Where to end up? (Goals for the 1st MP)

I am not one to plan my entire curriculum, lesson by lesson, before the beginning of the school year. Obviously, after teaching it once or a few times, that happens to some extent, but what comes from that once or a few times in terms of lessons, I’m not married to. I’m more than willing to change and adapt for the new class and new school year. However, this year I want to have a clear goal in mind at least for the end of the first marking period. I know where I want to end up for the year, as seen in my previous post, but that feels SO far away on Sept. 2nd. Also, if I’m honest, it’s pretty easy to get lost and circle back a few times along the way if I’m not careful (though sometimes getting lost and circling back in teaching is good and necessary for the kids). But I don’t want to do that because of lack of planning or lack of a goal. Instead, I want to make benchmarks, just like I do for my students, of where I want to be by the end of the first marking period. 

However, instead of making it a “how far I need to be in the curriculum or the readings” type goal, I want to make it skill specific (and then by proxy, content specific). So, regardless of the level, I would like my 11th grade students to know and understand the following by the end of the first marking period:

1. Students will understand the origin of the term “American Dream” and how it has changed over time, including what elements of the country and history and world impact that definition and our access to it, as citizens.

2. Students will have a firm understanding of theme, will be able to track it over the course of a novel, and begin to comment on its effectiveness and meaning beyond a text. 

3. Students will be able to identify basic structures of grammar and conventions (tenses, parts of speech, types of sentences) and apply that knowledge to preliminary understanding of commas and semi-colon. 

4. Students will be able to develop a complex thesis statement, outside of the “listing what they will talk about later” style, and choose appropriate sources as evidence to support their reasoning. 

What about you? Where do you want your students to be by the end of the first marking period?


Where to end up? Goals for the Year

This post couldn’t come at a more perfect time. I’m visiting a friend in Dallas right now, and last night we had a conversation late into the night (the way teachers do) about the idea of differentiation and goals. When we say differentiation, we know that we mean things like chunking assignments or allowing for more time or offering more supports so the struggling student can reach the same goal set for the non-struggling student. But, the question we spent a long time sorting through was, does that mean we’re changing our expectations for students based on their abilities or are we supposed to have the same goals for all students? Does that really do our students a service, having the same goals when they’re not the same? Or does not having the same goals inevitably mean we’re lowering our expectations? These were some tough questions for midnight on a Wednesday, and I’m still thinking about it.

Here’s where we came out – we have two sets of goals. First, we have goals for proficiency for the grade level, where we want ALL students to be by the end of the year and by the time they’re moving onto the next year (whatever level that may be). Second, we have goals by level. So for an honors class, I might then add to that grade level goal, in order to differentiate (and extend) for the honors students and push them further. Whereas for those students on-level, I might have the same grade level goals as I do for the course, and then adjust based on the specific students I have in the room versus as a whole, for the course. Does that make sense to anyone else? I feel like, in my head, I get that. But I’m still not sure if I’m “right” – can we even be “right” in education or is this one of those questions that comes down to philosophy? 

So, with what I thought about and decided last night, and continuing with the UBD-style planning for the upcoming school year, here are the goals I have for my students:

11th grade goals (comes from some extend from PA Core Standards though more focused based on my curriculum): 

By the end of 11th grade, students will…

– be able to identify, track, and analyze theme throughout a text

– connect (synthesize) texts to one another by theme 

– determine author’s purpose and identify supporting elements from the text that proves that

– be able to write a clear thesis that they revisit in each supporting paragraph in order to better prove their argument

– be able to write an effective introductory paragraph that employs various strategies (broad to narrow, historical background, anecdote, quotation) but avoids tropes like “since the dawn of man” and a rhetorical question

– be able to write an effective conclusion paragraph that does just repeat or summarize their previous points

– identify and eliminate passive voice to improve diction

– employ appropriate transition words between and within paragraphs

– determine meaning of tier three vocabulary words using root words, context clues, and connotation

– participate clearly and regularly in classroom discussions of texts and analysis

– communicate with classmates clearly 


By the end of 11th grade honors, students will…

– be able to do all of the above

– evaluate the effectiveness of an author’s purpose

– vary their diction and syntax to create voice in writing

– examine shades of meaning in diction and choose words based on their precise meaning for writing

– challenge other student’s thinking and play devil’s advocate in an argument to further their own purpose/thesis/claim


Obviously these are not hard and fast rules, but I feel based on our long conversation last night, the level of proficiency for my 11th grades is what’s listed first. Then, higher level differentiation starts in the second list. This will not only be used for honors students, as we all know sometimes we have higher level students in a non-honors class or higher than honors students in an honors class. So beyond this, I will use my best judgement. But I would love feedback on this. Is this where you see your 11th graders? Do you push further? How do you view differentiation versus proficiency? Are they at odds or on the same path? 

