Monthly Archives: February 2013

Unfortunately for me, I began my teaching career in a place and in a time that is… well… maybe not the best place and time to be a teacher. Teacher morale across the U.S. is at the lowest it’s been in 25 years.  And in case anybody’s wondering if, as just one teacher in just one school, you can tell that there are some serious morale issues in the system, trust me: you can tell. It’s an issue of politics. It’s an issue of economics. It’s an issue of the performance of our national public education system. But for teachers, it necessarily becomes personal. The first time I wrote about this was in 2011, when I shared some reflections and a mental approach for dealing with some of the uncomfortable realities of how public education has changed in my own state. I find myself needing to weigh in on the topic again, after reading this sobering teacher morale-related blog post from one of my longtime colleagues and friends, Ms. S. She expresses many of the same concerns I’ve heard about from fellow teachers from many different schools–the burden of exponentially increasing responsibilities and accountability, the financially crippling cuts and freezes in pay, the sense of powerlessness, and the fear associated with speaking up about any of it. Some of these I’ve experienced myself. Plainly said, it’s an injustice, especially to highly effective, early-career educators who are trying to establish themselves as leaders and innovators in the churning belly of a system that seems hell-bent on merely spitting them back out.  

Taking political action, on local, state, and national levels is one way to try to make a difference in the current climate, but that’s not useful for making a personal difference right now. As professionals with a daily, important job to do, we can’t just tune out until the next election term rolls around. So, what do we do–today–about teacher morale… as teachers?

I don’t have all the answers. But I have a couple. I am, after all, the very official self-appointed Morale Officer of the English department at my school. Yeah, it’s a made up title, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not legitimate! 🙂  Sometimes, to get out of a very deep, dark hole, one has to be creative. And that’s not limited to inventing honorary titles. Here are some other things you can do:

Morale Toolkit

I think the absolute best defense against low morale is building a strong support system via a professional support network. I wrote in-depth about how to do that in this post from a couple years back. Nothing is more helpful during times of struggle than relating to and seeking support from other educators.

Also, don’t let this job kill you! Stay strong, literally, by being kind to yourself in what you eat, how much mental and physical rest you afford yourself, and opportunities you give yourself to exercise and feel physically alive and well. If your devotion to your teaching (and associated responsibilities) are impinging on your ability to fulfill these things, you have taken on too much. Teachers are heroes, but they don’t need to be martyrs. You’ll be a better educator if you are healthy and whole. Jealously guard your own health and sanity. Sometimes, the grading can wait.

While I don’t think that “do it for the kids” should be a reason to pile extra expectation without compensation onto our educators, I do think that teachers should take a moment each day to look around at the difference that they are creating. Look at those kids, and what they can do, and what they love to do that they never thought they would, because of your influence. No amount of bureaucracy will ever be able to stomp out the wonder or beauty of that.

One very specific thing to try in order to stay interested in and inspired by your teaching career is incorporating your own interests and hobbies into your teaching methods. Since I can’t always find the time or money to pursue creative endeavors, I sometimes make my teaching into my creative endeavor. For example, I love to write, draw, and perform. So, I’ll make a comic strip to teach my students a new skill. Or I’ll write a piece of short fiction to demonstrate author craft. I’ll recite a rap to my class to teach them something. These things give me joy and fulfillment because they are my favorite things to do! By applying them to my teaching, I’m making my job fun, and my students also get to feed off of my engaged interest in the method/medium of the day’s lesson.

Another strategy that’s a bit harder to define is… silliness. Laughter is a necessary remedy in low-morale environments. It’s ok to be a little “out there” sometimes in one’s efforts to make colleagues smile or to create a positive vibe in the teaching day. How about a short, relevant-to-the-curriculum Play-Doh activity at the beginning of class? Maybe have your students write a parody skit to review some literature. Play very, very mild practical jokes on your colleagues, if they are up for such a challenge. Or, when all else fails, you can make a poster of your department members as superheroes like I did.

Oh, yes I did: omg_dept2

Courtesy of’s “Create Your Own Superhero” game.

Finally, the gold standard for beating low morale is what I like to call stupidly stubborn positivity. This means coming into work with a (stupid?) grin and calling out “good morning!” to everyone you pass. This means smiling at and personally meeting every student at the door. This means occasionally responding to the dreaded, “How’s it going?” question in the copyroom with a brave, non-sarcastic, “Pretty fantastic!” Think I’m crazy? Try it. Things are going to get better–that possibility needs to become a fact in your mind in order for you to reframe your reality into a positive one. There is such a thing as good days. Don’t let the bad things–because there will always be bad things–completely steal the spirit that got you into this career. You’re here. You are doing good things. Keep. Fighting.

