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An EASY Tool for Making Book Posters


I love to read. I love to see my students learn to love to read. It's just the best.

Encouraging their independent reading is one of my greatest joys as a teacher. (Find out more in Podcast Episode #003!). I love to remember the students who fell in love with reading on my watch, and to pave the way for more.

One way I promote reading is by inviting people from around the school to visit occasionally and talk for one or two minutes about their favorite book.

I've had several history teachers, an art teacher, an administrator, and more. You could also invite older students, alumni, community members, politicians. Showing students that their adult role models read for fun and interest is a great way to let them know how much reading matters. We've got to fight back against the likes of Candy Crush and Snapchat!

Afterwards I take a picture of the guest with his or her book and turn it into a poster. It's so easy, using the Big Huge Labs motivational poster tool.



You just upload the picture, choose a few details about the orientation and border of your final poster image, add your text, and you're done.

Download, stick the image on a blank document, print, and you are ready to go.  I like putting my posters up on my door and around my classroom.

This would also make a great project for students. You could have each student in your class create a poster after taking a picture of a friend or family member with a favorite book, then create a giant reading gallery.



Just last week my son's kindergarten teacher sent a reminder to all the parents to let our kids see us reading to help them want to learn.

I believe older students are also inspired to read by seeing people they care about with books they love. The bonus is, with this type of poster, they get great ideas for reading material too.
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If you're the type of teacher who cares so much about your students that you make reading posters in your free time, we want you in our Facebook group, Creative High School English! Just click "join" when you get there.

Getting OUT of your Classroom


Are you teaching in a crowded space? Where no one quite has room to think by the end of a busy day?

Or maybe it just feels constricted sometimes. When your seniors are dying to be somewhere else or your freshmen are exploding with pent-up teenage emotions.

Getting OUT of your classroom regularly can make such a difference. Though I've been lucky enough never to teach in a truly overcrowded classroom, I still like to get my students out of our box (lovingly though I decorate it) pretty often.

Here are some options for getting out and about, from the simple to the extravagant. In this post, all the ideas are for activities you can do on your school campus, but I'll dedicate another post to field trip ideas soon.



The Computer Lab

If your school has the option, signing up for the computer lab on a regular basis lends itself to all kinds of activities. 

You can send students on a webquest about the author you're reading, the era you're studying, or art and music connected to your reading. 

You can have them watch theater and movie clips related to your text, answering questions as they go, and spending the most time with the clips they like the most. 

You can have them explore links to different online writing contests and choose one to enter, then spend designated computer lab time throughout the term working on their contest entries.

The Art Studio

There are many ways you can incorporate art into your English lessons. Consider asking your art department if you could bring your students in to work on a project in the school art studio. Collaborate with an art teacher on how to draw connections between their expertise and what you are studying in class. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Have students create an artistic character study, highlighting what they understand about a character through painting, sketching, collage, etc.

Invite students to explore a theme from a novel, short story collection or poem through art. Perhaps they might create a sculpture, a photo essay, a mural, etc.

Have students work on graphic novel memoirs, illustrating a part of their own lives with a combination of words and art.

Ask students to prepare an artistic version of their notes before a major test or exam, reviewing their materials and then synthesizing them into a colorful Sketchnotes version. (For more about Sketchnotes, which I LOVE, check out this post I did for teachwriting.org).



The Great Outdoors

I vividly remember one day in high school where we got to go outside to work on a writing project. We all split up to sit on the warm sunlit rocks behind the school, writing in our notebooks on some prompt that escapes me now.

Taking students outside on a beautiful day can change everyone's experience so much. It's vital to get their buy-in in advance. If they can't stay focused out of doors, it won't work. But if they agree that they'd so much rather be outside that they will make themselves keep it together, this is a wonderful option.

You can sit in small groups to discuss the text, work on writing projects in pairs or independently, or act out theater scenes.

At one school where I worked, the English department purchased folding seats (like these) so that classes could check them out and go outside for comfortable discussions. It took flexible seating to a whole new level.

Cozy Spaces

If you do any independent reading with your students, start a tradition of doing it in a cozy school space. Maybe the library has comfortable chairs, or you could spread out blankets in a lonely hallway filled with sunlight. Maybe there's a lounge area somewhere that's unused during your class period. Ask around. Let your students know that if they enjoy the chance to get out and read in a cozy space instead of in desks, they need to respect your efforts to make it work by reading quietly.

Performance Places

I rarely have students do their culminating projects in class. It's so much more exciting for special performances to take place elsewhere. I've had students hold poetry slams and perform theatrical scenes in almost every public area of the school. I often invite groups to select their own locations, then guide them through the process of getting permission to use those spaces. We have fun traveling around the school as a class to watch groups perform in different spaces.

