Posted in Advice for rookies, Cross-curricular instruction, Differentiated instruction, Instructional design

Chapter 60: A Word of Caution

Good grief. Has it really been two years since I last updated? Sorry about that; I plead grad school and licensure dossier.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve spent a lot of time mentoring younger teachers, coordinating cross-curricular projects, and working with prefabbed materials to try to save time, streamline my planning, optimize lessons for remote delivery, etc., etc., etc. Here is a thing I know:

You cannot trust prefabbed materials.

Every prepackaged curriculum has gaps. Even a comprehensive package will lose pieces over time. If your district has been using a particular curriculum for more than a year or two, it is probably safe to assume that you are missing at least one significant tool. Maybe your teacher’s manual never found its way to you and is instead on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard.” Maybe the district decided to save money by skimping on consumables, so you don’t have a full class set of whichever workbook you’re supposed to have. Maybe the program itself ignores the importance of differentiation, so it won’t work for the kid who is reading three years below grade level or can’t remember his multiplication tables or transferred in from another state in the middle of a semester or [insert obstacle here].

Most of us are aware of this problem, so we supplement. If we have time, we sit down, comb through the next unit, figure out what’s missing, and create materials to fill the gaps. If we don’t have time, we grab whatever we can find at Lakeshore Learning or Teachers Pay Teachers or wherever we like to buy stuff for our classrooms, and we poke it into the holes in hopes that it will keep the wind from howling in through the cracks.

It’s OK to do that. You are under zero obligation to create every single assignment from scratch. But if you’re going to use prefabbed materials, you owe it to your students to curate those materials carefully and make sure that A.) they actually do what you need them to do, and B.) they don’t give conflicting directions or information.

This time of year is crazy, and we’re all in survival mode. I get it. I do. I’m writing this post because I started a cross-curricular project with three colleagues and completely failed to vet their materials before tossing them on Google Classroom. My students and I are now living with the ensuing chaos, and I have no one to blame but myself. Reading all the materials and talking to colleagues about how to reconcile the conflicts would have completely eliminated this problem and spared my kids a lot of stress. They deserve better from me, and you can bet they’ll get it next time.

Learn from my mistakes. Vet your materials, and make modifications as needed. Investing a few minutes now can save you and your kids a lot of time and heartache later.

Posted in Uncategorized

Chapter 59: Teaching with brain fog, Part 2

In my last post, I mentioned careful editing and giving students bonus points to catch my mistakes as strategies I use to deal with post-COVID brain fog.

Those strategies help when I accidentally type the wrong word on class materials, but what happens when I lose my train of thought mid-sentence, which is another annoying symptom of Long COVID?

It takes more time and more advance planning, but whenever possible, I backstop myself by making a Google Slides presentation and/or a handout to guide and reinforce my direct instruction. If I need to give the kids vocabulary words, explain a concept, or provide historical context for a lesson, I throw together a quick Google Slides presentation that hits the highlights so I don’t lose my place or forget something I meant to tell the students.

This has been a bit of an adjustment for me. Before COVID, I was accustomed to walking into class with a lesson plan and maybe a vocabulary list, glancing at it before class started, and then writing notes on the board while I discussed the day’s topic with the kids. I might look at the lesson once or twice during class to make sure we were staying on schedule, but most of the time, I just worked from memory, trusting my brain to keep me on track.

I can’t trust my brain to keep me on track these days, so I have to rely on Google to do it for me. It’s more work, but it’s not entirely a bad thing. My kids are used to checking Google Classroom at this point, and having the lecture/discussion topics condensed into a slide show makes it easy for students who are absent or working from home to keep up with the highlights, even if they miss some of the details. It’s also nice for the students who have trouble taking notes quickly to be able to go back and look at the lesson again to see what they missed.

