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Fill a Team Toolbox With Shared Writing Strategies

Toolbox full of tools

The right tools help get a job done well.

A toolbox is a well-used metaphor because it denotes a set of tools or skills that help get a task done well. Helping students become better writers is an everyday responsibility for each member of the team, and a shared set of effective strategies benefits both the teachers and their students.

Tool # 1: Knowledge of the grammatical errors most likely to doom speakers and writers to be viewed unfavorably.

There are specific grammatical mistakes that grate on people’s nerves and often lead to a diminished respect for the person committing the error. When a team collaborates to help their students eliminate these blunders from their conversations and writing, they move their students toward meeting standards and being able to present themselves in a favorable light in any situation.

The image below lists the most egregious grammar errors.

Most egregious grammar errors

Most egregious grammar errors

This image lists grammar mistakes that many people consider very serious.

Grammar mistakes to avoid.

Grammar mistakes to avoid.


Here are three ideas of how a team might make use of this knowledge:

  1. Identify which of these serious grammar mistakes are most prevalent in your students’ speaking and writing. Then, create a plan for helping students eliminate these errors.  Helping kids with their grammar can be very delicate work because they may interpret any corrections as an insult to themselves or their families.  It is important, I think, to set a context by talking about audience and purpose.  For example, the way any of us speaks in a job interview is different from the way we chat with our friends. Taking the time to have conversations about the different ways we communicate with family and friends, in the neighborhood, at a religious service, for an assignment in school, or applying for a job is important.  The topic of informal and formal speaking would make a great advisory unit.  Students could role play, make posters, create public service announcements for younger children, or draw cartoons that illustrate proper grammar usage.
  2. As a team focus on one particular error for a week or two — The week of eradicating the double negative or Stamp out sentence fragments month. 
  3. Use common rubrics that include specific grammar usage issues.  If the team agrees that they are going to look for three specific errors in all of its students’ writing, students will have proper usage reinforced in multiple contexts.  They will also see that all of their teachers value correct grammar.  And… for non-language arts teachers it may relieve some stress related to correcting for proper grammar in their assignments.  As students’ work improves, add additional grammar usage issues to the mix. It is critical to continue talking about student writing in team meetings and building everyone’s expertise and confidence in addressing writing in their curriculum area.

***Of course, correct grammar is just one aspect of teaching writing across the curriculum. We’ll look at some additional ideas in later posts.




1:1 Digital Learning

1:1 Digital Learning

1:1 Digital Learning Opens Many Doors!

Response to Questions at Workshop on Block Scheduling

The following post is a set of responses to questions that came up at a recent workshop Chris Toy and I did on block scheduling.  The participants’ questions and the responses may be of interest to others transitioning to block scheduling.

Questions From Staff

Two most important resources:

  1. Yourselves—ask each other questions…”How are you dealing with absences?” What strategies seem to really work with our ELLs? There is a collective wisdom that can be tapped.
  2. Create your own PD by posing questions via the Internet.  Use natural language and end with a ?    ex. What are some good strategies for teaching social studies in the block?

A number of the questions focused on teaching strategies:

Some books:

Everyone’s Invited: Interactive Strategies That Engage Young Adolescents  Jill Spencer available from AMLE   http://www.amle.org/Shop/tabid/135/Default.aspx

Ten Differentiation Strategies for Building Prior Knowledge and Ten Differentiation Strategies for Building Common Core Literacy by Jill Spencer  http://www.amle.org/Shop/tabid/135/Default.aspx

Teaching in the Block: Strategies for Engaging Active Learners by Rettig & Canady   http://www.amazon.com/Teaching-Block-Strategies-Engaging-Learners/dp/1883001234

Differentiated Instructional Strategies for the Block Schedule by Gregory & Herndon  http://www.corwin.com/books/Book228236

Anything by Carol Ann Tomlison

Edutopia has great resources on a variety of topics including inquiry learning, technology integration, etc.: http://www.edutopia.org/grade-level-6-8

Jill says…I follow Edutopia and ISTE on Facebook where I find all sorts of ideas: Edutopia – https://www.facebook.com/edutopia & ISTE – https://www.facebook.com/LikeISTE

MAMLE website—Instructional practices tab: http://mainemamle.org/publications/

Google “heterogeneous class teaching strategies” and you will find many sites full of ideas.

Project based learning resources:

Edutopia: http://www.edutopia.org/project-based-learning

Buck Institute: http://bie.org/

Seven Essentials for PBL: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/sept10/vol68/num01/Seven_Essentials_for_Project-Based_Learning.aspx

Thoughts about planning when doing project learning:

–You will still need to have some focused direct – teaching episodes on specific skills students need to apply in their project work.  e.g. (1) Deciding what is important and what’s just kind of interesting when doing research and taking notes. (2) How to conduct an interview.

–You will still want to plan some sort of closure for each class when students self-assess their effort & progress and reflect on what they have learned.

–You may want to include a check-in where kids tell you what they will be specifically working on during class, and then  follow-up with them individually to check on their progress.

