Advice for New Teachers From a Veteran Teacher

I just finished my 18th year of teaching. For me the summer is time for reflection and rejuvenation. I'm in several social media groups where new teachers are often asking for advice from experienced teachers. When I started teaching social media didn't exist yet, but luckily I was given a mentor my first year of teaching. I'm grateful that my school did this because there are many things that college never prepared me for. In this post I'm going to list things that I've learned over the years. I'm not going to talk about subject specific things in this post. This post is for any new teacher. I hope that this post is beneficial.

Items That Every Teacher Needs:

1) Hand Sanitizer: I've always been a fan of hand sanitizer but I used to just keep a small little bottle in my bag for myself. When I started teaching I was using chalk which was messy. Even after I switched to dry erase markers I still needed to clean my hands constantly. As a high school teacher I have kids in and out of my room all day long. There are germs everywhere and in the beginning of my career I got sick quite frequently even though I never used to get sick. I started buying a large pump hand sanitzer (BJ's and Costco sell them) and I left it on my desk. All day long I have kids come up to my desk and use it. With 100+ students (sometimes as many as 150 students) I buy one of those big bottles about once a month. My kids always tell me that other teachers don't have one. I want my students to have clean hands because the more clean hands in my room, the less likely I am getting sick. Not every child is going to wash their hands in the bathroom and then they touch your doorknob, touch their desk and touch the work that they hand to you. If you think about it, it's gross. I think it's a small investment that benefits every person that walks into your room. If you want the bottle to last longer you can put a rubber band on it and less sanitzer comes out.

2) Comfortable Shoes: I like to wear cute shoes but when I'm standing most of the day I need something comfortable. I know there are some teachers that wear heels every day but I am not one of those teachers. I'm trying to save my legs and back from hurting. Here are a few brands that I find very comfortable: Easy Spirit, Nautralizers, Aerosoles, and Sketchers. I'm sure there are many other comfortable brands but those are my go to. A good, comfortable pair of shoes can make a huge difference in your day.

3) Advil: This is for you because you're going to get headaches. I'm sorry but it's inevitable. Keeping a small bottle in your bag, a desk that locks or a locker is important.

4) Vitamins: You get up early, you're on your feet all day and you're dealing with a lot of different people. You're going to need vitamins for energy.

5) An Insulated Lunch Bag: Every school is different but you might not have access to a fridge or the fridge might be tiny. I'd get a good bag to put your lunch in. I also meal prep on Sundays and make my lunch for the week. This way if I'm too tired after work or I have an after school commitment (running an after school club, grad school, an appointment, etc.) I don't need to worry about making a healthy lunch for the next day. With all the stress and work that comes with teaching it's easy to gain weight.

6) Bandaids: When you're in a classroom kids need bandaids quite frequently. I remember early in my career I was teaching on the 3rd floor and the nurse was in the basement. I sent a kid to get a bandaid and he didn't come back for the rest of the period. It's a far walk and her office was busy. The kids have to sign in and talk to her about what happened. It's a big ordeal. I'd rather just buy a box of store brand bandaids a couple of times a year so that time doesn't get wasted.

7) Water Bottle: Teachers talk a lot and many schools have no air conditioning. Both schools I've worked in have no air conditioning and in the warmer months the vending machines sell out of water. It is very important to have a good water bottle to stay hydrated. Of course there are water fountains but all you have to do is walk down the hallway and you're bound to see some kid spit in the fountain. That's enough to deter me from using them.

8) Healthy Snacks: You might stay late at work to get copies done, work on some grading, finish a bulletin board, etc. Keep some healthy snacks in your room or in your bag. You'll be much happier that you packed the fruit, the carrots, the yogurt, the granola bar, etc. than hitting the vending machine for a candy bar. Trust me it's very easy to eat junk food when you're busy and many teachers gain weight.

9) Febreeze: If you have kids in your room all day things will get smelly. I once had a class of 28 boys and 3 girls. That was the smelliest class I've ever encountered. They had my class right after lunch. I don't need to get specific about why that class smelled but let's just say I always had the bottle of Febreeze handy that period. I have bad allergies. I can't deal with most spray cleaners and I'm highly allergic to plug ins. Febreeze is hypoallergenic and you can spray the room and not worry about kids having issues. Spend one period in a room with teenagers that just came back from gym class or just ate school food and you'll understand why this is a necessity.

10) Paper Towels: Whether it's to clean a spill or to clean desks with spray cleaner I find it important to have some paper towels in the room. You can get the cheap kind in the dollar store. I find them handy to have. Also they can be used if you need a tissue. I used to buy tissues but I found that the kids wasted them so I stopped buying them.