Backwards Planning – Understanding by Design

In our district, Understanding by Design (UDB) is old hat (in a good way). Everyone knows it and uses it. We’ve had Grant Wiggins come and speak, work with us a few times. and it’s the basis of how pretty much every curriculum planning starts in our district. None of this is to brag. But I assumed, based on this interaction, that everyone knows about UDB and Wiggins and McTighe, but recently, I’ve learned that’s not the case. 

Without outlining their entire work and replacing their text, because really how could I, I wanted to provide a brief overview here of how I start my planning process with UDB in August each year. If this seems useful to you, I HIGHLY suggest buying the book I linked above because it is easily the most important and useful thing I own when it comes to curriculum planning.

So the premise of UDB is backwards planning or “starting with the end in mind,” as the gentlemen say. For me, I look at the course I’m provided and try to think about what I want my students to know by the end of the year. As someone who teaches high school English, I’m a strong proponent of skill mastery usually being the end goal, and the level of mastery I desire and the specificity of what they master comes from their grade level, ability level, and what I know they need to enter the following year’s classroom (in my case, their senior year of high school). 

Once I have those end goals listed, I then start planning backwards. How will I know my students are there? What assessments will I provide to determine their level of proficiency? I then design and/or list assessment (projects, essays, presentations, etc) and create rubrics that outline my expectations. 

Again, backwards from here, I think about how will I prepare them for these assessments? What do I need to cover and how in order to get them ready to reach mastery on these skills/assessments? This is where I plan my activities and formative assessments. I try to match the parts of the rubric to formative assessments and check-points over the course of the unit and the year, so I can see how the students progress. Doing this, I can catch them before the major assessments if there are issues or misunderstandings. Depending on my time, I might also put engagement strategies in here and various formative assessment strategies, to keep things fresh and interesting in the classroom. 

Only after all of this do I add in the content. For me, the focus is on what I want my kids to learn HOW to do by the end of the year, not WHAT. The what is still important to me – I’m an English teacher, after all, and I love books, especially classics (though YA lit is a huge thing for me too!). Once I have the rest of the plan done, I match content to the assessments and activities, asking myself which content will best convey these ideas and skills to the students? As much as people may think English teachers just pick books they love (and in a different way, we do), we usually pick books we know are great at illustrating things like theme, syntax, imagery, etc. In picking those, that’s where what we like might come into play, but what comes first is what teaches the skill or idea best. 

Usually, within picking the content, I try to use a theme to connect the texts. I wrote an earlier post on trying to decide between units by theme or skill and concluded I prefer a balance of both. With this style of planning, you can get that. Once you have your skills covered, then you can pick your theme to unify your texts as well, giving students a grounding for discussion and connection (another set of skills!). 

Obviously, this is an EXTREMELY rough outline of UDB, so I highly suggest getting your hands on a copy of the book if you can (either edition). Let me know below – how do you plan? Have you used UDB? Do you use another style? What’s your process? 

10 Steps for Setting up my Classroom in the New School Year

As the time for planning creeps closer and closer (who am I kidding? It’s already here), I would rather procrastinate by thinking about what I could do differently in my classroom set-up and design. My first year, I spend hundreds of dollars at teacher supply stores and on fancy posters with graphics and Shakespeare images or cartoons of famous authors. However, I realized how infrequently I used those and how infrequently my students look at them. Moreover, it didn’t feel like me. Once I got myself a bit more settled into my classroom management and curriculum plans over the years, I felt like four years in (last year), I was ready to re-examine my room set-up. I overhauled my classroom and made it me. This year, I will tweak a few things but leave much of it the same. Below, I’ll share a list of what I have done or will do, in order to set up my room for the new year.

1. Floor and table lamps – no fluorescent lights! My students always notice at the start of the year that the room seems “dim” the first few days but they adapt quickly and all of the sudden fluorescent lights are horrifyingly bright in my room, on days when subs come in and the overhead lights go on. I suffer from debilitating and frequent (three days + a week) migraines, so light is a big no-no for me. Plus, I’ve heard fluorescent lights can be bad for young mind over long periods of time (although I don’t know if I believe that…). Regardless, I have table and floor lamps with warm lights to keep the room lit but calm. 

