Powered by Blogger.

068: Confronting Teacher Exhaustion with Angela Watson

This post contains affiliate links. If you choose to make a purchase through a link in this post, you support the work I do here at Spark Creativity at no additional cost to you.

Have you ever sent your administrator an e-mail very late at night? Very, very late?

It's probably not a good idea. But I did it. 

It was a crazy week. A week in which I kept missing appointments at school because of other things I was supposed to be doing - at school. No matter what I did, I lost. People were annoyed at me even when I rushed and squeezed and lost whatever free minutes I was supposed to have. Coaching conflicted with teaching. Meetings conflicted with other meetings. Meals conflicted with all the work I needed to do. I was starting to lose my cool. 

Then came the day. Kind of like Alexander's No Good Very Bad Day.  After a full morning of classes, I dashed to a lunch meeting with two advisees, then arrived late to a special (required) lunch meeting for my honors portfolio students, then rushed to prep and teach my afternoon classes. I coached a long tennis practice, attended a work dinner, and finally headed for evening dorm duty at my boarding school. There were about twenty-five unscheduled minutes in my day between eight a.m. and eleven at night. 

Guess what I did at 11:30? When I still hadn't planned my next day of lessons or graded anything or, you know, attended to any of my own needs?  

You guessed it. I unleashed the wrath. In an e-mail. To my assistant head of school. 

I think we can all agree this kind of schedule is not the healthiest for anyone. It doesn't lead to the best work, the most balanced life, the most patient teacher. But it can be really hard to break out of the cycle of busy. 

I liken it to my sleep-deprived days as a new mom. I couldn't figure out how to get my tiny boy to sleep at any regular times. So I hung out with him all night. I crunched salty Cheez-its and watched Glee while I cuddled him at two in the morning. I rocked his yellow cradle next to the oven fan at four in the morning because it lulled him to sleep, then woke up sprawled on the tiles of my kitchen floor. I took him on three hour walks so he could take long naps after breakfast, black circles under my eyes beneath my oversized sunglasses. I had no idea what I was doing, and I was too busy and sleep-deprived to figure out a better way. 

But newborns get older. Teaching never becomes less demanding. 

That's why I'm grateful for the work of Angela Watson. For many years, she's called for a different approach to this fast-paced career of teaching. She's been a pioneer in the field of teacher self-development, offering strategies for improving productivity and making more intentional choices to thrive as a balanced teacher. 

I've followed along with Angela's work for a long time, and this is the second time I've invited her on as a guest on the podcast. Because exhaustion seems to be the biggest problem in the teaching profession, and fighting back against it is not something I ever really learned as a teacher. These days, Angela's the one I turn to for ideas about this. When I'm drinking a mojito with a stressed-out teacher friend, I'm likely to bring up Angela's work, and my husband might be tiring of my tirades about how every school should provide their teachers with access to Angela's 40 Hour Workweek Club as an automatic PD option. 

If you've ever wondered how you to sustain your work as a creative teacher and still have something left at the end of the day for yourself, getting to know Angela and all she has to offer just might be a turning point for you. 

Today on the podcast, we're talking about Angela's new book, Fewer Things, Better, as well as her online course, The 40 Hour Workweek club. 

By the way, wondering about that email I sent? Well, it led to a rather intense meeting and a somewhat helpful change in my schedule. For one spring. Then it was back to the same old rush and crush. My last night as a classroom teacher ended when I helped my journalism students wrap up the December edition of our school paper just before midnight. Two hours later I went into labor.

So let's talk about teacher busy, teacher guilt, and teacher exhaustion. Now I know it didn't have to be that way for me, and it doesn't have to be that way for you. 

You can listen below, or on iTunesBlubrry, or Stitcher. Or, read on for the written highlights. 

Let’s dive into some of the big ideas in the book. It’s so easy to be stuck in a cycle where your life is far busier and more stressful than you planned, but there doesn’t seem to be any alternative. And there’s seemingly never any TIME to think through the alternatives or come up with a plan to change your priorities. This book, it seems to me, shows how to get unstuck from that cycle. Let’s talk about why self-development matters as much or more than professional development for teachers. 

It's really easy to buy into the narrative that it's all about the kids. But who you are as a person influences your teaching so much. If you're sick or sleep-deprived, it really affects your teaching. If you take time to do things you enjoy on the weekend, you will teach differently than if you graded papers all weekend. 

Start to notice how your habits affect the way you show up in your classroom. What are the thoughts and internal monologues and actions that make teaching go better? What are the thoughts and choices that make it harder? If you stay up until two in the morning searching for interventions to help with your students, do you end up teaching more effectively the next day than if you had gone to bed? 

One of the important concepts you present at the beginning of this book, in your own words, is “You must be willing to believe that change is possible for you, and that you are worthy of having a more fulfilling, balanced life. “ Let’s talk about this seemingly simple, actually very difficult concept.

Often, people don't believe it's possible to do a good job for the kids in a reasonable amount of hours. 

Teachers get a tough message when they start out, that they'll never have good working conditions, never have enough time to do the job well, never have the resources they need. This is just what you're signing up for when you choose teaching. 

Sadly, teachers are basically told they should get corporate jobs if you want to be taken care of, but they should stay in teaching and deal with all the difficulties if they care about kids. Angela really wants to counter that and tell teachers that they deserve better conditions. 

