It’s Been A (Long) While

August 28th. That’s the last time I posted something on this blog. It’s been way too long, but I can’t feel guilty about it. I won’t let myself. Why? I’m overwhelmed.

This school year, I’m teaching more than I ever have:

  • 3 English 9 classes (1 co-taught)
  • 1 English 9 Honors classes
  • 1 Journalism class
  • 1 English 11 class
  • 1 English AIS class (9 grades 10-12)
  • 2 Freshman Seminars

Now, I don’t see each class every day, but that’s a lot of planning. That’s six preps each week. School is trying to take over my life, but I won’t let it. Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching, but I’m overwhelmed. It’s frustrating when you work hard to make everything just so, but one month into the school year I knew something had to give. I couldn’t spend every waking moment on school (planning, creating, grading, etc.), for I have my lovely family too. So, what do I do?

Start putting myself first. Yes, I still make time to read at night. I need that time to relax and escape. After a crazy first month where I wasn’t getting to bed before 11 PM, now I am in bed by 10, maybe 10:30 at the latest. I know I need my sleep if I’m going to function the following day. I also need to eat. Yes, I’ve been so crazy busy that most days I’m not eating my lunch until I get home. No more.

Start grading less. Yep. That’s a start. My students do the vast majority of their work in front of me, and I see a lot of it then. Sure, I still grade some work, but instead of grading every quickwrite, I ask students to choose one favorite. Instead of giving feedback on every writing assignment, I confer more in class and give feedback then.

Start speaking up. This week, I’m going to my union. I need to. I have six different classes I need to prepare for each week while others in my department have half that and a bunch of study halls. We are all full time, so that’s a problem. I’m not the only one in this position, so I know a few others feel the same way. If I don’t speak up, both my students and I will suffer, and I refuse to let that happen.

This blog post was not what I imagined my first post of the school year to look like. I know I’m not alone though. If you know you are getting, or already are, overwhelmed, you need stop and re-evaluate your priorities. Don’t wait. Do it now.


My Classroom

As I was about to leave my classroom at 5pm this evening, I honestly had to take a moment and look around. Tomorrow I would be thrown into meeting after meeting, and the next time I’d be in here would be the same day I meet my students. I had just spent my third day organizing my room as best I could. I got rid of my desk, and added two best bookshelves, a rug, and three chairs. I wanted my room to look inviting, but it was much more than that. I wanted my students to see that…

This is a room of choice.

This is a room of a teacher who is a reader and writer too.

This is a room with a diverse library that has a book for each and every child.

This is a room where we can all make mistakes and take risks.

This is a room where we will have tough, but necessary, conversations.

This is a room where students are appreciated and loved.

This is a room that grows readers and writers.

As I left, I crossed my fingers in hopes that my 9th and 11th graders would see all that I saw. I hope you do too.

How did you organize your classroom, and why? Feel free to share below!

The Power of a Book

This morning, I awoke to this Remind message from a student:


I immediately replied, sharing how thrilled I was that she not only found a great book, but that it was helpful to her. Afterword, I couldn’t help but reflect on the importance of books in this student’s life. Yes reading consistently will help this student become a better reader, but this time I knew it was much more than that. This book was some much-needed therapy during a tough time, a connection between the reader and a character’s story. I don’t think a few whole-class novels throughout one school year would have created this type of reader. Our children need much more than that.

Our children need to read often and widely.

Our children need access to large classroom libraries.

Our children need a diverse collection of books to choose from, so they can see themselves within them and make those all-important connections.

Our children need teachers who work hard to build strong relationships with them.

Our children need teachers who make time to confer with them consistently to get to know them as readers.

Our children need teachers who read widely so they can be go-to sources for book recommendations.

With my new school year starting in one month, I know reading books of choice will continue to be a priority in my classroom. Is it a priority in yours?


Planning Already?

I know, I know. It’s still the middle of the summer, at least for me in Western New York. Well, I found out July 1st that I would be teaching one 11th grade English class this year, so that’s an additional prep that I didn’t feel ready for. Time to start planning! After reading Pernille Ripp’s recent post about her teacher planner, I was inspired to create my own.