2. Sheer drapes in a blue-green color – thankfully I have a great view out of my window to the courtyard, but sometimes my students can be distracted. So not only do the drapes help just a tiny bit to keep their attention inside, but they further add to the home-y feel of the room with the lamps.

3. Book corner – this will be a new thing this year. I have quiet a few book shelves lining the back of my room which can make the back feel cluttered. I will be moving one or two of them to the front corner of the room, where there’s some space thanks to the removal of some unnecessary equipment. With this, there will be a bit of a book corner created by the book shelves. I thought about even adding an area rug there on the floor, but I’ve heard if it doesn’t cover the whole floor, it’s a magnet for dirt and dust. So I’m still mulling that part around. But there will definitely be a book corner.

4. Classroom library – I came from an inner city school that did not have a library in the high school. So myself and another English teacher spent our time collecting books for huge classroom libraries, so our students always had books to read and books that were high-interest. Over the years, since I’ve moved to schools with libraries of their own (my city school closed 😦 ), I have added many more book high-interest books and classics to the collection, as well as resource books for me and the students. This means fewer students leaving my classroom to go to the library for a book! They can skim the shelves, but they “leave it at home.” 

5. Printed and laminated quotation posters – Posters are EXPENSIVE! This was the biggest surprise when I first started decorating my classroom. I couldn’t believe it! And they never felt right for me. Last summer, I started printing out some of the internet memes and license free pieces from the internet, on high-quality settings on my home printer (in color), and then I bought a CHEAP mini-laminator to protect those. They are small posters – only 8 1/2 x 11 inches at most, but it means that I am saving a lot of money on posters I don’t much like and instead can have a lot of interesting and more purposeful posters on my wall. 

6. Printed and laminated Common Core posters – Our school recently made the move back from Standards-Based grading to traditional grading, but during SBG, we were required to post the learning targets we would hit every day on the board. Instead of rewriting them every day, I had a poster made on VistaPrint ($15) and laminated it at school, and then I bought red arrow magnets from Amazon, so I would just move the magnets every day to the new targets, depending on the lesson I was teaching. Even though we won’t have SBG this year, I’m sure we will still have to post the standards we’re covering in the day’s lesson and it helps the students know the purpose behind the lesson, so I will definitely keep these up and used all year long. I printed two posters, one in blue and one in green, for the two different grade levels, so I could distinguish between who was doing which targets each day. They came in handy, without question!

7. Accommodating ADHD students – I read about something on Pinterest regarding how to set up for your room for ADHD students. One of the things that really stuck with me was keeping the front of your room, where your students are facing, free from clutter or too many things to look at. So I will be trying to keep it simple at the front of the room, just with the targets and the homework. Any extraneous or distracting posters will be moved to the sides or the back, so students can look at them before class starts or after it ends, without being distracted during the day’s lesson. 

8. Student Info/Supply Station – At the entrance to my classroom, I have a bulletin board and the tops of some bookshelves. I have yet to put something worthwhile on those bulletin boards. This year, I’m going to use this as an info station for students, a place for me to put laminated copies of the school map, the laminated emergency evacuation route, a smaller white board for each of the homework notes, and a section for the announcements for the day or week, from the principal. On top of the bookshelves, I will have an area for student supplies like extra paper, pencils, markers, tape, a hole-puncher, rulers, tissues, hand sanitizer and moisturizer (a big thing with my high school boys now… who would have thought?), and my book sign-out binder. When students borrow a classroom library book and want to take it out of the room, this is where they go to sign it out and sign it back in. It’s also where I can go to check who has what, when I know I have something and cannot find my copy of it. I also check it at the end of each marking period and remind students to bring things back, if they’ve had them for awhile. The best part about this station is it means students have their own area to go for things that doesn’t keep them crowding around my desk!

9. Power Strips – With a one-to-one school and a nearly paperless classroom, my students use their computers also every single day in the classroom. That means most of the time, at least 5-10 of them need to charge their computers for one reason or another. The four accessible plugs I have just won’t cut it, so I have three different power strips around the room, one in the back and one on each side, so anyone who needs it can charge their computer without going very far or crowding around a single corner. It allows for less disruption and means kids can get to charging without requiring my assistance, figuring out which plugs work and which don’t. This way, they just plug-in and continue!