I know that none of these suggestions will make the struggles evaporate, pay the bills, or protect us from forces over which we have little control. But they might help in the meantime. Please share other strategies, connect, and lift up. From our joined sense of mission and our combined intelligence as educational leaders, we can help keep the otherwise overwhelming tide of low morale at bay.



If your classroom is like mine, you’re constantly asking students to create—to display their skills in composition by writing essays, designing presentations, synthesizing research, or penning poetry. While there are many exciting ways to present the content for developing these skills during a traditional lesson, eventually the students do need to take complete control of it by making something that demonstrates their proficiency in the targeted skills. And we all know what that means… work time!

Most schools seem to have adopted the mentality that, at least in part, guided work time belongs in the classroom rather than at home. And while I feel that it is important for students to cultivate independence and responsibility outside of school hours, I also know that it makes good sense to provide in-class work time for students to receive initial feedback, to compensate for time that may be stretched by work and extracurriculars, or to provide quality computer access for a student who may not have it at home. So, we sign up for the computer lab, hand out our instructions, and let the kids go, with the expectation that things are going to get done!

That being said, what actually happens during “work time” can sometimes devolve into a confusing muddle of distraction, idleness, and sub-standard results if the classes aren’t structured appropriately. As a teacher, this can be frustrating! Sometimes we ask ourselves why we even bother to dedicate two or more consecutive days of class to work time if our students don’t use it correctly. While much of that can certainly be remedied through strong classroom management and clear directions, I’ve found a combination of several strategies that, when applied, will consistently ensure that work time is truly a productive block of time where real teaching, learning, and (YES!) work will indeed occur.


The Prewriting Check-Off

I always give my students a pre-writing activity that will help them start developing their ideas for a particular assignment. This may be a detailed annotation of a poem, a graphic organizer, an outline, a thesis-generator sheet, or even a sketch that shows an idea. When my students have their first day in the lab, before they may even turn their computer on, they must get their pre-writing activity physically checked off by me. This helps students get their ideas in order, so that they have at least a starting point. As I check students off, I can address early misunderstandings or questions while also avoiding the “blank screen phenomenon.” If a student has trouble starting, I can point to their annotations or graphic organizer and help them use that as a springboard for their first keystrokes. This way, I know that every student is prepared to work well before they even begin.

Mini Lessons at the Start of Class

Especially if the project is an extended one requiring several days in the lab, I start my students in the actual classroom, where I give a mini-lesson on a particular writing or analysis skill that’s relevant to the task they are approaching in their work. For example, during a branding project for English 12, I showed my students a brief presentation on how to use color, typography, line, and texture to communicate ideas before we started working on that particular day. A short mini lesson before work time gives my students an injection of learning that they can immediately apply in their work, making them more focused and capable. When I offer mini-lessons, I go pretty quickly as to not take up too much time, but I always make the content available on my website, so that students can refer to it throughout the class if they need to revisit it or take a closer look at an example—which I often see them do!

Goal Setting

This is such an easy step that is often overlooked. Give students a specific goal, or even a set of goals, for each day of work time Goals can be skill-based (Ex. Today, I want you to include at least one metaphor and at least one personification in your writing.), quantity-based (Ex. I want you to write two or more pages by the end of class), or process-based (Ex. I want you to at least get through step three of the directions today.) I also ask students to set personal goals as they are logging on. Again, this gives students a specific thing to shoot for, which increases the sense of meaning and urgency for what they are working on, and gives them a sense of accomplishment when they meet the goal.

Sticky Notes for Student Needs

After the first couple days of a project, it can be hard to know exactly how hands-on to be with the students as they work. Students at the middle or end stages of a paper or presentation have a way of all looking like they know exactly what they’re doing… even though some of them inevitably don’t. So, what’s the teacher to do? You don’t want to distract or intrude upon students who are “in the groove,” but you also want to know if students need help. My technique for dealing with this conundrum is giving each student a sticky note to stick on top of their monitor. I give them a range of options for what to write, usually “I got this,” “I have a question,” or “I’m lost!” As I stroll around the lab, I visually check the post-its. I quickly address the needs of the lost students, meander around to the ones who have a question or two periodically, and leave the go-getters alone to do amazing work without any help from me!