Assuming I have some kind of notes to work from, I can usually create a presentation in an average of two to three minutes per slide, depending on how elaborate I make the slide, how many illustrations I use, and how much animation I decide to do. For note-taking purposes, I find it’s usually helpful to keep the animation relatively simple. I set my slides to advance on click, by paragraph, so the kids can’t see the next point until I’m finished talking about the first one. To speed up the process of building the slides, I pick (or design) my background style on the title slide, build a second slide with information on it, set up the animation the way I want it, and then just duplicate that slide to use as a template so I don’t have to redo the animation every time.

A good rule of thumb on slides: Confine yourself to one topic per slide, with no more than three or four points about that topic, and make sure the font is large enough and clear enough for kids to read from the back of the room. I’d rather make 20 slides that the kids will actually read and use than five overpacked slides that they ignore because they’re bored or intimidated by the sheer quantity of text in front of them.


Posted in Uncategorized

Chapter 58: Teaching with brain fog, Part I

If you’re among the thousands (millions?) of people struggling to function through brain fog in the wake of a COVID infection, I have a few strategies to share that have really helped me over the past 10 months as I’ve adjusted to a new normal.

One of my weirdest post-COVID experiences started right after my fever broke: For several months, my brain seemed to have been taken over by my iPhone’s predictive-text algorithm — the one that thinks if you start typing “obstinate,” you must mean “objectivity,” or if you’re typing “introvert,” you must mean “intramural.” It was exactly as annoying as you think it was. I thought I’d finally gotten past it a few months ago, but this weekend, I was texting with my little brother and typed “under” when I meant “unto,” so apparently this is still a thing when I’m tired or under stress.

Anyway, the main coping strategies I have for this weird dysphasia — the fancy term for when your brain refuses to use words right — are to copy edit the snot out of everything I write and to offer the kids bonus points for finding any mistakes I miss.

When I taught in Oklahoma, I would deliberately plant an error in the objectives and instructions I posted on the board each day, then offer five bonus points to the first kid who caught it. This accomplished five things:

  1. It taught the kids that it’s OK to make mistakes. If the teacher makes at least one mistake every single day, then she obviously doesn’t expect everybody else to be flawless.
  2. It encouraged the kids to get to class on time. If you’re the first one in, you’re the first one to see the board, which means you have a better chance of being the first one to catch the error.
  3. It encouraged the kids to look at the board. There’s no point in posting objectives or instructions if nobody reads them. I never had to worry about kids asking what they were supposed to do, because they came in and read the instructions as soon as they hit the door.
  4. It gave the kids practice proofreading — always a plus in an ELA class, but not a bad exercise for other classes, either. Attention to detail is valuable in every discipline.
  5. It increased the chances of somebody catching it if I made an inadvertent error. Usually, the mistake I planted was the only mistake on the board, but some days, I’d go too fast or get distracted while I was writing and end up making an accidental error somewhere. The kids always caught it for me.

If you aren’t bribing your kids with bonus points to get them to proofread for you, it’s worth trying. I think you’ll find it increases engagement and improves your relationship with your students, who tend to feel safer when they know that A.) you make mistakes, too, and B.) you are willing to admit it.


Posted in Uncategorized

Chapter 57: ADHD Strategy

As I mentioned in my last post, I came down with COVID last November. Physically, I recovered quickly; I had a few lingering symptoms, but they had all faded by March or so.

Neurologically, my recovery wasn’t quite as thorough or rapid as I might have liked. I’m not sure COVID caused new symptoms so much as it just exacerbated existing conditions in a way that forced me to acknowledge them and find workarounds. One of the little parting gifts I got from the infamous COVID brain fog was an amplification of the low-level ADHD symptoms that have been part of my workflow for as long as I can remember.

I have never particularly liked sitting still, but before last November, I could tolerate physical inactivity as long as my mind was actively engaged in something. Now? I can still sit still and read or write if I’m really interested in the subject, but if I’m not, the impulse to get up and move around becomes a literal physical need. That’s an unfortunate situation for a grad student trying to prepare for comprehensive exams.