In the past, I have tried to plan my year in a wide variety of ways. I started my teaching career almost 17 years ago with the traditional planner that the school gave me, but I soon figured out I needed more. I bought a gorgeous (and expensive) planner online, but that seemed more geared toward elementary teachers. Next I went digital, and tried to do everything in a Google Doc or Sheet, which helped with co-planning, but there were just too many separate documents in different folders. Plus, it didn’t help that the internet access in my classroom was finicky. I needed something all in one spot that I could access easily, so I decided to create my own planner in a binder.

Yes, it’s big and bulky, and yes, I feel like a student sometimes, but everything is here. I decorated the front and back with favorite books and photos from conferences for those days that a little extra inspiration is needed. Inside, I have a pencil holder for sticky notes, pens, pencils, and colored pencils. I’ve found that I desperately need this extra supply, for I often give my students what’s in my desk.

Within the binder I have eight sections, and I’ve found that each is necessary:

School Information – This is the section for my school calendar, meetings, and upcoming events.

Planning (4 sections) – I teach four different classes, so each need their own planning section. My planning sheets are organized the same way Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle organized their high school classes in 180 Days. (See the bottom left sheet above.)

Conferring Notes – This is probably my favorite section. I have every single student’s conference notes all in this section in alphabetical order. Students are constantly moving in and out of my district, so it helps that I am using a binder. I can move kids in and out without disrupting what’s already there. I also like having reading and writing conference notes together, for I’ve found that reading and writing struggles can sometimes be connected. (See the bottom right sheet above.)

Standards –  I often reference the New York State ELA Standards when planning, so this section has been quite helpful. This year, I also added in the newly created Social Justice Standards from the Teaching Tolerance website.

Other – Finally, I have this section for anything I may have missed (meeting notes, contact information, etc.).

My system isn’t perfect, but it works for me. It saves me time, which is why I’m sticking with it for now.

How do you plan out, or get ready for, your new school year? Feel free to share below.

The Class of 2021’s Favorite Books of the Year

What are high school students reading? This question is one that countless teachers ponder, for, as many of us know, a large percentage of high school students don’t like to read. I’d like to think my classroom is different. After polling my 97 students last week, all but 4 students said they enjoy reading more now than they did last September. That’s progress! This same poll asked students to chose a favorite book, or books, from this school year. After reviewing the list, what stood out more than anything else was the wide variety of genres, reading levels, and topics. (Only 3 students said they didn’t like any books, while 2 other students said they couldn’t decide between so many.) Giving students choice in what they read matters.

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The novel that received the most votes was Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, followed by Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda and All American Boys came in third. The list is organized by the author’s last name. Enjoy looking over this year’s titles that my students fell in love with!

  • The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
  • Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli
  • Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (5X)
  • The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
  • Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • The Four-Minute Mile by Roger Bannister
  • The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
  • Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin
  • Far from the Tree by Robin Benway
  • The Wolf Keepers by Elise Broach
  • Drowned City by Don Brown (2X)
  • The Selection series by Kiera Cass
  • Need by Joelle Charbonneau
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (5X)
  • Alex & Eliza by Melissa de la Cruz
  • Fault Line by Christa Desir (2X)
  • Gutless by Carl Deuker
  • Room by Emma Donoghue
  • Inhuman by Kat Falls (2X)
  • Legendary by Stephanie Garber
  • Until Friday Night by Abbi Glines
  • Under the Lights by Abbi Glines
  • After the Game by Abbi Glines
  • Faith of the Fallen by Terry Goodkind
  • Gone series by Michael Grant
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green
  • Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
  • The Magicians by Lev Grossman
  • No One Else Can Have You by Kathleen Hale
  • Count All Her Bones by April Henry
  • The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
  • House Arrest by K. A. Holt (2X)
  • Crank by Ellen Hopkins (2X)
  • The You I’ve Never Known by Ellen Hopkins
  • Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann
  • Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur (2X)
  • Honestly Ben by Bill Konigsberg
  • Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg
  • The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan
  • No Easy Way Out by Dayna Lorentz
  • The Princess Saves Herself In This One by Amanda Lovelace (2X)
  • The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One by Amanda Lovelace
  • A Court of Thorns and Roses series by Sarah J. Maas (2X)
  • Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas
  • Shatter Me series by Tahereh Mafi
  • Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu
  • The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis
  • Ten by Gretchen McNeil
  • The Lunar Chronicles (whole series) by Marissa Meyer (2X)
  • Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy
  • The Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle
  • The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (2X)
  • All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • A Child Called “It” by Dave Pelzer
  • Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez
  • Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Melissa Quintero (2X)
  • All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely (6X)
  • Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds (10X)
  • When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds
  • After the Shot Drops by Randy Ribay
  • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children series by Ransom Riggs
  • The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby
  • Zodiac by Romina Russell
  • Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz (2X)
  • Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson
  • The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
  • Words of the Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
  • Kobe Bryant: Star Guard by A. R. Schaefer
  • Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt
  • Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
  • Zom-B series by Darren Shan
  • Scythe by Neal Shusterman (3X)
  • More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera
  • The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater
  • Winger by Andrew Smith (3X)
  • Stand Off by Andrew Smith
  • The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith
  • Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder (2X)
  • Hunted by Meagan Spooner
  • The Raven Cycle series by Maggie Stiefvater
  • Boot Camp by Todd Strasser
  • It’s Not Like It’s a Secret by Misa Sugiura
  • This Mortal Coil by Emily Suvada
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (8X)
  • Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon

