Encouraging Teamwork with Pooled Responses, Individual Assessments

Let’s say that you come up with a cool project for class.

Say: Design and build (using computer drafting programs or 3d craft and found materials) a monument to be placed in the Mall in Washington DC for something that has affected American society during your lifetime.

Let’s say you teach all the concepts of brainstorming and bouncing ideas around – planning, building, revising – getting feedback. The whole shebang.

Now what? You grade it with a rubric?

Sure. You can do that.

I have a better idea:

Have students link to their projects on a shared class document – either to a photo, a screenshot, or to whatever online link brings a visitor to the students’ work – along with a document providing a “tour” of their project, an explanation.

Next, assign an essay that requires students to explore a topic, where a component of the analysis requires them to review their classmates projects and, choosing 2-3:

A. Compare / contrast / critique various projects’ details, approach, and / or themes, statements

B. Riff off ideas begun by various projects

C. Suggest changes the artist could (hypothetically?) make to make a more effective piece – using the phrase: “If this was my project,” I would ______.

Additional Notes:

1. Students may analyze their own buildings; include a slightly adjusted set of prompts for this.

2. This allows even students who bomb the project to recover and learn from the unit.

3. Knowing that others students will see their work is an incentive to create a polished piece of work!

The Power of Second Chances

I, like most teachers, have really high expectations for my students. I also work with middle schoolers, and I know the first half of this sentence has a large portion of you thinking to yourself that I’m a brave soul. But I love them, and I know that they’re capable of great things. In fact, I believe that middle schoolers are the most underestimated people in our population. But I’ve only come to realize that as I’ve learned to give my students the power of second chances.

I really see this power come into play on large essays and projects. Students spend a lot of time pouring their hearts and minds into them, and I do my best to give them input along the way. Tools like Google Apps for Education are making this easier every day. But there are also many times when I’m unable to see their progress every day.

Because of their hard work, their projects turn out great. I enjoy looking at them, and they often prompt me to see a small sliver of the world in a new light. However, when I sit down to give them a summative assessment, I also find a few things I haven’t given comments on along the way. I see a few small things my students could tweak to take their project to the next level (or two or three), and these make up the final grade and comments I leave my students.

But I’d like to argue that it shouldn’t stop there. I’ve begun allowing my students to take that summative feedback and apply it once more to their project, just to see what might happen. Yeah, they can earn a few points back, but more than anything, I want them to see what just a little bit more time and just a little bit more feedback can do their work.

And they do. I’m sitting here smiling as I think of all the projects that really finalized in the stage after they’d received their grade. These are the ones that truly rocked my world. These are the ones that I’ll remember no matter how old I get. These are the ones I share when I present at conferences. But more importantly, these are the ones of which students are most proud. These are the ones that email to their grandparents or post on Facebook. These are the ones that make their faces light up. And that pride in their work, that makes it all worth it.



Connecting to Teens: Develop Your Teacher Persona :)

Teenagers are among the most interesting people on Earth, combining paradoxes in fast succession.

  • They are oddly predictable and unusually unpredictable at once.
  • They are idealistic, able to wish for a better world with a zeal many adults cannot fathom – but unbelievably cynical about even the smallest thing.
  • They are passionate and emotional and also can put up emotion-squelching walls that nothing can pass through.
  • Working with them can be exhilarating. Working with them can be devastating.

How can a non-teenager connect to teenagers – visiting their world for inspiring, aiding, supporting and encouraging – for teaching – but not being sucked into the chaos and instability?

Create a persona.

Practice it.

Rely on it.

Now, let me begin with what a Persona is not.

  • A persona is not “being fake.”
  • A persona is not “inauthentic.”
  • A persona is not a “mask.”

On the other hand, a persona is:

  • Your best self.
  • A professional identity that can defer your own needs – and focus on children’s needs.
  • Endlessly positive, endlessly patient.

Is this possible?

