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.


9 Thought-Provoking Ted Talks for your ELA Classroom

There are a multitude of thought-provoking Ted talks out there just waiting to inspire our students.

They can provide perspective on a world issue that comes up in literature, inspire student interest in working on a trait like grit or growth mindset, give information on a topic you're exploring in class, provide role models for a careers unit, and much more.

You might use Ted Talks to launch a debate or socratic seminar, or to provide a prompt for students to write opinion papers or letters to the local newspaper editor on the topic shared in the talk.

Another way to use Ted talks is to show some of your favorites and then have kids write and deliver their own. You could collaborate within your department to host a Ted-inspired event made up of student talks at your school, or even work with your students on a TedX event in your community, inviting both student and local speakers.

In today's post, I'm sharing nine thought-provokingTed Talks for your classroom.


064: A Beginner's Guide to Writing Workshop with Amanda Werner

In today's episode of The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast, you're going to hear from Amanda Werner, experienced workshop teacher, blogger at Amanda Write Now, and host of The Workshop Teacher Podcast.

In this episode, discover how to structure a successful writing workshop, what a workshop mini lesson is, and how to trouble shoot common issues that come up. By the end of the show, you should be ready to give this stellar strategy a spin in your classroom. 


Four Ways to Celebrate Earth Day in ELA

Guess who's got the same birthday as our earth? This girl! Yep, that's right. Every year on the day we turn our eyes towards our planet, I also eat cake. (As much cake as possible, preferably with caramel frosting).

But seriously, maybe because it's my birthday, but I have always been pretty aware of Earth day. It's easy to let it come and go - no school off, no gifts to exchange, no cards to mail - but we don't have to. We can pause and consider the meaning of this day. We can bring the earth into our classrooms, even if it's just for an hour.

In today's post, I want to share with you a few different meaningful activities you could try, either on earth day or in the weeks surrounding it, to take some time to talk about our earth and what it means to us all. Many great writers, poets, speakers, and film makers have put their focus on nature and the environment over the years, so it's not hard to tap into the skills of ELA when focusing on our earth.


Confronting Hate and Talking about Equity in our Classrooms

Last weekend my family and I arrived at our favorite trailhead, a local section of the Appalachian Trail, bags full of Scooby Doo gummies, grapes, and leftover pizza. We couldn't wait to step into the spring sunshine and head up the mountain together. 

As I helped my three-year-old out of the car, I saw a bold yellow splash of color covering the whole middle of the marking lot. I looked closer, then quickly ushered her and her older brother across the sidewalk and up the rocky steps leading to the trail, distracting them from the paint. 

A huge swastika filled the lot. 

This week I've been thinking a lot about what we can do in our English classrooms to take a stand against hate. To teach our students about equity. To open up more dialogue, more understanding, more compassion, more empowerment. To inspire our students to use their voices to make a difference in the world.

It's not a small subject. It can't really be summed up in a quick blog post like "Top 10 Ways to Stop Hate" or "5 Colorful Activities to Bring Equity to America." 

You know what I mean. 

This is a big, weighty subject. A scary subject for many. We've all been told we must never use our positions of authority in the classroom to project our views - political or religious - onto our students. It's not fair to them.

Perhaps you, like me, have tried to approach these issues in class before and encountered real difficulties. You've felt unprepared for the emotion and anger that can come up. You haven't known what to say. What you're allowed to say. What you can say that will help and not hurt. 

It's hard. Really hard. 

But does that mean we can't talk about what's going on in our country? Even if it affects our students? Gun violence? The incarceration of youth? The Black Lives Matter movement? The chaos and agony at the borders? 


8 Station Ideas for Secondary ELA

A few weeks ago Angela Watson interviewed me for her podcast, Truth for Teachers, about my journey as an introverted teacher. And it got me thinking back to my first week of teaching, when I realized I was NOT going to want to stand up front with all eyes on me.

It only took one endless, devastating day of lecturing to show me that I wouldn't be teaching that way ever again.

The first idea I came up back then for shining the spotlight away from me and onto my students was stations. As I thought about how to keep them actively engaged and interested, and keep myself as more of a coach who mingles and guides, I designed an activity that involved the students moving around to various posters on the wall, learning and adjusting their writing as they went.

Each poster had a different "Writing Commandment" - yeah, I was trying to add a little humor - and the kids explored them all through the class, reading the commandments and working on new drafts of their summer reading essays.

