Using Paint Strips to Teach Connotation

Connotation: an idea or feeling that a word invokes in addition to its literal or primary meaning, according to Google. Connotation, to me, answers the question, “How deeply does this word make me feel a certain emotion? The word “bad” has a negative connotation to it, yet so does the word “devastating”. Yet, English teachers can’t deny that the negative feeling associated with the word “devastating” is magnified in comparison to the word “bad”. This is what teaching connotation is all about.

Understanding connotation is a multi-step process that most students will not grasp with a basic PowerPoint and worksheet. I know…I tried that avenue. I failed. Thankfully, these students were vocal about my dismal failure because it pushed me as an educator to think outside the box for a way to truly reach them with this topic that is ESSENTIAL to creating inventive and thoughtful writers.

Step One: Teach Students About Synonyms

You cannot skip this step. Students must know what a synonym is and often do not (or they need a refresher). Practice using a simple word that everyone in the room knows. I use the word “bad” in my own practice lesson. Students will need to brainstorm to come up with synonyms of the word “bad” and write them down.


This is the scaffolded version of my Connotation Sunburst Worksheet

Step Two: Teach Students About Levels of Connotation of a Group of Synonyms

Next, students must begin the process of understanding that the connotative meaning of a word has to do with the feeling that is associated with that word. Explain to students that the word “good” has a positive connotation, or feeling, associated with it, while the word “bad” has a negative connotation associated with it. As a group, or in pairs, students should come up with another example of two words that have opposing connotations, or feelings associated with their meaning.

Step Three: Rank Group of Synonyms According to Connotation

Students should rank each synonym that they previously found. I choose to have students rank the words on a plain worksheet the first round, mainly to get them used to the process without any color or further directions. They then must explain their ranking choice in writing. Students LOVE to try to say, “Well, this one just seems more negative!” but I do not let such a lackadaisical explanation slide. Prompt them to use the other synonyms in their explanation, and push them beyond basic answers.

Step Four: Repeat Finding Synonyms with a New Word – Then Rank Using Paint Strips

I always teach this lesson in two rounds. The first round is wonderful for students to practice their rankings, explanations and to work with the teacher and their classmates as a sounding board for their ideas. It’s very energetic, and they get the opportunity to hear their classmates logic as well as the teacher’s.

The second round, give the students a new word that they may be working with in their unit lessons. I provide a vocabulary word that they have been learning. Then, have them find synonyms for their vocabulary word in small groups, this time limiting the voices that are guiding their answers.

Then, students will rank the connotative meaning of these synonyms independently using the paint strips to guide them. Pick up paint strips from a hardware store, or use the ones in my TpT resource and have students rank the words (words with a more positive connotation should be written in the lighter hues, while words with a more negative connotation should be written in the darker hues). Then, have the students explain their reasoning for their ranking either on the backs of the paint strips or on a separate sheet of paper.


Paint Strips Ranking Worksheet

Note: It is difficult to write on real paint strips with pen or pencil. Permanent Markers work fine.

Step Five: Teach Students to Critically Consider Word Choice in a Sentence

From here, you may choose where to lead students. I use a worksheet where students place the synonyms they came up with for “bad” into the same sentence and answer questions about sentence meaning. Another great further practice would be to teach students about author’s purpose. Then, provide students with an author’s purpose and have them alter words in a pre-written paragraph to meet the specified purpose. This is higher-level thinking that will challenge even your most excelled students.

If you want to use the worksheets and handouts that I have found to be effective in my classroom, you may download my Connotation Lesson from TpT.

Don’t make my mistake. Don’t assume that students know how to slow down and think critically about how a word is appropriate for the context of a sentence. These students are learning and growing in a world where getting information out quickly is highly valued. Word choice takes a back seat to slang, text talk and who can speak the quickest. Slowing down to consider their purpose for writing or speaking is a skill that must be taught to this generation. Teach it with patience and care, and understand that this may not come easily to many of them. Yet, it is so critical for them to have this skill in the future, simply because so much stems from being able to speak and write with purpose in mind.

I hope this helps guide some of you to reach even more of your students this year!

