Comfort and Joy in the Holiday Classroom

Like many people, I count December as one of my favorite months!  I love Christmas time and I can’t wait to decorate, watch holiday movies, and bake cookies with my boys.  

While I know that the holiday season can be stressful for some, I don’t want that stress to carry its way into my classroom, so I do my best to create a December filled with comfort and joy for my students.  Here are my top three ways to do that:

  1. Design your curriculum to include literature that the kids love and find high interest.  Book clubs are great in December because they allow students to choose what to read.  If your curriculum dictates a novel study, choose a book that students will want to read.  I’m currently teaching All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brandon Kiely, and while it’s a gritty story that confronts racism head on, it is so engaging that my students come to class ready to have fantastic discussions.  Plus, the novel is ultimately full of hope, and what better time for hope than during the holidays?
  2. Make time for some special, out of the ordinary moments.  While my students are engrossed in All American Boys right now, they are also writing fictional narratives, with the novel as their Mentor text.  During Writer’s Workshop days, I have the digital fireplace blazing and soothing holiday instrumentals playing in the background.  During our final week before break, we will have a Writer’s Wrap Party, in which I’ll provide hot cocoa and treats, as the students participate in an Author’s Chair activity.  These small details show that I recognize the festive nature of the holidays and want them to enjoy their time in class, while still maintaining our established routine and rigor.
  3. Take the time to get personal with students.  I like to give my students little gifts that let them know I recognize their hard work and notice the efforts that they’re making.  This year I’ve taken the time to write personal notes to each of my students, with at least one detail that shows I see them--I see what they’re involved in and going through, and I care.  I created these notes that I’m using, and I’d love to share them with you!  They’re forever free on Teachers pay Teachers.

I hope that these ideas work for you!  I wish you a happy, healthy holiday season, and I appreciate you stopping by!

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A Little Party Never Killed Nobody

Do you teach The Great Gatsby?  If so, you need to throw a classroom Great Gatsby party!  This is one of my (and my students’) favorite class days of each school year.

Parties play an important role in the novel, so what better way to connect with the students?  Typically, I pass out invitations a week prior to the party, giving students enough time to put together a costume and plan a treat to share. 

I ask that all students arrive to the party, our class period, in 20s attire.  Although not all students will have flapper dresses and three-piece suits, costumes are easy to pull together with some pearls, a hat, and even suspenders.

For party food, I allow students to bring treats for the class, with the caveat that the food must be something that would have been served in the 1920s—no running to the store for a bag of chips the morning of the party.  They research and plan the recipe prior to coming to class, so that they can sign up for an item.  I’ve had pineapple upside down cakes, finger sandwiches, deviled eggs, fruit salads, and more.  I’ve learned, though, that if I don’t do treat sign-ups, I often end up with more lemon cakes than the class can eat, although that is a very Gatsby-like detail.

Despite the novel being set during prohibition, Gatsby’s parties all involve an excess of alcohol.  I play up the prohibition idea and provide “Mock”tails for the party, including my specialty, the No-Gin Rickey!  It’s fun and festive, with no chance of trouble.

My favorite part, though, is the entertainment.  We all know that we have talented students, but we don’t always get the chance to see them shine.  For this party, I ask students to sign up to entertain us: musicians can play a jazz piece on their instrument, dancers can teach a dance (like the Charleston) to the class, artists can create a piece of art based on the novel and share it with the class.  This always creates fun memories and gives our creative students an opportunity to share their skills.

If this sounds like fun, you might want to check out my Gatsby Party resource on Teachers Pay Teachers, where I give all my tips and tricks, plus some party games and decorations.

I hope you give the party a shot—I bet you and your students will love it!  

My #1 Way to Reduce Grading Time and Increase Student Ownership


As a high-school English teacher, I work hard to provide engaging, thoughtful lessons that involve students in critical thinking and problem solving.  I don’t like boring lessons and I work hard to ensure that students find relevance in our class activities.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re an overworked, tired teacher, not looking forward to grading that stack of essays sitting in front of you.

I know, because I’ve been there.

Over the last several years, however, I’ve developed a system that not only makes my life easier, but also gives my students greater ownership over the work they submit.

I make them grade it themselves!

Hold on, while I know at first thought is this seems too good to be true, reality will sink in and you’ll wonder how this can ever work in your class.  What will your principal say?  What will the parents say?  What will you do with the large stack of ‘A’ papers, that you know don’t deserve that grade?

Rest assured, I’ve got you covered.  I’ll explain the ins and outs of this system that will revolutionize your grading.

So, you might wonder?  How will this work for me?

I, along with most English teachers I know, use grading rubrics to speed up essay marking.  Like many, I tend to give my students the rubric at the start of our unit, which makes it really clear what is expected, and reminds me to hit all the key components when giving mini-lessons.  Students see the requirements and know what they have to include.

Now for the grading.  The day essays are due, I require students to do two things: 1. Submit their essay to (by far, the best plagiarism checker and more on the market), and 2. Print out and bring a hard copy of their essay to class, along with several highlighters (and preferably colored pens).

Then we get started. When students enter class, I give them an essay submission form.  This form has a color-marking guide, critical thinking questions about their work, a scoring guide, and a rubric on the back.  Students first go through their paper color-marking for the elements, typically, thesis statements and any reference to the thesis in yellow, all quoted evidence in pink, and all quote introductions and citations in blue.