For an introverted teacher who had just discovered that lecture was pure torture, it was bliss.

But it also seemed to work well for the students.

These days I know a bit more about stations - what they are, how to structure them, and what they might be used for. So in this post I'm going to share a bunch of ideas with you for how to build them into your curriculum. But first, let's talk quickly about how to set up a station activity.

Of course, you could do it many ways. But here are some basics.


062: When Students choose their Assessments, with David Rickert

In today's episode of The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast, you're going to hear from David Rickert, veteran teacher, illustrator, and blogger.

We're focusing in on student-choice assessment. By the end of the episode you'll know how to get students started in creating their own assessments, how to structure your class unit, how to grade this epic project, and a few tips and tricks to make it all go smoothly. 

Take back your TIME: 40 Tips for Grading Less, Better

Buried under a mountain of grading? Feeling like your fat folder of papers is a ball and chain you take with you to every meeting, appointment, and even family vacation just in case you get a chance to make a dent? When was the last time you watched a little Netflix WITHOUT a blanket of papers to keep you company?!

I get it.

In all my time in the classroom, no one ever gave me any advice to help me deal with grading. I suffered through my marathon three a.m. grading sessions, thinking there was no other way. I made rubrics to explain my grades, but they didn't save me much time. I tried to make grading more fun by sitting at my favorite bakery, but I would finish my cider and espresso brownie only to discover I was through only three papers. Just sixty-seven more to go...

It was the worst. I wanted to spend all my time creating amazing fun lesson plans and projects, not falling asleep on top of vocabulary quizzes, identify portfolios and in-class essays. I think my students tolerated the endless wait time to get their papers back because they liked me and they enjoyed all our creative activities. They knew grading was my Achilles heel.

Now I know it didn't have to be that way. There are sooooo many strategies that can help you get out of the grading hole and see the light again. You DO NOT HAVE TO FEEL GUILTY about taking a stand for yourself and choosing some strategies that will minimize your grading while maximizing its effectiveness.

In this blog post, I'm rolling out every single strategy I've learned in the last ten years to help you make a positive change in your grading load.  At the end you can sign up for the printable PDF with ten of the top strategies to print out so you don't forget to go ahead and change your life.


061: Using Podcasts Successfully in ELA

In today's episode of The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast, you're going to hear from the always creative Amanda from Engaging and Effective. She's my first ever repeat guest, and if you missed our first conversation, you might want to go back and listen because it's definitely one of the most popular episodes ever.

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

In this episode, we're going to dive into all things podcast for the classroom: which podcasts she likes to use, how she helps students stay focused during listening periods, using QR codes to give students access to episodes, and a great creative activity you can use with the NPR show, How I Built This (so good!). 

How to Host a Book Tasting (Free Resource)

Have you been seeing all the fun book tasting posts on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook? I love how every teacher puts a different twist on this fun book hook option.

Maybe it's my inner foodie, but I think this is such a great way to get students interested in new books. It doesn't hurt that I'm writing this for you at four in the morning in Paris, France (jet lag!), where every cafe and patisserie I pass by beckons with caramel macarons, chocolate-almond croissants, and crepes oozing Nutella. I've got food on my mind. 

To make it easy for you to try a book tasting out in your classroom, I've created a free resource for you and I'm going to walk you through the process of hosting a book tasting step-by-step. It's much easier than you might think. 


When Teacher Work-Life Balance seems like a Joke

One of the earliest pieces of advice I remember getting as a teacher (repeatedly) was, “learn how to say no.” I would nod and laugh it off, and the teacher giving me the advice would look deep into my eyes so I would recognize that in this situation, they were Yoda, and I had no idea what I was getting into. 

A little bleak? Yeah. 

I wasn’t super excited about this advice. I was there for the magic. To make my classroom a creative wonderland and connect with the amazing, thoughtful, misunderstood generation of teens just waiting for me to become the mentor they needed. 

I’m not being sarcastic. I wanted to be an amazing teacher, like the English teachers I had loved in school and the teachers I marveled at in the movies. Saying “no” didn’t seem like the best route to get there. 

And so came the first year. Either you’re there now or you’ve been there, so you’ll understand what I mean when I say that it was very hard. 


Students Won't Read? Don't Care? One Year to CHANGE That

So your students won't read. Won't do assignments. Don't care, won't care.