Every school should give teachers school supplies but let's face it many schools keep them locked up and teachers have to fill out request forms to get things. More often than not teachers bring their own supplies. Here's a list of things that I think are essential in the classroom.

1) A Good Stapler and a Box of Staples: Many kids are going to need to use your stapler because their work that they're turning in is more than one page and they don't have a stapler at home. You'll also need your stapler if you hand out packets (some copy machines staple but not all of them) and when you're doing a bulletin board.

2) Good Grading Pens: You're going to need colorful pens to grade. In the beginning of my career I always used green pens. I was told in college that I shouldn't use red pens because there was a negative affect with the color red. Later in my career I switched to purple pens. What brand you use is a personal preference but make sure you have a few pens for grading because you'll be grading a lot and if you leave them on your desk they could disappear.

3) Tons of Pens and Pencils: Kids forget to bring pens and pencils. It happens all the time. Some teacher will give a kid a pen if the kid gives them collateral. All of a sudden you have student id cards, hats, a sneaker and who knows what else. It wastes time. You can either resign yourself to buying cheap pens and pencils and going through hundreds of them every school year or you can buy a box of golf pencils. I stumbled upon this piece of advice accidentally. One year I was filling out a request form for supplies and I asked for pencils. I was given a box of golf pencils. When a student asked for something to write with I gave them a golf pencil. Most of the kids did not want to keep the golf pencils and I ended up getting most of them back. That one box lasted a very long time.

4) A Calendar: Whether it's a physical calendar or an electronic one you will need one. There will be meetings, events, and deadlines (report cards, progress reports, etc) and you need to keep track of them all. I prefer a physical one. I like having a planner and a wall calendar. If your school uses gmail there's a calendar there as well.

5) A Big Binder: As a secondary teacher you will teach more than one class. I have always had to write 3 or 4 lesson plans a day. I find it easy to keep my lesson plans in a binder with dividers (a section for 11th grade ELA, a section for 12th grade ELA, etc.) Some teachers use planbooks but I type up all of my lesson plans so I don't see a point in using a planbook.

6) Digital Storage: I used to keep a binder for each unit I taught but I'm more of a digital person now. I back up all of my files on Google Drive and Dropbox in case something happens to my computer. There are other options and you should pick the best one for you. External hard drives and and computers can have issues so cloud storage is the way to go.

7) A Hole Puncher: If you require students to use a binder (I always do) you'll want a good hole puncher in your room.

8) Dry Erase Markers: I like to have different colors so that I can underline or circle things in another color. I mostly use a smartboard but I write important things on the dry erase board.

9) Markers, Colored Pencils and/or Crayons: I like to do creative assignments and they always come in handy. I like to give each group chart paper and they'll need markers for that.

10) Tape: You're going to go through a lot of tape because you're going to be hanging things up in your room quite often.

Many of these items will be cheaper in the summer at Staples with their weekly back to school deals. Target also has some great back to school sales.

There are many other supplies you'll probably want in your room but many of them are a personal preference.

Here's a link to another post that I wrote about the first week of school: First Week Jitters

6 Ways to Have Movement in the Secondary Classroom

When I was in school our desks were always in rows and my teachers always lectured. I am an auditory learner so I excelled in school with this type of traditional teaching. Educators today vary their teaching methods to fit a variety of needs. Our students all have different learning styles and we need to adjust the way we teach to fit their needs. I like to vary my activities and one way to "shake things up" is to have movement in your classroom. It's not easy to sit still through an entire class and moving around is one way to combat boredom. My examples are for an ELA classroom but they can be adapted for other subject areas. I hope that these suggestions are beneficial. If you have any questions or suggestions leave me a comment or email me.

Here are a few suggestions of things I've done in the past:

1) Station Work

I've done station work several times and I find that in an ELA classroom it works well when you're starting a new work of literature. For station work you will need to set up your desks in groups. I usually do 5 or 6 stations but you can do as many as you want depending upon the length of your class and the level of your students.

This is an example I used when starting the play The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Before beginning the station work every student gets a handout with questions. There are 5-6 questions for each station.

Station One: An article about Puritans in America.
Station Two: The article "How to Spot a Witch" (This can be found online.)
Station Three: A biography of Arthur Miller
Station Four: An article on  McCarthyism.
Station Five: Pictures of puritans showing how they dressed and portraying their every day lives.
Station Six: Laptops or iPads with an excerpt from the film Witchcraft in America showing on it. (Use headphones if you want this to be a quiet activity.)

2) Group Work Using Chart Paper

I like to do group work that involves chart paper so that 1) students can move around a little and 2) I can display student work in my classroom. In an earlier blog post I wrote about using the SIFT Method for analyzing poetry.