Learning Centers in the Block—These comments come from Sarah Lange Hayes, a math teacher in Amherst, Massachusetts. Although these ideas relate to math, they can be applies to other subjects:

Learning Centers

  • Use formative assessments to determine where students are in their learning–who is ready to extend, who needs reinforcement, and who needs some remediation within the standard(s).
  • Develop 6 or 7 different activity-based learning stations that address students’ needs, one of which is a  “Create Your Own Problem/Activity” station.
  • Determine which students will start at which activities based on your formative assessment data.
  • Develop and share guidelines for moving through stations with students.
  • Work at various stations for 2-3 class periods (total), depending on progress and effectiveness of stations.  I track which stations students are visiting/have visited, and give suggestions to students about where to go next for those who seem to need it.  I and any other adults in the room (special education teacher, special education paraprofessional) move around the room as students work, observing, questioning, guiding.
  • Assign nightly homework based on the stations that the students participated in during class.

In my experience (from Sarah Hayes), a few things that helped this strategy be successful are:

  • Assigning starting stations to students based on formative assessment data help me make sure that each student begins working at an activity that will help move him/her forward in his/her understanding (not too challenging/frustrating to start and not an activity for a concept for which s/he already demonstrated mastery).
  • A variety of stations help with the “time factor.”  It has always been a challenge for me about how to approach the fact that students can work at such different paces and for such different reasons.  Providing enough stations so that students have plenty of activities to explore, combined with the expectation that all students continue working throughout the class period (the number of stations completed is not emphasized, rather the quality of the effort at each station is), helped with this issue.
  • An element of student choice is helpful, but it also important that I monitor these choices myself to make sure students are making effective use of their time.
  • Flexibility to move to a different activity if the current station isn’t a good “fit” is also important.

Special Education

Here are some resources that you may find helpful:

–Universal Design in Learning (http://www.cast.org/udl/ ): is a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn.  UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone–not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.

–Don’t forget that the iPads have text to speech and speech to text capacity—Settings/General/Accessibility/make sure Speak Selection is on.  It will read Internet material as well as other text.  Students with reading issues can listen to text; students who struggle with writing can use the  speech to text capacity to begin to get their ideas down by just speaking. (Click on microphone on keyboard)

–Remember you can get rid of extraneous and distracting material on a website by hitting the 4 straight lines icon on left side of address bar.  distractons

Helping students (1) catch-up when they’ve been absent and (2) retain new learning over vacations, holidays, etc.    Many teachers are using technology resources for these purposes:

  1. Create short videos of lessons and post them online for students to access 24/7.  Two good apps are Show Me and Educreations.  Sometimes the teacher creates them, or often the videos are created by students. After the video is created, the app assigns a URL where the video is posted.
  2. Use Wikis and sites like Edmodo to communicate with students.  Students can ask questions and get responses from their teacher.  Assignments and models of exemplars can be posted for easy access by students and families.
  3. Some teachers do online office hours—very structured and specific times. Google hangout, Google Docs, Skype, IM, etc.
  4. Web tools like Quizlet can set up activities students can access from home or the public library to learn vocabulary.



Tacugama (Chimp Sanctuary)–A Worthy Service Learning Project!

  • Orphaned or abused chimpanzees,
  • A sanctuary that has survived 10 years of civil war.
  • A desperate need for money.

These are the ingredients of a service learning project that will intrigue and inspire middle school students.  On a recent trip to Sierra Leone in West Africa I visited Tacugama, a sanctuary for chimpanzees.  Their goal is to reintroduce the chimps back into the wild, but it is a long and expensive process.

Sitting chimp

learning to socialize

These chimps are in the enclosure that helps them learn to socialize with other chimps.  Many have not had that experience in captivity.

Chimps live in family groups in the wild–socialization is a survival skill.

Over 20,000 chimpanzees roamed the forests of Sierra Leone in the 1970’s, but now there are only 3,000.  There are a variety of reasons why the numbers have dropped drastically:

  • Their habitat has shrunk.
  • They are captured for medical research or to be sold as pets.
  • They are considered ‘bush meat” and when times are tough they are hunted for food.
  • They are highly susceptible to human diseases like HIV.

All most ready for release!

These chimps are almost ready to be released to wild!

The Sanctuary rescues chimps that are often in dire circumstances.  Baby chimps are adorable and so human-like that people often want them as pets.  However, a full grown chimp has 5 times the physical strength of a man, so the cuddly baby grows into a unruly adolescent that can wreck a home in minutes and into an adult that is dangerous.  Hence they are often chained and caged under deplorable conditions.  The Tacugama staff works hard to rehabilitate these chimps so they can live free. Click on this link to read about the history of the Sanctuary: http://www.tacugama.com/history.html.

Sierra Leone’s civil war was tough on the chimps as well as humans.  They were terrorized by bombs and gunfire and suffered physically and emotionally just as humans do.

It takes about $1000 to support one chimpanzee for a year. However, smaller donations are welcomed.   Schools, teams and/or advisory groups might find supporting this haven for battered and endangered chimpanzees a worthwhile project.  More information about supporting Tacugama can be found at this link: http://www.tacugama.com/support.html

Chimp nests

If you look closely at the trees you will see dark clumps of leaves–these are the chimps’ nests where they sleep at night.