It's frustrating. Exhausting. What can you do? Read every book to them? Threaten them with reading quizzes? Failure? Letters home?

This is not what you signed up for.

I don't have all the answers, but I have been giving this problem a lot of thought. Many teachers in my Facebook group, Creative High School English, are saying the same thing. Students won't read class novels anymore. Students are willing to fail to avoid the work.

So I've been obsessively thinking about what I would do with a classroom full of students staring at me through a dense divide. How would I reach them? This blog post is my manifesto. The general one year plan I would put into place. I hope it can help you find inspiration if you are staring down the barrel of total disengagement and wondering what on earth to do.

Throughout the plan, you'll find links to blog posts that I've created that go deeper into each subject, so if you're not familiar with an idea (like Harkness discussions, genius hour, or one-pagers) you can link out to read more. At the end of the post, I will also link to related curriculum sets I've designed, so you can get help with your planning if you need it.


Maybe Teaching doesn't have to be so Lonely

As a teacher, you're constantly surrounded by people. But you never have much of a chance to talk about what's on your mind. Instead, you share everything you think will help the minds of the students before you. All day long. Every day.

Sure, there are faculty meetings. Department meetings. Intervention meetings. Grade level team meetings.

But do you ever really get a chance to just talk to your peers about what's going on in your classroom? To share what's working and what isn't? To ask for help?

Not really. And maybe you wouldn't even want to, since there's a good chance you don't know most of them very well.

Though I think we can all agree teachers carry a huge weight of emotional concerns for their students and a constant need for new ideas and information, there are very few chances to dispel that weight and feed that need through conversation with colleagues.

So, my friend, here are ten ideas for how you might collaborate in a more joyful way with those around you. Whether you're a first year teacher, a veteran, a department chair, or a curriculum coach, perhaps you can get some conversations going and help lead the way in this direction at your school.


What to Buy with your Teacher Budget or Grant

So you've got some money to spend on your class, or you're planning to apply for some using Donors Choose. But what will help make your classroom a better place for you and your students?

I see this question a lot inside my Facebook group, Creative High School English. It can be overwhelming to have a block of money you're supposed to spend all at once, and not know what will help your students the MOST.

So here are some ideas. Browse through and consider what would help you to engage, inspire, and motivate your students toward greater heights of creative learning. Every classroom is different, but I've got a good feeling that some of these things will feel right to you.


Host a One-Pagers Fair at your School

There are science fairs, art fairs, National History Day fairs... why not English fairs? Maybe it's time to add a special school-wide event promoting literacy, artistry, and imagination at your school.

What am I talking about? A one-pagers fair! Since I first blogged about the concept of using templates to help students explore literature with one-pagers over a year ago, thousands of teachers have introduced this project in class. I love seeing the amazing results all over social media and in my inbox too. What creative work our student are doing! Let's go on a quick tour of a few examples over on Instagram..


Literature Circles for Big Kids: A Blueprint

You hear it right and left these days, choice gives students motivation in their reading.

It makes sense, really. Who doesn't want to pick out their own book? When I go to the library, I love walking down the aisles, grabbing colorful books whose covers pull my attention or books by authors my friends have recommended.

Our students want the same thing. That's why literature circles can be such a great idea. You provide your kiddos with a variety of books to choose from, get them into groups based on their choices, and let the magic happen.

Except... the magic doesn't always happen. Literature circles aren't the easiest to get right.

My first year as a teacher, I knew I didn't have time to fit both The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby into my year, full as it was on either side with all my curriculum experiments - poetry slams, play performances, Transcendental village projects, and creative writing festivals. I knew I could just pick one, but my heart broke a little at the thought of abandoning either Hemingway or Fitzgerald. Who could split up such close friends?

So I pitched both books to my students and let them pick the one they wanted to read. We ended up split about half and half. I had them assign the reading to themselves over the days we would spend on literature circles, and then I introduced them to the traditional literature circles roles (similar to these). They each had a role to prepare for and then present each day, and I collected those role prep sheets to give them credit for their work throughout the unit.

It was OK.

I liked that it pushed them to be independent with their discussions, but I didn't like not being able to rescue both groups at once if they were really struggling.

I liked the concept of the roles, but I didn't like how the prep felt like busywork.

I liked the good work the groups did together, but I felt like it got a little repetitive meeting day after day to do the same general thing.