Then, students use the rubric and scour their essay for evidence. Their job is to annotate their essay according to the rubric.  If, for instance, the rubric calls for the claim to be carried throughout the essay, the student must find all evidence of the claim and annotate it (the color-marking helps for this particular point).  As the students continue their annotations, they are deciding their rubric score for each category.

Color-marked Essay, Rubric, and Essay Submission Form
When finished, they add up the points for each category (as I determine them), list the score on the front of the submission form, and answer the question “Do you think your rubric score is reflective of your effort and skill? Explain.”

I love this for so many reasons, but here are just a few: first, students take ownership of their writing.  They become suddenly invested in their work and words in a way that doesn’t happen when they just turn something in for the teacher to grade.  Second, they are the ones struggling to interpret their meaning.  If something is unclear, they can now see it with new eyes when looking at it with a rubric.  They are proving their score, so they have to look carefully. Third, they realize when they’ve done well and when they’ve faltered, and they’re able to realize that THEY make the choice in the level of effort they put in.

So, how does this translate into a gradebook grade?  I count their rubric score as 60% of the total essay points.  So for a 100-point essay, their rubric score is out of 60.  Then, I give points to the things we repeatedly focus on, usually 10 points for thesis/claim, 10 for quality of evidence, 10 for commentary, and 10 for Words Cited.  I feel that I’m able to spend less time per essay when I narrow my focus to these 4 areas, and reading their annotations is always enlightening to me.

Our most recent essay scores, with the students' rubric grade first.

Our most recent essay scores, with the students' rubric grade first.
Of course, there are always a few jokers who circle the top rubric box in each category and give themselves As every time.  My students know that I hold the power to change their grade and that if I notice a great discrepancy between their score and mine, we’ll meet to discuss.  Also, I give them credit for turning in their essay submission sheet, and part of that score is the quality of their answers to the critical-thinking questions and annotations, so they really have to do a solid job of locating rubric evidence to get the grade they want.

In a writing diet that includes mini-lessons, drafting, conferencing, and peer-editing, this grading system is the perfect way to put the focus back on the student and allow them to take responsibility for their work.

If you’d like a free copy of my Essay Submission Forms, sign up below.  You’ll get two submission forms, one for standard essays (argument and explanatory) and one for narrative.  You’ll also get a list of links to standards-based rubrics that you could copy onto the back of the form.  I’m betting they’ll work well for you!

I’d love to hear if you decide to try this in your class.

I want to give you a free essay submission form!

Essay submission form
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Liven up your test prep with games

As a high-school English teacher, I work hard to provide engaging, thoughtful lessons that involve students in critical thinking and problem solving.  I don’t like boring lessons and I work hard to ensure that students find relevance in our class activities.

 But, then testing comes around.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m confident that we spend the year prepping for the skills the students will be tested on, so I don’t devote too much time to test prep, but I do feel like it’s important to review.  Not only do students need to see what the test will look like, but they also need a confidence booster to prove to themselves that they’re ready.

So, how to do all that in a way that’s meaningful, but still light and fun?  Test prep games!
Of course, there are tons of ways to approach this, but I have nearly 200 students across five classes, so I like to keep it simple, yet fun.  Here’s what I like to do.

The first thing is to get a copy of released test questions.  These are readily available for all of the different tests.  This guarantees two things: one, students get a feel for the format and content of the test (of course the actual questions will be different, but now they’ve seen a sample and we all know how students work better with models), and two, you’re not reinventing the wheel.

Prep the stations:  For this round, I picked two reading passages that each had seven text-dependent questions.  I typed up the questions and copied each question on a separate sheet of bright paper (and laminated them for posterity, of course!).  Also, I made copies of each reading passage.

Post the questions:  I split the questions by article and posted them around the room.  One half of the room got the first set and the other half got the second. 

Create your teams: With classes of 40 students, I divided my classes into four teams each.  My favorite way to randomly group them is to hand them a color-coding sticker as they walk in the door. Then, I group by color.

Read and Answer:  I pass out the first article to half the class (two teams) and the other half (other two teams) get the second.  I set the timer for seven minutes for everyone to read their article.  When the time is up, students rotate to each question, making sure to take the article and a paper to answer the questions with them.  After about twenty minutes of rotations, I stop the students, have the kids switch articles with someone from the other half of the class and start the reading and answering process again.

And that’s it for day one.  Day two is where it gets more fun!

On day 2, I have the games set up (In this case, I have two Connect 4 games, but it can also work with Tic-Tac-Toe frames drawn on the board, trash cans and nerf basketballs, or any other game).

Students come in and sit with their assigned teams.  I redistribute the articles and questions, and give students about 15 minutes to go through questions, debate their answers, and come to a consensus about what the correct answer is.

When time is up, I pass out small white boards and markers to each group and ask one student from each group to stand.  I ask the first question and ask the standing students to write the answer on the board.  At the count of three, students show me their board.  The students who answer the question correctly, get to place a Connect 4 checker on the board.  The white boards are given to the next student on each team and I ask the next question, and so on and so on until the questions have all been answered.

At this point, there are usually two winners, one from each game.  Those teams get a small treat and will play for the championship the next day.

On the third day, I post additional test questions, ones that are not dependent on a reading passage.  After students rotate and decide on their answers, the two winning teams go head-to-head for the championship, and the other two compete for a consolation prize.

While it’s simple and easy to set up, the students enjoy the competitive aspect of the games and feel better knowing what to expect on the big test.

I hope you try this in your classroom.  Let me know how it goes!