I think my favorite piece of advice in the book is, “Withdraw from the contest for most dedicated teacher in the most difficult teaching job ever.” It struck me because I’ve seen it so much, even between teachers who know and value each other. What are some steps teachers can start with to begin separating their identities from this idea that they have a responsibility to live as martyrs for the sake of their students?

Start looking for thought patterns that you have. Take notice of whether you have a deficit mindset - are you looking for what kids don't have? How their parents aren't parenting how you think they should? Do you feel like you have to SAVE kids? 

You may feel like you have to singlehandedly teach them how to be successful adults in just the few hours a week that you actually see them, which is just way too much for anyone. You're not there to save them, you're there to support them. This really takes the pressure off, when you help them to be the heroes of their own stories.  

I like the way you debunk the myth that more hours automatically means you are more effective. What are some ways secondary teachers can cut the hours that aren’t really making a difference? 

Many different workplaces suffer from the illusion that "putting in the hours" means people are doing a better job. But it really has to do with what you're spending those hours focusing on. 

The two most important things for secondary teachers to consider are:
  • stop reinventing the wheel with lesson plans
  • stop grading so much 
For lesson planning, try to develop a toolkit of successful strategies rather than always going for novelty. There's nothing wrong with finding new ideas and keeping things fresh, but if you're consistently spending hours a night coming up with brand new approaches to teaching, you could try to keep things fresh in the classroom in other ways, so you have time to develop some other passions and spend your time on yourself sometimes outside of school.

You also do not need to be grading something each day or grading every single thing. There are a lot of different ways to get investment from students without doing so much grading. There are effective ways to teach that are very time-consuming, and there are effective ways of teaching that aren't. Keep experimenting! See how it goes. When you can open yourself up to trying different things, then you can discover new possibilities. 

Throughout the book, one of the big themes is choice - how important it is for teachers to realize how many choices they have, and to identify where they are making choices that aren’t working for them. Let’s talk about how identifying your own choices can change your life as a teacher. 

Choice is a big thing. When you feel like you don't have any options, you feel disempowered. It can cause you to lose your passion for the work. Often if you can identify what your administrators want you to accomplish, you can figure out a different, more efficient way to achieve the goal you've been given. You can do action research and be innovative, if you can present that in a constructive way to your administration. You can also ask for changes to what you've been told to do, either on your own or as part of a team. 

So I’d highly recommend that all teachers pick up your book, but they can also take it a step further. You’ve given me permission to partner with you in sharing the 40 Hour Workweek Club this year as an affiliate, and I’m really excited about that. Because I have repeatedly seen that overwork and exhaustion are the #1 things getting in the way of a joyful life as a creative teacher. And the 40 Hour Workweek Club can change that. Please tell us about the club. 

The club has been used in over 23,000 schools at this point. It helps teachers be more intentional with their time - their instructional time, their planning time, and their personal time. 

It helps teachers shave hours off their workweek, and helps them become more effective at their jobs. The average teacher cuts 11 hours off their workweek, and the vast majority of them say they feel like a better teacher after they do that, which is so amazing.

It's a year-long program, to offer different types of support at different times of the year. There's a month on grading and assessment, a month on lesson planning, a big focus on setting up a smoothly running classroom at the beginning of the year, and more. 

Teachers can access the club materials through the course site, through the weekly email, or via audio training. There are separate Facebook groups for primary and secondary teachers to support one another and get help as they go through the club. 

Click here to learn more about The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. The July Cohort begins soon. 

A Teacher's Guide to Summer Planning that Works

Summer time! All jokes aside, it's a great time to be a teacher. It's a time when you can live a really balanced life, and make progress on things that matter to you across all the different arenas of your life.

Maybe you want to rollerblade in the sunshine every day (wait, is that just me?).

Maybe you want to play a hundred games of Candyland with your four-year-old.

Maybe you want to catch up with each and every one of your best friends over wine and many, many layers of chocolatey goodness.

Maybe you're going to binge on Game of Thrones, The Selection Series, and your favorite new podcast.

Whatever the fun things you've been looking forward to, I know your classroom will be on your mind as well. And I really love what Angela Watson said on my podcast a year ago, about how you can set yourself up for success in the following year by thinking about what you want your life to look like come fall.

Do you wish you could eat healthier during the school year? Summer's a good time to design a grocery list template, buy some new cookbooks, and learn how to food prep.

Do you wish your grading wasn't always haunting you? Now's the time to do some research and figure out how to change your system.

Angela and I dove into a few possible summer overhauls you might want to consider in that podcast episode, but today on the blog, I'm going to offer a longer list. Because the more I learn about batching my work, using templates to save time, and finding ways to be more productive, the more I think that creating systems is incredibly important to saving you time and making your life a happier one.

Ready to dump some stress?

Let's start with some systems to make your life run more smoothly outside the classroom.

Are you always scrambling for a lunch at 7:05 in the morning? Do you sometimes end up with Cheet-Ohs and deli ham come noon? I feel your pain. Maybe summer's the time to shop for a stack of Bento box Tupperwares and build yourself a Pinterest board full of ideas for filling it. Maybe you want to make a plan to fill those Bentos (and some for your kids too, if you have them) on Sundays from 1-2 pm while watching your favorite T.V. show.