Earlier this year I asked the amazing teachers in my Facebook Group, Creative High School English, for their best tips on using literature circles well. Crickets. Soon someone chimed in to say that no one was responding because literature circles just don't work.

Well, you know me, I love a challenge.

So this winter I have been designing a new literature circles concept. I call it, literature circles for big kids.

Here are the guidelines to help get you started. (By the way, need book sets before you can do literature circles? Check out this guide to using Donors Choose effectively for funding.)

#1 Start with a Book Tasting

Opening your literature circles unit with a book tasting will allow your students to "sample" each book and find out if they like it. It's a simple activity, but requires a bit of muscle. Pull your seating together into little cafe-style tables and, if possible, throw some tablecloths over them. Set the mood as much as you can with vases of flowers, a little background music, maybe some snacks. (Check out some photos for inspiration in this fun article over on We Are Teachers).

Then spread your literature circles book choices out over the tables. Have students move from table to table, previewing the books and jotting down their reactions on a piece of paper (some kind of a menu or book review handout that you create). By the end, they should have a clear favorite or two.

At this point, you can have them turn in a list of their top three choices, or you can try to sort things out in person by having them move to different parts of the room representing different books. If you've got enough books for everyone in their first choice group, then you can skip the step of collecting preferences and assigning books. If you don't, you can ask people to try to shuffle a bit in new directions (pitch hard for the book that's getting no love!) or just move right into collecting preferences. Assign the books and move forward from there.

#2 Let Students Assign their Reading over a Select Few Meetings

This is a key adjustment with this literature circles for big kids program. It's HARD to keep the momentum going for independent group meetings if you slowly wade through the books a chapter at a time.

So instead, embed your literature circles work inside some other unit, so you can spread out their group meetings (and they can schedule their reading) over the course of about a month. Maybe you're working on real-world argument and vocabulary, or doing an ELA makerspace unit, or blogging, or trying out genius hour for the first time on the alternating days.

Just print up a basic schedule for the month for your students, and ask them to assign their own reading so they can finish the book in segments for your meetings. Here's an example calendar (below) to give you the idea.

Alternatively, if your kids really struggle to complete reading outside of class, you can alternate meeting days with reading days.

#3 Give Groups Creative Activities to do during their Meetings

Now here's another key switch. Instead of making each meeting the same, with every role offering a short presentation on the work they've brought in, followed by a discussion that will only be as good as the enthusiasm each group member brings to it, make each day a different activity, as you might with a whole class novel.

Tons of different types of activities would work, but the ones I brainstormed for this unit are: silent discussions, open mind character analysis activities, book-themed Instagram posts, one-pagers, lightning theater versions, and making video book trailers. For each activity, you can assign a short homework that goes with the reading and helps them prepare for that particular type of activity. So before a silent discussion, you might have them brainstorming discussion questions and circling their favorite. Before a lightning theater version activity, you might have them create timelines of five key moments in the reading so far.

With everyone doing similar activities, you'll be able to let groups share out at the end of the period or even do full gallery walks or performances in the next period if you want to. Students will be interacting with allll the books being read and hopefully getting interested in other titles.

#4 Wrap it up with a Group Share

To finish your literature circles unit effectively, have students do a final project that leads to a shareable product - like Youtube-style book trailer videos or a Literary Food Truck Project (click here to visit a post all about literary food trucks and pick up a free curriculum set).

Make the finale of your unit the enjoyment of this final product in a special class event, and let students vote on their favorites so you can give out awards. This way, every student is exposed to the themes and ideas of every book. Then your next move can be to set up all your literature circles books in your independent reading library, so everyone can branch out and try more from your set as part of your choice reading curriculum (don't have one yet? Sign up for the 5 Day Choice Reading Challenge here!).

Hopefully you're feeling ready to design the Literature Circles unit of your dreams. Empower your students with choice, but keep things from dragging and give them lots of creative ways to interact with their reading with this fun blueprint.

If you'd like a hand prepping your materials, you can find my new full curriculum for Literature Circles for any Booklist right here on TPT.


057: Creative Tech Tools for ELA Teachers, with Jennifer Gonzalez

(This post contains affiliate links. I'd only recommend something I really believe in. In fact, this is the first time I've ever included an affiliate link in a post). 

While I consider myself reasonably techy, having started my own podcast, made a serious friendship with Canva, and even gotten the hang of basic video creation, today's guest, Jennifer Gonzalez, takes it to a whole new level. 

