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Episode 031: 3 Engaging Lessons (Murder Mysteries, Ted Talks, SNL Clips)

In today's episode of The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast, I'm talking to Amanda from Engaging and Effective

I first discovered her blog a few months ago and have been hooked ever since. 

You're going to love the way she weaves pop culture and multimedia into her curriculum to help further her students' learning and build relationships with them. Half the time, I bet they're having too much fun to notice how quickly they are learning! Amanda is definitely the kind of teacher I would want if a crazy time warp took me back to high school. 

In this episode, we're going to dive into three amazing lessons she has developed for her students: murder mysteries, Ted Talks, and SNL clips. 

You can listen below, or on iTunesBlubrry, or Stitcher

As you continue to scroll down, you'll find links to Amanda's blog posts on each topic and the videos we discuss in our conversation. At the bottom you'll find out about this week's podcast review challenge, and how you can win a free choice blogging curriculum for your classroom. 

Topic #1: Classroom Murder Mysteries

During this part of the show, Amanda shares several year's worth of experience crafting a wildly successful high school themed classroom murder mystery lesson.

Amanda's Post on the Subject:

Topic #2: Ted Talks

During this part of the show, we talk about how and why Amanda uses Ted Talks with her students, and which ones she'd recommend most highly. 

Amanda's Posts on the Subject:

The Ted Talks Amanda recommended most highly during the show:

      Mind of a Procrastinator

     Don’t Eat the Marshmallow

     Everyday Leadership

Topic #3: SNL Clips

      During this section of the show, we talk about Amanda's (successful!) quest to find great SNL clips she could use to teach her students about satire.

      Amanda's Post on the Subject (with free worksheet download and links to all the clips!):
      I hope you enjoyed today's show. If so, please consider sharing it with a friend or leaving a review. In fact, this is the PERFECT time to leave a review, since I'm running a review challenge.

      Three listeners who review the show by the end of February and then e-mail me at betsy@nowsparkcreativity.com will receive a complete curriculum packet for empowering students with a free choice blogging project. This is quickly becoming my most popular curriculum on TPT, and I think your students are going to love writing on the topics they are truly passionate about. 

      From the reviews:

      "My 7th grade Honors English students are going to LOVE this resource! I'm implementing this in the second semester!"

"My students loved working on their own blog entry and everything went well thanks to this great resource! The design is also very detailed and beautiful. Thank you so much!"

"I appreciated this resource so much! This is so much more than ideas on how to incorporate blogging into learning-you actually show us how to do it! Thank you!"

You can hop over to iTunes to review the show here. It just takes one minute of your time. 

Follow three simple steps: 
1. Click on "view in iTunes."
2. Click on "ratings and reviews." 
3. Click on "leave a review." 
Thank you! 


One Pagers: The Simplest Way to Success

One-pagers are becoming increasingly popular as a way to help students process what they have read in one powerful activity. Like sketchnotes, they combine visuals with text to make ideas come alive in students’ minds and memories.

But it’s easy for students to struggle with one-pagers if they are not naturally inclined toward art and have not previously been encouraged to represent their ideas this way. They may feel they are being graded unfairly on their artistic abilities.

Some students will hear directions to create a graphic representation of a reading and dive right in. Others will moan and mutter things about "ridiculous art projects." But the popularity of one pagers with teachers lately is undeniable. If students can get over their hang-ups, they really learn a lot from processing what they've read in visual form with a one-pager. 

So how to help the art-haters thrive alongside the artists? How to show everyone that their one-pagers are about critical thinking and interpretation, not just flair pens (though flair pens are a pretty fabulous addition)?

When you provide students with a clear and straightforward template with instructions for what to put inside each section, you give them some creative constraint that can actually help inspire them to do their best. 

For example, you can divide up the paper and provide instructions to include aspects like these: 

  • A border which somehow represents the key themes from what you have read
  • An image in the upper left hand corner with a quotation woven into or around it. This image should somehow represent what you consider to be the most important symbol in the text so far.
  • Images and/or doodled words in the upper right hand corner that represent the key characters from the text and perhaps how they are changing
  • Images and quotations in the lower left hand corner that show the author’s style of writing, and the power of the language that is used
  • Images and/or words in the bottom right hand corner that show connections between the themes and ideas in the writing and what is going on in the world today.
  • Three important quotations from the text
  • Words and/or images that show the significance of the setting in some way
This way, students have a clear to-do list, and avoid the writer's/artist's block that can get in the way. You can experiment with varied templates, and even start letting students who want to go off template once they get comfortable with the structure. 

Want to get started right away? I've designed a free packet of four templates with four different sets of requirements. You can see them in the photos above, or check them out in the quick video below. 

You're going to love watching your students create these beautiful literary visuals! I can't wait to send it to you. Just sign up below. 