Friend Time
Do you feel like you never see your friends who aren't teachers? Is it, perhaps, bothering you? Maybe this summer you can make a plan to start a rotating dinner club with your best friends, or to meet for drinks the last Friday of the month NO MATTER WHAT. Or maybe you guys can do a movie night every other month. Whatever works. But if you can set something up and make a plan, it'll be a lot more likely to happen than if you just hope you can find the energy to call someone at some point, when you're not so busy (...never).

Everyone, everyone, everyone says the same thing. You'll feel better if you "find" time to exercise. But where is that time hiding? As with anything and everything, the only way to make it happen is to schedule it into your life. Summer is a great time to figure out what you really enjoy doing and create a routine that makes it happen. Sign up for a year's worth of Tae Kwon Do with your child and pay in advance so you have to go. Or join a yoga studio and start going to the Tuesday/Thursday classes now so you'll miss it if you stop when school starts. Or jump on the bandwagon and download MyFitnessPal and learn how to use it while you've got plenty of time now.

This one, of course, won't apply to everyone. But if you, like me, have young children at home, summer is a great time to find a babysitter or two your kids love so you can have that option during the year. So you can go to yoga. Or to that movie night with your friends. Or just have an hour to stay after school on Tuesdays to finish your work so you don't have to crank it up at nine at night after your kids go to bed. Knowing you've got a great babysitter your kids look forward to spending time with can take a lot of pressure off you.

I think everyone in education has eaten a lot of cereal for dinner. And questionable salsa on stale nachos. These things aren't major morale boosters. Maybe this summer is a good time to find a food blogger or two that you like (my favorites are Dinner: A Love StorySmitten KitchenHalf-Baked Harvest, and Artisan Bread in Five), buy an instant pot, or sign up with a food service like Hello Fresh. Maybe it's time to learn about that mysterious activity called "food prep" that some people do on the weekends and that always sounds sort of magical. Figuring out a rotation of a few dinners that work could add some seriously tasty moments to the upcoming school year.

I'm sure you can think of some more systems that would help your home and family life run more smoothly, but that's at least a strong start! Now, a few options for creating time-saving systems inside the classroom....

I LOVE having my students keep a beautiful notebook in class. A folder on their iPad just won't do it, people! There are so many fun uses for journals, and they are always available to fill in a ten minute slot you weren't expecting to have. Just say "grab your journal and write about..." and you can always save yourself in a jam. If you give students a list of writing prompts to tape inside, you don't even necessarily need a prompt when you turn to the stack of journals.

I'd actually never heard this term until I became a podcaster. "Batching" work, as you can imagine, just means doing a bunch of the same thing at the same time. It takes your brain a little while to catch up when you switch activities, and you can lose a lot of time this way. If every day you make one handout, write one parent e-mail, grade one homework assignment, re-do one bulletin board, etc., then you are making your brain switch gears repeatedly.

On the other hand, if you designate a day to create all your vocabulary quizzes for the term, a day to make the handouts for a whole unit, a grading day, etc., you'll save yourself a ton of time. You'll hopefully also discover you can copy and paste a template version of whatever you're doing into many documents, just changing up what you need to. When I design curriculum, I frequently use the exact same layout on different pages, just changing up the pictures and type. That way I don't have to format a new page every time with all the fonts and shapes I want to use.

Forms of Display
Blank walls can be intimidating. If you know you want to display your students' work during the year, but you don't want to be reinventing your display concept constantly, come up with a system for some bulletin boards or wall displays where the work can be rotated out all year long with the same headlines and backdrops. An Instagram headline bulletin board like #I'MSOPROUD or "#NAILEDIT" and a few wires with little clips strung across them will be WAY easier to change up throughout the year than a wall-sized taped collage of amazing student work. Know what I mean? Check out @thesuperoteacher on Instagram for fun display ideas like this one (as well as general classroom design ideas - I love her classroom makeovers).

Library Organization
If you've got a classroom library (yay!), summer might be the time to nail down a good system to keep it organized. Maybe you want to input your book titles into an app, label the genres on the book spines and add genre labels to your shelves, or come up with a system in which students help with shelving books after they are dropped off to a cart.

Grading Plans
If grading is the big thing bogging you down during the year, summer is a good time to come up with a new system. Check out this post and discover forty ways that other teachers are cutting back on their grading while maximizing its effectiveness. Then choose several to put into practice and do what you need to do so you are ready and committed to stick to your system. Get your stickers, make your charts, download Kaizena, learn to use the Chrome Extension, order your personalized stamp, plug "grading after school" into your schedule for every Tuesday, etc. MAKE IT HAPPEN.

Discussion Routines
Teaching students how to do certain types of discussion early in the year makes planning discussions for the rest of the year easy peasy. If you figure out what discussion formats work best for you and teach them in the first week, then you can rely on them in your lesson planning all year long. I always teach Harkness on the first day of school, then start doing Harkness discussions right away. The students get better as the year goes on, but when I want to do a discussion, I can just plan a short warm-up activity and then count on that discussion format for twenty solid minutes of class time any day. Building up a toolbox of activities like this that you can mix and match when lesson planning is really helpful. Summer is a great time to think about these activities and prepare to teach them early to save time and planning later.