It is. On the one hand, this isn’t different from what professionals do all over the world, every day. If you’re a barista at a coffeeshop, the fact that you detest the ever-popular triple-double-decaf-halfcaf is irrelevant. You’re there to make drinks to order.

If you’re a zoo keeper, the fact that you prefer pangolins to penguins is irrelevant. It’s feeding time for both.

On the other hand, some careers require a deeper-dive into the persona.

Stand-up comics: the moment they become frustrated or angry with their audience is the moment they’re booed off-stage.

Therapists: the moment they demonstrate their boredom with the client’s complaining is the moment they lose their client – and deservedly so.

Teachers: the moment their frustration with teenager’s admittedly frustrating behavior becomes evident is the moment they lose the respect of the students. It’s the moment they undermine their own potential to teach.

Your persona is your voicebox. Your buffer. Your shield. It’s the point of contact between you and the children. It’s the difference between Evan Wolkenstein and “Mr. Wolk.”

When I enter the school, I am Mr. Wolk. You can find your persona, too. Maybe our personas can have lunch.

Persona Dos and Don’ts:


  • Dress the part. Wear something nice every day. Show that you respect your profession, you respect the students, and you respect yourself. For more on the power of a great outfit, check out my blog, Style For Dorks!
  • Reflect on the kind of traits you’d want for someone teaching a child close to your heart. Write about them, talk about them, and look for them – in other people, in movies, in books, and on the street. Practice and emulate.
  • Do develop phrases and mini speeches to help you communicate potentially frustrating messages in a non-emotional way.

Example One: “I just want to remind everyone that this is quiet work time. If you’re talking with your neighbor, now is the time to refocus back on your work.”

Example Two: “I just want to remind everyone that this class is for this class only. If you are [working on homework for another class, passing a note, surfing the net on your phone], it’s time to stop.”

Example Three: “I just want to remind everyone that when I say it’s worktime, it’s not a good time to start a conversation. I’m looking for people to move quickly into work groups.”

Bottom line: You don’t have the brain-space to be creative – and you can’t afford to be reactive. So memorize a nice, little speech, and if you need to repeat it – or say it louder – or call a student’s name and then repeat the speech, so be it. My tip: start your speech with, “I want to remind everyone that…”

For a deeper dive, check out my blog post and animated cartoon, here.


  • Don’t Boast or complain about anything in your life. This is not about you. It’s about the students. That said, disclosure as a way of connecting to students and teaching is acceptable – as long as you never share anything private. Be reflective as you share about the message you are sending. The line is blurry one, so play it safe. If it feels weird to talk about it, it’s probably weird for them to listen to it.
  • Don’t Drop your persona when a student comes to you for a one-on-one on an emotional subject. That’s the time to be your most patient, kind, collected, and professional. Sharing your own pain on any subject isn’t helpful to the student. Being a kind, comforting, professional presence for the student is.
  • Don’t Confuse mock debates for actual debates. Argue about the superiority of the Rolling Stones vs. The Beatles. Do not argue about politics, religion, or personal values.
  • Don’t Drop your persona when you think students are not listening. Gossiping in the cafeteria with other teachers, cracking crass jokes – the students will see it. And it will undermine their trust.
  • Don’t Yell. Ever. There has never been a time when I yelled and didn’t regret it afterwards. Speak clearly, speak truly – and be controlled.

Poll Everywhere: 5 Great Ways to Use it

In the last post, I mentioned Poll Everywhere for beginning-of-class polls. Here are 5 ways you may want to try using polls in class.

Note: Poll Everywhere is free and for students answering, anonymous. They can answer from laptops, tablets, or even cell phones! And their reactions to the polls, in my experience, are surprisingly energized and energizing. It’s fun for them to see their vote counted on the shifting bars, and it gives you a “meta-text” to discuss – not only the student’s reaction to a text or an event, and also, students’ reactions to the reactions!