Picnic Grass

If you're ever in a position to reward your students for good work or for winning a challenge or competition, having a potluck picnic outside is a great way to do so and get out of your classroom too. I held a reading contest between two of my sections once with no prize but an outdoor picnic during class time, and the students read over 10,000 pages in their quest to win. There was literally no grade at all. The picnic made for a wonderful bonding day for us, and the only cost was in brownie ingredients, since I brought dessert but the students brought the rest of the food.

The School at Large

Can you think of a way that students can improve your school? Decorate your school? Interview people at your school? Perform for younger students? Bringing your students out of the classroom to interact with the actual school building and its inhabitants is another great way to leave the space. Maybe you'd like students to present on writing strategies to ninth graders, create a hallway display about banned books, or interview administrators about their favorite books. Maybe they could create a school rock garden while you're reading the Transcendentalists, or put poetry for students to read in every bathroom stall. Once you start thinking outside your doors, there are a lot of ways students can make the school a better place.



The Library

If you've got students doing choice reading, collaborating with your school librarian for some book browsing days is a great option. Ask students to explore the shelves and write down ten titles they might like to read and why. This helps you avoid the problem of having a student choose a book in ten seconds and then talk to friends for the rest of the time. You could also invite students to create booklists for younger students, or help create library displays.

While your own classroom is the best place for some things, getting out and about can boost your morale and your students', especially when you're dealing with an overcrowded classroom. I hope you found some inspiration in this post to get you started, and I'd love for you to share your own favorite strategies for getting out of the classroom in the comments below or in our active Facebook group, Creative High School English.

If you're the kind of teacher who goes the extra mile and gets students up and out of your classroom walls, I bet you're also the kind of teacher who'd like to have students engaging with truly creative projects. I'd like to send you the complete materials for five of my very favorites. Check them out right here.


ELA Expert Advice: Coping with Grading



It's the issue that just doesn't go away. No matter how far down in your bag you shove that folder of papers, they'll still be there. No matter how nice you get your office looking "so you can work better," they just don't go away. No matter how much you hope that grading at a coffee shop or with a box of chocolates at your side will make it fun, it really doesn't.

Grading is hard. And it's not the reason any of us went into teaching.

That's why I've rounded up some great ideas from fellow ELA bloggers to give you a helping hand. If you can minimize the amount you grade and maximize the effectiveness of your feedback, you'll be giving yourself the best possible chance to focus your attention on creative teaching and connecting with your students.

Emily Aierstock of "Read it. Write it. Learn it." shares her process for highlighting student errors in themed colors, identifying their "rock star moments," and letting them figure out how to solve their issue with partners.



I shared my favorite strategy in my post about grading from a common errors list. Discover how I avoid repeating the same comments over and over and over and over and over.



I love Secondary Sara's deep dive into 25 Ways to Make Grading Less Painful. Especially when she compares the process of grading to the seven stages of grief! You're definitely going to find at least one, if not twenty-five, usable tips in this post.

Laura Randazzo has a lot of great strategies for avoiding grading overwhelm. Here's the first in her series of four videos to help you make life oh so much easier.

Louden Clear in Education offers some clear advice on guiding students to really read and understand your feedback, which, in the end, can save you a lot of time on marking the same issues over and over.

Melissa Kruse of Reading and Writing Haven has an extensive list of strong ideas for saving time. My favorite is to have students choose one best paragraph or piece for you to grade if they've demonstrated the same skill multiple times. Why write the same comments over and over, if you could just write them on the student's very best work?

Hello Teacher Lady shares her strategy for cutting grading through the use of digital tools Doctopus and Goobric. If the names of those tools don't already have you dying to find out more, consider that Teacher Lady reveals a way to grade with a digital rubric overlaid onto student work, cutting the need for any pen and paper at all. She calls it a game changer, and if you enjoy working with tech, you'll probably agree!



Meredith Dobbs makes a strong case that we all aim for improvement, not perfection, in her article on assessment for Teachwriting.org. She recommends avoiding "the red pen of death," and focusing instead on helping students improve one or two things about their writing each time they have an assignment. Imagine how much easier it would be to comment on one thing instead of EVERYthing!

If you try some of the tips presented here, I have no doubt you'll soon find the load at least a bit more manageable. And every bit counts! The more time you can spend on the parts of teaching that you love, and the more you feel that your hard work grading is really making a difference to your students, the more fulfilled you will be as a teacher. 

