Sunday, February 4, 2018

So what is it like to be . . . a good teacher

So what is it like to be . . . a good teacher I have taught in all sorts of educational programs. I have done public rural high school, public urban elementary school, charter school, elite private school, and virtual public education. I have taught kindergarten - college age students.I have taught in three states and a US territory. Regardless of when or where I was teaching, I would get the same question “So what is it like to be . . .” fill in the blank. The answer is - it is the same as teaching anywhere else.

My favorite time to answer this question was when I was teaching kindergarten-3rd grade at-risk reading in the mornings and college freshman English in the afternoon. When I was asked what is like to switch from little kids to adults, I answered nothing - college freshmen and kindergartens are about the same: both are really excited to be at school, both think they know everything, and both are a little afraid to leave mom. The only difference was size - kindergartners are a bit shorter. My second favorite time to answer this question was when I was teaching middle school English online. I started in virtual education in 2009, which most people could not even imagine how to do online education with kids. My answer that question was not much - I put in just as many hours for virtual education as I did for brick and mortar. I still had the same issues of motivation, attitude, SPED, helicopter parents, late work, etc. I still had to have lesson plans aligned to standards, sit through staff meeting, deal with interesting policy and procedures, and administer standardized testing. The only difference was communication with families and I could wear jeans everyday since students didn’t see me below my neck I communicated a lot more with parents and students in virtual education - more calls, more email, more lessons - than I ever did with brick and mortar students.

One thing that I have learned from all of the different places I have taught is that a good teacher is good regardless of the environment. According to Rob Jenkins, there are eight traits that make a good teacher good. Good teachers are good nature, are professional without being aloof, seem to enjoy what they are doing, are demanding without being unkind, are comfortable in their own skin, are tremendously creative, and make teaching look easy (2016). According to Marie Orlando, a great teacher respects students, creates a sense of community and belonging in the classroom, is warm and accessible, sets high expectations for all students, has his/her own love of learning, is a skilled leader, can “shift gears,” collaborates with colleagues on an ongoing basis, and maintains professionalism in all areas (2013). Although, I do agree with these lists, I think that it takes something more. It take blood, sweat, tears, time, patience, thick skin, strong stomach, and forgiveness to be a good teacher. Forgiveness being one of the most important attribute( ). A good teacher knows his/her students to be more than a butt in a chair and name in the gradebook. A good teacher knows how to balance and use breaks for recharging. A good teacher smiles even when there is nothing to smile about. A place does not make good teacher. People make a good teacher.

So what is it like to be a teacher in . . . like a teacher anywhere else - rewarding!

Jenkins, Rob. “What Makes a Good Teacher?” What Makes a Good Teacher?, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 31 May 2016, 

Kerr, Rachel. "Teaching - ULTIMATE Practice of Forgiveness." Dr. Rachel Kerr's Classroom, 28 Apr. 2017,

 Orlando, Marie. “Nine Characteristics of a Great Teacher.” Nine Characteristics of a Great Teacher, Faculty Focus: Higher Education Teaching Strategies from Magna Publication, 14 Jan. 2013,

Saturday, January 6, 2018

The More Things Change . . .

I am third generation teacher.   My grandmother was a teacher in a rural one-room school-house in Illinois. My grandmother had a 30 year teaching career, which was unusual for a woman of her generation.  My mother was a home economics teacher in a huge city public high school until she had children; her teaching career was a few years, which was more typical of a woman from her generation.   I am a virtual teacher; I teach middle school Language Arts online, which seems unusual to many teachers in this day and age.  I started teaching in 1995 and still going strong. During my career, I have come to learn about that old adage - the more things change, the more they remain the same.
We have a lot of “new” terms in education - differentiated instruction, full inclusion, collaborative learning, etc.  that my grandmother would never have even heard. Even if she had heard of them, she would probably have given me THAT LOOK that told me that all of this was crazy and just let her teach.  However, Grandma really did have to incorporate all of these “new-fangled" methods of teaching in her everyday classroom in her one-room school house..  

Differentiated Instruction

Screen Shot 2017-11-03 at 8.34.36 AM.pngAccording to Carol Tomlinson, “Differentiated instruction and assessment (also known as differentiated learning or, in education, simply, differentiation) is a framework or philosophy for effective teaching that involves providing different students with different avenues to learning (often in the same classroom) in terms of: acquiring content; processing, constructing, or making sense of ideas; and developing teaching materials and assessment measures so that all students within a classroom can learn effectively, regardless of differences in ability” (2001).  This is considered standard best practice in today’s classroom. Every child should have access effective instruction that will help him/her learn best.  

