First Week Observations from the Middle Grades

First Week Ponderings.png

It’s the third day back, and I’ve finally met all of my students (we are on an A/B schedule). As we begin a new year at my school, which has 6th-9th graders, there are a few things that I’ve observed that I thought I’d share. Some are just things I should already know but forgot over the summer. Others are just things that make me chuckle.

  1. 6th graders like to run. Everywhere.
  2. 8th graders still like recess.
  3. The copy machine can sense weakness, anxiety, and crucial deadlines.
  4. You should never plan on cooking dinner for your family during the first week of school. It’s too hard.
  5. Teenagers smell funny. Not bad, per se, just funny.
  6. Standing for long periods should be an Olympic sport. Teachers would win every standing event.
  7. Eating in 30 minutes stinks. I feel like I’m shoveling my food in just so I can have time to use the restroom. And I shouldn’t bring things that have to be microwaved because it uses up precious minutes.
  8. Teenagers are hilarious.
  9. Laminating is a necessary evil. So much so that, if your laminator at school breaks down, you will actually take it somewhere else and pay for it.
  10. Going to bed at 8 o’clock is nothing to be ashamed of.
  11. Doing dismissal in the Texas heat isn’t much fun.
  12. I am lucky that I have the best job in the world. I love coming to work (almost) everyday.

I hope everyone has a fabulous school year!

Dear First Year Me-

Dear First Year Me-

Dear First Year Me,

It’s the day before school starts on the 20th year of your career. Looking back on all that time, there are some things I wish you would have known as you embark on the very first year.

Get ready for a bumpy ride. Finding out that you were pregnant two days before back to school PD was a shock, I know. And I know you have pretty bad morning sickness. I know that you throw up every morning before school, and you can only eat ice chips until lunch time. No one notices the broken blood vessels in your eyelids.

It’s going to be okay.

After all the jobs over the years, you have finally find your career. Your calling. All of the sacrifice, all of the worrying, and all of the hard work is going to be worth it. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. There are going to be some awesome highs- becoming team leader, getting to have an elective you created, piloting the GT program, winning teacher of the year for the district, and having some of the most amazing students that go on to do incredible things- those are just some of the wonderful things that will come your way in the next 20 years.

But you need to know that there will be difficult times as well- getting transferred from your dream job, being put on a growth plan because of personality conflicts, getting non-renewed because you don’t want to coach cheer, finding it hard to get an interview with 15 years experience because they can hire a first year for so much less, having to pay $1500 a month for health insurance for your family- and you will get through them.

It all comes down to the fact that you have found your place. You are a teacher. No matter what else is happening around you, find comfort in the fact that you will impact and change students’ lives for the better. You will continue to learn and grow in your knowledge of your subject, and you will never rest on what you did last year. You will find inspiration in the most unlikely of places, and it will drive creativity and engagement into your lesson planning. You will end up at a school that values you as a teacher, and not as a person who just prepares kids for a test. You will work with some awesome people, and you will rise above those that don’t lift others up. You will learn that gratitude is a much more powerful motivator than negativity. And you will find a renewed sense of purpose just when you think you’ve lost it for good.

Teaching is not just your job, it’s your gift. As you go through this first year, trying to understand how it can ever get better, rest easy in the knowledge that it will. You will fall, but you will always get up, dust yourself off, and rise to the challenge.

Stay Strong,

20th Year Me


Have your students been drafted?

Have your students been drafted_

Since I talked about 11 minute essays on IG a couple of days ago, there has been some interest in an explanation of what it is, and how and why you should use it. I thought, instead of trying to explain it to each interested teacher, I would just write a post about the technique that has truly changed the way I teach writing.

Getting something on paper- FAST

I don’t know about you, but getting 7th and 9th graders to realize they have time to draft during a state test was a big hurdle that I hadn’t couldn’t seem to get over. In talking to my students, it seemed that getting that first word on the page was a struggle. So how to break through that barrier, and quickly, was a problem that needed to be addressed. Enter the 11 Minute Essay. (There should be heavenly light and angels singing when you read that) After I began teaching this way, students became more confident VERY quickly, and the realization that they DO have time to write a rough draft during a timed test was something they started to believe.