After going over the SIFT Method I break up the students into groups. Each group gets a different poem, a sheet of chart paper and 2 or 3 markers. When I do this activity I use poems that have been on the ELA Regents Exam or the AP Literature Exam. This activity will work with any poems. Using the SIFT method they analyze their poem and write it out on the chart paper. If you want even more movement you can have them present their poems to the class. If you do presentation this could end up being a two day lesson. I also have a short free video on TpT about the SIFT method. (If you watch it I apologize ahead of time for looking like a mess in it. I'm VERY nervous about videos and that was my first one.)

3) Presentations

Once upon a time my school thought it was a good idea to force every child to take one semester of public speaking. I tried to make the class fun, but not every kid likes getting in front of the room. I had students who would rather fail than stand in front of the room.

Whether you do group presentations or have every student present you 1) get them to move in the classroom and 2) have them practice a useful skill. I always tell my students that it's better to practice public speaking in high school where they know everyone than to do it for the first time in a large college class.

The first time I taught Oedipus the King, I was shocked that many of my students were unfamiliar with the Gods and Goddesses of Greek Mythology so I designed a project where they each picked a figure from Greek Mythology out of a hat and did a presentation about that figure.

This activity is FREE in my TpT store listed here: Greek Mythology Research Assignment.

You can do what I call a mini speech (under 5 minutes) where they have to interview a classmate. You can also have them do a "How To" speech where they model how to do something. Another fun public speaking activity is an Object Speech. I always model this assignment by bringing in my old teddy bear. When I taught public speaking my favorite type of speech to have the students do was an impromptu speech. Students would pull a topic out of a hat and they'd have to give a speech on the spot about that topic. They were usually hilarious.

4) Library Scavenger Hunts

This is an alternative to station work. I will simply give my students a list of questions to answer and they are not allowed to use the internet for this assignment. You can have them work individually, in pairs or in groups for this assignment. The person or group that completes that scavenger hunt the fastest (with accuracy of course) gets a prize (either candy or a free homework pass). I have a FREE Shakespeare Scavenger Hunt in my TpT store.

5) Using the SmartBoard

There are a variety of ways you can get students out of their seats to answer questions on the Smartboard (or the traditional chalkboard/dry erase board). I ask students to write on the board all the time. If they're reluctant I tell them that their handwriting is better than mine.

6) Interactive Word Walls

My school loves word walls but I don't want students to see a vocabulary word and not know what it means. I started having them make interactive word walls. I will give each group a list of words to look up in the dictionary (I always have a few dictionaries in my room. I have at least 2-3 per group. If I have less dictionaries than students that means that the students need to work together and interact.) Students take a sheet of paper and fold it in half. On the outside they write the word and on the inside they write the definition. These words get hung up on the wall or on a bulletin board. When other students see the word and they want to know what it means they have to lift the flap to see the definition. This works well with SAT vocabulary or vocabulary for a novel that you're teaching. If your school has a word of the day you can use it for that as well. Not only do your students learn new words but if you give the students colorful markers they're making classroom decor for you as well.

Here are some pictures from my Shakespeare Interactive Word Wall

Literature for Women's History Month

Although March is Women's History Month, I don't like to just celebrate women in the month of March. I feel that traditionally mostly white male authors are taught and that's not fair. I like to incorporate a variety of authors throughout the entire school year.

I know that some schools have very rigid book lists. If you work in a school like that I encourage you to incorporate as many multicultural and female authors as you can into your classroom library. Even if you can't teach these books as whole class novels, you can incorporate them into independent reading. If you don't have a classroom library maybe you could add some female authors that have written poetry or short stories.

Here are some female authors I've incorporated into my classroom:


Mary Shelley: The novel Frankenstein is either taught in a 12th grade British Literature class or AP Literature because of the complexity of the text. I've only taught this novel once in an AP Literature course but I hope to delve deeper into the novel in the future.

Sylvia Plath: I love to teach the semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. I've used this book a few times with seniors. Even though the book was written many decades ago I feel like some of the internal struggles that the narrator has are still struggles that people today have. I've also taught many of Plath's poems when I taught a creative writing course.

Laurie Halse Anderson: I've taught two of her novels in the past: Speak and Catalyst. Speak is a great novel to use with 9th graders as the protagonist is their age. The protagonist of the novel Catalyst is in 12th grade and she's dealing with the stress of applying to college. I think that teenagers like seeing characters their own age because it's more relatable.

Lorraine Hansberry: I've taught the play A Raisin in the Sun numerous times with both 9th and 10th graders. I think that this play is important to teach because of the historical context of racism in the late 1950's.

Sandra Cisneros: I've taught The House on Mango Street a few times. I've used the book in entirety with 9th graders and I've used pieces of it with a creative writing class. My students really enjoy this book. There are some controversial topics in the book but these are topics that students need to talk about.