I happily binge-read about 80 texts between April and July, but when it came to transferring my notes from little Post-It flags stuck in the margins of borrowed books to actual notecards I could use to study, I struggled mightily.

The solution I found is one I’ve used often but previously understood at a purely theoretical level: I used a timer and a reward system to work WITH my ADHD brain and play to its strengths instead of fighting it.

Every hour consisted of six blocks: three 15-minute work sessions, with five-minute breaks in between to stretch, hydrate, etc. I spent the first two work sessions taking notes, then switched to a more active task — laundry, gardening, pet care, working on the mural I’m painting, whatever — for the last block.

About three hours into this process, it struck me that this is exactly the way I constructed lesson plans when I taught on a block schedule. It worked for my kids then, and it works for me now.

The ADHD brain is not wired to sit still and work quietly on a moderately (or less) interesting task for hours on end. Breaks are essential. Rewards are essential. Physical activity is essential. Having a light at the end of the tunnel is essential.

If you have fidgety kids, please understand that as much as their behavior annoys you, it almost certainly annoys them more. That was the big takeaway for me this summer. I didn’t want to be fidgety and unproductive and distracted, but I didn’t have a choice.

If you’re struggling to keep your learners engaged, try the 15:5 model, and make sure that for every 30 minutes the kids spend on something static, you give them 15 minutes’ worth of more active work. I think you’ll find that they accomplish more, with less resistance and fewer discipline issues.

Posted in Uncategorized

Chapter 56: Yeesh.

Has it seriously been a year and a half since I updated this blog? Sorry ’bout that. Here’s what I’ve been doing since then:

  1. Figuring out how to teach in the middle of a pandemic.
  2. Learning Google Classroom.
  3. Surviving my first year of grad school.
  4. Recovering from COVID.
  5. Learning new coping strategies after post-COVID brain fog blew the lid off some longstanding but previously low-level neurodivergence I’m pretty sure I’ve lived with since I was a toddler but didn’t notice because I masked it well, even from myself.

That last bit is important. My whole teaching style is shifting from a freewheeling, highly improvisational approach to a much more carefully structured approach in which all direct instruction is accompanied by a Google Slides presentation to keep me from losing my train of thought (as opposed to my usual shoot from the hip, toss notes on the board as I think of them method). There are advantages to this sort of teaching, of course, but the down sides are enormous, and I hope to everything that’s holy that by the time the world goes back to normal, my brain will have done likewise.

I won’t make any promises, but I hope to resume weekly updates here so I can share some of the things I’ve been learning as I navigate these new challenges. I wouldn’t have chosen to have COVID wreak havoc on my brain, but I’m trying very hard to turn a negative into a positive by using myself as a guinea pig for organizational, time management, and SEL strategies that will ultimately help my kids — and maybe yours, too.


Posted in Distance learning, Remote instruction, Shifting gears

Chapter 55: Remote Control

Our governor here in New Mexico has extended the statewide school closure through the end of the semester. She made the announcement while we were on spring break, and we spent last week scrambling to figure out how to teach remotely. Today is our first day in our virtual classrooms.

The first challenge we had to overcome was making sure everybody had access to the lessons every day. Some of our kids have computers but no internet service. Some have internet service but no computer. We’re trying to plug those gaps, but in the meantime, we’ve had to find workarounds.

Everybody in my building is approaching this challenge a little differently, but as a Douglas Adams fan, I am capitalizing on the fact that my kids all have smartphones. Here is how I am taking advantage of this technology:

1. I revived my old classroom blog, which I set up in 2008 so kids who missed class could find their makeup work easily. To be counted present for the day, the kids have to leave a comment on the blog when they get online to check for assignments. Anybody who hasn’t commented by the end of the day will get a call or text from me.

2. I use a lot of online resources anyway, but this week, I’ve reworked my lesson plans to rely exclusively on stuff I can find for free on the internet. There are a few books I’ll miss teaching, but I’ve discovered several whizbang resources I’ll be using again when I’m back in my physical classroom.