Genius Hour Mondays 
Have you heard of genius hour? 20% time? It's an idea pioneered by Google, in which employees get to spend some of their time at work on projects they're interested in, regardless of whether they seem related to company directives. In school, that means giving students a chance to pursue something they really care about, then produce some kind of final project as well as documentation along the way. A student might decide to learn about gardening and plant a school garden, blogging about the process along the way. Or learn basic Chinese and then help teach English to recent immigrants in her neighborhood, creating a video about the process to share with the class. If you decide to do genius hour, introducing the project at the start of the year will allow you to access it as a consistent stellar lesson plan. Maybe you want to do genius hour Mondays throughout the first semester, or whatever works for you.

Independent Reading Fridays
Another fun system you can put in place is to schedule in some consistent reading time in class. I've liked doing independent reading Fridays after vocabulary quizzes, but you could pick any time of the week. I know there's a push for ten minutes a day, but for me, I like a little bigger block of time so I can check in with kids who aren't engaged and help them choose a different book. I find that after ten minutes everyone has really just settled in.

Classroom Committees for Special Events
Do you do some special programs with your kids throughout the year? Do you find yourself making the programs, contacting guests, taking pictures, picking up food, etc.? Consider switching over to classroom committees, it makes thing so much easier! I first started doing them with poetry slams, letting kids form committees to be in charge of judging, programs, and ambiance. It worked beautifully, and every slam in every class has been sooooo different ever since. The kids have more ownership over the event and care about it more, and I have less random work to do to make everything work. I give these committees a small grade and keep an eye on things, but the kids make the choices and see to the follow through. I put together a generalized committee handout you can pick up for free over on TPT and either use or get ideas from.

Unit Planning
Having a system for planning your units will keep you from feeling like you're always scrambling and running out of time for things. Pausing before the start of each unit to schedule out the homework and major activities and design a unit syllabus for your students really helps. You can check out how I do it in this blog post, if you'd like some help with this.

I bet you can think of other areas of your life that you wish were a little easier during the school year. Maybe you want to hire some help with cleaning, create a rewards chart for toddler behavior, or put all your bill paying online. Maybe you want to figure out one of those online birthday calendars that ping you when your best friend is about to have their birthday, so you don't have to hate yourself for forgetting. Whatever you wish was taken care of during the year, summer's a great time to take some steps toward making it easy when the time comes.

Are you interested in learning a ton more strategies to help you conquer your overwhelm, take back your time, and thrive with more balance in your teaching life? My friend Angela is the guru in that department.

Angela Watson is about to open the doors of her signature year-long course, The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. This year I asked her if I could share her club as an affiliate, because I really believe in what she's doing, and I see creative teachers struggling with exhaustion every single day. If you choose to purchase the course from my link, you'll be supporting the work that I do at the same time that you are signing up for a potentially career-altering professional and personal growth experience.

If the battle with time is your biggest problem at work, Angela can help you change your life. She has spent her career researching and implementing ways to help teachers win that battle. Next week I'll be interviewing her on the podcast, and sharing lots more about the club, but you can check it out right here if you're already feeling excited. The first day to sign up is June 15, when you'll get all her early bird bonuses, plus more than six weeks to experience the club before deciding if you're happy with your purchase or prefer to opt out and get a full refund.

067: 10 Creative Ways to Teach Vocabulary

Vocabulary is something that's often added to English classes as a bit of an afterthought. Something to get done randomly, in between all the other work. Alongside the lessons on grammar, literature, writing, speaking, debate, ethics, career studies, research skills, media literacy, love of reading, etc.!

I like what Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle say in 180 Days about how you just have to choose what to focus on. You can't do it all. (Also such good life advice, am I right?).

But often, vocabulary is a must. You're handed a book to get through, or a list with a certain amount of SAT words that you need to cover each week.

When I first began teaching, I didn't really know what to do with my vocabulary book. It had some great title like "Hot Words for the SAT" with little flames around the printed letters on the cover. Whoo hoo! Surely those flames meant it would be fun for my students!

The ELA Teacher's Summer Playlist, 2019

I've been known to happily wander through grocery stores, earbuds in, podcast playing. The only thing that helps me feel better about my long commutes to every appointment from our small town is knowing I can listen to a podcast on the way. When I'm working out, if it's not the crack of dawn, I usually prefer podcasts to music (unless I'm rollerblading really, really fast).

How about you? Have you discovered the joy of podcasts yet?

A year or two ago I read the popular book, The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin. One of the conclusions she came to in her year-long experiment to find more happiness in her own life, was that living in an atmosphere where you feel like you're learning and growing makes you happier.

I couldn't agree more. In the last year I've taken several online courses and listened to scads of podcasts. I get excited and energized knowing I have some new insights and ideas to take back into my life when I leave the grocery store/car/trails. I look forward to those moments of growth.

So today I want to share with you some podcasts I think might bring you this same happiness. The happiness of thinking about things in a new way, discovering a fresh idea, understanding your life or your classroom or your own needs a little (or a lot) better.

#1 The Chalk Full of Life Podcast

If TIME is your number one struggle, you need to meet Kelli Wise.

After many years as a teacher, she started her own business, seeking more balance.  Then she realized that she was just as overwhelmed by #allthethings no matter where she was working.

Wanting to to change her life, she began seeking answers to the big questions she was facing. Was it possible to find balance? To be happy? To be successful in her work and prioritize her family and health too?

She began to study a new topic - how to live well. She ended up being certified as a life coach, and she brings the unique perspective of an educator to the way she shares what she has learned on this podcast. While I've never been interested in life coaching as a concept, I trust Kelli and I find her ideas really helpful.

