Tis the Season to be Challenged

This is one of my favorite units to teach. Even more so now that I’ve taught it and made improvements for this time around.


Today was brainstorm day. In groups of three/four, students went to six posters with the challenge titles and wrote down as many ideas as they could in one minute. Some of the standouts:

Fears to overcome:

photo 2

Habits to quit:

photo 4

Raising awareness about:

photo 1

There is not enough being said about illegal imorgrants!

New things to try:

photo 5

Good self awareness on the “practice spelling” comment.

Something you’ve always wanted to do:

photo 3

I think it’s going to be a fun last few weeks of the semester.


Graduation Day

We learned about the basics of typing and saving documents, and the “new basics” of Prezi, Animoto, Glogster, and others. We learned about ways to use cell phones as educational tools. We learned about staying safe on the internet. We learned about cyber bullying and bullying. We learned that the internet is a real place, and that there are cords under the ocean connecting us. We experienced a day without cell phones. (Or, for the truly attached, one period without cell phones). It was time to graduate.

Tamara and I started by giving students Technology License Production. They chose which group they wanted to be a part of and we held quick “interviews” to choose the best fit for each student. They took two days to work on everything. I wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but it actually went really well! The “Examiners” wrote tests that the students all had to pass in order to get their license. The “License Presenters” made sparkly invitations for the principal, vice-principal, and some of their other teachers. The “Work Force” got supplies for all other groups, and jumped in to help when a group member was missing. “Human Resources” made a performance report and assessed all the other students. The “License Designers” came up with really sleek-looking business cards:


Students wrote their names on their license, and then I laminated them (for added authenticity). At the Graduation Ceremony, Tamara and I sat back and watched as students on the “License Presenter” committee made their opening remarks and then called each student up to receive their license. For period two, our vice-principal handed out the licenses and posed for pictures with the students while we played the ‘graduation music.’

The students were beaming. Each and every one of them got up and received their license, and sat down with a smile on their faces. I think they felt like they had really accomplished something. In the reflections they wrote about the process, most of them expressed that they enjoyed having a real graduation ceremony.

While I was floating on the “they actually learned something” cloud, Monday came and ruined it all with two students using their phones to text. While I was teaching. That breaks rule #1. And #4. I know, you’re shocked. After all of that learning, and having a graduation ceremony, and receiving their official laminated license with the rules and responsibilities on it, and getting their picture taken with the vice-principal, and signing a contract, they broke a rule! So, here’s how we are handling that: any time students are caught abusing technology, we punch a hole in their license. Three holes punched, and they lose the privilege of using technology, which includes school computers and iPads. They will also have to relinquish their phone to the teacher at the start of class, or leave it in their locker. They have until Christmas break as their “probation period”, in which they can still have their license and/or technology taken away, but we won’t punch holes in their license. If students make it to the end of the year with no holes punched, they will get a prize! They asked what the prize is…..we told them it was a surprise, but the truth is that we don’t know yet! It depends how many students make it. If there are 30 of them, then we might have a movie day with treats or something. But if there’s only one or two, then I’d take them out for lunch. But I suppose they would see that as more of a punishment…..so perhaps a voucher will have to do.

Teaching for the Real World

A part of the Grade 9 “Digital Citizenship” unit was an anti-bullying project. It’s probably easiest to explain it to you the way we {co-teacher Tamara and I} explained it to them:

“As an anti-bullying campaign, prepare a presentation for Grade 5 students that outlines what bullying is, how they can prevent it, and what to do if they witness someone being bullied.”

Students spent seven days researching, tweeting, blogging, writing, practicing skits, and making videos. {I’ll be honest. Most students spent seven days working on those things. Some students spent seven days pretending to do those things, but actually doing sweet little. And they are so shocked when I’m not impressed that they made half a poster!} A few days before presentation day, CBC happened to be in the building for a media event, also to do with anti-bullying, and caught wind of what we were doing. A reporter asked if she could interview me, to which I said yes. When she found out more about the project, she asked if she could come back to do a story on it. Result:

CBC news story!