The Innovative Creative Writing Unit You've Been Needing

The great thing about a stand-alone creative writing unit is that you can plug it in anywhere. It develops writing skills, class community, and creativity. I've been thinking about a new one for the last month, and it's finally ready to share here. 

I've written before about Angela Stockman's wonderful book Make Writing, and her innovative methods of turning the English classroom into a maker space. Recently, I finished John Spencer's book Launch, about using design thinking in the classroom. As I began to explore design thinking with little experiments at home with my son, it was easy to combine Stockman's ideas about making with some of Spencer's about launching to an authentic audience. 

What if students created maker pieces, then wrote creatively about them, then launched their work out into the world? 

It really wouldn't be very difficult. To do a collaborative maker space writing project in class, you'd just need to follow these simple steps.

Step #1: Make

Invite students to engage in a maker space activity. Using materials you provide or materials they find at home, students create characters or settings to share with the class. They might paint or animate, sketch or build, create a photo collage or a sculpture. They might use legos or play doh, clay or papier mache, wood or cloth. 

Step #2: Share

Let students present their maker pieces back to their classmates, introducing them to the ins and outs of the people and places they have created. As the writing community listens, they can take notes on which characters and settings they will eventually use in their stories.

Step #3: Consider the Launch

After setting up a display of the pieces around the classroom, invite students to meet in groups to talk about how the class might share their pieces and stories once they are done. 

For example...
  • Students could display their maker pieces with excerpts of stories that include them in a gallery at a local coffee shop or museum.
  • Students could create an online hyperdoc with photos of the maker pieces that link to their stories, then share it.
  • Students could create a video explaining the project and featuring some of the maker pieces and their stories, then post it to youtube.
  • Students could bring the maker pieces to an elementary school, read some of the stories, and lead a makerspace writing project for the younger kids.
  • Students could create a writing maker challenge online, featuring some of their own stories and pieces as examples, and then inviting students from around the world to submit to them to be featured on a writing site the class creates.
Let groups share their ideas and choose one to follow through with as a class. 

Step #4: Write 

Let students photograph the characters and settings they plan to work with, then go home and write their stories. Ask them to weave in whatever writing elements you are focusing on in your course - sensory detail, dialogue, character development, varied sentence structure, striking imagery, etc. 

Step #5: Peer Editing Workshop

Let students trade their work with several other students, providing mechanical insights and overall feedback. 

Step #6: Share and Launch

Let students trade and read each other's work on the day the maker stories are due. Celebrate their successes! Grade the stories and then follow through with your launch plans. 

Wow, that was easy! You've just given students a chance to ride the maker movement wave and use some design thinking to target an authentic audience and share their work in a meaningful way. Whoo hoo! 

If you're maxed out on prep and you'd like to have the curriculum for this unit made for you, I'm delighted to say it's done and ready over in my TPT store. Here's what the very first downloader had to say about it: "I am so excited to use this! This is just the creative angle I have been looking for when it comes to writing stories with my students. Thank you so much for sharing!" I think you and your students will love it!

A Beginner's Guide to Teaching Abroad

Do your thoughts ever drift across the ocean? To some faraway place where everything you see and do will be new? 

My husband's sure do! He LOVED our time teaching abroad so much that he is always talking about going back someday. And I have to admit, I'm pretty tempted myself. 

The American College of Sofia (a high school), where we worked for two years. 
You can see my classroom windows on the upper left! 

Teaching abroad provides you with a chance to see the world, but it also gives you a chance to grow a lot as a teacher. Working with a totally different group of students in a brand new context can't help but push you to grow professionally in tons of new ways. 

It’s not as hard as it seems. By using one of the many international search agencies, you can get your materials out to almost  all the international schools with positions that match your background. Soon enough you’ll be at one of the international job fairs interviewing with all the most interesting ones and hopefully choosing the job and country you like best. Many schools will cover your travel expenses, provide you with housing or a housing stipend, and help guide you through the process of transition to their country.

In this post, I'm going to share the story of my own experience moving abroad, and give you the information you need to dive in and do it too! Feel free to leave your questions in the comments if there's something I miss, and I will do my best to answer. 

Pausing for a moment after shopping for fruit and flowers in downtown Sofia. 

My husband and I applied through Search Associates, communicated via e-mail with several schools before the fair, attended their job fair in Boston, interviewed with many schools, and received offers from one in Sofia, Bulgaria and one in Vienna, Austria. We had just one day to choose between them.

We spent two years in Bulgaria, during which time we learned so much! My husband got certified in ESL and I learned about the IB system and became a blogger. Together we traveled around Europe, visiting more than twenty countries during our vacations. 