Classroom Management through Sound

I do allow students to listen to music on their headphones as they work if they wish. I will also periodically play music out loud for the whole class—I usually select a Pandora station with contemporary but slow-paced music. [My current favorite station, which changes weekly, is The Gabe Dixon Band. It’s important to avoid Top 40 or very danceable tracks, which have the opposite of the desired calming effect!] I use music as kind of a subliminal “get focused” signal for students that are a being little too social. I don’t say anything about it; I just turn the music on. It seems to work best to start the volume loud, about as loud as the students are talking. As they register the fact that music is playing, they typically start lowering their own volume. I then ratchet the volume down along with them… it’s kind of like magic! In the event that music is ineffective, I will implement silent work time and seating charts. Students may bellyache about it, but when it’s necessary, silence always sends the message that things need to get done. In this case, I usually say “I want to hear the sound of typing. That should be the main sound you are making.” I’ve also found that a half-and-half technique, splitting the class between productive buzz (first part of class) and silent work (middle of class up until the bell), is effective and helps students retain momentum over the full length of the class period.

Individual Conferences

While all of this is going on, I also make sure to conference individually with each of my students at least once throughout the duration of any project. I try to catch students who I know will need a heavy dose of guidance first, and then call students up at random to talk about their vision, progress, and plan. This gives me a really good idea of each student’s understanding of the task, and allows me to offer explanation, ideas, suggestions, and reactions. It also provides a chance to interact with students one-on-one, which builds positive relationships and helps me be accurate with the types of differentiation and assessment methods I’m using.

So those are my secrets for catalyzing student productivity… How about you? Any other ingenious suggestions for how to structure work time? I’d love to hear them!


Theater is one of my dearest loves, as is, of course, literature. Any time I can combine the two in my classroom, I do. Performance and role play help students embody the characters they read about in a unique, unforgettable way. I’ll often assign skits as summary, and I wouldn’t dream of teaching Shakespeare without a full cast of students at the front of the room, equipped with props, acting out every word. Not every text lends itself so readily to performance, though… but I appreciate an opportunity to step outside the box.

The past two years, I’ve been teaching A Tale of Two Cities as part of my AP Literature syllabus. Last year, I came up with a concept for a role-playing game that would help my students better understand what I like to call “The Jacques Effect” going on amongst the characters of the novel–secret names, a knit registry of those to be exectuted, plural identities, avowals of loyality, desperation, and greed. Dickens so clearly wanted his audience to feel the intensity and insistance of these historical realities surrounding the French Revolution, but it doesn’t always translate to the modern student, who can find herself simply confused about why the heck everybody is calling each other Jacques all the time, and why Charles Darnay would want to forsake his French inheritance and lay low in England.

Enter “The Jacques Experiment”–the now completed game, which I based off of similar theater games like “Mafia” or “Dinner Party” where an ensemble of actors in character greet one another, all the while trying to avoid a secret murderer. I took that format and specialized it to the historical setting of A Tale of Two Cities. I played the revised version with my students today and it was a huge hit. Not only that, but it really did reinforce their understanding of the novel. They are perfectly poised to read Chapter 16, “Still Knitting,” in which Madame Defarge sniffs out a spy posing as a fellow revolutionary.

Are you teaching this Dickens classic? Please enjoy and use the game, in .pdf form here:The Jacques Experiment . Educational. Hilarious. Challenging to the mind. And a way to see literature come to life before your eyes. (I had one student lurk in the corner, peering ominously over her “knitting” pencils… Guess what? She was a NOBLE!)


What is English 12?

That’s the question my colleague Ms. J and I found ourselves asking last summer, as we prepared to roll out a brand new version of senior language arts. Our department had found a need for a new way of looking at things as the new Common Core State Standards were being presented, 21st century skills were becoming the most touted measuring stick for student achievement post-high school, and voices in our community were calling for graduates who were more professionally savvy. Our previous English 12 courses were very traditional literature-based classes, with no real identity to ground them as anything other than a basic senior English course. Our vision was to completely revamp the curriculum: Align curriculum to the standards. Create a project-based course that gives freedom and ownership to the students. Find ways to constantly connect learning to the community and to real life experiences. We hoped to see higher student engagement/buy-in, higher achievement, and an emerging professional demeanor in our students.