I suggest using Polls as the final step in FTW

I’ll spare you the details of each question. Read them for approach, rather than for speicifc meaning.

In every case, you can:

A: Ask for students to explain their own answer, in discussion or partners.

B: Ask for students to speculate about why the class as a whole answered with whatever trends they answered.

1. In the video you watched as homework, Darren Brown did some pretty amazing things in a small town in England. Which of these most closely matches your reaction?

A. It was inspiring.

B. It was apalling.

C. It was somewhere in between.

D. Something else.

Then, for 5 minutes, students explain their answer in writing.

Then, discuss why you wrote what you wrote.

2. I found today’s review session games:

A. Helpful, fun, and worth doing.

B. Helpful but not fun. Try a different approach.

C. Fun but not helpful. Try a different approach.

D. Hated it.

E. Something else.

Then, offer the chance for students to comment.

3. I found today’s all school assembly:

A. Interesting and relevant to my life.

B. Interesting but not relevant to my life.

C. Relevant to my life but not interesting.

D. Neither interesting nor relevant.

E. Wasn’t there.

F. Slept the whole time.

G. Offensive.

Then, offer the chance for students to comment.

4. Is your relationship with your parents:

A. Almost always harmonious.

B. Mostly harmonious with periods of conflict.

C. Mostly conflict with periods of harmony.

D. Almost always full of conflict.

E. Something else.

Then, offer the chance for students to comment.

5. Did you find the narrator in the story:

A. Mostly sympathetic?

B. Mostly unsympathetic?

C. Right down the middle?

D. Didn’t read it. Life is busy, yo!

Then, offer the chance for students to comment.

Collaboration in the classroom: pooled responses, individual assessments!

Here’s the conundrum:

You’ve composed a prompt for an assessment. It has many possible answers – and many ways to succeed.

That’s good!

But some students, sitting at home, alone, will have trouble formulating the best response.

Take this quick quiz to see if you should use Pooled Responses, Individual Assessments

1. Do you encourage team-work?

2. Do you feel that the best ideas are piggybacked on other good ideas?

3. Can you use a computer?

If you answered YES to all three, then you should use Pooled Responses, Individual Assessments:

1. Ask the prompt in class.

2. Have students individually write 4 answers / solutions to the prompt.

3. Students partner up and together, chose from their (now) 8 responses…their agreed-upon top-three.

4. Students write these 3 solutions / responses in a grid in a Google Doc, accessible to the class.

5.  At home, students will be able to review a dozen or more solutions. Rather than create ex-nihilo, they can modify and build a complete response based on the best of the best.


1. Students must quote the ideas’ authors by name (and are permitted a note card if it’s an in-class essay).

2. Students may quote the idea verbatim, but must put it in quotes.

3. Students will still have to 1) explain the idea in his/her own words, 2) justify the idea with proof texts and additional support.

4. You could even require students to pull at least one idea from his/her own partner session, and decide whether to support or critique a classmates.

Co-Teaching: Wedding Bliss?

Yesterday, I attended a beautiful wedding for my friend and colleague, Meagan.  Meagan and her new husband have all the ingredients for a successful marriage–mutual respect for each other, shared values and beliefs, the ability to compromise, and a commitment to each other through thick and thin.  Before this wedding, Meagan and I were also married in a sense.  We team-taught a class of thirteen students with intellectual disabilities (ID) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).  And we, too, shared all the ingredients for a successful partnership.  Our class excelled, and we experienced tremendous professional and personal learnings during that year of teaching. It worked so well, that I found myself being paired with a very unlikely co-teacher the next year–my brother. Those were my two best years of teaching.

Co-teaching is a highly beneficial scenario for both students and teachers, but as with any relationship, co-teachers have to work hard to cultivate mutual respect and understanding. Below are five keys to a happy and healthy co-teaching “marriage.”