One Successful Discussion: Field Notes


You know you want them to discuss the book. You know you want every student to participate. You know you don't want awkward silences, you want awesome engagement.

But how do you get there?

Recently I ran a summer reading discussion for twenty-one students, most of whom did not yet know each other and had never been with me in class. I needed to think about how to engage them and keep things interesting for forty-five minutes without yet having any groundwork. I didn't even know most of them, and I certainly hadn't had any big talks with them about group dynamics or discussion methods.

At the end of the session, the students left smiling. Throughout the time there was the kind of happy buzz in the room that gives me that teacherly glow I love. I felt like I was able to wheel and deal a decade of experience in education to keep the kids interested from the first minute to the last, so I thought I'd share the strategies I used as a case study. If you're new to teaching, or you'd like a few discussion ideas, this post is for you.


A bit of set-up. We were discussing S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, the book I sponsored in our school summer reading program. Before the students arrived, I put a handout on every desk and scattered colored pencils between every two handouts. The handouts were one of my favorite discussion warm-up exercises, in which students write down everything they can think of that will help represent what is going on inside a character's mind. Letting students do a short warm-up activity that reminds them of the reading before a discussion is so helpful. Often they've been thinking of a million other things since they read the material, and they need a refresher.

Which reminds me that I've put together a packet of fifteen discussion warm-ups for you as a free download if you just don't have time to create one more handout for class. These warm-ups can be used for any text.



I also put up a quotation by Ralph Waldo Emerson on the board: "Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

As students walked in, I asked them to begin filling out the open mind warm-up for the character Ponyboy with a partner.  Soon I was surrounded by the sounds of scratching colored pencils. I walked around a bit and answered questions, loaning my book to a pair of students who forgot theirs.

After five or so minutes I asked students to stop so I could take attendance and we could begin. Instead of having them say here, I asked students to respond to their names by saying their favorite character. Everyone paid attention as students called out the names of their chosen characters - lots of Ponyboy and Sodapop, a few Johnnys and one Dally.


The attendance question led to some argument and discussion over favorite characters. We talked for a few minutes about why they had chosen their favorites, then came back to the warm-up about Ponyboy. I asked students to share ideas from their open mind warm-up, and I jotted them in chalk on the board as they called out their thoughts. We painted a picture of Ponyboy on the board, including key quotations, traits, goals, issues. They were very enthusiastic in their conversation, I think because they identify so much with the book.

Their enthusiasm led me to ask a question and ask for a show of hands. This is one of my favorite quick total participation techniques. If you have students raise their hands to show an opinion, then you can call on anyone to support that opinion. "Raise your hand," I said. "If you liked this book." All but one raised a hand. One raised his hand halfway, and one kept it down. I called on several students to say why they liked it, then asked the halfway raiser why he felt mixed about it. Finally we heard from the student who didn't like it. Everyone listened attentively, not knowing if I was going to ask them next, and seemingly genuinely interested in each other's takes.


Soon I redirected them towards the quotation I had put on the board. I read it aloud, and said it was one of my favorite quotations, and that it seemed to fit uniquely with a core theme of Hinton's book. "Why?" I asked. "Stand up, find a new partner, and talk to that new partner about why." There was a bustle as everyone left their seats to find someone new to talk to. I wandered around for a couple of minutes listening in, and then asked partnerships to turn to other partnerships and share what they had discussed. Again everyone was talking, again there was no real way to hide out and avoid being part of the discussion.

As soon as a couple of groups appeared to have exhausted the topic, I asked everyone to come back together. "What does Emerson mean with this quotation?" I asked. "How does it relate to The Outsiders?" After already having discussed the question with a partner and another partnership, everyone had something to say. I tried to bring in everyone I could to the discussion, especially directing towards people who were speaking out for the first or second time. As in any group, several students wanted to talk almost all the time, so I called on them now and then but helped them to wait while others spoke as well. (This is an issue I usually tackle by using the Harkness discussion method, but that was not possible in this situation).

Soon enough we ran out of time. I thanked the students for their enthusiasm and collected their open mind handouts because I was curious to see what they had written and drawn. By and large, they left with smiles on their faces.

These basic strategies can apply to any discussion, and they make your life so much easier. When students come in distracted by other things, use a warm-up activity and a related attendance question. Whenever you hit an awkward silence, have students find a partner and talk. When you need to shake things up, ask a direct question and ask for a show of hands. These easy strategies are ones you can turn to at a moment's notice.
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Are you always looking for creative ideas for your classroom? Join the conversation in our rapidly growing Facebook group, Creative High School English!


