Category Archives: Middle School

Everybody’s a Critic

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One of the things I haven’t addressed with a project before this year is literary criticism. Since I’m teaching freshmen this year at my school, one that allows me plenty of autonomy, I thought I would try to find something besides the requisite essay for my students to do as an assessment. Well, there wasn’t really much out there that spoke to me.

About this time a friend from high school published a memoir, and she wanted those of us that had read her book to write a review of it on Amazon. Light bulb! After I wrote a glowing review for her fabulous book, I created the ELAmazon assessment. I used it with The Crucible, and I was pleasantly surprised by the results. The kids didn’t knock the criticism part out of the park, but it was a great way to see where the gaps were at the beginning of the year. Plus, since it wasn’t a formal essay, the kids weren’t as reluctant to complete it!

Here is a link to the project.

https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/ELAmazon-Assignment-3159615

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More Assessment Fun

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I started sharing assessment pieces that can be used for any literature piece with my friends on a secondary ELA board in our area. I thought it would be better to write about my experience with each one here, then link it to that page. This gives me an opportunity to include examples and such that may help you decide if you’d like to use it.

An assessment that I’ve been using for years is the character mandala from Laying the Foundations. I’ve adapted it for use with Romeo and Juliet, The Outsiders, and I’m going to try it as a person mandala with a piece of nonfiction next quarter. The reason I love the mandala is that it makes students think in a variety of ways. It is also an assessment that has steps, so I can give small check up grades during the process and make sure that no one falls so far behind that they end up with nothing to turn in.

Here are a couple of examples from The Outsiders (done by 7th graders):

Here are three from Romeo and Juliet (done by freshmen):

Obviously these are some of the best ones I’ve gotten, but they are great for displaying the concept which is that everyone has two sides, sun and shadow.

Make sure you do an example with them on the chart (I always use Harry Potter) because many of the students struggle to understand the connections they need to make. Another great thing about this assessment is that even struggling ELA students can come up with some pretty amazing ideas given that we are using symbols to represent the characters. Happy assessing!

Mandala Rubric

The Outsiders Mandala Project

The Butterfly Project

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I did a unit over Night by Elie Wiesel this quarter, and while I was planning it I wanted to find something that would make the students connect with individual survivors and victims. I came across The Butterfly Project, and I knew it would be the perfect way to not only connect, but to visually represent lives lost during the Holocaust.

The project comes from a book of children’s poetry and artwork from the Terezin ghetto called I Never Saw Another Butterfly. I had the students pair up and read individual poems from the book. We talked about the ones that seemed to have a hopeful tone, and those that were more about fear and uncertainty. Then, as we moved through the unit, every day I would read the information about a poet and artist that the students had seen in the book. In the back of the book, there is a record of the children that wrote each poem and created each piece of art. You can find out if that child survived if the researchers were able to discover that information (some are just labeled anonymous).

The survival rate of children from the Terezin ghetto was 10%. As you can see above, we started out with many butterflies as I had each 8th grader make one (there are 105). As I would read about the children each day, if the child did not survive, I would cut down a butterfly. The middle picture is the 10 that were left at the end of our unit. The students cheered and clapped when I read about a survivor and got very quiet when I would tell them that a child had perished. I could always feel their eyes on me as I cut down the butterflies for that class period. They would flinch if I cut theirs down and breathe a sigh of relief if their butterfly was safe for another day.

As an educator of over 18 years, this was probably the most connected that I felt the students were to a piece of literature. I am proud of the insightful connections they have made during discussion and the maturity they have shown during what can be a tough set of lessons. May people my age are skeptical of the ability of this generation to be empathetic, but these kids should give you confidence that they will lead us well as they grow up and take the reins.

Here is a link to information about The Butterfly Project if you would like to find out more. The Butterfly Project from the Holocaust Museum of Houston

Yes, I’m fancy. So what?

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If you haven’t read any educational blogs lately, let me get you up to speed on a couple of issues. First, there is this movement to implement flexible seating in the classroom. It’s meant to reflect the changing needs of students during their learning process. Big corporations with forward-thinking management, like Amazon and Google, are using fluid workspaces and flexible office spaces to encourage more productivity in their employees. The Danish even have a term for creating “cozy” spaces within any indoor environment called hygge. Same idea here. Give the kids a choice of seating options, make the classroom feel homey and inviting, and let them choose the seat or space that best fits their mood that day, the tasks for that class, group work, etc.

So that is the first idea. The second is- to decorate or not? Should you, the teacher, spend time and money making your classroom, well, pretty? There are two sides to this argument, and both sides firmly believe they are correct. There is the idea that, if you do decorate, and post pictures of your hard work, you are rubbing it in the face of those that don’t have the time, the money, the resources, the desire, the (insert whatever other reason you have) to decorate your room. Some of those that decorate feel that, if you aren’t spending time and effort making your room a nice place to be, you are just phoning it in.

I have read arguments for both sides on many different forums- Facebooks groups, blogs, articles in educational publications-, and I think you can probably tell from the pictures above which side I fall on, but you might be surprised as to my reasons why.

Plain and simple? I want to have a cute room that looks great and feels comfortable because I spend 9 to 11 hours a day in here! Plus, my husband won’t let me make our living room look like the Ravenclaw common room, so I’m living that dream in my classroom. I also want my students to feel like I have spent time making this a nice place for them to learn. And dang it, I want people to ooh and aah over the amazing space I have put together because, well, I worked hard on it!! I didn’t do it to make anyone else feel bad or show anyone up. I didn’t do it for any other reason than I LIKE TO DECORATE. So when I read these blog posts and comments on Facebook that say things like, “I don’t need all of that to make my kids want to learn” or “Are they trying to compensate for being a bad teacher by making stuff pretty?” I want to scream. I would never insult someone who had a more toned-down decorating style in their classroom. I would just assume that was what worked for them. I would never question their effectiveness as a teacher either.