Part of the reason Tamara and I decided to have our students present their anti-bullying units to Grade 5 students was so that the assignment would have a real audience – it wasn’t an assignment for the sake of an assignment that would likely end up in the recycle bin, it was a real presentation for other students. If you didn’t get the assignment done on time, it didn’t mean the teacher took off late marks, it meant 54 Grade 5 students were staring at you with question in their eyes. If you did a poor job of the assignment, it didn’t mean the teacher was disappointed in you {which you may or may not care about}, it meant those Grade 5 students were bored/confused/disappointed, and that matters a lot more than any frowny face I could ever make. And when CBC news cameras were there,  it changed from an audience of Grade 5’s to an audience that included parents and grandparents and friends and random strangers. If that doesn’t motivate students to do their best, I don’t know what will. And the students really did exhibit some great work. In fact, at the end when we played some music and got the students to sign the ‘Stand Up to Bullying’ sheets, and our Grade 9’s were mingling and chatting with Grade 5’s, and some of the Grade 5 students were being interviewed by CBC and saying how great the presentation was, I got a bit teary eyed. It was then I realized this wasn’t just a real audience/real world connection for the students, it was for me too.

Sometimes, I forget why I teach. I get bogged down in reports and marking and holding students accountable and redirecting them and chasing them and planning and doing it all over again. It gets frustrating. It feels like no one is listening. It feels like no one is learning. It feels like I’m out there doing the teaching equivalent of Italian fouettes and no one notices. So when CBC was interested and excited about what was going on in my classroom, I felt really encouraged. Grade 5’s learn what to do about bullying, Grade 9’s learn about presenting and deadlines, and I learn that what I does matters. Win-win-win.

A Few Updates

I should start by letting you know how the Grade 10 presentations went. I think it was great. Not because they all did an amazing job, but because they all learned something.

Most of the presentations were adequate. They made a Prezi or Animoto, as they had been instructed to. {One group did end up using PowerPoint, as they had been instructed not to do. But it didn’t go very well for them, and they afterwards acknowledged that they liked the other student’s Prezi and Animoto presentations better.} They knew the basics of their subject. They had a few pictures. It was average.

There was one really amazing presentation. He was articulate, he knew his subject inside and out, he presented the information in his own words, he was confident, made eye contact, and answered all the questions he was asked. The really amazing part was not that my teaching partner and I noticed all of this, it was that the students noticed all of this. When all the presentations were over, I made a three column chart on the board: excellent, average, and developing. We talked about what separates an average presentation from an excellent one and one that is still developing.

The students nailed it. We talked about the excellent presentation we saw, and what made it that way. The student with the excellent presentation even talked about how he got there – he used more than one source when researching, he learned the information rather than just copy/pasting, and he practiced. It was a great moment, because the students really listened to what their peer had to say and they saw the payoff of his hard work.

We’ve since started a novel study. I’m trying something new with it, and gave out these contracts.

Novel study contract

I told the students it’s legally binding.

They are reading: The Hobbit, Miracle in the Andes, The Hunger Games, The Chrysalids, and Dracula. Not all of those. They got to choose. I’m reading all of those.

In Grade 9, we are continuing on with our “Digital Citizenship” unit, which I think I will eventually post as its own page. The other day, we read this article:

“Your Brain on Computers” 

And this one.

“Trouble Sleeping?”

Keep in mind, this was after many lessons on educational uses of technology, and the point of reading these articles was not to condemn technology, but to raise student’s awareness of some issues surrounding technology. After reading the articles and discussing them, we talked about being too dependent on technology, or even addicted to it. We talked about spending a day “in the dark ages”, i.e. without their cell phones. They chose if they wanted to give up their phone for English class or for the whole day.  Result:

Some of them were getting sweaty and shaky and touching their pocket a lot. And the basket was flashing and vibrating. But they made 54% more eye contact with me. And that’s progress.

Research and Presenting

We are doing research projects in Grade 10 English. Here is how 300% of students approach a research project:

– On the internet, google “google” to find google. (Not kidding. They do this. They google “gogle” too.)
– Type in research subject
– Go to first website, most likely wikipedia
– Open PowerPoint
– Start to copy and paste information into slides

I explained to students that I could probably train a monkey to transfer information from one place to another. It’s a lateral move that requires no thinking and no learning. So with this research project, the goal has been to try to break this pattern and insert some critical thinking and creativity into researching.