Escape Rooms: The Ultimate Guide for English Class


Escape rooms have been around for a long time. You can find them in museums all over the world, challenging participants to solve a series of riddles and clues in order to solve a mystery and break out of the escape room. 

Some escape rooms are very complex, involving U.V. lights, multiple locks, special codes, and tools hidden everywhere. Others are simpler and cheaper. 

Check out this video of a news team trying to break out of an escape room to give you the idea. 


As you can see from this video, you can make an escape room as complex as you want, and as expensive as you can afford. But you can also keep it simple and make it free.

Let’s quickly consider a simple example of how the escape room concept could be applied to your English classroom.   


Imagine you are introducing The Great Gatsby and you want to share information about 1920s America before diving in. You divide students into groups and give them each a short piece to read about flappers as the first clue. 

They quickly realize that certain words in the piece are highlighted. The highlighted words are “to”, “the”, “go”, and “back.” One at a time, the teams realize they must search the back of the classroom to find the next clue. 

There they find iPads on a desk that are all queued up to show a short youTube clip about  prohibition.  Under each iPad is a sticky note that says “If you know how to get into a speak easy, you can find the next clue. The password is ‘jazz age.’” 

After watching the video and learning what a speak easy is, students rush to the door and find you there, ready to hand them their next clue. When they whisper “jazz age,” you give them a short paragraph about the jazz age and a set of song lyrics from a 1920s jazz song. Together with their groups they read the paragraph and comb through the lyrics, trying to figure out what the secret is. 

Finally, they realize three letters are bolded: “k”, “y” and “e.” At the bottom of the lyrics the clue is “Find it where words begin and you’re almost there.” Students realize they can rearrange the letters to spell “k-e-y” and look around for where words begin. After examining your computer keypad, a box of pencils, a dictionary and several notebooks, they find a small key in the chalkboard dust tray. On the keychain tiny letters spell "look." They race madly around the room in search of a lockbox, and finally find one under your desk. 

They open it to discover confetti and Smarties candy. You snap their picture with the open box and have them return the key for the next group, then give them their new copies of The Great Gatsby.

I know, I know, thinking through all the steps and laying them out sounds intense. But the more you begin trying to imagine how to mix clues into learning, the easier it seems. Plus, every time you create an escape room you have one you can use forever, to engage hundreds of students in the coming years. 



If you're going to D.I.Y. your own escape room, here's a list of component ideas to help you.

D.I.Y. Themes:
  • Introduce context for a novel or poetry unit ("Roar your way through the 20s", "Find your way through the woods with the Transcendentalists," "Abandon the Search for Truth with the Postmodernists"
  • Help a character "escape" from something ("Help Ponyboy Escape Judgment," "Help Emerson Escape Mediocrity," "Can Austen's characters Escape Primogeniture?" 
  • Tour important concepts ("The Literary Devices Escape Room: Learn. Laugh. Leave." "The Amazing Annotation Escape: Write your Way Out." 
Clue Ideas:
  • You can always hide a clue inside a reading. Put words in bold or a slightly different color that can be rearranged into a clue. Underline letters that can be rearranged into a clue. Number letters that will spell out a clue when put in order.
  • Use technology. Students love videos, why not hide a clue in one? Have students watch a clip to learn information that will help them solve a puzzling question you put on or near the video screen. 
  • Use news articles. For example, if you are showing a newspaper article about police shootings in conjunction with a unit on The Hate U Give, you might want to give a clue like "not everyone feels the same when they see the lights in their rearview mirror." Then put the next clue on a mirror in the classroom or taped onto the light switch or a lamp. 
  • Use the material you really want covered. If you want students to learn five different literary devices, put in cards with the five devices and the five definitions. When students match them up correctly every pair of cards can have a two word phrase that helps lead them in the right direction. For example, if the next clue is under the book The Scarlet Letter on your book shelf, the clues could say "read red," "find Puritans," "alphabet color," "Nathaniel Hawthorne," and "look under." 
  • Use puzzle pieces. You can cut a puzzle out of cardboard or paper, write or draw a clue on it, and hide the pieces in several locations around the room. 
Useful Gear:
  • Envelopes for clues
  • Boxes (can be locked or not locked)
  • iPads or other technology you can display digital clues on
  • Tape for sticking clues under things
  • Certificates, Confetti, Prizes, etc. for when they finally find the final box
  • Camera for taking celebratory pictures to display in your classroom
  • High End: U.V. Flashlights, U.V. Pens, Lockboxes, Padlocks, etc. Check out this article from We Are Teachers on "10 Awesome Supplies for Classroom Escape Room Activities." The links are handy if you are looking to purchase gear.   

And Speaking of Gear...  