I'm betting you already know about Jennifer's website, Cult of Pedagogy, and her podcast by the same name. It's an incredible source of information for teachers at all grade levels and in all disciplines. 

Each year she spends two months updating and revising her tech guide for teachers, then puts out a podcast featuring her favorite new tools for the year. She's even put together an online course for teachers interested in maximizing their creative use of technology in class, JumpStart

My legs fell asleep as I laid in bed last night, glued to the pages of her 2019 Teacher's Guide to Tech, finding thing after thing I had been wishing I could get my hands on as I clicked through its hundreds of colorful hyperlinked pages featuring virtually every useful tech tool available to teachers. 

An explanation for those little QR code squares I see everywhere and how I could actually use them in class? Yep. 

An explanation for how on earth these #Twitterchats I'm always hearing about actually work? Finally.

Tools for helping students with their writing? There were actually six separate CATEGORIES full of tools for just this.

More than just telling me what I've been wanting to know, the guide also told me about lots of things I didn't even know I wanted to know.

Like how to use Noisli to create my own happy place wherever I'm working. Maybe I'm sitting by the cute paper snowman in the hall outside my daughter's preschool, trying to cram in ten minutes of work before I get to hug her. Now I can be playing coffee shop sounds with hints of a roaring fire in the fireplace and a light rain outside into my earbuds. I MEAN COME ON! How cool is that?

So you can imagine I was excited to sit down with Jennifer and ask her to focus in especially on technology for creative ELA teachers. And it was just as much fun as I thought it would be. 

Get ready to learn about some great tools for you to use in class immediately, innovative ways schools are building learning spaces around tech, and how to get students started with curation projects and podcasting. This episode is FULL of ideas you can incorporate into your curriculum, no matter what you're teaching. I can't wait for you to hear it. 

You can read the full transcript here,  listen below, or tune in on iTunesBlubrry, or Stitcher. Read on for the written highlights. 

The Best and Brightest New Tech tools for ELA Teachers

We started our conversation by focusing on some of the newest tools Jennifer discovered this year that would help creative ELA teachers.

Equity Maps: This is a discussion tracker you can use to see who is participating and how. You plug in your students' names before the discussion and then observe and mark down what each student is contributing.

"Whether it's to disagree with a classmate or to bring up a brand new point," said Jennifer,  "or to build off of something that someone else is saying, or even if they're not there derailing the discussion completely or just being distracting, they mark all of that down and then they have this map of who participated, how much, what kind of quality contributions did they make, and so on. It's just a really neat idea in terms of - you know - figuring out how much your students are participating."

Once the conversation is finished, you can all look together at the results. Everyone is bound to learn something about their own contributions.

"I think it's really good to encourage students who aren't participating very much to show them how little they really did, and it also can work the other way for those who tend to dominate the conversation," said Jennifer. "It can show them how often they really were participating. It can also just help the teacher in terms of balancing out who they call on."

Microsoft Translator: If you've got students in your classroom who speak very little English, this tool may be your new best friend. 

"It translates people's conversations while they're having them, and it's kind of amazing technology," said Jennifer. "It uses artificial intelligence to guess what you're saying. It's an app that you can put on your phone, and it works both ways. Students can ask you questions and it gives you a written transcript of what you're saying. I could be talking and I could maybe have a student come in from China, and they can program it so that while I'm talking, they're getting a written transcript of what I'm saying in Chinese."

This tool can help language learners in partner discussions and small groups, as well as in conferences with you. 

Webjets: This is a mind-mapping / curation tool that will allow students to gather information, websites, videos, podcasts, images, and anything else they can find online into a virtual workspace. 

"This is like Padlet on steroids," said Jennifer, "because you can collect things on to this sort of bulletin board online. It can be links to websites, it can be videos, the videos will be embedded and playable right there on the board." 
The program is useful both for creatively teaching material and for giving students an option to present their ideas back to you. "I could see it being a really nice format for teachers who wanted to share a flip lesson or just a collection of things for students to look at and read," said Jennifer, "and it can also make a great format for the final submission of a project. If the student has a multimedia project that they were doing that had maybe a video component, maybe a podcast, maybe some images, and then also some text. You can even embed a working Google doc inside this board and actually go in and edit it right on the board. It's just really flexible and an interesting." 