I began writing professional articles and my husband presented at a conference in Germany. I advised the cooking club and literary magazine and helped coach softball, all new experiences for me, and my husband became dean of his grade level. By the end of our second year I had started a new faculty orientation program and put on a professional development day on the subject of teaching with technology. Being abroad in a new teaching environment, with Bulgarian students who were both the same and very different from our American students, helped us grow as teachers. And seeing the world changed our lives. 

Hanging out in Edinburgh. 

The Search Process

There are several agencies you can use to get teaching jobs abroad. Here I will briefly describe two of the largest. Though my personal experience is with Search Associates, I believe they all run with a similar system. Once you are accepted as a candidate and pay a user fee (around $250), you file your materials (cover letter, statement, C.V., references) and then the agency contacts you with relevant openings.  

You decide if you want the agency to send your materials to schools they contact you about.  Usually if so, you write an e-mail explaining your interest and why you believe you are a good fit. Then hopefully you continue to communicate with them building up to an interview at the job fair hosted by your agency.

Agency #1: Search Associates

Description: Search Associates runs twelve international job fairs around the world. Someone on their team will be assigned to you, answering any questions you might have throughout the process. You simply register, upload your materials, and start shopping through the openings matched to you through regular e-mails. We chose Search because many of the schools they work with do not require teachers to have certification, and we have master's degrees in our fields but not in education.

Agency #2: International Schools Services

Description: Once you register your application with ISS, you can attend one of their four international job fairs. ISS is also featuring a new service called the iFair, in which they match candidates and schools for virtual interviews.

The international hiring season is EARLIER than the domestic one. Schools begin searching around winter break and hire through the early spring.

It’s important to go into job fairs with an open mind. You may find yourself in love with a school in Paraguay even though you thought you wanted to move to Japan. Being open to many countries vastly increases your chance of finding a job. Be prepared to do a lot of country research during the job fair – you may find you need to decide whether you’d rather live in Sri Lanka or Mexico, France or China, in just twelve hours.  

Traveling to a spa in Bulgaria with the new American faculty on our way to get work visas in Greece.

Preparing to Go

As you get ready to work abroad, all research is good research. Listen to Rick Steves podcasts about your country and its neighbors. Make vocabulary flashcards. Watch documentaries. Look for expat blogs and websites hosted in your country. Find out what discount airlines fly from the nearest airport. Study a bit of history, a bit of fashion, a bit of the culinary arts. 

The more you know, the better! 

But don’t worry, you really don’t have to know it all. I was working full time and planning my wedding right before we moved, and I was only able to learn the alphabet and basic greetings in Bulgarian, and listen to a lot of travel podcasts while working out. 

Oh, and be sure to do the paperwork. Visas, passport, the whole shebang.

The Transition 

We got a storage unit for all of our things, since we only planned to be gone for two years. Your parents’ basement could also work. We spent the whole summer prior to our move abroad taking courses and traveling in the UK. We shipped some things to Bulgaria and some to the UK, then packed everything else we could into our luggage. 

Exploring Oxford

I think it helped that we had already been abroad, using different money and getting over the time difference and such, before we actually arrived in Bulgaria. And even then we built two weeks in before the start of school to travel around Bulgaria and over into Turkey. 

It was great not to have to jump into work right away.


Unless you are one of the magical few, you will get homesick. 

Bulgaria was, at times, an incredibly difficult place to live. We had to work hard at having a good experience. Traveling, connecting with our students, watching American t.v., going running, searching out great food – all these things helped us over the hard times. We intentionally tried to connect with our fellow international faculty too – starting a tradition of Sunday night potlucks and helping organize lots of parties and get-togethers so we could all share our experiences. Thinking through some coping strategies in advance and planning to reach out to those around you when you struggle is pretty important.

Discovering an AMAZING cookie bakery in Sofia helped make it feel like home.  
Sometimes it's the little things. 

Oh, the Places You'll Go

By living in a country near a region you are interested in exploring, you make it so much cheaper to explore the world. We could visit places like Morocco and Vienna for just a hundred dollars, ride the night train to Serbia, drive our car across the border to Turkey and Greece.

We ate Thanksgiving dinner at The Hard Rock Café in Amsterdam, spent several weekends in Barcelona, watched the sun set on Santorini. Life in our chosen country was relatively cheap, and housing was provided, so we spent our salaries on travel.

At surf camp in Morocco after spending several days exploring Marrakesh. 

As all teachers know, it’s easy to bring work home with you and spend every weekend doing it. But while teaching abroad, the world beckons. We tried to get out of the country at least once a month, if not more. By the end of two years, we had visited more than twenty countries.

Don’t be intimidated as you plan your travel. I moved to Bulgaria with only a few words of Bulgarian, and learned the ins and outs of the various metros, airports, taxis and buses as we traveled around Europe. Better to make some mistakes along the way than never to go!  