To celebrate my first interview podcast (below!), I’m giving away a few fun items to help you get going with escape rooms.

One winner will receive the gear to get started with D.I.Y.ing escape rooms – a lockbox, a padlock that takes several letter combinations, and a set of blank puzzles waiting to be filled in with clues.



Another winner will receive a bundle of three fabulous pre-made escape rooms from Emily Aierstok of "Read it. Write it. Learn it.", who I am interviewing for the ELA Escape Rooms podcast episode (below!).



If you’d like a chance to win, all you need to do is leave an honest review for this podcast on iTunes in the next two weeks and then e-mail me at betsy@nowsparkcreativity.com to let me know your name and the address where I can send your prize if you win. I know it takes time and energy to leave a review, so I wanted to make it a bit more fun for you to help me spread the word to more teachers about new creative strategies they can use in their classrooms. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

Now that you have some background, and a chance to win some fun gear to help you on your escape room creation quest, let's dive even deeper with Emily Aierstok. I brought her on as my first ever podcast guest because she's the one who first introduced me to escape rooms on her blog, and I love what she has to say about them. The story she tells about her escape room and how engaging it was for her students is what convinced me to do a show about this emerging teaching strategy.


Listen to the interview with Emily:



I'd like to highlight a couple of words of wisdom from Emily that I think can REALLY save you time and energy.

#1: Give students guidelines about how to proceed with the escape room. Ask them to take careful care of the clues and the pieces of the game so that the next group(s) will find them just as they should. Ask them to keep their work secret in their groups so everyone can have fun playing.

#2: Gather enough materials at each station that students can play all the livelong day without replenishment. Emily only has three minute passing periods, hopefully you have more time than that! But still, it's nice not to have to set things back up four or five times in a single day.

#3: Create a handout of some kind that all students must fill in as they complete the escape room, so that everyone must actively participate in discovering the answers to the clues and learning the information shared in the game. That way you get more buy-in even from those rare students who are not interested in playing and everyone covers all the territory even if they don't finish first.

If you'd like to learn more about Emily, check out her fabulous site, Read it. Write it. Learn it. 
And if you'd like to dive into her Facebook group, "Escape Rooms in ELA," just click here!

A Somewhat Expensive Shortcut

Finally, I'd like to offer a shortcut for those of you who have school money to spend, or want to apply for a grant.

Now that you know what escape rooms are and have an idea how to implement them, you COULD buy into an escape room site that looks pretty great to me. Breakout EDU (for which I am NOT an affiliate) offers a $125 kit that buys you escape room gear but also a membership into their site and the ability to download tons of escape rooms for a variety of classroom needs. If you have a solid chunk of budget available, you might want to get several kits so that you can enable large groups of students (or parents, or faculty!) to play at the same time. You could easily make a case to your administration to buy several kits for teachers all over the school to use, as Breakout EDU has a range of types of breakouts.

I'm a member of one of their Facebook groups, Breakout EDU English Teachers, and you can also find quite a lot of links to escape rooms there. Having their gear kit already makes it easier to use them, but you can always figure out a workaround.
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I hope you feel ready and excited to launch into escape rooms with your students! Remember, though it may take quite a bit of time to get going on the first one, it gets easier after that. And you can use the activity year after year.

If you'd like to have access to all the escape room ideas I am always adding to my Pinterest board, "ELA Escape Rooms," just follow along below.




Can New Teachers be Happy? Get the Hacks.


So you're a new English teacher. Congratulations!

The first year is the most intense, the most overwhelming, and often one of the most rewarding and fulfilling. But often there's not much sleep, not much comfort, and not much relief. Life is one long marathon of work, punctuated by the deep joy of seeing your students engage and succeed.

Mountains of grading join you at your favorite coffee shop now. One negative comment on a student or administrative review haunts you in the middle of the night. Lunch is a flurry as you dash to make photocopies, catch up a student who just missed a week of class, and microwave your leftover pad Thai.

Still, it is so worth it. Your new job will give you opportunities to express your creativity every day, share your journey with hundreds of young people who need you, and eventually, greet your class with a feeling of excitement but also peace every day. (It takes a while, but really, it happens!)

After almost a decade in the classroom, I can look back at my first year and see some of the things that could have helped me so much. Some of them are hacks that I had figured out by the end of that first year, and others have taken me much longer to figure out. I hope they can help you avoid some of my long nights, technology crises, wardrobe stresses, and general first-year frenzy.

Here are twelve ideas to help you rock your first year.



#1 Take the Spotlight off Yourself

Feeling nervous? Afraid you might trip up on your words, or even throw up on your shoes? I've been there.