How do you do this magic?

Thanks to a former department head, that is now one of my best friends (shout out Christa!), I was introduced to this method when I was teaching English I regular and PAP. Here’s how it works:

  1. Make a powerpoint on which you outline the prompt, time each slide so they progress after a given amount of time, and make sure you are HARD CORE about the #1 rule in 11 minute essay writing- Never stop writing.
  2. Go over the state released rubric for essay scoring, and have students score the released examples for each level. In Texas, they give us four examples of each score, 1-4, with an explanation of why each essay received that score.
  3. Have student do 2 or 3 essays before you have them choose one to redo as a final draft.
  4. Have students score each others essays while referencing the state rubric.
  5. Discuss the process and repeat.

Making a powerpoint

When you make a powerpoint to guide your students through, you need a couple of things: a prompt for the writing style you are teaching, and an idea of how to break that prompt into 5 clear sections.

We do expository (about to be renamed argumentative) in both 7th and 9th grade. You can set up an 11 minute essay presentation for any style. Here is how my powerpoint is set up:

  • first slide outlines the rule- NEVER STOP WRITING. If I see them stop, I take it up and give them a zero. That’s how important this rule is to the process.
  • then the prompt is given and they write it at the top of their paper
  • the first slide is timed for one minute, and they answer the prompt for 1 minute (intro)
  • next slide is timed for 3 minutes, and they write about a text-to-self connection that proves their answer
  • another 3 minute slide for a text-to-text connection that proves their answer
  • last 3 minute slide for a text-to-world connection that proves their answer
  • final slide is 1 minute, and they restate their answer and conclude

At the end, they have a 5 paragraph essay draft to work with. When we do the first essay of the year, I always ask how many of them have ever written that much in 11 minutes before. Very few ever raise their hand. Most are still looking at their draft in wonder. Now, the students only get 26 lines to write their final draft on our state test, so we talk about only choosing their best two connections to include in the final.

What do they do now?

I take up the first 3 essays they write and hold on to them. They don’t get them back until we have studied the state rubric and graded the sample essays. At that point, I give them back, and they spend the rest of the period perfecting ONE essay. I tell them to choose the one they feel most confident about.

The next class period, they sit in a circle and grade each other’s essays according to the state rubric. There is a strict no judgment rule, and the kids want the feedback, so I never have issues with them being rude to their classmates about their writing. I then take a few and read them aloud, tell them what the consensus on the score was, and then we talk about if the score was correct and why.

Lather, rinse, repeat

Before the test, I have them do 2 more essays, but they have to write final drafts for both, and we do class scoring again. If I find particular errors, I will conference individually with those students. By putting the drafting, writing, and scoring all on them, there seems to be more ownership. They get almost immediate feedback, and it tends to improve their writing more quickly. I will tell you that the last group of 7th graders I taught had a 95% passing rate on the state writing test. My freshmen had a 100% passing rate on the English I EOC.

It’s not difficult to make your own 11 minute essay powerpoints, especially once you’ve used the first one. I have several expository essay presentations in my TPT store, some of which are based on STAAR released prompts.


Please feel free to contact me through comments or email if you have any questions or need clarification. I’d love to be able to share the knowledge that has gotten me so much more comfortable with teaching writing.

Pure Indulgence


This blog post is nothing but pure indulgence for me. When we took our girls to Universal Orlando this summer, we were celebrating our oldest graduating from high school. She and I are equally obsessed with Harry Potter, so it seemed like the perfect place to go.

A friend of ours is a travel agent, and she took care of booking the trip and all the little details included. One of those was an appointment at Shutterbuttons for a photo shoot. We had no idea what this entailed, but since we had paid for it, we decided to take advantage. Little did we know that it would be the best souvenir we could have taken home. Click on the link to see our very own photo album that mimics the albums in Harry Potter. Meaning, the pictures move. Yes. They move. Like in Harry Potter.