Step one: Let them know that (shocker!) not all websites are reliable. I co-teach period one English, and as my co-teacher put it, you don’t want to be getting the information for your research project off some sweat pant clad basement dweller’s blog. (I may or may not be wearing sweats in my basement….but that’s irrelevant). It’s fun to illustrate this point with a few unreliable websites that look pretty legit, such as:

Step two: Teach them some ways to determine if a website is reliable or not.
See: resource cred check

Step three: Get them to answer all the questions on the resource credibility check sheet with the websites they’ve found on their topic.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well they took to checking their websites! A few students even found that their websites were not credible – or as they put it, were “written by sweat pants guy.”

Another step to try to prevent too much brainless copying and pasting is to limit what presentation methods students can use.

Why You Can’t Use PowerPoint

Animoto is great because students really have to pick out their main ideas and say thing succinctly. Prezi is great because it’s similar enough to PowerPoint that students who are afraid of something new feel comfortable using it, but different enough that they can’t mindlessly copy and paste. That’s the hope anyway! I’ll let you know how it goes…..and hopefully we don’t end up with any presentations about dog island.

Time to Report

It’s that time of year again! Students frantically run to your desk and ask if there’s anything they can do to boost their mark (calm down, you have a 92%), or cooly saunter over and say “Hey. So is there like something I can do to get my mark up?” (um, hand your assignments in). It’s interim half-midterm mark reporting period time!

This time of year will inevitably lead to one (or more) students (or teachers, or parents) requesting an assignment from you. I don’t know about you, but this usually annoys me. When I photocopy an assignment, I make at least 5 extras that I leave in bins at the front of the room. Yet when someone asks for an extra copy, it seems like there are none in said bin. I either have to print another one off or dig through my binders and find one to photocopy*, which is a hassle because the student/teacher/parent request will usually fall at the most inconvenient time of the day, likely causing me to forget what I was doing, only to remember much later when my name is included in the scornful “you-forgot-to-do-your-attendance” list. I was in such a moment recently when I remembered that one of our consultants mentioned something about a way to link assignments in gradebook. So I tried it. And it worked. And here’s how you can do it too!

Side note: I’ll warn you now: this isn’t a five minutes and done deal off the start: it takes some time to set things up and convert files and whatnot. But once it’s all set up, it will be a five minutes and done deal to do each new assignment, and it will save you from ever having to go photocopy an assignment for sick kids or send work home or give a copy to a homeroom/tutorial teacher, and it puts responsibility for catching up where it belongs: on students. Win-win-win.

1. Upload your assignments: Our school has a website with the ability for teachers to have blogs and upload assignments.  It’s basically a place to house the assignments online. If your school has a website, get a login and upload away! You could also use a blog site, as long as the uploaded assignments will provide you with a URL to copy. I would suggest you create a few pages or bins for assignments, one for each grade you teach. It is a bit of time to invest uploading your assignments, but the nice thing is that you will only have to do it once, and you can use the assignment links in subsequent semesters. I would also suggest you convert your documents to a .pdf file so they can’t be changed. (I can see it now, “Johnny, are you sure your English teacher assigned a personal case study and research project on “The Hangover”?). In case you aren’t familiar with that process: the easiest way to convert files is to right click on a file and choose “convert to adobe PDF”. Allow a screen shot to illustrate. (Mostly because I feel fancy when I use screen shots. But it also feels a bit like someone looking in my junk drawer, so don’t judge).

2. Link in gradebook: Now that you’ve uploaded your assignments, each assignment will have a URL that you can copy and paste into gradebook. Go to wherever you’ve uploaded your assignments and click on one. Once it opens, copy the URL in the address bar. (If the files download rather then provide you a link, you’re going to have to find someone much more tech savvy then myself to help you with that part of the process……). Now, open gradebook and find the assignment you are wanting to link. Under “Description” there is a button that says “Link”. Click it. It will open a box that prompts you for a URL and “Link text”. Paste the URL into the first box, and put in whatever title you want the assignment to show as in the second box. Done and done. If you assigned it in more than one class, you could do that again in the other class, or you could just use the ‘ol “copy assignments” option. By right clicking on the assignment. Now, for some more tantalizing screen shots.