1.  Small talk is a big deal

You will spend 8 hours a day within arm’s length of your co-teacher.  You will see them more than your real spouse or partner during the week. Get to know them as a person rather than simply another colleague.  What are their hobbies?  Are they married?  Do they have kids?  Are they a morning person? Do they prefer to use their prep period to work together or quietly on their own?  Get these conversations out in the open from the start, because they are more difficult to have later on; nobody wants to learn the hard way.

2.  Identify personality type and teaching style

Meagan and I were both extroverted teachers who preferred to move around the room, engage students in group work, and keep a high-energy classroom. We preferred to improvise and plan more on the fly. My brother, on the other hand, is a thoughtful and subtle introvert who levels out a tense or hyperactive classroom with a sense of competency and calm. Our lessons were highly structured and very detailed. Some co-teachers will energize us while others will balance us out.  Like any relationship, it’s best to go in with an open and positive mindset.

3. Identify strengths and weaknesses

If you’re not comfortable enough with your new co-teacher to have a conversation, it might be helpful for you both to make a list of strengths and weaknesses.  It’s likely that there won’t be too many areas of overlap, so taking a look at this list and agreeing upon duties and responsibilities will offer a sense of control and security to both of you.  A strong partnership relies on someone who is willing to take out the garbage and someone who will clean the bathroom. In this case, it’s probably agreeing upon who will grade tests and who will develop them.

4.  Establish procedures and expectations

We like to think we’re all snowflakes in the world of education, but when it boils down to it, most teachers have the same behavioral expectations and classroom procedures.  Compare paperwork, discuss homework, grading policy, and how you will communicate home. Know that you both will have to make adjustments to the way you ran your classroom before; be open to doing things a different, or perhaps better, way.

5. Agree to make mistakes

It’s hard enough to misspell a word or botch an historical fact in front of students, but when you do this in front of a colleague, it can be downright demoralizing.  Agree from the start to screw up occasionally, support each other in correcting mistakes, and move on.  Remember that we are constantly modeling for our students, so this is the time to show them that we’re all lifelong learners.


The power of words — and keeping it positive :)

Words are some of my favorite things in the world; I spent so much time with them that I had thought we were pretty good friends. I was surprised to find, during college, that I had overlooked a very important group of words – conjunctions. They had been constant companions in my speech and writing, yet I had not realized that they had personalities of their own that were coloring my demeanor and others’ perceptions of me.

I discovered this in my first education class, as my professor was telling us about the importance of choosing our words when we speak to students; in particular, about the powerful and potentially dangerous conjunction “but”. As she spoke and revealed the hidden effects of “but”, I mentally dubbed it the Stingy Conjunction. Whenever we connect two ideas with “but,” we end up overturning the first part in the same breath. Even if we truly meant what we said originally, the “but” steals it back from the person we’re talking to.

“I’m sorry I hurt you, but I was angry.”

“You look fantastic today, but what’s up with your hair?”

“Johnny, I really appreciate the effort you put in today, but you were still talking out of turn.”

The stingy “but” is like a spotlight that focuses only on what follows it. In fact, the purpose of this conjunction is to create contrast and to exclude; and it has slipped undetected into our everyday vocabulary when we weren’t looking.

I learned that I need to choose when to use that “but” very carefully when speaking to students (to everyone in life, actually). When I commend a student, I will not take it back with a “but,” I promised myself that day. Thankfully, my professor offered a solution by re-introducing us to our familiar friend “and,” who I fondly call the Generous Conjunction. Not only does “and” allow everything I say to stand proudly, it also reminds me to continue being positive.

“I’m sorry I hurt you, and I will try not to get so angry in the future.”

“You look fantastic today, and I think you’d look even better if you tied up your hair.”

“I really appreciate the effort you put in today, and tomorrow we can work on listening to your tablemates.”