Alice Sebold: I've taught the novel The Lovely Bones several times with both 11th and 12th graders. Although the book is very sad, it is well-written and unique. My students enjoyed it and they really liked the movie version of the book.

S.E. Hinton: I've taught the novel The Outsiders a few times with 9th grade classes. This book can be used with both middle school or high school students. Working in the inner city I found that my students could relate to many of the issues in this book.

Sharon Draper: I've taught the novel Tears of a Tiger with 9th grade classes but this book could easily be used with middle school students as well. The characters are teenagers and the situations they face are situations that students can easily relate to.

R.J. Palacio: The book Wonder can be used with a variety of grade levels. I've used this book with 9th graders but it is usually taught with younger grades. Wonder is a great book to use when discussing anti-bullying.

Suzanne Collins: The book The Hunger Games can be taught with any grade 7-12. Some people might be cautious about using the novel with younger students because there is a lot of death in the book but most students are probably familiar with the book already because of the popularity of the film.


Maya Angelou: I've taught the memoir I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings once with seniors. It's both heart-wrenching and well-written. I would use this book with older students because there is a lot of abusive situations in the memoir. I also love teaching many of her poetry both in conjunction with the memoir or as stand alone lessons.

Short Stories

Shirley Jackson: I've taught both the short story "The Lottery" and the short story "Charles" by Shirley Jackson. Both stories can be used with a variety of grade levels and have interesting themes.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman: I've taught the short story "The Yellow Wallpaper a few times. I think it works well with either 11th or 12th graders because of the level of vocabulary. I usually pair this short story with the short story "A Rose for Emily" (not written by a female author but still deals with feminist issues) and the poem "Barbie Doll."

Flannery O'Conner also has a lot of great short stories for upper grades.


This is a list of some female poets I like to incorporate into my curriculum:

Emily Dickinson
Sylvia Plath
Anne Sexton
Maya Angelou
Nikki Giovanni
Marge Piercy

I have a few other female authors listed in this blog post I wrote about Literature for Black History Month.

Literature for Black History Month

February is Black History Month. In honor of Black History Month, I like to incorporate literature written by African Americans into my ELA classroom. The type and length of literature depends upon various factors including what grade I’m teaching, if my class is an annual class or a half year course (in NY we start a new semester the last week in January), and if I’m in the middle of a longer unit. In an ideal world I’d have time for a full-length novel, memoir or play.

My favorite book to teach during Black History Month is the play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. Although the play was published in 1959 the topics and themes of the play are still relevant today. When I teach 9th grade I love to use the young adult novel Monster by Walter Dean Myers. The protagonist of the book is a 16-year-old boy that’s on trial for felony murder. Students always enjoy this novel. I find that my students enjoy any book by Walter Dean Myers.

If I don’t have time for a longer work of literature, I like to teach a few poems by African American authors. Two of my personal favorites are Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou but there are many poets you can incorporate into your curriculum. If you’re in the middle of a unit, you can tie in a poem or two thematically.

Below is a list of some of my favorite works of literature written by African American authors. This is not meant to be a definitive list. This list is simply a list of books, authors and poets that I think work well in a secondary classroom. Some of these books work well as full class books while others would make a great addition to a classroom library.

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

This play was published in 1959 and deals with an African American family struggling with poverty and racism in Chicago. I’ve taught this play with both 9th and 10th grade but I know other teachers use it in 11th grade as well.

Kindred by Octavia Butler
This is a science fiction novel about a woman who travels back in time from present day to the time-period of slavery. She goes back and forth several times between the two time-periods. This is a great book to put in your classroom library or to use with literature circles.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker
This book deals with a lot of controversial topics including racism, misogyny and abuse. I taught this book in AP Literature and Composition. The topics are very mature so I wouldn’t use this book with younger students.

Fences by August Wilson
This play deals with family relationships and racial inequality. If you teach the play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller you can draw a lot of comparisons between the two plays. I’ve taught this play to 11th graders.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
The book deals with one woman’s search for love amid a racist, misogynistic society full of gossip hounds. This book works well with 11th and 12th graders

Beloved by Toni Morrison
The protagonist of the novel Sethe was born into slavery. When the book starts she is no longer a slave but her background story is pieced together through memories. The book portrays the horrors that the slaves faced daily. The book is very graphic so it would probably should be used with upper grades.

Night John by Gary Paulsen
The novel is set in the 1850’s on a Plantation. The main character of the novel is a young girl named Sarny. A slave named Night John teaches Sarny to read despite the fact that the penalty for teaching a slave to read was dismemberment. This is a great book to use for middle school students or lower level high school students.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
This is a recent young adult novel that deals with racism and poverty. Starr Carter is a 16-year-old girl that lives in a poor neighborhood but travels to go to a fancy school in a better neighborhood. When one of her childhood friends get killed in front of her, her world turned upside down. This is a great book to add to your classroom library.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
This memoir discusses the author’s childhood in the 1960’s. The book is written in free verse. The book shows racism and segregation in the south. This book (or any of Jacqueline Woodson’s books) is a great addition to a classroom library.