10. Pictures of them – I saw an Instagram wall on Pinterest that I loved, and I want to adapt this for my students! I have another bulletin board on the back wall that I want to find a better use for. I had some samples of student work on it, but I find those are only helpful during that assignment. Otherwrise, they just sit there. However, at least in the first part of the year, I think having pictures of the students in the room can really help to build a community. So I’m thinking of combining two activities I saw on Pinterest into one – having a student stand at the white board and their classmates write compliments ONLY around his/her head and then my taking a picture of that student and printing it out, to post on the back board like a classroom Instagram feed. Perhaps then I will add to it or change it as the year goes on, with other pictures of things they’re doing and activities they’ve done, since they’re such a visual generation and at the age where they like taking pictures of everything they’re doing, no matter how simple! 

Let me know below what things you will be keeping up in your room this year, what you will be changing out, and what you will be moving around! I’m definitely interested in hearing about any and all set-ups people have, especially for the high school level!

Blogging Plan (August & September)

As my EdTech 537 course comes to a close, the final assignment asks us to develop a blogging plan so we might continue this discourse beyond the boundaries of a graded assignment. Initially, I was skeptical about how I would ever be able to do such a thing during the school year, since we all know teachers become time-crunch robots come September 2nd (August 1st if we’re honest). However, as I started developing this blogging calendar, I began to see how beneficial this might be for me, selfishly. I’ve decided to blog two ways – one as a teacher on this blog, outlining my classroom practices and reflecting on what happens in my room (honestly but respectfully, of course). And then two, opening a blog for my department to post student writings, so we might use it as a means of building community in our district and our building, showing off student work beyond just our bulletin boards.

Below, you will find the blog plan for this blog in August and September. The overall focus is the realities of a high school English classroom, with August focused on planning the curriculum for struggling readers in 11th grade American Literature, and then September focused on reflection on those plans. I want to also post some of what I do in the classroom, the technologies I use, and the honest discussions of what worked and what didn’t from my original August plans. I think this becomes powerful for me because it will help me to organize my thoughts as a teacher and give me a place to positively reflect, instead of moving into that place many of us find ourselves come February and March, down-trodden and looking for any exit possible. If I can use this blog as a floatation device for self-reflection and self-improvement, I might just be able to keep my head a little higher above water when the months get long, the days get long, and the sun seems determined to sleep for even longer. I hope you’ll join me!

August_plan September_plan


Unifying theme versus skill? (Choice post)

August is right around the corner… literally. And we all know what that means!

Month of August


With only five years under my belt, I still do the Sunday plan. I get the sense that some seasoned teachers do this by choice but that most are pretty much planned from memory after a certain point. I’m nowhere near there yet, so Sunday is always my planning day (and thus my dread) and therefore August is my planning Monday. With the first of the month around the corner, it means that my PD books are in piles in the living room and my brain is swirling around all of the files I want to rewrite and reorganize in my Google Drive for the year’s curriculum. Reading Twitter as part of my prep and thinking, I came across this article from Edutopia and it got me thinking – do I focus around theme or skill for each unit?

I believe there are drawbacks to both, and in some ways, the drawbacks can be the same. With theme, by focusing on one theme but a variety of skills throughout, I find myself often get burned out by a given topic of conversation. For example, our curriculum has us discussing the “American Dream” as the first unit. By the end of it, the students don’t even want to hear the phrase any more. They are so sick of hearing about, talking about, and reading about the American Dream. But they do have a strong and thorough understanding of its strengths and weaknesses.

On the other hand, by focusing around a single skill, the unit can feel disorganized and disjointed without a topic to keep it flowing. Yes, we can build toward mastery of a certain type of variety and practice it with a range of texts, but there’s something in me that misses the connections we can make in conversations by not having some sort of unifying theme between the texts while building toward mastery in a given skill.

This brings me to my final point. I believe what I hope to try this year is combing the two – focusing on a skill and a theme, and in places where I would normally overdo it with theme, I will focus more on skill practice and tweaking. Then, my students may not get so burned out by the topic and will still polish those necessary and vital skills of the content area. Also, I’m thinking that by making my themes broad enough, it will allow for large scale discussion and not over saturation on the topic. Instead of talking about the “American Dream,” we could look at “freedoms” for example – really broaden it. Our original theme would encompass that and wouldn’t require a rewrite of any curriculum, but if I move the magnifying lens out a bit further we can solve the problem without much stress.

In closing, how do you handle curriculum development for your courses? Some content areas decide this for you, but others may not. Do you organize around a theme or topic? Or do you organize around a skill? Which do you prefer? What strengths or weaknesses do you see in one choice or the other? And how do you compensate for any weaknesses you perceive?