Finally, there is a blog that students may find interesting (http://tacugama.wildlifedirect.org/).  The posts explain what is happening with individual chimps; the photos are wonderful!  Readers will learn a lot about chimps as well as the Sanctuary.  We often never know what inspires our students to make specific career and life choices — reading about the chimps of Tacugama may just be a catalyst for future decisions related to international travel, non-profit work, or veterinary work!

Watching us

Who is watching whom???

The one in the back whose face we cannot see was not impressed with us–s/he threw rocks at us.

PS–Feel free to use these pictures for your own use.

Sometimes Numbers Are Not Enough!

We are obsessed with numbers as they relate to learning–data points, standardized tests, and grades.  We miss other aspects of what it means to learn–passion, depth of understanding, creative expression, emotional response, and a life changed forever by an experience.  Even the best rubric would be hard pressed to quantify these things.

This video provides an alternative lens to view how we “do” school.

Watch together as a team.

Have a conversation about how the conductor’s message relates to the team’s mission.


Celebrate Student Strengths as the Year Comes to a Close

Use the final days of school wisely!

They provide the last opportunity to positively impact this group of students.

Think–recognition of their strengths, affirmation of their worth, wishes for their futures.

Here are 5 ideas to take and adapt!

Allow students to do some of the planning and organization.

1. The Grand Good Bye!  an end of the year team gathering (hopefully in a pleasant & comfortable spot)

• Slide show of pictures from throughout the year.****Make sure each child is represented and no one group of students is over represented–you may need to do some last minute photography!

• Positive recognition for each child –Explicitly state how each child contributed to the team–don’t let the cynics on the team rule the day! Identify a positive attribute in each student.

• Teacher skits of some of the more memorable team moments.

2. Sharing of portfolios:

• Kids share portfolios with incoming 6th or 7th or 8th graders as a preview of coming attractions for the next year.

* Students reflect on what they are most proud of from the year and share in small groups.

3. Homeroom Olympics: organize a field day with all sorts of fun activities and have each student sign up up to compete in at least two

• Tug of War

• Water balloon toss

• Backwards sprint

• Kickball

• Scavenger hunt

4. The Legacy–One last community service project that will stand as a reminder to your students that when they came together on a project they made a little corner of the world a better place.

• Create a garden at the school.

• Paint picnic tables at a local park.

• Write and illustrate children’s books for the incoming kindergartners

5. Exit Interviews: each homeroom or advisory teacher sits down for a one-on-one conversation with each child in their group

• Ask students to share suggestions form making the team experience better for the next group.

• Ask them to share their favorite activity of the year.

• Share one thing you really enjoy about the person you are chatting with.

• Offer one positive wish for his/her future.

Remember the old middle school adage:

They may not remember what we taught them, but they sure will remember how we treated them.

Lewis & Clarke Dine at the White House: Middle School Students Engage In Research

Teachers report  they are being discouraged from doing interdisciplinary units because of the Common Core. That’s just wrong-headed thinking!  Recently.  I was at Eastport – South Manor Junior-Senior High School on Long Island and talked with Ken Hanlon, a social studies teacher.  He shared with me details about an interdisciplinary unit his team developed that focuses on the Lewis and Clarke expedition.  The culminating activity is dinner at the White House with President Thomas Jefferson.  Students assume roles and each brings a guest.  Their charge is to discuss the flora and fauna they discovered along their route to the Pacific as well as to speak in detail about the Native Americans they met. Students use primary source material to do their research. Excerpts similar to the one below are available online:

June 28, 1804
William Clark

(They repair the perogue, clean out the boat, sun their powder and woolens, examine their goods, weigh the specific gravity of the two rivers, speculate on the headwaters of the Kansas, and write about the decline of the Kansas Indians)

… I am told they are a fierce & warlike people, being badly Supplied with fire arms, become easily conquered by the Aiauway & Saukees who are better furnished with those materials of War, This Nation is now out in the Plains hunting the Buffalow…the high lands come to the river Kansas on the upper Side at about a mile, full in views, and a butifull place for a fort, good landing-place, the waters of the Kansas is verry disigreeably tasted to me.


Ken described  the students’ enthusiasm for this project which didn’t surprise me. The unit provides just the right mix of academic rigor with active learning to engage and intrigue young adolescents.

We didn’t talk about the Common Core but as I flew home I reflected on my day and thought about this unit. An interdisciplinary unit such as Ken’s one on Lewis and Clarke provides teams a great opportunity to work together to help students master the Common Core standards.  Immediately these anchor standards came to mind:

Reading primary source material is certainly a way to address Reading for Key Ideas and Details

 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.


There are multiple opportunities in an interdisciplinary unit to address Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 

Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.*

Interdisciplinary units usually include research and the development of a product to demonstrate learning.  That work most certainly addresses the standards related to Research to Build and Present Knowledge

 Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.

Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Collaborating  to address the complex array of Common Core literacy standards just makes sense. Historically, interdisciplinary units  are known to engage young adolescents at high levels.  When students are involved in positive and meaningful learning experiences, achievement will increase.

My thanks to Ken Hanlon for allowing me to share this idea with my readers.

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