I can honestly say that certain shows from her series have changed my life, and I hope they can do the same for you if you are seeking more balance and space in your days. I find that she says things in a way that makes sense to me, and she can get me to reconsider problems I've had for a long time and realize that they are solvable.

#2 The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast

If you want to amp up your creativity in class, trying new strategies and reaching your students in fresh ways, this podcast will help you do it. 

With most episodes coming in under thirty minutes, you can learn about escape rooms, starting a reading program, trying sketch notes, pursuing more equity in your curriculum, trying the best new technology for ELA teacher, and much more as you grab a workout, do the laundry, or take the dog for a walk. 

This summer you'll find new episodes on streamlining and minimizing your grading, kickstarting student motivation, and rocking the first week of school. 

#3 The Workshop Teacher Podcast

My friend Amanda is a workshop rock star. She's not dabbling in this strategy, she's in it to win it!

She has learned from the best and put it all into practice over many years in her California classroom. I've had the pleasure to knowing her and seeing her passion for workshop over several years, and I love seeing her passion for what she's doing.

If you've been wondering how to implement writing workshop as an effective strategy in your classroom, she can tell you. She'll walk you through the structure, how to build up routines that work, and how to troubleshoot the common issues that come up during workshop.

#4 The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast

You know that one friend you have who is just rock solid? Who is always there when you need her?
Jennifer Gonzalez is like that when it comes to professional development.

For many years she has been tackling the most vital subjects for educators through her website and podcast, and if you haven't met her yet, you're missing out. I've learned a lot from her interviews, and from the well-researched solo shows she shares.

I also love the Teacher's Guide to Tech that she comes out with every year. The guide is everything you ever wanted to know about what's really working in teacher tech, and everything you didn't even know you wanted to know. You can learn more about it over here in my review.

#5 The Truth for Teachers Podcast

Angela has been giving serious attention to helping teachers understand their own needs for a long time. She's a pioneer in a field that's just starting to grow - teacher self-care.

She shares ideas on her website and podcast for dealing with the unique emotional, organizational, and motivational challenges of being a teacher. She is serious about helping teachers find the path they need to be happy, confident, and balanced in the classroom. What a great concept, eh?

When I interviewed her last year, I was struck by the power in the specific, doable steps she shared to help teachers find greater happiness. I'm looking forward to having her as a guest on my podcast again in a few weeks, and to sharing soon about my experience with her  40 Hour Teacher Workweek club.


Hope you've found a podcast or five that you're excited to download on your favorite player this summer! If there's another show you love, please share it in the comments below so we can all check it out.

066: Diversifying our Booklists: More Stories, More Voices, More Understanding

In today's episode of The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast, you're going to hear from my friend Alexandra, librarian and reader extraordinaire. She runs an incredible reading program at her school, and I could spend many shows talking with her about her book club, summer reading program, enticing displays, use of audiobooks, and yearly HUGE themed bookish event, but today we’re focusing in on the titles she’d most highly recommend for building more diversity into your curriculum.

In this episode, you'll discover new titles to help bring more voices and more stories into your booklist in the spheres of American Literature, World Literature, British Literature, and Independent Reading.  By the end of the show, you'll have a menu of ideas to help you diversify beyond the canonical voices you've probably inherited on your booklist. 

Throughout these show notes, I'm going to include short snippets from Goodreads to briefly describe the books Alexandra brings up. Because we went over so many titles, we couldn't dive deeply into book descriptions for each one. But there are plenty of those online, so I'm going to provide them for you here in the show notes. You may also notice there are a few additional books here in the show notes beyond the ones we discussed. It was hard for Alexandra to touch on all her favorites in our interview, so she added a few more for me to share with you here. 

One more thing, before we jump in. This podcast episode has inspired me to start a new project to connect our classrooms, The Modern Voices Project. The idea is to have students all over the world creating recommendation posters for books they feel represent their voices and stories. Then they submit those posters to be featured on The Modern Voices Project Website, which I will administer. Teachers anywhere can then print the posters for their classroom walls and share the website with their students to help them get reading ideas. Perhaps, in time, teachers can even use the evidence of students' repeated recommendations on the site as reasons for including new books and more diverse voices in our curriculum booklists. 

Get the instructions for designing and submitting a poster right here. 

Let's Talk about Plagiarism in a New Way

Years ago I sat next to the sunny window in my cavernous English classroom in Bulgaria, tired eyes on my computer. My I.B. seniors had put all their best work up onto multimedia blog portfolios, and I was trying to scan through them all. I had made it to Ivan's, and I wondered what I would find. A very adult teenager, he always seemed like he was just playing along with me by attending my classes and doing his work. My peers had long since let me know his family owned a diamond store and was connected to the Bulgarian mafia.

I clicked into one of his pieces, apparently about his relationship with his little sister and an illness she had gone through. I read for a while and started to feel some deja vu. Hadn't I just read something similar in Mina's portfolio? Did they both have little sisters who'd been sick? I pulled up her personal narrative in another window to see if I was just starting to get confused after way too much grading.

The two pieces were exactly the same. Ivan apparently thought I wouldn't notice if he copied Mina's personal essay word for word.

Let's pause for a moment and talk about how frustrating plagiarism is. How it feels like a breach of the relationships you're trying to build with your students. It's almost like a personal attack on you as a teacher.