Monster by Walter Dean Myers
This book is about a 16-year-old boy who is on trial for felony murder. The book is written as a screenplay and it shows the entire court case. The book deals with poverty, racism, gangs and peer pressure. I’ve taught this book several times with 9th graders but it will work well with middle school students as well. Walter Dean Myers has a lot of YA books that students love. They’re a great addition to a classroom library.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
by Maya Angelou
This book is Maya Angelou’s memoir about her childhood. She dealt with being abandoned by her mother, racism, poverty and sexual assault.The topics are very mature so I would use it with 11th or 12th grade. I’ve only taught this memoir once and I used it with 12th graders.

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
This non-fiction book is about Frederick Douglass’ life as a slave in the south. Although the book deals with the harsh reality of America’s dark past, it shows how one man outsmarted his masters and learned to read. He eventually escapes to the North but he doesn’t reveal how. I taught this book once with 9th graders. The book would also work well with middle school students.

Below is a list of African American poets that I think work well in secondary classrooms. In my experience most of my students are familiar with Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou but they don’t really know the other poets listed below.

Maya Angelou
Langston Hughes
Countee Cullen
Claude McKay
Lucille Clifton
June Jordan
Nikki Grime
Nikki Giovanni
Audre Lord
Robert Hayden

New Year, New Goals

This is the time of the year when everyone starts making New Years Resolutions. One of the more popular New Years Resolutions is about losing weight. This is a New Years Resolution I have made myself countless times. I used to say things like I will not eat chocolate this entire year (yeah right).

Everyone is going to holiday gatherings and indulging. I'm currently a weight watchers member and we were told that the average person gains between 7 and 10 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Years. If you start counting the holiday season with Halloween it's probably closer to 15 pounds instead of 10. I need to stay focused because I don't want to go back to the old me. I'm not saying I deny myself 100% because that's unrealistic. I don't want to push things off and say "I'll start again after the holidays." No one is perfect but if I indulge, it's just one day, I need to make sure I'm back on track the very next day.

When I used to call them resolutions I never stuck to them so now instead of resolutions I make goals. I also try to set realistic, attainable goals. If I make my goals too big and I don't reach them I'll be disappointed in myself. So I set numerous small goals and I reward myself (not with food lol) when I reach them. I know that using the word goal instead of resolution is just semantics, but I feel like that helps me.

I'm not just talking about my weight, although my weight and my health have been a major focus in my life the past two years. I always say "this year I'm going to be more organized" and that doesn't happen because I don't have a great system. I've tried a folder for each class, I've tried a hanging folder with different pockets, and I've tried having a tray for each class. If you can think of a way to help a teacher that can't find her desk that would be great.

The only thing that's truly helped is collecting less papers. I only collect essays, projects, quizzes and tests now. I don't collect classwork or homework anymore. I walk around with my iPad with my nifty online gradebook and I give them credit on the spot. I do a lot of journal writing with my students and they keep them in the back of the room. I tend to only check those at the end of each marking period. I tell the kids how many entries they should have and I use a rubric.

I have my students make goals in September and we revise/update them in January when we come back from the break. I make them come up with 3 measurable goals that are attainable. We come up with both individual goals and class goals. My school likes to use SMART goals.

What are SMART goals?

•Well defined
•Clear to anyone that has a basic knowledge of the project

•Know if the goal is obtainable and how far away completion is
•Know when it has been achieved

•Agreement with all the stakeholders what the goals should be

•Within the availability of resources, knowledge and time

•Enough time to achieve the goal
•Not too much time, which can affect project performance

Click here for a free PowerPoint Lesson and a SMART Goal template I use in my classes.

I hope you have a wonderful new year. Good luck with setting goals for yourself and helping your students set their own goals.

6 Winter and Holiday Themed Activities for Your Secondary Classroom

It’s December which means one thing in secondary classrooms: everyone is counting down the days until winter vacation. It’s the time of the year when both teachers and students get restless.  You have gifts to buy, holiday menus to plan, decorations to put up, and parties you’ve been invited to. You’re being pulled in all of these different directions and you need to find some engaging activities for your students who have vacation on the brain. Here are some fun and creative things to do in your ELA classroom this holiday season: 

1)  Kindness Quotes Task Cards – These task cards are free in my TpT store. Each task card has a quote about kindness that students will interpret and respond to. This is the time of the year when we want to promote kindness. These task cards can be used for Bell Ringers or a writing center. These task cards can be tied in with different pieces of literature as well. I used these task cards with the novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio

2) Secret Santa - Traditionally a Secret Santa buys a gift for someone else but you can do this in your classroom with a little twist. You can have your students write letters instead of buying gifts. Instruct students to write letters to their Secret Santa telling him/her what they like about them. You can also have students give little hints so that the letters turn into a guessing game or a scavenger hunt. 