Copying the URL of the assignment:


Linking in gradebook:


As you can see, once you add an assignment link, it shows up as some wonky garble (yes, that’s the professional term for it). When you look at the assignment as a parent/student/teacher in powerteacher, it will show up as a link you can click on. You can also add more than one link for any one assignment, in case you have some sort of crazy assignment that requires more than one sheet of paper.

*Side note from way before all the screen shots: Do you ever give away your mater copy of an assignment or something you had in a binder and then have to go back to square one? With a yellow (and yellow only) highlighter, write “master” on such sheets. The word won’t show up on photocopies and you’ll never give your master copy away.

Another thing about reporting periods: comments. I never know if I should be writing a comment to a parent/guardian (such as, “John is doing really great in English”), or to the student (such as, “John, you are doing great work so far”). Perhaps it’s time to use the “poll” option wordpress has been advertising to me.

Of course, now that I’ve asked, I’ll probably get some email from a higher power telling me they instituted a “student friendly comment language” policy five years ago, and did I miss that memo? Evidently, yes. But look at my fancy screen shots! (To all of you who do screen shots for breakfast and are scoffing at me that I feel fancy because of it: don’t read my blog anymore.)

Giving Thanks

I am thankful every day that I’m not an elementary school teacher. Granted, if you closed your eyes and came into my classroom, some days it would sound like an Grade 2 class – with all the “he’s bugging me!” and “I don’t have a pencil” comments – but most of the time, students are able to get to class, do their work, and use a washroom on their own.

There is one area of elementary school I wish to bring to high school, and that is colouring. You have no idea what joy registers on students’ faces when you mention colouring. I think it’s because they invest years and years into making cards for every occasion and entering colouring contests, only to be cut short once they reach high school – they’re suddenly too old to colour! It’s hard to quit cold turkey. They try to cover their dissapointment by acting like they’re too cool to colour, when really their insides are screaming for a Fuzzy Wuzzy Brown and Atomic Tangerine to express themselves with. So when I suggested we do the following colouring activity in our homeroom class, the students were at first surprised. They lauged it off. They tried not to act excited. But every one of them sat silently, focused on the work at hand.

Go make your own hand turkey thank you card for someone special. I promise they will be thrilled, and you will enjoy making it.  Happy thanksgiving everyone.

Something I’m Sometimes Good At

Sometimes, I’m good at stuff.

The students don’t necessarily notice, so I need a forum in which to share my successes. Isn’t that what blogs are for?Bragging? Sharing ideas?

In Grade 9 English, we are learning about reading strategies. For each strategy, we teach the student what it is, model it (I do), go through an example together (we do), and then have the students practice it on their own (you do). We also talk about criteria for ‘simple’ and ‘higher level’ answers. For example, yesterday we (and I don’t mean the royal we, I mean myself and my teaching partner, Ms.S) took the students to the lunch room for the “we do” phase. The students asked questions about pictures posted around the room, then in partners classified the questions as ‘simple’ or ‘higher level’. We then asked the students to come up with criteria for what makes a question simple and what makes it higher level. It was so interesting to see that they could almost alway accurately identify which questions were simple and which were higher level, but they had a lot of difficulty understanding how they knew, and were totally confused when I asked them what the criteria for a simple question is.

This is where the thing I’m sometimes good at comes into play: explaining stuff. I asked the students if they knew the difference between boys clothes and girls clothes. They looked at me funny, but nodded their heads. I asked them if I gave them a bag full of clothes, how could they tell which were men’s and which were women’s? They listed all sorts of things: size, colour, pattern, brand, style, fit, amount of jewels on it, etc. How we recognize men’s clothing or women’s clothing is based on a criteria for each. Bam (do you think I can say that in the classroom, or does it only apply when cooking?).  Now we apply that to questioning – how do we recoginze a simple quesiton, and how do we recognize a higher level question? What’s the criteria for each? Considering they came up with some answers, I’d say my explanation was a success.

