Friday, March 9, 2018

Getting Observed: 6 Tips for an Awesome Observation

Getting Observed: 6 Tips for an Awesome Observation (Musings from the Middle School)
Observations have been a part of my teaching career since the beginning. In my district, you were observed a few times of year (some were announced, some unannounced) until you reached tenure on the first day of your fourth year. Then, I had a brief year or two of no observations before NJ changed the teacher evaluation model, which required ALL teachers, tenured or not, to be observed. So, aside from that short time, observations have always been part of my teaching life.

Anyway, observations are so TRICKY. They fill me with angst and make me feel all hot and nauseous. It's not that I don't like administrators to come into my room. Quite the contrary. In fact, I'm always inviting people in to check out the goings on in my room. But there's just something so terrifying when someone's reason for coming into your room is to rate you on a whole bunch of little parts for the purpose of giving you a score that defines the whole of what you do. That provides a number that now allows you to figure out your "rank" among a group of peers - everyone from the cute, new teacher up the hall with no kids of her own, the Pinterest-perfect classroom, and 40k IG followers, to the guy down the hall who wears flip flops everyday (despite the dress code!) and has been "accidentally" absent for every faculty meeting over the last four years.

Just how will you measure?

Ugh! Angst!!

I wish I didn't feel this way. I know how valuable a new set of eyes on your practice can be. Still, after 13 years, I get butterflies every.single.time.

But, even though I still get nervous, I've learned a whole lot over the years about how to make the best of the stressful situation and impress your visitors. In this post, I want to share with you 6 tips to help you put your best foot forward.

1. Careful planning. Regardless of the evaluation model your district uses - Danielson, Marzano, etc. - you'll want to plan a lesson that showcases a variety of instruction models. I always try to include direct instruction, guided practice, and independent practice in my lesson because I want my observer to see how I can change my role from instructor to facilitator. Below, you will see a copy of the lesson plan from my Creating Dynamic Characters - Lessons that Create Writers #1. I will almost always use one of these lessons if I being observed during a writing period because it easily fits to any writing unit we are doing and showcases lots of different learning experiences.

Lesson plan for an observation example

2. Prepare for your pre- and post-conferences. Hopefully your district gives you the opportunity to have a pre- or post-conference, or ideally both! When going into these meetings, it's important to prepare a bit ahead of time.

  • Pre-conference: 
    • Explain the lesson you are planning to teach and any background s/he should know about why you are doing that lesson. It's helpful to give a recap on what you did a few days before and what you plan to do a few days after this lesson to give some context.
    • Discuss any behavior issues, management situations, IEP/504 modifications s/he should be aware of.
    • Give your administrator something to look for in your practice that you'd like to work on. For example, last year I wanted my observer to look at how I created a culture of equity where each student felt like s/he had a valued voice in my room (sounds pretty fancy, right ;). I like to do this for two reasons: 1.) it shows your observer that you are reflective and always thinking about evolving your practice, and 2.) if you have a great observer, you can actually get some valuable feedback on what is important to you and your practice!
  • Post-conference:
    • Many times, I find that I over plan my lessons and don't always get to the end. If that's the case, explain how you opened your lesson the following day with the closure from the lesson s/he saw. If this happens to me, I like to email this as soon as a can the next day, long with some results of your closure, like pictures of a few exit tickets.
    • Remember, there is ALWAYS something you can do better next time. Be honest with your observer and yourself :)
    • If an administrator makes a recommendation for improvement, remember to get specific clarification of what they mean EXACTLY. We know as teachers that kids can rarely do much with vague feedback like "add more details," and the same goes for us. Don't leave until you are clear on what is expected of you next time.
3. Practice. If anyone ever watched me drive to school in the morning, they'd think I was bonkers. Many times, I am talking away to myself, practicing the lesson that I'm about to give that day. For me, practicing my words is a huge help in executing my lesson. It allows me to refine what I want to say and ensures that I don't forget any essential details.

4. Slow down. You can always tell when I'm nervous because my mouth goes a mile a minute and my breathing is loud and shallow - two qualities that don't go over well when delivering a lesson to middle schoolers! If this happens to you, take a few deep, deliberate breaths and SLOW DOWN. Wait time is so important anyway, but especially important when you are getting observed. Pose a question to students and then take one full breath before asking for answers.