We liked Paris so much we ended up going there twice. 
And then going back years later with our three year old son! So I guess that's three times.  

Oh, the Ways you Can Grow

Teaching abroad will provide you with so many opportunities to try new things. Whether it’s teaching a new course, examining your own knowledge of English and grammar, coaching a new sport, joining with students on adventures in your new country, growing professionally, picking up a new hobby, or something else, there’s no doubt you’ll  dip a toe (or a whole leg) in new waters when you teach abroad.

Here are a few things I did for the first time during my two years abroad:
  • Published professional articles with Independent Teacher Magazine
  • Advised the cooking club (and learned how to cook!)
  • Started a new faculty orientation program and made a recruitment video for it
  • Went to surf camp in Morocco
  • Hiked with my students on Mount Vitosha in Bulgaria
  • Coached 8th grade softball
  • Learned advanced yoga
  • Joined a Bulgarian folk dancing group and performed in a dance concert
  • Helped make Thanksgiving dinner for 100 Bulgarians
  • Developed and ran a professional development day for the whole faculty on teaching with technology

Abroad you will have many opportunities to try new things, and all you have to do is say yes. You will learn something new every day, even if it’s just how to say thank you in Hungarian.

I hope this post has helped you feel ready to get started on your journey. Stay in touch with me and get creative professional support for your classroom experiences abroad OR at home by subscribing below and you'll also get fifteen fun activities you can use in class to help students review their reading and get ready to rock discussions.

The Writer's Advice Wall

Everyone writes so differently. If only there was a one-size-fits-all approach we could teach, but alas, it seems that writing is a lot like infant sleep. You just have to figure out what works.  

That said, a little advice never hurt. As writers grow and learn a variety of approaches, they discover their own style. They blend the advice of this teacher and that teacher, this video and that book, this experience and that friend.

When I look back over my own writing history, I can see that my writing style and process now is a veritable patchwork quilt of my writing experiences and the wisdom of my teachers.

Last spring I read a powerful book called Make Writing, by Angela Stockman. I shared many of her ideas in this post, 4 Ways to Apply the Maker Movement to your Classroom. But another has stayed with me.

In the very first chapter, Stockman shares a story about a student storyboarding a plot with sticky notes, adding in arrows, scribbled notes, and ideas. Other students gathered to watch and ask her about her process. After watching the students learn from the storyboarder, Stockman began to incorporate an opportunity for students to share their process as well as their results with each other.

"This discovery inspired me to leave time for informal exhibition at the end of each session. We still celebrate works in progress and the things that writers create, but the purpose of the exhibition is very different: Here, learners demonstrate writing and making processes, thinking aloud, and giving their learning away" (26). 

Stockman's idea to have students teach each other about writing got me thinking. How could we incorporate this concept simply into any and every English classroom, whether or not the students were experimenting with the ideas of the maker space?

That's when I came up with the idea of the writers' display wall. Let students share their best process ideas in vivid color, and keep them on the wall all year long for their peers to see. Add the tips of all your classes, and soon students will have a menu of a hundred or so options to choose from when it comes to improving their writing process.

Creating the wall is simple. The banner, brief instructions, and cards are all included in this downloadable freebie.  Simply print and put up the banner, then pass out the assignment and cards to your students. Put out flair pens, sharpies, or colored pencils so their cards will stand out on the wall.

Once your students have put up their advice, incorporate opportunities to do process research by looking at the wall. Since everyone probably can't fit in to browse it at the same time, make it a station during a prewriting day, or invite different sides of the room to go up one at a time during a drafting session. Have your students jot down two or three process ideas they'd like to experiment with. You could even have them reflect on what they tried as a postscript to their next writing assignment. 

Be sure to include your own advice, since you are undoubtedly a writer too. In fact, since you've been writing the longest, consider including several of your own cards sprinkled into the student mix.

One of the most memorable pieces of writing advice I ever received, which certainly has influenced me throughout my writing career, was from a professor my freshmen year of college. After giving me (and maybe everyone else in the class?) my first ever C on a paper, he went on a twenty minute rant in which he drew strange hieroglyphics on the board which were apparently a picture of the library and completely lost his cool as he yelled that we all "DO SOME RESEARCH!" But the really memorable part was when he said rough drafts are like a chair. Once you've got your chair built and looking beautiful, he said, it's time to rip it apart and build a boat.

Whew. Food for writing thought.

I hope you decide to build a display wall of your own with your students. Remember, everything you need to get going is just a free download away right here.

Want to hop on board the maker engagement train you're seeing in STEAM classrooms?  Looking for a maker space project to try in your own classroom?

In this ELA Maker space project, students paint, collage, sculpt, animate or doodle a character and present it in a class gallery before writing a short story about that character.
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