There's a lot of buzz on the internet about how to prevent and spot plagiarism. About how to "catch" students in the act. Earlier this year I interviewed Matt Miller, Google Classroom guru, about how to use Google classroom to teach more effectively and creatively. The teachers in my Facebook group, Creative High School English, asked me to ask him how teachers could lock students using Google Docs out of the internet so they couldn't plagiarize.

Matt didn't answer this at all the way I thought he would. I figured there was some obscure toggle button teachers could click to lock out pasting into Google Docs. Instead of sharing any such hack, Matt started talking about how we structure our assignments today, and how we might do it differently.

Immediately, I was so happy he had evaded my question.

Because his point really struck me. If we're going to assign students to analyze the meaning of color in The Great Gatsby, we can expect them to have access to a thousand other papers on this subject.

This assignment is as old as that bit of family China gathering dust in the back of your cabinet.

But if we ask them to create a podcast in which they interview people in the community about their American dreams, and then connect those stories to the theme in The Great Gatsby, how many examples are out there to cheat from?

Maybe instead of talking so much about how to use Turnitin.com and what sorts of phrases to search the internet for as you read student papers, we'd be more productive (and so much happier) talking about how to make our assignments fresh and add elements that simply can't be stolen from other places.

Now, I know it's impossible to avoid plagiarism altogether. That's why I shared my story at the beginning. If a student can steal a personal essay about a younger sibling from a friend in the class, then we know there's simply no way to end the possibility of cheating completely.

But let's have a little fun here, and talk about some ways to lock plagiarism out of our assignments, instead of out of our Google Docs.

Maybe plagiarism could lead us to more creativity, instead of more frustration. 

The Argument One-Pager

One of the hardest assignments to police is the argumentative paper, so let's start with that. Before we launch into all the fun stuff like making videos, recording podcasts, writing letters, entering writing contests, let's deal with the reality that we often need to assign argument writing because argument writing is a primary component of major testing and also of getting what you want in life.

It's not easy to come up with a writing prompt that some other teacher in some other class has not already given when it comes to canonical literature.

So if you need to assign this type of essay, consider starting it by having students create argument one-pagers in class. Let them figure out their theses, find their evidence, consider the counterargument, and begin making connections BEFORE THEY HAVE ACCESS TO THE INTERNET. Then let them know you want them to turn in this one-pager with their essay and the thesis and textual evidence in the essay should match the one-pager. You can also simply skip the essay and have them turn in the one-pagers. Either way, they've had the opportunity to create an original argument and figure out how to back it up, all on their own.

The Real-World Argument

I've written before about the power of making argument feel more relevant to students by connecting the prompt to their real lives. Crafting an assignment that relates directly to your students and community is another easy way to avoid internet plagiarism. Have students draft a letter to the school board proposing a new elective for your school and giving evidence for why their idea is important. Or ask them to write an article for the school paper taking a side on an issue that matters to them in modern politics or in your local community.

The New York Times Student Contests

The New York Times sponsors a number of contests throughout the year. This year's lineup included a contest to connect the news to students' lives, a blackout poetry contest, an editorial contest, a vocabulary video contest featuring the New York Times words of the day, and more. These types of work are not easy to plagiarize, especially if you do some of the work in class.

Makerspace Writing

When it comes to creative writing, there probably are a lot of stories, novellas, plays and poems out there that could be plagiarized. But if you include an element of making into your assignment, students will have a harder time using stolen work. You know how I love Angela Stockman's work. Her idea to have students make first, and write second, is so helpful in getting kids on the write track (ha ha, see what I did there?).

Before launching into a short story writing unit, take the time to let students create their characters using art or maker materials. Or ask them to take photos outside of school and put them together into a collage that will inspire the setting of their story. Have them turn in their maker pieces alongside their stories (or better yet, display them in a gallery in your classroom!). It will be pretty hard to steal a short story off the internet that features a character your student painted in class.

Modern Media

This is big. The core skills of ELA - reading, writing, and speaking - are the same as they have been for centuries. But the way students will apply them in the modern world is not.

Why not let them start practicing those skills in the format of their assignments now, instead of waiting to see if they can make the leap someday when they're trying to build a website for their own business, launch a podcast to share their experiences in the military, or make social media posts for their bakery?

Requiring great writing in the format of modern media-based assignments gives students a chance to see the relevance of what they're doing in the world today. It's also tough to plagiarize a series of travel blog posts in the voice of Huck Finn, a video explaining what dystopia is and offering an argument about why it's so popular with teenagers today, or a mock Instagram story about ways Greek mythology shows up in our culture now.

Make it Personal

Another big-picture way to make assignments hard to plagiarize is to find ways to make them personal. For example, while reading The Odyssey, you could ask students to write about how someone they know has gone through the hero's journey. They will need to explain the hero's journey and connect it to this someone. Not easy to copy that from the internet!

Perhaps while studying The Harlem Renaissance, students could choose a poem and explore its themes while connecting them to experiences in their own lives.

While it's important for students to be able to write without inserting themselves at times, it's also important for them to be able to write opinions and make connections between literature and their own values, beliefs and experiences. So for an assignment or two throughout the year, making it personal is a great way to help stop plagiarism and put a creative, personal spin on your study.

The Toughest Nut to Crack: Research

Now I've reached the point in the post where I want to share some brilliant strategies for assigning research in such a way that students won't plagiarize.

Psssst. Got any ideas?