3) Winter and Holiday Themed Short Story Starters on Task Cards – These task cards are free in my TpT store. There are 12 short story starters included in this free product. This activity is aligned with the CCSS for grades 5-12. You can use these task cards in a variety of ways: 

  • Give each child a different story starters. You will have to do some repeats. They have to use that story starter as the first sentence (or in some cases 2 sentences) of their story. If you want to give them a page or a paragraph requirement it's up to you.
  • Give each child a choice of 2 or 3 short story starters. They get to pick which one they want to use. They have to use that story starter as the first sentence (or in some cases 2 sentences) of their story. If you want to give them a page or a paragraph requirement it's up to you.
  • Put students in a circle. Have them each write their short story starter at the top of the sheet of loose leaf and write for a set amount of time (3-5 minutes) and then they pass the story to the next person in the circle. That person then continues the story wherever the other person left off. In the past when I’ve done this the stories have been hilarious. Since I work with older students I have to lay down some ground rules about cursing and school appropriate topics. I had the students share them aloud when I used this method.

4) You can have students analyze holiday song lyrics. I often use song lyrics in my classroom when I’m doing a poetry unit. Many students don’t like poetry but they love music. You can have students just read the lyrics or listen to them and follow along. Students should look for figurative language in the lyrics.

5) Winter and Holiday Themed Writing Prompts on Task Cards. This is a product in my TpT store. There are 24 winter/holiday themed task cards in this product. Some of them are journal prompts and some of them are quotes for students to write responses to. You can pick and choose which ones you want to give to the students or let the students decide. You can give each student all of the cards, you can give each student one card or you can give each student a choice of two or three cards. It's up to you how you want to use them. This activity is aligned with the CCSS for grades 5-12. 

6) Watch clips from different holiday movies. This can be a standalone activity or you can relate the film clips to literature you've read in class. Here are a few activities you can do with holiday films:

  • Analyze the characters and review characterization with your students. Example: In A Christmas Carol, the character Scrooge is a round character whereas Bob Cratchit is a flat character.
  • Show your students an example of a movie review from a newspaper like The New York Times and have students write a movie review for a movie you watch in class.

Students are always extremely excited the day before the vacation so my school does a school-wide potluck lunch followed by a student/faculty basketball game. The potluck works because I work in a small school. This might not work in larger schools.

Book Talks vs. Book Reports

When I was a child I had to do traditional book reports. We had to read X amount of books and write a certain amount of words/paragraphs/pages about the books that we read. I've always been an avid reader but once in 6th grade I remember writing an entire book report based upon just chapter one and the summary on the back of the book. Those were the days before the internet and I was still able to pretend I'd read a book. Today it's much easier to pretend you've read a book.

How many books have students read for pleasure in the past year?

As an ELA teacher I give book talks pretty much every day. Students will ask me what I'm currently reading, if I've read a certain book, to recommend a book or to tell them about a book in my classroom library. Also every time I teach a new book I do a book talk before giving out the books. I give so many informal book talks it's like second nature to me.

Many of my students aren't readers and they hate public speaking. As teachers we need to figure out ways to foster a love of reading and try to help students get over their fear of public speaking.

When I started teaching I gave students traditional book reports. I wanted them to read more so we'd have the book we were reading as a class and then they'd have to pick one book to read independently each marking period. The problems are that 1) I didn't know if they were actually reading and 2) book reports are boring. They didn't like writing them and in all honesty I didn't like reading them. I wanted to foster a love for reading and book reports were not the way to do it.

A few years ago my school started having independent reading once a week in all ELA classes. As a department we decided which day to do this. Students could either read a book from the classroom library or bring their own. Obviously everyone reads at their own pace and everyone picked books of varying lengths. I didn't assign a due date but I told students that they had to do one book talk each marking period. I modeled a formal book talk using a book I'd read recently. I used the following format:

Title of Book
Number of Pages
Information about the author
Summary of the book ( a paragraph or two)
Connections to the book
Read a passage to the class and explain why you chose it.
Recommendation (Who would enjoy this book?)

After the book talk I asked the class if they had questions. After each student's book talk their classmates asked questions. Sometimes (not always) after a book talk other students wanted to read a book someone else had read. That never happens with a book report. The more book talks a student did (they sometimes did more than required), the more comfortable they got speaking in front of the class.