One of my favorite epiphanies when I began teaching was that I didn't need to position myself front and center day after day. Indeed, my students were far happier and more engaged when I didn't.

"Turn to your partner and...", "Find a group and...", "Begin by taking a look at the handout in front of you. Warm up by filling it in before we..." became my best friends. Workshop days, journal writing, peer editing, web quests, creative project work, movie clips, discussions that kept students talking to each OTHER and not pin-balling every comment off me... these have become the core of my teaching.

You'll find me lecturing about once in a blue moon, if I really can't think of ANY other way to present my information. As soon as I realized this, my blood pressure went way down and I stopped feeling faintly ill all the time

#2 Keep Fillers Handy

Oh the strain of a lesson plan that finishes before you thought it would. And it will.

The first time shocked me to my core. I had things scheduled minute by minute, but somehow my students completed them so much faster than I expected. I had no idea what to do. I think I awkwardly and guiltily released them early.

By the second term I had a handy mental list of ideas for these situations, and you should to.

Flexible Activities to do any Time:

Have students keep a choice reading book in your room that they can always read when they finish early or when you just need ten minutes for WHATEVER reason.

Keep a stack of journals in class and a set of prompts glued inside the cover so you can always have them do a writing activity on a moment's notice.

Invite students to participate in an ice-breaker activity to get to know each other better. If you don't know any, check out these fun ones from Cult of Pedagogy.

Have students start the homework (use this as a last resort - if there isn't much time, they won't take it seriously).

The critical thing with any unplanned activity is NOT to say it is an extra activity. Just smoothly transition into it as if you were always planning to do it, so they don't get a sniff of the fact that maybe you might consider letting them out early because actually they finished everything at speed.

If you're short on time and you'd like a packet of fillers that are ready and waiting, I've put together ten short, creative activities for you that you can photocopy and keep handy.



#3 Back up ALL your Files

Never did I ever think my computer would die the week grades were due in my first year of teaching.

I knew I was supposed to back up my files, but it seemed like the kind of thing I would grow into when I actually had time for that kind of thing. Dragging and dropping my million and one projects, handouts, and grade files into a flash drive every week or two was not something I felt excited about.

These days I use a really easy system. I have the SeaGate external hard drive (I'm not an affiliate!) that will simply memorize everything on your entire computer when you plug it in and agree to have it do so. No more sorting, dragging, and dropping. If your computer dies, you've got everything. (By the way, mine died again, and I DID have everything).


#4 Plan in Stages - the year, the unit, the day.

You don't need to plan it all at once, but it's wildly helpful to look ahead. I eventually came upon a system of stage planning. At the start of the year, I would lay out the order of my texts. Then when I was almost done with one text/unit, I would look through the calendar and make a unit syllabus for what was coming. It would show all the dates and a VERY general summary of what we were doing each day and the homework. I used it, and I gave it to my students.

For example:

9/3: The Scarlet Letter Ch. 1, Freewrite
HW: The Scarlet Letter Ch. 2

9/4: The Scarlet Letter Ch.2 Discussion, Vocabulary Journals
HW: The Scarlet Letter Ch. 3, Open Mind Exercise

9/5: Showcase Open Minds, Ch. 3 Reader's Theater
HW: Listen to Questions of Morality Podcast and answer response question

Etc.

Then when a new week came up I would look at my various syllabi and pencil in what every class was doing each day.

The final step in my planning was to make a daily schedule every day. Call me a nerd if you like (I can own my own nerdiness) but I made a document every single night that showed everything going on in my day, in order, with exact timing and usually a beautiful picture at the top. I couldn't really function without it. It would look something like this:

Sept. 15

To-Dos:
Make unit plan for Macbeth
E-mail Brian about meeting
Grade B Block vocab quizzes and input
Plan tennis practice for tomorrow
Make brownies for advisees

8-8:40 A Block (put schedule on the board)
1. Journal: Watch kitesurfing video + do related vocabulary prompt (10 minutes)
2. Discussion Warm-Up: Question Pass
3. Fishbowl Discussion (rotate after 7 minutes)
4. HW: Scarlet Letter Ch. 4

8:50-9:20 Assembly (look for Kate, ask about missing work)

9:30-11 B Block Extended (give back in-class essays)
1. Film Clip - Into the Wild
2. Into the Wild Project Work (circulate to answer questions, send some students to the lab, library)
3. Grammar Mini-Lesson - Image Writing
4. HW: Into the Wild Project Draft

Planning Period (grade + prep)

11:50-12:30 English Department Candidate Lunch - ask about creative project ideas

12:30-12:50 Office Hours - extra help for Into the Wild projects

1-1:40 E Block (same as A this morning)

1:45 Early Dismissal for Tennis

Tennis Match in Pasadena (return around 7 pm) - get van keys, meal money, bring directions

This daily schedule kept me going day after day. No matter what crazy things the day threw at me, I knew exactly where I had to be and when.