Grandma had to do this every day.  Every child in her classroom would have been at a different reading level and a different math level. There would be no possible way that her first graders would be doing the same work as her fifth graders.  Her expectations and lesson plans would be different for most every child in her classroom.  

I have to do this as well.  The reading level in my typical classroom can range from 3rd grade level to upper high school level.  There is no way that I can have all students doing the same work at the same level.  It is not only impossible, it is also inappropriate.  

Full Inclusion and/or Mainstream

“Under the inclusion model, students with special needs spend most or all of their time with non-special needs students. Inclusion rejects the use of special schools or classrooms to separate students with disabilities from students without disabilities. Schools with inclusive classrooms do not believe in separate classrooms. They do not have their own separate world so they have to learn how to operate with students without special help.” (wikipedia).

Grandma taught prior to the enactment of PL-94-142 The Education for All Handicapped Children Act. And back then, the most severely handicapped children did not go to school.  However, she would have had students with learning disabilities in her classroom.  She used to talk of students who were “slow learners but hard workers that school just was not their strong point” and students who “just could not sit still no matter what.” Although she may have never had to attend an IEP meeting, she would have had to include those students in the everyday classroom making accommodations for their learning.  

I have never taught without full inclusion or mainstreaming.  When I started teaching in 1995 in my first school district, my district went to full inclusion in the classroom.  I have always had multi-leveled classrooms with students with IEPs.  In my virtual classroom, I have a higher percentage of SPED students than ever had in my brick and mortar classrooms.  I participate in IEP meetings several times a month and have daily contact with the SPED teacher.  Grandma would not have had that support; however, she would have been the one responsible for making sure that her students would have the skills they needed to be successful when they left school.

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Collaborative Learning

According to Cornell University, “Collaborative learning is based on the view that knowledge is a social construct. . . Collaborative learning can occur peer-to-peer or in larger groups. Peer learning, or peer instruction, is a type of collaborative learning that involves students working in pairs or small groups to discuss concepts, or find solutions to problems. This often occurs in a class session after students are introduced to course material through readings or videos before class, and/or through instructor lectures” (2017)

In a one-room schoolhouse, Grandma would have had to use collaborative learning.  She would talk on how she would get several students started on a lesson, then they would work together quietly while she got the next group started.  She would also talk about how she paired older students with younger students, especially if both students needed to work on similar skills.  It seems to me that one room schoolhouses were the original collaborative learning classrooms.  

In the virtual platform, collaborative learning is organized a bit differently. We group students together and put them together in their own “rooms.”  The students still have to work together, discuss the project or problem, and develop a project together.  

The big difference between Grandma’s One Room School House and Virtual Education?

Tools and support -  tools are the big difference between what Grandma did and what I do.  I have a computer, internet, Excel to track data,, Google, more tools than what I know what to do with. Grandma didn’t have Google to rely on. She had textbooks and her own knowledge and wits. I have more specialists - the SPED teacher, the tech teacher, the data analysis lady.  Grandma had herself, her institution, her grade book and her students' parental support.  

So really - not much has changed in the way of education.  We have different terms, but good teaching is just that - good teaching doing what is best for students so that they are ready for their real world when they graduate.

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My classroom

Special Thanks to the Prophetown, IL Historical Society for the pictures of my grandmother.  

“Collaborative Learning: Group Work.” CTI - Collaborative Learning,

“Inclusion (Education).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 24 Oct. 2017,

Tomlinson, Carol (2001). How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Differentiated
Instructions provides access for all students to the general education curriculum. The
method of assessment may look different for each child, however the skill or concepts
taught is the same. Classrooms (2 ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and
Curriculum Development. ISBN 0871205122.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

My Wonderful, Fabulous, Incredibly Awesome Way to teach theme - Using Children's Books to Teach Theme

My Wonderful, Fabulous, Incredibly Awesome Way to teach theme.  

I love Judith Viorst’s stories.  Alexander is the best character!!! And I love using her books in my middle school classes.  Now I have seen lots of other teachers use children’s books before, but I don’t always see how the children's’ books are used to teach the literary analysis skills that students need. As I have stated in my previous blogs (, literary analysis is starting at younger ages, and I notice that my middle school students are just not ready for this type of activity (Kerr, 2017).  The other aspect that I have noticed at conferences and professional development is that many other language arts teachers approach teaching literary analysis and figurative language like a scavenger hunt or guessing game when students, especially younger students, don’t fully understand exactly what they are to be doing.  Again, I feel that I need to tell students exactly what they need to be doing and how to do it in order for them to understand what is expected (Kerr, 2016).