Time Saving Hacks For The Overwhelmed Teacher

Teaching can be wonderful, teaching can be transformative, and teaching can be down-right overwhelming. The duties and responsibilities placed on the shoulders of a teacher are rivaled by very few other professions. Add in teacher guilt and it’s a perfect recipe for pulling 50-70 hour weeks in a desperate attempt to keep the classroom operating. Educators did not choose this profession to then face years of feeling like they’re drowning to meet expectations. Steps can be taken to get rid of the underlying stream of stress that comes with teaching- these tried and true hacks may just help save your sanity and give you more of a teacher-life balance.

The most common complaint that surfaces from teachers in forums focuses around the concept of time, more specifically, around the lack of time that teachers have available to complete the tasks that are required of them. Legally, districts are only required to provide one lunch period and one prep period per work day. It is a common complaint that this is not enough time for planning, printing off necessary work, grading student work, providing constructive feedback on writing, entering in grades to keep the Student Portal updated, creating teacher lessons and materials, updating classroom bulletin boards, contacting parents about celebrations/concerns, etc. I found myself frequently working through my lunch period, gulping down my lunch just so that I didn’t have to take home as much work to grade that night. I truly felt like a zombie and knew that it was time to figure out some ways to get more of a balance between my real-life and my teacher-life.

Does this sound like you? Are these your concerns too? If so, I have figured out a few time-saving hacks in the past few years that have truly and honestly given me my lunch period back (most of the time).

Common Mistake: Grading Student Work As It Is Turned In

When I was a new teacher, I used to grade homework assignments, test/quizzes and essays whenever the students turned them in to me. In my eyes, I was SAVING time for future me because I was grading the paper now. In reality, I was slowing my grading process down entirely by forcing my brain to grade a paper on characterization that was turned in, then switching gears to grading a few papers turned in about irony, etc. I was exhausted within a few months.

Time-Saving Hack #1: Batch Work Being Graded

“Batching” work means to collect all of a certain assignment BEFORE beginning the grading process. You are essentially streamlining the grading process, and will shave minutes if not eventual hours off of your time spent grading. Your brain can get into a rhythm when it is grading multiple copies of the same assignment, thus eradicating the need to think for a few seconds about each question’s answer before determining its appropriate level of correctness.

Of course, students who turn in work late can’t be avoided, so those assignments will need to be graded when turned in (unless you can wait for all assignments, if the students do not need immediate feedback).

Batching tasks in general is a huge time saver, and something you may already be doing intuitively. When there are papers to be sent to the office, wait until you have everything around that needs to be done in the main office (worksheets to be copied, that book you need to return to a co-worker, study guides already printed to the office, etc). Your time is so valuable, make sure each trip you make is purposeful. You may find yourself feeling less frazzled, less anxious and more present just by getting several tasks done at once.

Common Mistake: Thinking You’ll Remember To Do It Later

I used to have a good memory… before I became the teacher/counselor/cheerleader/second-mom/disciplinarian/coach to over one hundred students a day. On a daily basis, teachers make more split second decisions than most doctors, and are keeping track of multiple levels of data merely by observing behaviors of students. Your to-do list? DEFINITELY not going to be most prominent in your memory space.

Time-Saving Hack #2: Keep a Daily To-Do List For the Week

Print off a weekly to-do list that breaks down each day. Teachers who groan at list-makers, stop. Go print one off. This is not “just one more thing to do”, this will actually aid with time-saving hack #1. Each morning I get to school with enough time before my first period class begins to write out the tasks I have to accomplish for the day, tasks I can push off until the following afternoon, and tasks that need to be completed sometime before Friday at 3:30 PM.

I keep this paper on my desk all week long, crossing out each task completed and jotting down more as ideas come to me. When I get an idea for a neat project I’d love to do (you know, when I get time) I write it out on the back of the paper. Sometimes I DO get to that project over the weekend, and sometimes I file it away for a later date. Either way, I’m not losing the ideas that are always popping into my head because if they are not written down, I can never guarantee they will re-emerge into my brain.

If you don’t want to search for a weekly to-do list or create your own, borrow mine. It’s simple, it’s fun, and it is easy-to-use. Oh, and it’s free.

Common Mistake: Not Having a Set Place For Students to Turn In Work

There are so many different ways of collecting papers from students. Some teachers have been taught to ask students to pass their papers to the front of the room, some teachers collect work from the desk as students are working on something else, other teachers have no system and sometimes ask students to hand their work directly to them. Now, if those systems are working for you and you love them, then you just keep on keepin’ on! However, I have found that I lose papers those ways, I spend too much time shuffling papers around instead of starting the lesson, and I just toss them somewhere on my desk to dig through later. Recipe…for…disaster.