#5: Figure out a Professional Wardrobe that's Easy

Call me crazy but for me, putting together a professional wardrobe was a matter of considerable stress and expense. My college jeans, sweatshirts and tennis uniforms didn't provide even a tiny start.

I didn't have much of a clue, I just knew I wanted people to stop thinking I was a student. I bought nice pants and skirts and button-up shirts, but I wasn't too sure how to put it all together in an easy rotating system. Years later I found a blog that explained how I could mix and match my clothes together to make a hugely varied wardrobe if I found a few scarves, "completer pieces" like sweaters and vests, and some fun boots and necklaces. Check out this post from "Putting Me Together" to see an example of how the author could wear fifteen nice outfits from ten different pieces of clothing. Then browse through her blog (maybe set a timer? you could be in there for a while!) for inspiration.


#6 Figure out some Boundaries 

If you're on social media at all, you've probably seen a ton of graphics featuring the quotation "You Can't Pour from an Empty Cup."

At the end of my first year I made a list of rules for the second year. There were at least twenty-five, though I don't remember a single one any more. The goal of my mega list was to carve back a few hours in each day that were about me. I knew I would burnout and leave the profession within a few years if I didn't figure out how to say no to students sometimes, how to allow myself to have an O.K. lesson every once in a while, how to find ways to get help from colleagues. Too many eighteen hour days had left me feeling fried. I liked what I was doing, I just couldn't actually do it any more.

So I made my rules. See if you can figure out a few rules BEFORE spending the entire year working from seven a.m. to eleven p.m. most days.

#7 Share your Ideas

It's easy to feel that as a first-year teacher you don't have anything to offer your professional community. You might think you should leave submitting articles for publication and applying to present at conferences to the more experienced teachers.

By the middle of the year, quite the opposite is true. You are likely applying lots of unconventional and fresh pedagogies, and getting intriguing results. Start early with submitting your work to education publications and presenting at conferences like your state level Association of Teachers of English annual conference.

It's a good feeling to realize you can help others and get yourself noticed by your administration for your quality work right away.

#8 Read Professional Books

Though it's great to carve out time for fun reading, professional reading is also so helpful in the first year. I read The Courage to Teach, Educating Esme, The Freedom Writer's Diary, A White Teacher Talks about Race, Active Learning, Differentiated Instruction, and many more in my first year. I think I probably read enough for some kind of an education degree if I could find a way to get credit.

I was avidly interested in ways to improve my teaching, and while I probably overdid it, reading these books filled me with ideas and enthusiasm for the classroom. They also helped me to feel a sense of community with other teachers. Reading stories of what others had gone through and the solutions they had found helped prop me up. And speaking of community...

#9 Find Community

You know how there are all those New Parent groups for people who have just had babies? Because of all the loss of sleep, confusion over what to do, and overwhelm that comes with a new baby?

Well, there should probably be New Teacher groups too. Joking with someone about the crazy thing that happened in class the other day and trouble-shooting together can provide SUCH a sense of relief. Invite another new teacher or two to have dinner with you once a month. Or join an online community like my Facebook group, Creative High School English. Talk about what's going on. Surprisingly, though teachers are always surrounded by people, it can actually be quite a lonely profession. You are always the leader and guide, with no one to really talk to about how you feel and what you think.

#10 Work. Out. 

Boy is it ever easy to keep yourself awake half the night with those little mellow creme pumpkins so you can work and then get up at the crack of dawn so you can run to work and prepare an amazing escape room or museum exhibition in your classroom for your students. Over and over and over.

But making a decision that you are going to put aside a realistic amount of time each week to work out will make your first year of teaching so much more manageable. You will feel better and more in control of your life if you take some time. Whether you enjoy swimming, yoga, a mountain hike, or some other form of healthy time for yourself, just do it!


#11 Don't grade it all. 

Let me say that again. DON'T GRADE IT ALL. You don't need to. Students barely notice.

You don't need to read through every homework assignment and decide if it deserves a 7, 8, 9 or 10 out of 10. You can easily grade some assignments for completion, some on a system like check, check-plus, or check-minus, and some (the really important ones) for a grade. And speaking of grades...