One of the hardest part of analysis that students must do is to find the theme of a piece of literature and how the theme is developed by figurative language.   The working definition that I use is that theme is the universal message that the author is trying to portray. In order to a universal message, the students need to be exposed to different pieces of literature that would have the same theme.  This is where Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst comes into play. I use the story to help the students understand different figurative language before I introduce them to finding the theme poetry.  My students are to analyze “The Rainy Day” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Both of these pieces have the same theme - everyone has bad days.  And both pieces use about the same figurative language to develop the theme.  In my video, I go into great detail on how I teach this lesson.

Here is the shortened version.  

First I read the story to the students.  Then I give a copy of the story to each of the students so that they can mark it up.  I also provide a copy of the chart of figurative language that we will be examining.

By doing this, the students know exactly what figurative language to look for.  I also provide the definitions for the students so that everyone has the same working definition.  We generally do this as a class together.  So when we are finished, everyone should have chart that looks like this:

By filling in the chart, the students will have not only the figurative language, but also the textual evidence that supports the figurative language.  In my video, I go into more explanation about how to fill this out.  

Next, I give the students another empty chart for “The Rainy Day.”  Again, I give them the figurative language and definitions so that they know exactly what to be looking for while analyzing.  Please note that the figurative language is exactly the same -  I didn’t change anything.  This is the hard part because most pieces of literature don’t have exactly the same literary devices. But I feel that it is really important the the students have the same literary devices for the first few times in trying to figure out theme. They also have a the poem available to mark up.

After we finish reading the poem, the students, in small groups, find the examples and effects created.  We then compare them as a whole class so that the students will have a chart that will look like this:  

From here, the students can do a compare/contrast analysis of the two pieces of literatures, an analysis of how authors use hyperbole or repetition, or how mood is developed.  They can then do the writing on their own because they have their charts finished.  My video goes into more detail about how I pull the lesson together.

I really like this process because the students are lead through the process of finding the figurative language and literary devices in order to find theme.  They are also able to connect themselves to this particular theme and see how different authors develop it.  Once students can see the basics of literary analysis, they are more comfortable and confident in finding the theme in other pieces of literature and being able to support how the theme is developed through the use of figurative language and literary devices.  


Auman, Maureen E. Step up to Writing. Longmont, CO: Sopris West, 2003. Print.  
Character Analysis. Dir. Rachel A. Kerr. Rachel Kerr. YouTube, 13 June 2017. Web.
Kerr, Rachel A. "Just Tell Students What You Want and How You Want It Done.” N.p., 17 Feb. 2016. Web.
"Literary Analysis: Using the Elements of Literature." Literary Analysis: Using Elements of  Literature. Roane State Community College, n.d. Web. 13 June 2017. .
"The Value of Literary Study." UW Stout, n.d. Web. 13 June 2017.  <>
Urquhart, Vicki, and Dana Frazee. Teaching Reading in the Content Areas: If Not Me, Then  Who? 3rd ed. Denver: McRel, 2012. Print.
Viorst, Judith. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. New York: Simon & Schuster Children's, 1972. Print.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

How to Use Character Charts to Ease Students into Literary Analysis

Okay - old fashioned teacher coming out again!! This time it is about character analysis!  I have noticed that in the past few years, analysis of literature is starting younger and younger. Unfortunately, many of my middle school students are not ready for literary analysis.  I have seen a variety of factors that play into this issue - students who don’t have basic reading skills mastered, immaturity, lack of motivation, confusion, etc.  Regardless of these factors, literary analysis is still expected.  So, I have developed a few strategies to help all students to be more successful with literary analysis.

To begin with, we need to have a working definition of literary analysis.  If you google “literary analysis,” the first definition is “Literary analysis focuses on how plot/structure, character, setting, and many other techniques are used by the author to create meaning”  (  This is really hard for middle school students because it is so abstract.  Also, many teachers and students approach literary analysis more of a scavenger hunt of trying to find figurative language instead of looking at the pieces of the puzzle that create the story.  

So if literary analysis is so difficult for students, why do we start doing this when students are so young?  According to “The Value of Literary Study” we do literary analysis because “literary study involves the four processes of reading, thinking, discussing, and writing, its practical pedagogical value lies in its tendency to stimulate these activities and thereby improve the student’s ability to perform them” (  In other words, we do this because it teaches students how to think, how to see how pieces of information are put together, and how to understand the motivations and emotions of the characters.  

When I first use a character chart, I  provide everything for the students.  First we discuss the difference between thin and thick questions - for us old timers that is the new term for concrete and abstract questions.