A Successful Tech-Based Program to Inspire

Next up, I asked Jennifer to share a story from one of her many interviews and collaborations, of a school that is successfully using technology in a unique and inspiring way. She shared the story of one school in Ohio, that revisioned it's library from a space with only books, to a space filled with moveable furniture, freestanding whiteboards, and various movable tech tools students could use to collaborate on group projects. (Plus, the books are still there...) Almost like the Google Garage for high school. Now they call it the learning center.

"In some ways this idea is very similar to the way we have always rented out iPad carts, Chromebook carts, computer labs," said Jennifer, "we reserve those, but it's all in this big space. There's a lot of other types of technology in there now that really get kids to collaborate now, instead of everybody just being on their own devices. They've even got a system to where teachers can just send small groups or individual students down to work on their own projects and take advantage of all of this technology that's in there. They've increased their student use by over a thousand percent, where they would maybe get nine kids a week would come in. Now it's one-hundred-fifty kids coming in."

Classroom Project Idea: Curation

Curation is a relatively new type of classroom project. It involves students gathering a range of sources on a topic and putting them into a collection, with commentary on each aspect of the collection which shows why they've included it and perhaps analyzes it, depending on the assignment.

"I feel like curation-- I'm kind of tired of the expression --- '21st-century skill,' but I really do feel like curation is one of the most important skills that we need to have right now with all of the information available to us. Teachers and students, all professionals really need to learn how to filter through all the information that's out there and collect stuff for a specific purpose, and then deliver it in a way that your audience, whoever that is, can consume it in an enjoyable way," said Jennifer.

Jenn suggested elink as a particularly helpful option when it comes to curation. This tool will allow students to pull a web link and see the URL and picture from the site, then add their own text to explain its relevance to the project. It's a lot like making a Facebook post, so it's quite intuitive for most of our social-media attached teens.

Example of an elink I created for Jenn's blog post about Curation.

Jennifer had lots of fun suggestions to get us started thinking about how to use a curation project. "I think a teacher could do something that's like a literature review that people do in academic research where you talk about all that's come before this, and here's what this person says about that, here's what this person says, maybe here's an example of something that's not well researched. We're really bringing in the evaluation level of Bloom's taxonomy where students are judging something for quality as opposed to just saying, 'Here's the information that I got.' ...There's a lot of different ways that we could do this. We could do a ranked collection, for example. Maybe if we've been doing a lot of self-selected books throughout the school year, a nice end of year project would be for students to collect the top ten quotes from the books that they read that year, and they gather those up in some way. If we're doing a grammar type of an assignment, for example, they could be looking for some real-world examples of hyperbole."

Aren't you excited to try this out?

Classroom Project Idea: Podcasting

Perhaps since Jennifer and I are fellow podcasters, I felt we could have stayed on this subject for an entire show. There are so many fruitful ways you could use podcasting in class, once you get over the initial tech hurdles (that are really not so bad!). 

Let's start with some steps for getting students started effectively, and then look at a few different ways to use podcasting in class. 

1. Begin by exposing students to a range of different appropriate podcasts. "I would not let them loose," said Jenn,  "but let them see all the different kinds because there's so many that are really, really specific. There's just baseball podcasts, and there's just podcasts that are about a TV show. I think if students realize all the different kinds of topics they could actually do a podcast on, they would get really excited because there really is something for everyone."

2. From there it's time for students to think about what they'd be interested in talking about. "I think the harder thing about podcasting is figuring out what you want your content to be and then actually planning that out, and also getting over the idea of hearing your own voice recorded," said Jennifer.  "It surprises me actually because I've got an online course for teachers called Jump Start. It's ten modules, and it's for tech integration in the classroom. The last module is just basic podcasting, and they have to make four audio recordings. A lot of people talk about struggling hearing their own voice."

3. Once students have an idea for a topic, it's time to think about the style of their show and their audience. Will they record on their own? Do interviews? Incorporate lots of research? At this point, they can map out maybe five short five minute shows.

4. Jennifer recommends cutting through the stress of trying to record in a sound editing program to begin. Simply have students record audio into one of their devices, or use something like the Google Chrome "Simple Audio Recorder." Once they have their series of audio files, they can pull them together on a Google Slide to present.

5. For students who want to take it further, Jennifer recommends using Garageband or Audacity to dive into the process of actually editing and mixing sound files, and then using the highly accessible platform, Anchor FM, to go live to the world.

