to hang in my room, and that I sent to the students in PDF form at the end of last year. It is to remind the students it is their education, and they should take full advantage of this opportunity to think, explore, and take risks. To support them, we will form a team to study literature to better understand the human condition and our place within the human family.

How should our class function? I don’t think that should be up to me entirely. Instead, I would like us to come to an agreement on a limited set of rules. If memory serves, five is usually a good number.

Five Good Rules

For this exercise, we could combine learning how to use a collaborative tool such as Google Docs with rule generation. A thought for an activity just occurred to me: “I Promise… You Promise…” Let me talk myself through it for a moment. Feel free to let me know what you think about it in the comments.

  1. Share a Google Doc with the students that contains a list of items I promise to hold myself to this school year.
    • My promises would include 1) To care, respect, and treasure every student; 2) To be patient and kind; 3) To guide you to the information you need to help you build the tools to be successful; 4) To address YOUR needs; 5) To be rigorous in my approach and equitable with my feedback.
  2. Ask the students to open the doc from the link posted on the LMS. Explain that everyone has editorial rights to the document, so they can add their promises. They should start their entry with their name and then create a list of their promises. Everyone should respect everyone else and not edit anyone else’s entries. They are welcome to include rules they have learned over years of schooling, but at least two rules should represent thoughts they have about how they want to behave this year and for years to come.
  3. Using the comment feature, students can highlight what they LIKE about their peers’ entries and make positive comments. This teaches one aspect of constructive feedback.
  4. Using qualitative analysis techniques (yep, you read that right), we as a group can find the most common promises and then form rules that make sense for us as a group.

I know this could take a few days. This year is going to be different in so many ways. We need to be careful, gentle, and kind – and to take the time to emphasize that we are interdependent beings in a community. Building a community takes time.

Technology Training

The students may be surprised to learn that their technology training has already begun. After all, we entered the course and then used the discussion feature and the assessment feature. We also used Google Docs. Now, I would turn to how to use the technology we have effectively and independently.

Main Categories

  1. How to write an effective email (Please, dear heavens, complete the subject line!)
  2. How to manage email (filters, labels, when to check email, etc.)
  3. How to set up a folder for the course in Google Drive
  4. How to use Google Docs, Slides, Sheets, and Forms
  5. How to use the LMS and Google Calendars in tandem to manage your time
  6. How to set up a portfolio on the LMS
  7. How to send your teacher a message on the LMS
  8. Recommendation: Install the LMS app on your smartphone and turn on notifications
  9. How to navigate the course
  10. How to use “native” LMS tools and third-party tools integrated into the course
  11. What SSO (Single Sign-On) means, the tools used for SSO, and how to use them
  12. How to gain access to other tools, like signing up for an e-card for our state’s library system

There must be other things to cover, but the students might be on overload if I put too many other items on this list. Like everything else, tutorials will be added to the course for them to review.

Syllabus and Curriculum

Saving the syllabus and curriculum for next to last might seem odd, but if you think about it, shouldn’t the students understand how things are going to run before they dive into content and activities? That is why I saved this task for later in Unit 0.

Diagnostics and Benchmarks

A common saying among teachers is to “meet the students where they are.” With the COVID-19 slide and summer slide looming before us, it is more important than ever to find out where they need the most help before starting the course. Therefore, I recommend including diagnostics and benchmarks at the end of the unit.

Our evaluation of the results will help us to modify Unit 1 to meet the needs of our students and help them be most successful during what is going to be a challenging year.


Mrs. Heather MacCorkle Edick, M.S.Ed