Life became a little kinder and more cooperative when I became best friends with the Generous Conjunction and distanced myself from the Stingy one. My students walked from our conversations with smiles on their faces instead of furrowed brows, proud of their progress and hopeful for more. I began to use my conjunctions more purposefully, and it impacted the way others and I felt. Just as it is commonly advised to use “I” language instead of “you” language, it’s also important for us to use generous conjunctions and not stingy ones. It turns out that not all conjunctions are created equal.


Signals for Success

What was that?! The bark of a dog? The whinny of a horse? The unmistakable “reeeep, reeeep” of crickets in the classroom? (Definitely not after you have just posed a question!) All of these are included in the plethora of ways you can alert your students that you want their attention.

What should be used to signal students? Any type of animal call or small percussion instrument – even the clap of a hand is easily employed as a student signal. There are literally scads of electronic sound files that could effortlessly be utilized in the classroom as attention alerts as well.

Why use sounds to signal students? Besides being novel, unique, and of high interest to students, audio sound signals for students are an essential classroom management tool. This strategy allows the teacher to gain students’ attention whenever he or she needs it. Signals are also more efficient and respectful than yelling or calling out “Hey, kids”, using too much talk to ask for students’ attention, or turning the room lights on and off. Keep these tips in mind for using signals successfully:

Model how students should respond to signals for attention. Teach them exactly how the signal and their response to it will look and sound, and give them plenty of practice.

Expecting immediate silence may be unrealistic. People have a natural need to get to a stopping point in their conversation or work (5-10 seconds should do it).

Don’t start speaking before everyone is silent. Waiting to speak lets students know that  everyone is expected to respond to the signal promptly – no exceptions, no excuses.

Don’t repeat the signal if it doesn’t get students’ attention the first time. Repeating the signal teaches students that they don’t have to focus and give you their attention right away—they can wait for the second or third repetition before they comply.

Be consistent when using established signals, or the signals will lose their power. A teacher could easily lose credibility as students will wonder if you really mean what you say and say what you mean.

Whether a clap rhythm, a drum, a chime, a rain stick, or a bird call, signaling your students and effectively gaining their attention and focus can be as easy as tying a shoelace. It takes practice, but once this simple and inexpensive routine is mastered it works every time! To learn more about signals, how to use them, and how to teach them, read “Signals for Quiet”, or watch Caltha Crowe in action using signals with a third grade class.


Story time: not just for kindergarteners!

Many middle school students will say that they don’t like to read, but all my students love the first ten to fifteen minutes of our Friday class: story time.

Students come into class, sit wherever they want, and listen to me read a selection from one of my favorite books. Here’s why:

  • It builds community. As people, we love a good story. It’s just part of who we are. But even more, we love to share a good story. It creates a common experience, a common feeling, a common thought. By relating to the characters and sharing that experience with each other, we share with one another who we are.
  • It shows students I love to read. It’s harder than you think to share a different book that you love every week. By reading a portion of a different book every week, I’m able to show students that I’m a reader; I practice what I preach. It’s my hope that this passion is contagious.
  • It demonstrates the power of reading with emotion. I believe that the way we say our words is even more important than the words we say. Hearing words read with emotion changes us. It makes us happy or sad, enthusiastic or apathetic. I want my students to recognize and learn to utilize this power.
  • It gets students excited about reading. After I finish the Friday readings, I put the book on the ledge of my whiteboard for students to check out. I’ll have students rush to my room after school to be the first to get it. Then they whiz through it and pass it on. Story time fosters a community of readers.

Give it a try. Ask students (of any age) to gather around your feet while you read to them. It’ll be one of the quietest times in your classroom the whole week.

Hang in there — teaching can be tough!

I love someecards no matter what the topic of their hilarity is, but when it comes to their teacher quotes, I roll on the floor laughing. The reason? Because they are so true. This profession is incredibly tough, demanding, tiring, unappreciated, and we often have a love-hate relationship with it. Things as simple as using the restroom become a luxury for us.  It can be a lot to handle, and I’ve had times in my career where I really let the annoyances cloud my viewpoint. Take these tips to keep your chin up, a smile on your face or perhaps a sentimental tear on your cheek, and reflect on the passion and purpose of educating our most important resource: our children.