Are. You. Kidding.

When I saw it, I think I almost cried. So if you’re a big HP fan, you’ll geek out over it too. If not, it’s still pretty neat. 🙂 Studios/Universal Studios Florida/Shutterbuttons/2018-06-17/74003e57-1156-4698-a893-37738990673d.mp4


Am I Flexing?


This post is part classroom reveal, part definition of flexible seating. If you only want to see my room, scroll down. 🙂

Like most school teachers, as the end of July approaches, I begin to think about when I can get in my classroom to get it ready. It seems counterproductive to spend part of my summer break working on my room, but I can’t imagine going back to school, sitting in meetings, and NOT thinking about the fact that my room needs to be done. Some teachers are cool with not touching a thing until they report back. I am definitely not one of those people.

Two years ago, I began bringing in pieces of furniture to augment the school provided desks and chairs we all have in our rooms. I wanted different heights, textures, colors, etc. so that my room would seem less institutional. I was going for a cafe or coffee shop feel that is warm and welcoming. I wasn’t thinking about bean bags (can’t clean them) or yoga balls (I’ve heard they pop), just different tables and chairs. I wanted kids to feel that they could move around if they needed a break from sitting, so I had bar-height tables where they could stand, and a coffee table that they could work at while sitting on the floor.

The debate rages

Lately, if you’re paying any attention to Instagram, Facebook, or blog posts about education, you know that the ‘to decorate or not to decorate’ debate rages pretty regularly. Some say that showing pictures of their “perfect” classrooms makes others feel bad, some argue that they want to create a welcoming space for the kids, as well as a place that they enjoy spending their day. There are pretty good arguments for both sides, but I don’t like when people post things like “you don’t need a fancy classroom to be a good teacher”. Huh? It’s like they think we decorate to cover our inadequacy or something. But I digress.

After reading several of these posts, I realized that I don’t really know the meaning of the term “flexible seating”. So I Googled it. Here’s what it says on Wikipedia:

flexible seating classroom is one in which traditional seating charts are replaced with seating arrangements that allow the students to sit where they choose. One of its principal objectives is to reduce the number/duration of sedentary periods of time, which research has identified as a danger to health. 

Hey! That’s what I do! But then it continues:

Flexible seating classroom designs include:

  • stools
  • couches
  • beanbag chairs
  • chairs
  • beds
  • mats
  • inflatable balls
  • standing
  • laying on the floor
  • pillows
  • benches
  • hanging chairs

Most of these items aren’t present in my classroom. I’m big on chairs and tables for every kid. The other stuff (pillows, floor, armchairs) are for independent or group work after direct instruction. So maybe I don’t employ flexible seating? I’m not sure.

Edutopia says this: Flexible classrooms give students a choice in what kind of learning space works best for them, and help them to work collaboratively, communicate, and engage in critical thinking. That sounds like what I do. I guess I’m just more structured with my choices? I also include aspects of hygge (items from nature like wood, fire, and plant life) to create a cozy, warm atmosphere.

Basically, I don’t really know what I do or what you would call it, I only know that it works for me and my students. Whether you decorate or not, isn’t that really the bottom line? If it works for you and your students, then it’s right. Right?

Now for the reveal

Here is what my room looked like before:

After many hours of slaving away in my room, here is what it looks like now:

I’m not quite finished, a few of my desks are in the hall, and I need to hang a couple more things on the wall, but there you have it. Also, if you’ll notice the hanging light fixtures, those will provide the light, along with lamps, instead of the fluorescent overhead lights.

There is a chair and table spot for each student, and the love seat and armchairs will be used during group work or independent reading.  Like I said above, I don’t know what that’s called, but I know I have a smile on my face every single time I walk in my room. 🙂

I’d love to hear your comments, thoughts, critiques, and suggestions!