OK, so if you're really interested in diving into podcasting deeply with your students, here are some more ways (beyond a stand-alone podcast unit) you could build it into your curriculum.

Podcasting sure could make a great elective...

Research Paper Option

As an alternative to writing a research paper, you could let students record a research podcast. "One of the best podcasts I've listened to lately is called Teaching Hard History which is all about slavery," said Jennifer. "It's done by Teaching Tolerance. There is some academic depth to this podcast. It is definitely not people just sitting around shooting the breeze. For kids to listen to that and see how much research really goes into that, having a having a podcast or a podcast series would make a really nice option for kids who prefer to talk instead of write. Especially, if there is some really rigorous academic criteria that's going to be applied to the grading of it."

Genius Hour

If you're interested in trying a genius hour project with your students, in which they pursue a personal interest in class throughout the year, a podcast - like a blog or a Youtube channel - would make a great outlet for them to document their work. They'd be using their ELA skills to process what they are learning as they explore what truly interests them.

Curation Project

This could make a great project for students even before (or after) diving into making their own podcasts. Let them look around for a series of podcast that fit a theme they are interested in, whether that's a certain niche topic or style. Maybe they'll share three podcasts about technology that are interview-style with well-mixed music. Or maybe they'll look at three popular teen podcasts with three different production styles and what makes each one work.

Four Pieces of Advice for Keeping Tech Anxiety at Bay 

I saved this question for last, because I wanted us to be inspired by all the options before we talked about the anxieties that can come up with tech. Luckily, Jennifer has a ton of good advice for helping us overcome those anxieties.

Mindset: "If you go into it expecting that you're going to have problems, then that's actually a good thing, as opposed to going into it just crossing your fingers and praying that nothing goes wrong. Go into it with the attitude of, 'Okay, sooner or later something is probably not going to work, so I am going to ride that wave when it comes, and that's okay.' Just knowing ahead of time not everything goes right. With that in mind-- and I guess when I say that I don't mean that you're going into it pessimistic, you're going into it loose and realistic, like, 'Things could happen, and I'm going to be okay with that.'"

Start Small: "Starting with something really small like, for example, when I'm talking about the podcast, don't try to have them do a full-fledged learn the audio editing and everything. Get a simple audio recorder, tell them you can re-record but you can't edit, it's like voicemail, and then don't mess with all that crazy difficult stuff. Just do the first step first and figure out the simplest way of handling it, and then you're going to get the bug and you're going to want to try something harder. Start with small projects that are low risk."

Do Trial Runs: "If you're going to use a new app with your class, don't walk in first period and just start. I'd say two days before, get five kids to come in at lunch and try it with you first and see where are the bugs, what are the questions that the kids are going to have, what piece of it did I completely forget about that I need to remember. Do trial runs either with your very smallest class, or with a group of people after school, or just yourself. I sometimes, I'll have my own children try something out with me that I want to test because I'm not sure how it works or whatever. Most teachers have those couple of kids, or a nephew, or something where they can test something out before you're looking at losing a whole class period to something."

Always have a Backup Plan: "Always know, 'What am I going to do if the internet goes out?' or if, 'This thing suddenly locks us all out we can't do this.' What is your analog plan? Is it to just do it on paper or to just not do this activity right now and move to something else. As ELA teachers, the kids have a book, just read your book. 'Everybody, just get out your independent reading book and that's what we're going to do while I figure this out.' It's good to have a backup plan so that you don't end up freaking out if it doesn't work."

Well, I think you're ready! Time to go try out all these awesome ideas, and then share all the amazing results over in our Facebook group, Creative High School English

Connect with Jennifer Gonzalez

By visiting the website, Cult of Pedagogy, you can spring out to her podcast, blog, videos, and store.

Check out her 2019 Teacher's Guide to Tech here.

Learn more about her technology course for teachers, JumpStart, here. If you're a department chair or curriculum coach, check out the group licensing options. You could launch the course with a group of interested faculty at your school.

I am an affiliate for Jennifer's Guide and course. I asked her if I could recommend them here, because I think it's awesome. As an affiliate, I receive a small commission if you purchase her guide or course through my links. So your purchase from this site helps support the work I do here at Spark Creativity. I would never affiliate for a product I didn't believe in. In fact, this is the very first affiliate product I've ever shared here on my site. 

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