In the spirit of someecards, never forget to laugh.  If you don’t laugh in this profession, you’ll cry… and I don’t mean a gentle tear falling type of cry, I mean a punching bag face, really ugly cry (#beentheredonethat). Hilarious things happen every single day in the classroom. Often we are too overwhelmed with new mandates, Johnny wetting his pants in the corner, or Susan throwing a tantrum at her seat, to stop and appreciate the funny little moments in our days. Whether it’s something a colleague says that makes you chuckle, a funny retort from a student, or searching out a source of humor online like someecards, relish in the moment and have a giggle. Check out the entire collection of teacher-themed someecards and save this link for a rainy (or should I say tear-filled) day in the future!


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Sometimes we need a gut-wrenching, tear-jerking reality check to remind us about why we entered this crazy profession to begin with and the difference we are truly making each and every day.  Whether we realize it or not, we are inspiring people every day. Sometimes we need the same in return. Personally, I’m a sucker for inspirational quotes. Reading the words of great figures seems to erase any irritating comments from parents, frustrating moments with students, or exhausting district red tape that I have dealt with on any given day. Check out the 50 Most Inspirational Quotes for Teachers. You are certain to find one, or ten, or 50 that bring a smile to a face and a tear to your eye!

Watch videos

My friend and fellow blogger, Erin Klein, wrote a fantastically uplifting Scholastic Top Teaching blog post on 9 Videos to Make Teachers Laugh, Cry, and Feel Inspired! Any time I can refer to something that’s teacher-tested-and-approved I go for it. If you need uplifted, check out her post and the videos within. Edutopia also put out a great list of 20 Movies Every Educator Should See. Some of my favorites are on that list and I want to curl up on my couch with a blanket and waste a few hours watching them right now!

What’s MY favorite inspirational teacher video? Kid President’s Pep Talk to Teachers and Students! I adore this kid, and his video pep talk both made me laugh and cry.



I’m going to be honest, I’m so busy that I often don’t have time to read as much as I would like to. If I can get a book (leisure or professional) on audio, it’s a huge bonus (since I commute 45 minutes each way daily). When I am selecting a book to read, I’m extremely persnickety. I want it to be worth my time and be something that makes a true impact. Thanks to Hope King’s posts about working at the infamous Ron Clark Academy (RCA) and Cara Carroll’s (#teachercrushes) recommendation, I think I’ve found my inspirational book pick for right now: Crash Course: The Life Lessons My Students Taught Me, by Kim Bearden. I have major teacher crushes on both of these educators/bloggers and respect their talents. If they recommend something, I know it’s going to be great.

What Hope has documented about her time at RCA has been amazingly innovative and inspirational, and makes me long to go visit this incredible educational institution. Cara says the book is “heartfelt, inspiring, and amazing.” She states very personally that this book found her at a time when she was questioning everything about her profession, and couldn’t have showed up at a better moment. I am going to order this book and keep it on hand for the moment I am doing my own teacher-sole-searching. I know Kim’s words will comfort, inspire, and even challenge me…and we all need that every now and again as teachers!

Be grateful

Last, but certainly not least, when you’re frustrated with a lesson you’ve taught, losing your mind because it’s the 6th week in a row without outdoor recess due to extreme snow, or downtrodden after an upsetting parental encounter, take a moment to be thankful. Say what?! Yes, be thankful. Even when things seem their worst, there’s always someone or something to be grateful for. Doing so clears your head, brings about positive thoughts, and helps you rise above the daily drudge that can often creep up. Even on the worst day, if you are thankful to have the privilege and pleasure to teach our nation’s youth and make a difference, you will rise above and remember why education is your true calling!