What Are You Passionate About? (Part 2)

Since my last post, my 9th graders have finished up their research unit, and I have graded their final projects. I am so very proud to share that this project turned out even better than I had hoped! Below I not only share my results, but also a few of the infographics that some of my students created. Enjoy!

TaskStudents were asked to choose a topic they wanted to learn more about, and find at least three reliable sources with helpful information. Using those sources, they wrote an I-search paper and created a presentation to share with their classmates.

The Results: I was pleasantly surprised with the results! Out of 82 students 95% of them completed the project. They chose topics they were interested in, and synthesized their findings to share the most important information with their classmates. Most importantly, numerous students mentioned how much they enjoyed learning about their topics. That was new, and so wonderful to hear!

Now that we have finished, I know that there are certain aspects of the project that will stay the same, but other aspects I want to change for next year:

Search for Reliable Sources (MODIFY): One of the hardest parts for students was finding reliable sources. My advanced readers could find their sources with relative ease, but many of my students who struggle to read higher level texts had a tough time finding sources that they could comprehend. After speaking to an administrator, she suggested that I try using podcasts or other audio sources next time. I also don’t want to limit my students to just the school databases, when there are reliable websites out there. These students that struggled to find sources got behind, which was frustrating to some of them. Next year, I want all students to enjoy the learning process, so this modification should help.

Model the Writing Process (KEEP): My students were quite successful during the writing process, and I truly believe this is due to writing along with them every step of the way.

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I “thought aloud” and added notes and highlighting while reading in front of students.

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I typed this portion of my draft along side my students. 

As I wrote, I shared my thinking and asked them for suggestions. They saw me as one of them. I was a writer who was seeking to understand, one who shared struggles and accomplishments just like them. As I helped them, they felt comfortable helping me. I’m glad we went through this process together.

Write an I-Search Paper Instead of a Traditional Research Paper (KEEP)An I-search paper works the writer into the paper. This means the paper is not just about the findings, but also about the writer’s own process. Thus, I got to see my students’ thinking on paper, and really felt like I was learning along with them. Many of them noticed where their struggles were, and in their conclusion they shared what they’d do differently in the future. This form of writing about research was helpful to all involved.

Create a Final Project (KEEP)After students finished their papers, I asked them to synthesize what they learned and create some sort of visual presentation to share with their classmates. On the date they were due, we had a gallery walk where students displayed them (see below). Some students created infographics using Piktochart, while others wanted to create posters. As I walked around to view presentations, I heard comments like “I like your poster. You’re very talented!” and “I never even knew what DACA was! Thanks for making this topic easy to learn about.” Music to my ears!

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My Conclusion: This research unit was, by far, the best yet. I am so thankful for other teachers, like Jessica Lifshitz, who share their thoughts and teaching ideas online. I learn so much from all of you!