3. I ask the kids who don’t have computers to do their lessons with pen and paper and text me a picture of their work when they finish.

4. I’ve asked the kids to install the Zoom app on their phones. We’ll be doing a newspaper staff meeting via Zoom later this morning, so I’ll see how that goes.


Posted in Cross-curricular instruction, ELA, Hands-on activities, Journalism, Lesson plans, Newspaper, Project-based learning, Teachable moments

Chapter 54: A Three-Week-Long Teachable Moment

One of the best things about being a journalism teacher is that virtually anything that happens can be a teachable moment.

Case in point: Here in New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced yesterday evening that all public schools in the state would close for three weeks, beginning Monday, to contain the potential spread of coronavirus. That means some of my kids will lose some instructional time. But for the kids in my journalism class, this is an opportunity to practice what they’ve been learning in class in the most real-world setting imaginable. History is unfolding around them, and they’re covering it.

Last night, within 30 minutes of the governor’s announcement, several of my student journalists and I were on our phones, holding a meeting via text message to start planning our coverage of the school closure and its effects on our district. Several kids started doing online research to learn more about the virus and why the governor would close school for it. Others started brainstorming story ideas and coming up with lists of questions and sources they could chase down via phone or email to get information. My husband, who works for the local weekly newspaper, gave us a press release from the governor’s office that contained a link to the press conference she’d scheduled for this morning; several kids made the effort to get online and try to watch it this morning. (I’m not sure how many succeeded, because we all encountered some tech issues, but that’s OK — glitches are part of life in a newsroom, too.) Continue reading “Chapter 54: A Three-Week-Long Teachable Moment”

Posted in Differentiated instruction, Special ed, Student engagement, Success, Teachable moments, Winning

Chapter 53: Community Policing

A few weeks ago, a pair of sheriff’s deputies paid a visit to our campus. Visits from LEOs aren’t unheard of, but they’re not super common, either, and the sight of two uniformed officers walking into my classroom startled a student who is still learning some social skills and isn’t comfortable with surprises.

I told him the deputies were just there because they were hoping he’d read them a story. (He’s been working on his fluency a lot lately, so I hoped he’d take the bait.) I asked the deputies to sit down and give him a little space while he processed the situation, which they kindly did. Right about then, his mom arrived to pick him up from school, but the deputies stuck around for a bit, and before they left, I got their names and a mailing address for the sheriff’s office.

The next day, my student wrote a letter inviting them back to hear him read, and when I saw one of the deputies at a school event a few days later, I asked him to give me a heads-up before their next visit so I could be sure my student wasn’t caught off-guard.

I got a text from him yesterday morning, saying they were going to be on campus later. I was out sick but immediately notified my boss, who ensured my student was prepared.

This morning, when I returned to school, my student greeted me with the news that he’d read to his new friends, and they had promised to return with patches for him and his classmates one day soon. He even got out his iPod and proudly showed me a video someone had taken of him reading and joking with them.

I’ve worked for newspapers in three states. I’ve spent a lot of time at crime scenes. I’ve met some pretty great cops. And I think I speak with authority when I say: This is EXACTLY how community policing is supposed to work.

Thanks to the patience of two friendly deputies, my student’s perception of law enforcement has changed from one of fear (which could lead to potentially dangerous misunderstandings when he is older) to one of camaraderie. Bonus: He got to practice reading and socializing a little bit in the process. And he is hella excited about that patch.

I hope he made their day as much as they made his.


Posted in ELA, English, Spelling

Chapter 51: Dunderheads

I’m an English teacher and an old copy editor. If I taught at Hogwarts, my Boggart — a shapeshifter that assumes the form of your deepest fear — would probably look a whole lot like a typo.

With that in mind, here is the email I received a couple of weeks ago:


As Professor Lupin would say: Riddikulus.

In case you’re wondering, this was a scam.

I think I know who sent the email, though:


On the up side, this will make a great basis for a mini-lesson on why spelling is important. Thanks for the teachable moment, suckers.