How often do your students visit the library?

I still had students that didn't love reading but I think that book talks were effective for many students. Even if you don't have time for independent reading during class, I think you should consider having students give book talks in class. It will help them with public speaking and the class will learn about a variety of books.

Seven Scary Stories to Read in the Secondary ELA Classroom

Halloween is my favorite holiday. I love watching scary movies on TV, I love planning which costume I'll wear this year to my friend's annual party and I love reading scary stories with my high school students. Whenever I think of Halloween I think of Edgar Allan Poe.

I used to always teach "The Tell-Tale Heart" which is one of my favorite stories to teach this time of year. We'd start the story and then all of a sudden a student will say "Is this the story where....?" and all of a sudden the entire story is ruined for every kid who hasn't read it yet. "The Tell-Tale Heart is a wonderful story but so many ELA teachers teach it that you're bound to have a student that has read and can potentially ruin it for others. This scenario has happened with "The Raven" as well. I used to teach "The Raven" every year on Halloween but a few years ago I started doing scary story writing instead because too many students had already read it. This is especially true on the high school level. For this very reason I started looking for other stories to teach. Of course I still love to teach Poe but I tend to stay away from "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Raven."

Below is a list of seven scary stories that I've used successfully in my ELA classes.

"The Black Cat" by Edgar Allan Poe

My students really like this story even though the narrator who is both crazy and an alcoholic abuses a cat. They like that not only does the narrator get caught, but he gets caught because of the second cat. I've used this story with students who were already familiar with Poe.

"The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe

The one thing my students love about this story is that the narrator gets away with murder. Unlike the narrator in "The Tale-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat," this narrator gets away with it. They always wonder exactly what the insults were but that's where our imaginations can fill in the blanks. This story can be used with any high school grade.

"The Bad Babysitter" by R.L. Stine

Most of my students are familiar with the Goosebumps books so when I use a short story by R.L. Stine they get excited. Although this story isn't as gruesome as Poe's stories there is an element of magic and mischief that makes this story ideal for Halloween. (I don't want to give away too much for those of you that haven't read it.) I've used this story with 9th graders in the past.

"A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner

This is a story that I would use with either 11th or 12th graders. When I taught AP Literature and Composition this short story was in the textbook. This story isn't a horror story with gore but it definitely falls into the category of Southern Gothic. The entire story seems like a sad love story until the very end when find out that not only did she kill him, but she slept next to his dead, decaying body for years (the grey hair on the pillow). Other things (that I won't mention here) often come up in student questions when we get to that unique ending.

"The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson

"The Lottery" is another story that is taught by so many teachers that you might run the risk of students ruining the ending. Despite the foreshadowing (the children gathering rocks, people being nervous about the lottery, etc) my students are always shocked by the ending. I always get questions about the setting and whether or not this story is non-fiction. This is definitely a story that students will remember. I've used this story with grades 9-12.

"The Monkey's Paw" by W.W. Jacobs

"The Monkey's Paw" is definitely a scary story and it even starts out on a stormy evening which you'd expect in this type of tale. I always enjoy the classroom discussions about our own three wishes. I usually do this story with upper grades because there is some difficult vocabulary in it.

"The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

"The Yellow Wallpaper" doesn't seem like a horror story at first. It's the story of a woman who is sick and her husband decides to rent a house in the country so she can recover. What happens in the house is what makes this story a Gothic tale. The language is difficult because the story was written over 100 years ago so I use this story with 11th and 12th graders. This story always brings up discussion about gender equality and traditional gender roles.

I have a free PowerPoint lesson in my TpT store for the poem "Barbie Doll" by Marge Piercy. I often pair up the poem "Barbie Doll" with "A Rose for Emily" or "The Yellow Wallpaper. Sometimes I do all three works of literature.

I usually teach two or three scary stories and then the week of Halloween I have my students write their own scary stories using story starters. In the upper grades we don't celebrate every holiday the way that some do in the lower grades but Halloween tends to easily fit into the secondary ELA classroom.

You don't need to have a fancy color printer. You can print in grayscale and it still looks great. 

For years students have been fascinated by horror shows, horror films and horror novels. Utilize this time of the year to read some stories that will appeal to your students. You can always tie these short stories into the longer works you teach later in the year. (Compare and contrast characters, what would the narrator from ________ story do in this situation,? etc.)

I hope you have a hauntingly good time in your ELA classroom this fall.

First Week Jitters

Everyone knows that your first year of teaching is tough. I remember being told that it gets easy after 5 years. Some things definitely get easier with time but it never gets "easy." Here I am with 17 years experience and I still think that September is hard. Most of my friends are teachers and all I've seen on social media for the past few weeks are people talking about having back to school nightmares. We're not rookies, why are still having first week jitters?