5. Channel chatty students with a pair/share. When kids are little over-excited and I find that they are all trying to chat and call out the answers at once, say something like, "Wow! You all have a lot to say about this! Turn and talk to your table and agree to three ideas to share." This will give the kids time to get the chattiness out of the way without it looking like you've lost control. Just be sure that when it's time to come back together, you wait until there is complete silence in the room before beginning. 

Think, Pair, Share in action

6. If possible, videotape the lesson. I've talked before about my love for the SWIVL. But even if you don't have a SWIVL, taping yourself (with permission, of course!) during an observation is AMAZING because it allows you and your observer to go back and critique together. This is such an empowering experience and allows for much better feedback. 

SWIVL device

Okay, there you have it! Yes, getting observed is not easy, but it can be a lot less painful with these tips. Did I forget anything? Any tips to share? I'd love to hear from you!!

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Revising and Editing Made Easy!

Hey Friends! I've just got a quick post for today. I'm working on a few different "big" posts, but the events of the last week and half have really got me down and I've been struggling with getting stuff done. School shootings always make me pause, but for some reason, this one has just really got me on edge. My thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected by the events in Florida, and my actions are aligned with folks looking to make some real change about how we discuss guns and mental illness in this country. Have you seen the #armmewith movement happening over on Instagram? There's been over 9,000 photos uploaded and tagged so far. I hope you consider joining the movement. You can download a template to make your own poster here.

#armmewith movement

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So, on a lighter note... 

A few weeks ago, I was cleaning out my digital files and I came across this little number that I had created my very first year of teaching:

My Mini-Lesson Newsletter from my first year teaching!

It's a "newsletter" that helps kids navigate their way through the revising and editing process. I remember making it because I wanted something that would outline several of the mini-lessons that I was teaching during writer's workskhop. And even after I taught each of the mini-lesson "articles," I put several copies in our writing center because I found that I was constantly having to remind students of these lessons. The newsletter allowed me to remind students of these lessons quickly without having to reteach.

Anyway, as I was looking through this, I was so proud of my cute, little first-year-teacher self! There is some great content in there. I decided to remake it, adding a few more articles and redesigning the template (how far my design skills have come!). I put a few copies into my writing center for students to use while they work and it's been such a nice addition. I love that I can refer kids to a specific article rather than me having to reteach a mini-lesson that's already been covered.

Each article in this newsletter is a stand-alone mini-lesson for middle school writers.

 Grab your own copy over in my store. If you give it a try, I'd love to hear what you think!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018


There is nothing that says Valentine's Day like chocolate, wine, and SHOPPING!!

Yes, teacher-friends, to show you how much we love and appreciate all the hard work you do each day, we are having a sale! Everything in my store is 25% off with promo code: XOXO.

Check out these deals:

Enjoy, my Friends! And thank you for all you do for our children each and every day.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Teach This Lesson Tomorrow - Nonfiction Poetry

It has been soooooo looooong since I've done one of these posts! Gah! I apologize for the delay.

Anyway, I've got the COOLEST lesson that you can teach tomorrow in your class. I wasn't sure how this would turn out, but I've got to say that this might be one of my favorite "Teach This Lesson Tomorrow" lessons I've done.

It involves this really neat picture book called Eight Days Gone, which is all about the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. The book is historically accurate, but it's written in verse. Don't ya love that?!?

So, here's all you need to do:

1. Give the kids some background knowledge on Apollo 11 (I used Wikipedia... there is no shame!).

2. Read the picture book aloud.

3. Review rhyme scheme.

4. Give kids an article to read. (I used this one about Martin Luther King, Jr. from Newsela).

5. Have the kids retell the article in verse.

6. Share :)

This one was a favorite. (Ignore the typos):

I am thinking that, from time to time, I might have kids forgo the typical Article of the Week and instead have them turn their article into poetry. Nothing like shaking up nonfiction with some creative juice!

If you try this lesson, let me know. I'd love to hear about it. And if you've got a great example from this lesson, even better! Share it with me on Facebook.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Keeping the ART in ELA

I began elementary school in the era of phonics. Looking back, I can honestly say that it seemed to work okay. Matching pictures with their word families in plaid workbooks... I learned to read, but don't remember loving reading.