#12 Use Generalized Rubrics

Make one wonderful rubric to use for papers all year long. Craft one for book talks, one for research papers, one for creative projects. Assigning a project with eight different fabulous options? USE THE SAME RUBRIC for all of them! Make it general. You'll be so glad you did.

Grading without a rubric or making a brand new super specific one for every major assignment is work you simply do NOT need the first year of teaching. You can check out some of my generalized rubrics right here, and either use them as inspiration or pick them up to save yourself some work this year.

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I hope you'll find something in this list that eases your strain and makes you feel happier this year. It's not easy being a first-year teacher, but hopefully some of these tips and tricks will make it a bit more doable. I try to post the best resources and tips I find for new teachers all year long on my New Teacher Pinterest board. Here it is if you'd enjoy following along.


Hacking Discussion Dynamics: Because Dominators Wanna Dominate...


You've got the dominator. Or two. The silent student. Or ten. The thoughtful contributor. The doodler. The one who has always got a related story that's not really relevant, and the one who just can't help but interrupt.

As English teachers, we rely on discussion. But no matter how many styles we might try - socratic seminar, literature circles, Harkness, fishbowl, small groups - there's a certain issue we are always going to run into.

Discussion dynamics. Who will talk and who won't? Who will listen and who won't? Who cares enough to try to refer to the text? Who loves other subjects enough to try to make connections across disciplines?

By the time our students reach us, they often consider their discussion roles to be set. They know what they feel comfortable with, and it takes a lot of oomph to pull them out of their past ruts. Some students got shut down early by negative reactions from peers, some students have so much confidence they believe no one else has as much to say, some students come from cultural backgrounds that promote listening over speaking for young people.

For me, conscious discussion of discussion dynamics is one of the most important keys. It's the thing I love about the Harkness discussion method (which you can read all about right here). But not everyone has the time or inclination to cleave to the Harkness method.

Another way to cut through discussion ruts and help students to change up their roles is to create discussion role cards. Brainstorm a list of ways students can participate in positive ways. You can even let them help.


For example:

Students can make connections between points.
Students can play devil's advocate, forcing other students to clarify and back up their opinions.
Students can share their opinions.
Students can connect the text to things going on in world news or politics.
Students can connect the text to history.
Students can connect the text to modern music, television, or film.
Students can help draw out students who get shut down or interrupted.
Students can listen and make eye contact with speakers.
Students can ask penetrating questions.
Students can be careful to use text in supporting their statements. 
Students can help the class move on when the discussion is stuck for too long.
Students can be peacemakers between participants getting too heated.

Once you have established the types of roles you'd like students to work on, you can type them up as small cards that you can print out for every student. If you're a laminator, go for it! If not, just cut them out and have them ready for your next discussion.

Now, you have a decision to make. You can either personally match each role with a student you'd like to see work on that role, or you can leave it to fate. Personally, I just tape the cards under everyone's desks at random, then ask them to pull them out and keep their roles ABSOLUTELY SECRET during the discussion. The secrecy is half the fun.

Having a mandated role helps students feel a bit of obligation to try something new, and it also gives them courage to do so. As the discussion progresses, they realize that the others around them are not stuck in one single role either. Dominators get a chance to see quiet students making crucial connections. Interruptors are so busy trying to play devil's advocate that they don't interrupt. Clock-watchers are busily trying to notice who is getting shut down and draw them out. 

Another fun twist is to add a few startling questions to the roles. For example, make a student's role suggesting that a political book is "too political" for the classroom and see what happens. 

In the discussion role cards I made for The Outsiders, I tried to sprinkle in several questions that would help students explore their feelings about the novel, as many connect to it on a deep level. 



When you complete the discussion, give students a few minutes to reflect on paper about their roles. How did the experience change the way they view their own participation? How did it change the way they view others' participation? Chances are, they will see things a bit differently going into the next discussion. And if you continue to hand out roles now and then, you will continue to challenge students' natural inclinations and help them grow. After the written reflection, if you have a few minutes left, let them talk about the experience as a group. 

Pressed for planning time? If you don't want to make your own discussion role cards, I've created a variety of them for my TPT store. I'm giving them away right now (3,000 copies so far!) so you should hurry over and pick them up. A recent reviewer wrote "What a fantastic idea! I can't wait to try these with my students. What a great way to get them excited and involved!" When you pick them up, you might want to follow along with my store so you get notified when I create freebies like these and other great resources for your creative classroom endeavors. 

If you're looking for a more novel-specific set of cards, I've also created them for 1984, The Outsiders, Harry Potter, and Into the Wild.    

I hope trying out role cards will help you teach your students that they aren't stuck in any one way of participating. It's a lesson that can make a real difference in their lives, in school and beyond. 


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