What Are You Passionate About? (Part I)


What are you passionate about? What do you want to learn more about? These two questions are the backbone of the research unit I recently began with my 82 English 9 students.

When I started thinking about research, I knew that I needed to grab my students’ attention from Day One. Without any interest, most of them wouldn’t be successful. Well, I shouldn’t say that. Students motivated by their grades could be, but I wanted more than that. I wanted my students to have a true curiosity about their topic. I wanted to see that desire to learn more. So, I began to scour the vast world of the internet to see what was out there. My search probably would have taken a lot longer had I not started with some trusted educators I follow.

My initial search led me to Jessica Lifshitz’s brilliant blog, Crawling Out of the Classroom. (Side note: If you haven’t read any of Jessica’s posts before, you’re missing out. Her creative ideas inspire her 5th grade students, as well as her blog readers like me.) When I went to her blog, I was thrilled to see that she was rethinking how she incorporates research in her classroom as well. Like she mentioned in this post, I knew my students needed ideas for topics they would want to learn more about.

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Sheet used to gather ideas (based on Jessica Lifshitz’s document)

Two weeks ago, we began searching for topics of interest using some of Jessica’s slides. My students loved Google’s “years in review” as well as a lot of the images. I also added some of my own, based on what I’ve heard my students talk about. I was surprised to see how much my students didn’t know about current events, even though their classmates have discussed these issues before. We then shared what topics stood out to us in small groups, and some students found a new topic they were interested in after these discussions. By the end of the first week, students created inquiry questions about their topics to help guide their upcoming research.

Last week we started our search for articles, which was honestly difficult for some of my students. I wanted them to use our school’s databases to find reliable sources, but that also meant many of the articles would be written at a high level. We started with ProQuest SIRS Issues Researcher, but many of the articles students found were too difficult for them to read (Lexile levels were anywhere from 1100 to over 1400). Some students tried other databases, but many articles were still a struggle to get through.

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5th Period’s Skimming Techniques Anchor Chart 

In order to make sure my students saved articles they could read and understand, we reviewed how to skim our articles first. Too often, I watched students just look at a title, and then print (or not print) based off of what it said. Once students began finding their helpful articles, I asked them to highlight and add annotations in the margins. The goal of this was to show evidence of close read, and I reminded them that their annotations would be needed later on for their papers.

The first day of searching went smoothly, but then I started to see some students putting their heads down or just getting off task. When I asked those students what was going on, they all said they just didn’t want to read their articles or “do research.” I was nervous at this point, for I thought the reading would happen on its own if my students were interested in their topics. What had happened? I started by going back to my students’ inquiry questions to make sure they were still interested in their topics. Most of them weren’t, or at least weren’t sure where to go with it. I encouraged these students to revisit their topics, and change them if needed. Some of them did revise, and then were back on track. Others were still frustrated and reluctant to try to revise. After talking with them, they seemed overwhelmed with the whole research process, for this was the first time they ever had to find multiple texts to write a “research paper.” I had various conversations about why we are doing research, how it will benefit them now and in the future, and even about the upcoming paper and presentation. I told them that yes, the reading and learning portion is often the hardest part, but if they become an “expert” on their topic, the writing and presentation could be a lot easier. Some students believed me, but I think others were still frustrated.

As I write this, I am currently in the middle of my Spring Break. I am hoping my students return to school next week rejuvenated and ready to continue with their research. The vast majority of my students are enjoying the process, which is a big success in my book. I am also, however, planning accordingly for those that may not be ready or willing. My 82 students should already be “experts” on their topic, since they should have read three articles about it. Some have not finished that reading yet, and one of my two goals is to spend additional time with them next week to help them get caught up. Some may already be caught up, and others may end up using a podcast for a source instead of an article. (I wish I would have encouraged other sources besides articles from the start, but it’s an option now.) My second goal is to begin encouraging my other students to start planning out an I-Search paper. I know not all students plan the same way, so I will have a few different tools to share. I will be writing a paper along with them, so I will have a constant model to display, and even work on right there in front of them. More to come in Part II!

How do you work research into your curriculum? Feel free to leave a comment below.