I always love the first day back. I'm not talking about the first day with the kids, I'm talking about the day we have staff meetings. When you've worked in a school for many years the first day is like a reunion with old friends. I saw maybe 4 of my co-workers during the summer. People are busy with their families, some work another job, while others go on vacation. The first day back it's nice to see all of the familiar faces and meet a few new people.

Then there comes the moment of dread....

How many classrooms am I in? How big are my classes? How many grades am I teaching? In a perfect world I'd know my schedule and my room(s) in June but I tend to find out that first day back. This is one reason why my classroom will never look like the classrooms I see all over Pinterest and I'm ok with that. With one or two days notice and anywhere from one to three classrooms I know my teaching environment won't look good until the end of the first marking period when it's covered with student work and anchor charts.

This is my old classroom and it took a lot of time to look like this.

One thing I've learned is that whether I'm teaching 9th grade ELA or AP English the first few days I need to get to know my students and obtain a writing sample. With 9th and 10th grade I usually do "Two Truths and a Lie" which is always a fun activity. I have the students write three paragraphs about themselves and two have to be true and one is a lie. They take turns sharing their paragraphs and we get to know each other and we have some laughs in the process. I always write about things no one would expect and the students always think that my true statements sound fake.  With 11th and 12th grade I usually have them interview each other and present their partner to the class. I think that presentation skills are important and many high school students have stage fright.

When my friends start having the back to school nightmares about coming to school without their lesson plans I remind them that with Google Drive that can't happen. Sure every year is different and every year has it's own set of challenges but one thing that I absolutely love about teaching is that every day is different. I don't have a 9-5 job that's the same day in and day out and I don't think I could be in an environment like that.

Are you new to teaching? Here's a freebie to help you get through those first few days.

We all have first week jitters, it's something we can't get rid of. Each school year is a new beginning. The start of something new is both exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. Have a great school year.

Why I Like To Teach Controversial Literature

When I was in 7th grade I read the novel Go Ask Alice. I was a naive young girl who grew up in the plastic bubble of suburbia. For me Go Ask Alice was a cautionary tale and to this day I've never tried drugs because of that book. The events that the main character went through scared the you know what out of me.

Five or six years ago I read the book 13 Reasons Why with a book club that I was in with some fellow teachers. I wanted to read the book because I had seen several students reading it and the plot intrigued me. After reading the novel I put it in my classroom library and added it as a choice when I did literature circles.

Although the book was on the best sellers list many years ago, the book is drawing a lot of attention (both positive and negative) because of the Netflix series. Some people think that the show romanticizes suicide and will give kids bad ideas. Yes the suicide scene in the show was shockingly graphic. I had read the book twice and I was taken aback. In the novel she took pills and in the show she slits her wrists. I read somewhere that this show was giving kids that are bullied instructions for killing themselves. I'm sorry but that's nonsense.

Maybe Hannah didn't know how to tell her parents. Maybe she thought that since they had financial issues, she didn't want to be a burden. Who knows? Maybe we can ask the author. Maybe like Go Ask Alice, 13 Reasons Why is a cautionary tale. Maybe the critics should focus more on anti-bullying and getting help for sexual assault victims. Did Hannah's friends turn on her? Yes. Did Hannah have a lousy guidance counselor? Yes. The reader/audience knows that she could have turned to Clay but she felt like she couldn't trust guys and to be honest you can't really blame her.

Many teachers are saying that they won't teach the novel because it's about suicide but these same teachers teach Romeo and Juliet which is in essence a play about suicide and death. What's the difference? Romeo and Juliet felt like they couldn't talk to their parents (just like Hannah). Just like Hannah, Romeo and Juliet killed themselves and didn't think about all the people they left behind. Not to mention all of the other people that died because of them (Tybalt, Mercutio, Paris and Lady Montague.)

Life is messy, sometimes friends suck. sometimes you have a teacher that's not trained to be a guidance counselor (in the book at least), and sometimes you feel like you have no one turn to. This doesn't mean that every kid that is bullied is going to pull a Hannah. Maybe it will be a cautionary tale and the depressed/bullied individual will be able to look around and realize that they do have someone they can trust and turn to. Maybe reading a book like this in class (even as independent reading from your classroom library) will help a student in need. I always find that teaching young adult books that deal with these types of issues bring up good class discussion. You never know when discussing a "controversial" topic that's in one of these books can help a student in need.

P.S. I have a friend from high school whose daughter has been bullied for the past 2 or 3 years. She attempted suicide and was hospitalized for many months. She's now in counseling and doing better. This friend watched the Netflix series with her daughter and she wrote on Facebook that she thinks that every parent and teenager should watch the series. The world isn't perfect, please stop being scared of "controversial" literature.

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