I finished middle school in the era of dioramas built in shoe boxes and cereal box book reports. Looking back, I can honestly say that I loved every.single.minute of it. But, I also loved to read, so it's hard to say if it was the book reports or the actual books.

I went to college in the era of guided reading, balanced literacy, and running records. Looking back, I can honestly say that I agreed with a lot of it. There was just no proof that dioramas made kids better readers.

I teach in the era of Common Core, standardized testing, and rigorous teacher evaluations. Looking around, I can honestly say that I don't think this is working. Kids are not better readers. And writing skills? Forget about those! And, please, don't get me started on what I think this era is doing to kids living in poverty, in print-poor homes. It's criminal, really.

Throughout my 32 years of schooling, I've seen the pedagogy of ELA swing wildly back and forth. And, I do believe that in every era, there are some nuggets of positive mixed in with a whole lot of negative. As teachers, we need to find those nuggets and figure out ways to integrate them into what we do every day. The hope is that all those nuggets will come together and create the perfect learning environment to foster life-long readers and writers.

The one nugget that I work to incorporate always is ART. I firmly believe in keeping the ART in ENGLISH LANGUAGE ARTS. Because, despite the fact that we, on the daily, absolutely flog literature in the attempt to help kids better answer multiple-choice questions and we've dictated writing formats for students to follow in an attempt to standardized their responses, ELA is ultimately about ART. Literature, poetry, memoir, essays... these are creative, artistic works.

For me, the best way to make sure that we continue to view reading and writing as an art form is to find ways to incorporate actual artistic practice - coloring, drawing, photographing, cutting, gluing, creating - into our day. We don't get to this stuff every day, but we do it as often as possible.

So, without further ado, here are 8 of my favorite ways to incorporate art into our daily ELA instruction.

1. Experiment with the One-Pager. One-Pagers are all over the Internets! Just Google it and you'll find more information than you'll ever need to implement these. Try having students complete one instead of taking a standard test. You won't be disappointed!

2. Give List Writing a try. Enough said. You know how I feel about writing lists. If you're new around here, check out this video:

3. Create Covers. Have your students make covers for their work. They can glue them on notebooks or staple them to the cover of their papers. It makes the BEST "fast finisher" activity and adds such a fun, creative spin to serious work.

4. Put it on a Poster. Instead of having kids answer questions on lined paper, stick a few students together, give them a large sheet of paper and some markers, and simply tell them to PRESENT the answers to their questions. Same work, but a more creative output.

5. Work on Handwriting. Gah!! As a teen, I spent HOURS perfecting my handwriting. Today, it's a lost art :( But it doesn't have to be!! I've watched lots of YouTube and can now hand-letter like a BOSS. When I do it in front of my students, they are mesmerized. They ask me to teach them cursive and show them all the ways I know to write the letter "G." Handwriting is lost art because we've allowed it to become one, so if we want to see it thrive again, we need to work on it. Trust me, your students will thank you.

6. Illustrate their Answers. Why not have students create an illustration to go along with their next literary analysis? In this picture, you are seeing a "mood picture" created by a student for the Bradbury story, "Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed." For the assignment, students had to find the parts of the text that best created the mood of the story. This student then used those examples to a create a picture inspired by the story.

7. Integrate Interactive Student Notebooks. No lie, every year there are 7th grade students that need a demonstration for how to use scissors properly. And there are lots of 7th graders that need to be reminded on how a glue bottle works. Each new school year, I am appalled at the number of kids that do not have these basic, dare I say LIFE, skills. Using Interactive Notebooks (or these huge Interactive Anchor Posters) is a great way to add coloring, cutting, and gluing into your day.

8. Use a Writer's Notebook. I truly believe that Writer's Notebooks should be at the heart of your writing instruction. And I can not encourage you enough to have your students include artwork in them. Motivation will sky-rocket and their notebooks will be so pretty at the end of the year, they'll never want to throw them away. (If you don't feel artsy enough to model this, feel free to start with this.)

So, those are some of my favorite ways to keep the ART in ELA. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this and would really love it if you shared some of your favorite ways to keep the creativity flowing!!