Here’s what we came up with:What’s English 12? Infographic

As the year unfolded, the students were occasionally mystified or daunted by the new, challenging things we were asking of them. The largest of these is the senior research proposal, paper, and project. Students are asked to select a defining topic that pertains to their interests, skills, or future plans. Throughout the year, they develop research on that topic which eventually results in a project, of their own design, that the students display for the community at the end of the year showcase. During semester one, we’ve planted the seeds for this epic undertaking in several special ways. I’ve given a snapshot below.

September – October: Introduced “big picture” of course, linking to Tony Wagner’s idea of Passion, Play, and Purpose as the most important cornerstones of learning that creates innovation and creativity. Students were asked to begin considering their topic choices, keeping these ideas in mind.

Early November: Over 30 local professionals from many different fields were our guests at the Professional Symposium, an event designed for students to learn more about the real expectations of the different corners of the work world. Each professional had a table where they brought in things related to their career (like a model of a human spine, a laptop video display, architectural drafts, plants…). The students, who were required to dress professionally, then circulated and asked both prepared and impromptu interview questions to prompt conversations. Students also had important roles in the event, such as being in charge of lighting/sound and giving the closing address. This experience offered important insight, and helped several students select a topic.

Late November: Students were required to select their topics by this time. (True to the student-ownership goal, these ranged from the history of comics to Spina Bifida awareness to Bigfoot to sports medicine.) We took the students on a research field trip to the Golda Meir Library at UW-Milwaukee. The staff worked amazingly well with our massive group of students. During this experience, our rural students got to see what a respected university library is like, and they had access to a nearly-endless collection of both digital and print resources to inform their topic. They spent the day taking resource-specific notes and refining their topic choices.

December: In class, we offered instruction on specialized research skills, like how to conduct an email interview, using electronic databases, how to take notes, and choosing what to read in a lengthy  source. During this unit, students wrote a detailed annotated bibliography of 20+ credible sources related to their topics. Students were expected to give periodic reports to the full class about their reading and discoveries.

January: For the semester exam, students were asked to write a formal proposal for their researchEnglish 12 Research Proposal. I was so impressed with my students’ overall excitement and true scholarship associated with their topics. I found myself reading things like…

  • “Philosophy does not get the respect and credit it well deserves. Few people in the world today realize how much philosophy has impacted society and the human race. My stance on this is that philosophy is an invaluable and irreplaceable building block to modern knowledge.” Alex L.
  • “I would say that modern comics are stepping away from old ideas and greeting new ones more openly as well as [showing a] more true step into maturity, unlike the hollow, pandering “maturity” of the 90’s. This is evident in things like superhero comics becoming somewhat less popular, indie and comics that deal with much different subject matters than the mainstream seeing much more popularity, the early 2000’s seeing the abandoning of the comics code almost altogether, and the far more respectful portrayal of modern war and tragic events like 9/11.” Stephen P.

  • “The juvenile system has flourished over time and helps create life saving opportunities for adolescents. Continuing over each generation adolescents will do bad things, but it is the system’s job to help save their lives, and create a better tomorrow. I arrived at my stance through trial and error. First I wanted to research the history of juvenile justice, but then I decided I want to find out what the juvenile system can offer adolescents. What can the system do for kids whose families have given up on them? Samantha S.

Our students have already grown so much in intellectual and professional maturity throughout this process, and I can tell that they are feeling proud to call this class their own. I’m looking forward to second semester, to see what happens as more and more responsibility is released over to them, and they are enabled and empowered to do interesting, contributive things. Students light up when you ask them about the right things–we’re channeling the power of those right things in order to activate remarkable learning.

Things I’ve already observed during semester one of English 12:

-Project-based learning is just as powerful as all the research claims it us! It targets a comprehensive skill set dealing with academics, technology, and professional demeanor.

-Project-based learning is absolutely achieveable in a public school environment, with all levels of students, though those who need to grow in their ability to self-direct have the most work to do to succeed. This type of format requires educators who are able to and interested in keeping close tabs on the progress/development of each individual.

-Project-based learning helps students, even those prone to “senioritis” remember how much they actually do love to learn.

Things I’m still wondering:

-How does project-based learning look in other senior classes around the state and country? Do you teach one or know of one? Please share! Examples have not been the easiest to find.

-What are the best assessment techniques for such a wide variety of outcomes? While many aspects of student acheivement are observable in this format, measuring it objectively and accurately may become a challenge. Are there any educators out there with ideas about this?