Teachers have enough naysayers out there without turning on each other. We should celebrate ALL of things that make us different as educators, not criticize because we don’t happen to have the same teaching style or aesthetic. Jeez, people.

It’s the little things

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Teachers can be weird about their stuff. Lots of teachers only use certain kinds of pens. Some have to have two pieces of paper on the desk before they can write (guilty). You name it, we have preferences- dry erase markers, pencils, fonts we use, etc. Well my weirdness is customization. I love stuff that is MINE. Things that aren’t like everyone else’s stuff.

Because of this, I search for many things on Google, and I end up finding some really interesting items. Recently, I began looking for a lesson plan/gradebook for next year (I know, I’m weird). I went on Etsy and found some planners with a Harry Potter theme. WHAT?!?! I must own one of these. I found one shop that would customize my planner for a VERY reasonable price. This is important because I don’t need all the stuff elementary teachers have in their planners. Birthdays? I have 125 kids. Your list for 25 kids isn’t going to cut it. Seating charts? I have 6 classes of teenagers. That crap can change daily. Parent contacts? I have a 3 inch binder to hold all of that documentation. The 5 pages you provide won’t even last for the first nine weeks grading period.

So you can see how this customization option would appeal to me. I can buy a planner that I won’t immediately begin to tear apart to make it work. I will have a planner for next school year that is truly mine. Awesome.

I’m sharing this because I realized I have spent this school year making my space at work truly mine. My classroom is cozy, warm, and decorated to my taste. Hey, I spend all day in here! So that comfy chair I bought on Facebook Marketplace? Yeah, I need that. Table stolen out of Mom’s garage? Yep, gimme that too. But you know what, when I walk in here every day, I smile. I do! I smile! I’m in a good place, both mentally and physically. And I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts.

If you need me, I’ll be in my comfy chair writing lessons in my new planner. 🙂

Planner listing

Go here to find a cool planner!

Side Hustle

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Teaching is my passion. It’s been a roller coaster ride of emotion, but I always seem to find my way back to a place where I am truly happy with what I do. One of the reasons that I got fired up about creating my own lessons and assignments is my discovery of Teachers Pay Teachers, a place where educators can buy and sell units, worksheets, quizzes, tests, etc. At first, I just used it as a way to save time by not reinventing the wheel when I needed to spice up a stagnant lesson. It’s so much easier to pay $1-$5 (my personal spending limit) on a ready-made assignment than to spend the time to think up and type out my own.

Then my job changed, and I was going to be teaching two grades that I hadn’t for the past few years, and I had the freedom and autonomy to decide what I wanted to do with my classes. Enter TPT. I realized as I was writing these new units that I could put them on TPT and maybe make a few bucks on the side. Well, I made over $100 the first month that I started selling products. It’s not much, but it was pretty exciting each time I would hear the cash register chime on my phone. Aside from the money, the best thing that happened was that I got excited to be creative and think outside the box about what I was teaching. That used to be the norm for me, but I had gotten away from that, simply using what was already available.

It’s been almost a year since I began selling, and sometimes I only make $20 in a month, but it’s passive income from something that I was going to be creating anyway. I’m excited to try some new ideas in the coming year, and see if I can really ramp up the creativity and interaction in my own classroom!

You can visit my store here: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Johnstons-Ela-Gems

Summers off? Ha!

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Have you ever dared to say these words- “You’re lucky you’re a teacher. You get the summers off”?  If so, you should be throat punched. Or maybe you need to know what most, not all, teachers do during the summer.

For the first week, we try to sleep in, but our internal clocks won’t let us, so we still wake up at the butt crack of dawn. We try to relax on the couch to un-fray our nerves from the last week of school, but we can’t really sit on the couch without feeling guilty about all the things we “should be doing”. Like cleaning, grocery shopping, entertaining our kids who are also on summer break. You know, parental stuff. Or, we should be planning the curriculum for next year because we won’t be teaching what we have taught for the last ten years, instead, we will be teaching two new classes, so we have get ready. Oh, and we’re moving classrooms, so we had to bring home all of our “school junk”- as my hubby likes to call it- so we really need to go through that and purge some of the materials we have had for 157 years and never touched. But do you know what we think when we contemplate doing any of this?

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No, no, no, no, no…

So, of the 8 weeks we get for summer break, a couple are probably spent in some sort of professional development, maybe we go on a vacation with our family, and the other time is spent prepping, and planning, and combining, and curating, so that when we return, we have a chance to maintain our sanity.

Now, let me clarify. I LOVE my school. I am PUMPED to be teaching new classes because I get tired of hearing myself talk about the same things over and over. I am OVER THE MOON about my new room, and I have probably spent WAY too much on my vision for the new space- think flexible seating, coffee shop atmosphere, black/gold/silver/gray- it’s going to be so beautiful…I hope. So I have assigned many (okay all) of these tasks to myself. I could wait until we return to work on July 31st, but that is NOT how I roll. I am a planner extraordinaire, and I DO NOT fly by the seat of my pants if I can help it.

I guess I’m just trying to say that most teaching professionals that I know never stop working, they just aren’t in front of students for 9 weeks in a row. Instead they are anticipating the time when they will be in front of students again, and they want to make it as smooth a transition back into the school year as possible.

So if you see a teacher, please don’t utter that phrase. It’s insulting. It’s false. And it’s rude. Just say thank you, and maybe buy them a cocktail.