I also can’t wait for the “Digital Citizenship” unit coming up in Grade 9, mostly because I’m going to compare them using their smart phones just to text to using your car just to listen to the radio. Bam.

Back in the Saddle

Welcome back to another school year!

The year kicks off with the usual jitters – will they like me? Will I like them? Will I say or do something awkward that will mar me for the rest of the school year, and result in an embarrassing nickname that I won’t be able to shake? The back to school outfit is scrutinized – it needs to be professional, stylish, comfortable, and resistant to any possible mishaps that would result in the aforementioned mar and nickname. Shoes are critical – the first few days of school are spent giving many tours, finding classrooms for new students, opening stubborn lockers, and going to and from and to and from the office and photocopy room. By the end of day one, my feet were blistered, I had talked for over an hour giving four consecutive 20 minute “welcome to class and here’s what it’s about” speeches, and been told by the photocopier that I had “insufficient funds” and so my job was deleted. And I was in love.

For some students, it takes more than one day. But for some, it takes only a few hours of their smiling little (or sometimes pudgy) faces and sparkling personality for me to feel that familiar twang that I know will result in unabashed love, of the students and of my job. My throbbing feet were somehow eased when a student thanked me for helping him find his classroom. My scratchy voice didn’t matter so much when I overheard a student say of me, “You have Evenson for English? Oh, she’s good.” My latent desire to push the photocopiers off a bridge was momentarily forgotten as I witnessed a Grade 10 boy extend his hand and offer to show a Grade 9 boy where the woodshop was.

I’m well aware that this is the honeymoon phase. But it’s a necessary phase. I will look back on this week in the cold of November – when lessons I was excited for have flopped, when students I like have clearly established it is not mutual, when hearing “you never taught us that” results in tiny rage blackouts – and I will find the desire to teach another day. I will rework my lesson plans, keep smiling at the students who roll their eyes at me, and explain once again what ‘infer’ means. But I may still push the photocopier off a bridge.

An English Teacher’s Summer

What does a teacher blog about when she’s not teaching? Food, of course.

Summer is the season of many weddings, and this summer my bestie is getting married. As matron of honour, it is my duty to throw a shower for the couple, which is coming up this weekend. I decided to make golden cupcakes with chocolate buttercream icing.

I’ve made buttercream icing a few times, and have never been 100% happy with it. So I combined a few recipes together, and am pretty happy with the results. Let’s proceed.

The best of icings start here:

Melt a handful of semi-sweet chocolate chips in the microwave. Not your handful, my handful. Which I estimate to be a 1/4 cup.

I’ve made icing with just butter before, but found it to be too stiff, especially when from the fridge. I’ve also made icing with just shortening, but it turned out too rich and greasy tasting. Solution? Use both. Start by whipping 3/4 cup room temperature butter until it looks like this:

Add 1/4 cup shortening and whip until it looks like this (which doesn’t take long):

Sift in 1/2 cup cocoa powder and whip it. Whip it good. 

I know it looks temptingly delicious. But trust me when I say don’t taste it. At this point, the chocolate you melted should be cool enough to add, so mix that in.

Still don’t taste it. Add 3 1/4 to 3 1/2 cups of icing sugar, one cup at a time. Mix it in well after each cup. It will be crumbly and thick.

You can taste it now if you want. I would encourage you to.

Here’s the important part: when adding the liquid, do it very slowly. Add 1 tbsp. of whipping cream and mix it in. Then add another tablespoon and mix it in. Do this until the icing is the consistency you want, but only add a bit at a time, because it can get too runny very quickly. All told I added about 3 1/2 tbsp. of whipping cream to get it fluffy and smooth.

Ice away! I put some in my trusty piping bag with a 1M tip to ice the cupcakes. Make sure you taste test the finished product as well.

Delicious! I need to go eat some chips now to balance my sugar/salt level.

Chocolate Buttercream Icing

3/4 cup butter, room temperature
1/4 cup shortening, room temperature
1/2 cup cocoa
1/4 melted semi-sweet chocolate chips
3 1/4 – 3 1/2 cups icing sugar
2-4 tablespoons whipping cream