OK, so this is a tough egg to poach. A frilly blouse that's hard to fold. A ladder leaning precariously against a house. But enough with my metaphors. They're probably not distracting you from the issue.

When it comes to research, I think it's very much about process. There's not an easy way to restructure a research assignment to make sure that students don't steal lines right out of their research materials. But here's what I'm thinking.

Step #1: Have students find and bring in the books and articles they want to use for their work. Use graphic organizers to have them write down relevant quotations and key ideas. Have them cite those ideas clearly on the graphic organizers. Help them do it right if they need help.  THIS STEP IS THE MOST IMPORTANT. By being really intentional here and walking students carefully through this in class, hopefully we can eliminate a lot of trouble later.

Step #2: Have the kids put away their books and articles. Far away. The books go back to the library. The articles get piled at the front of the class. Devices get turned off.

Step #3: Right on those graphic organizers, have them rewrite the key ideas in their own words. At this point, they've got what they need to access this research without plagiarizing.
At this point, they could work on their research assignment using their graphic organizers, either in class or at home. And you can have them turn in the organizers with their assignments and make it clear that all the main points in the paper must come right off one of their organizers. 

Will it solve every issue of plagiarism? Probably not. But I think it's a step up on note cards as far as making it very easy for students at every step of their work to AVOID plagiarism. And once they've worked this way for a while, making the leap to a major notecard-based research paper without plagiarizing should get easier. 

Want a copy of this graphic organizer? Great! Join 15,000 other teachers who get creative teaching ideas from me by e-mail every Friday, and the very first e-mail will have this graphic organizer in it. Just sign up below. 

I hope these ideas help get you started thinking about new ways to stop fearing plagiarism and start using this issue as one that can make your classroom a more creative place. What a great switch, eh?

What are some of your favorite creative assignments that simply can't be plagiarized? Let's keep the conversation going in the comments below.  

Questioning Education Today: 21st Century Skills vs. Alllll the Content

When you were a kid, did you ever question the curriculum at your school? Ask your teachers why you needed to know x, y, or z?

I did.

I can still remember a major debate with my tenth grade math teacher about imaginary numbers.

"Why do I need this? What difference can this possibly make in my life?" I asked. (Pretty politely, but I admit I was frustrated).

She looked annoyed. Frustrated herself. Her long flowy skirt swished as she strode to the front of the room and said defensively, "you'll NEED it for your next math class!"

Ho hum.

By tenth grade I already knew I was only taking math to satisfy the man. English was my thing, and it always would be. Though I took biology, physics, pre-calculus, and even A.P. calculus, I only did it so I could go to college and study more English. Same with all the studying I did for the Science Reasoning portion of the ACT, which I did terribly on anyway.

I only questioned it occasionally. But lately I'm questioning it a lot. The more I learn about how the job market is changing, what skills really matter in the modern workplace, and how easily adults these days can access information they don't already know, the more I wonder...

Do kids still need so much content? Do they need to memorize so many facts? Stuff so much information into themselves that they can only remember it for a few days until the test is over?

My children - 3 and 7 - are starting to tell me they don't like school. They don't want to go.

It's breaking my heart as a parent. As an educator, it's causing me to question everything even more than I always have.

I spent many of my years in the classroom working at boarding schools. And often, as I checked students in for the last time late at night, and saw the highest achieving students hunkered over their computers, I wondered...

Does our system reward the kids most highly who can tow the line with a smile and cope with the least sleep? Is that what we want for them?

We all know that to get into the best schools, you have to do the most stuff.


High-achieving students feel they must be the captain of the team, an officer on the student council, take every advanced class in every discipline, maybe start a small business and volunteer on the side. Saturday morning is probably for SAT class, Saturday afternoon for yearbook or model United Nations. School paper and soccer club travel on Sunday. Also, it's important to be social, good with people, and make time for friendships. So studying will really need to be from 10 pm until 2 in the morning each night. Maybe 3 or 4 in the morning. Then it all starts again after a few hours of sleep.

Should this be the routine we strive to buckle every kid into? The ideal? It seems to match up with many of the ideals of the standardized testing-based school system we currently have - learn as much as you can as fast as you can so you can show that you did. 

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon a Ted Talk by Ted Dintersmith that I couldn't ignore. He talked about what skills he assumed his daughter was learning at school, what skills he felt would help her in the modern world of innovation, and then what skills he actually discovered she was learning. His experience inspired him to work with a documentarian for two years on a film about modern education. They went in search of schools finding new, creative, innovative ways to work with students.

If you know me at all, you know the prospect of watching this documentary, Most Likely to Succeed, LIT ME UP. I was so excited!

I immediately bought it instead of renting it, knowing I'd probably want to watch it more than once. Probably want to host some kind of watching party with snacks.

Today, I want to share what I learned from it with you. Though it didn't take me everywhere I wanted to go, it's a highly worthwhile watch, as much as a springboard for conversation in our communities as for the exemplars of innovation inside.  I hope by the end of this post you'll be heading over to buy or rent it yourself, and planning to show it to your department, faculty, or community.

Let's get warmed up with the trailer.

The key question the film opens with is, how has our world changed in the last one hundred years and how can schools change to stay with it? 

If you've ever watched Sir Ken Robinson's Ted Talk, "Do Schools Kill Creativity," then you know that the model for our school system was created long ago to suit the industrial revolution. Then Horace Mann and a committee of ten education bigwigs (university heads, etc.) decided what subjects should be taught and in what years. Education as it was conceived back then was far more about listening, obeying, staying in your seat, doing what you were told, and memorizing. Students moved to the tune of the bell, and questioning wasn't really encouraged. 

But, asks the film, what do we need now? And here's where I was a little disappointed. The filmmakers chose to stick very carefully to their big question. Do we need innovative, creative education that teaches 21st skills, or do we still need to teach content with depth in order to prepare for testing and college? This question was apparently more important to them than showing different styles of creative, innovative education (you understand, this was sad for me, I thought I was going to get a little window into dozens of amazing creative classrooms). 

A big and important question, for sure, but in the end, not one they could answer. Only one they could work hard at getting us to consider. Which IS important, so lets move on from my disappointment now. 

The majority of the film is a case study of the innovative San Diego High School, High Tech High. Yes it did cause me to check out the listings on their employment page, and it might just do the same for you. But really, the point of featuring this amazing school is to dive deeply into what it looks like when a school embraces innovative, creative education that teaches 21st century skills.

A View of the School from the High Tech High Website

At High Tech High...
  • There are no bells. 
  • The learning environment is stunning, full of student work, seminar tables, open spaces, maker parts, etc. 
  • Teachers have autonomy and intellectual freedom. 
  • Teachers often weave multiple disciplines together. 
  • Resourcefulness, grit, confidence, collaboration, independence and innovation are valued over memorization and breadth of knowledge. 
  • Students present all work in a public exhibition at the end of the term. 
Throughout the film, we follow groups of students as they work on major projects. One group is creating a machine that symbolically represents the rise and fall of civilization. Another group is producing and performing a play, revisioned to be set in modern Afghanistan. The teachers consult, guide, watch. The students try, fail, try, learn, research, talk, fail, reflect, try. 

As the projects unfold, the film provides a lens into how the projects are affecting the leaders of the small groups working on them. We see how they grow and develop with the project, not knowing if their work will eventually be a success or not. We also hear from parents, questioning whether this is the right type of education for their kids. 

Is rewriting and producing a play, no matter how much personal growth and collaborative skill development is involved, enough to show for a term of "English"? The group leader's mom is just not sure. 

In a world where content is ubiquitous, High Tech High offers lessons in innovation and skills, not a focus on information. At this school, the faculty have accepted the idea that factual recall will not prepare kids for life, especially since inert knowledge (knowledge not being used practically) simply does not stick. They recognize and admit that students will walk away with far less content, having gone deep (very deep) in just a few areas throughout their year, and they feel that the tradeoff is worth it. 

As the students move into their final exhibitions, sharing the work of an entire term with parents, family, and friends, the film continues to ask ask ask. Should high school students simply drill content and "get ready for college?" Or will jobs that don't require critical thinking soon be gone anyway, leaving the only relevant skills those of creativity and innovation, collaboration and perseverance? 

The questions are pressing, and the film won't let us just relax and side with creativity. The final exhibition of the projects is mixed. The small group leader we've been following on the rise and fall of civilization project fails to complete his machine. His group is frustrated, and so is he. It seems they have put in hundreds of hours of work and have nothing to show for it on exhibition night. 

We see snippets of the play set in Afghanistan, and it is good but not incredible. What is incredible is how much the student director has changed throughout the year, and we hear the transformation in her voice as she reflects on her own growth with her peers and teachers afterwards.

Then we see the group leader who failed to finish his machine complete it after exhibition night. We see him learn from the way that his project fell apart in the end, and we see him finally succeed. 

As the film pulls out from the High Tech High exhibition night, we get a brief glimpse into some other innovative classrooms around the country, like one of those high speed montages in a sporty inspiration film where you see an athlete running, jumping, and doing push-ups for two minutes to kicky music before winning the Olympics. 

But instead of music, we hear that the common thread to these successful, innovative classrooms is that students are "working on things with a sense of purpose." That they are producing things. That they are engaged in real work, work that matters to them. 

In the end, the film doesn't answer its own questions. Is it better to cram as much content into high school as possible, learning the basics of everything before moving onto college and learning real world skills? Or would it be better for us to bet on creativity and reimagine school? There's no data to tell us which system will lead to greater success later in life.

But personally, I know what I want for my children. If there was a school like this where I live I would stand in line all night to get them in. And I know what I wished for, back when I sat in my tenth grade math class wondering why I was wasting my time with imaginary numbers. 

There's a hilarious moment toward the end when a teacher sits down with a bunch of his brightest students to talk about all this. He asks them a question he thinks has an obvious answer. 

"Would you rather I teach to the test, or would you rather begin to learn real-world skills that will actually help you later in life?"

They all say, "teach to the test." He's dumbfounded.

But is it really a surprise? They just want to get into college, and their whole lives they've been told what they need to do to make that happen.

In the end, I think Most Likely to Succeed goes as far as it can to push us in wondering, what might school look like if we invented a new system now? One that values the skills of today, instead of the skills of the industrial age? It pushes to to ask our own questions, and try to answer them.

I hope you'll find a way to watch it at your school, with your colleagues. Especially if you sometimes feel like the lone voice for change and creativity. Because while this film can't prove that a more creative approach will lead students to more success, it sure does inspire us to question whether the system still in place in most schools is really what we need today. And that question can lead to soooooo many wonderful places.

Back to Top