Time-Saving Hack #3: Create a Set Turn-In Location

I purchased cheap paper bins that are each labelled according to grade level and class period. I train my students during the first two weeks of school that any and all assignments need to be placed into the bin. I give them small tasks and they practice placing the work in the bin without me even telling them it is practice. I make a point to refuse to take any paper from a student during those first few weeks, and instead gently ask, “Where do we turn in papers for this class?” which is immediately met with a giggle and feet headed towards the Homework Bins.


Example of Homework Bins

You will need to create a clear and calm expectation that turning in work is to be done in a timely manner and quietly. Any student during the initial learning period and at any time later in the year who turns in work, then chats with a neighbor, is loud and obnoxious etc you must immediately ask them to stop, go collect their paper, return to their seat, and try again. Yes, this will eat up precious classroom minutes… but will pay off in the long run. Remain patient throughout, and keep a neutral face. If you are calm as you teach them this process, they will learn that it isn’t something that can get a reaction out of you and should just be done well.

This system saves time in a few ways:

  1. Students are more certain of expectations for completed work and feel confident enough to walk in after school, in between classes, etc and place their work in the correct bin without having to interrupt me.
  2. The teacher does not have to shuffle/organize papers right then and there, but may immediately begin prepping the next part of the lesson while students return to their seats.
  3. You do not lose papers in the mass struggle of papers that may be accumulating on your desk.
  4. You have an enormous amount of control over where papers are and can strongly counter any student who tries to claim that you, the teacher, lost their paper when in reality… they never completed nor turned the paper in. Consider having a set slot near your desk that you place papers to be returned to students (one slot per class period), that way there is very little room for error.

Common Mistake: You Grade Everything

I think this may have been (and sometimes still is) my greatest downfall as an English teacher. I saw where my students were lacking and I felt that I needed to place a specific, numerical grade on every single assignment I gave. I also felt I had to leave feedback on every paper I returned to them, and so I spent most nights curled up on the couch making notes and helpful tips that students glanced over and then filed away without any further thought. OUCH.

Time-Saving Hack #4: Only Grade What Needs Constructive Feedback

First, take a good hard look at everything you are assigning. Is each one necessary? What is its purpose? If you are assigning it as work to keep the students busy for the class period, but the work itself is not super helpful in achieving the skill you want them to eventually be proficient in, then you have some changes to make. For your sanity, more so than anything else.

Keep assignments that have worked well for this cohort of student. Keep assignments that kids year after year seem to LOVE to complete, and assignments that tend to give the most kids “Aha! Moments”. Then, take an objective eye to the rest and nix assignments that you can admittedly say are not pulling their weight.

Then, gather the assignments that you deemed were valuable for your teaching and organize them into three piles: assignments that need to have written feedback, assignments that need a numerical grade and assignments that need a check-plus, check or check-minus grade. If you’re unsure of the purpose of the latter, it is to let students know where their work fell in terms of quality without you having to assign a specific grade or write feedback. I give these grades to papers that we will all go over in class together, and we discuss why some responses landed in each category. Students learn how to improve their work without taking a hit with a poor numerical grade.

  1. Assignments that need to have written feedback: paragraphs, essay drafts, planning sheets, short responses.
  2. Assignments that need a numerical grade: tests & quizzes, essay final drafts (use a rubric to avoid having to write further extended feedback), study guides.
  3. Assignments that need a check-plus, check or check-minus grade: journal writes, grammar practice, initial worksheets on new skills, background knowledge charts, class work.

This will save (especially English teachers) a LOT of time in grading papers. Oh, so much time.

Common Mistake: You Print Things Off Only As You Need Them

Your first years of teaching may feel like treading water in the Atlantic Ocean – you can barely keep your head above the waves. One mistake teachers make is to only print off worksheets the day before or even the morning of the day that they are going to use them. This puts them in constant prep mode, where they can’t really relax and focus in on the their teaching as they are thinking about what materials they need to print off for the next day.

Time-Saving Hack #5: Print Off Most (If Not All) Materials You Need For The Week At One Time

Admittedly, this ties back into batching your tasks in the first time-saving hack, yet this one is important enough to earn its own header. I plan for my week ahead on Sundays, you may choose a different day according to your schedule. On that day, make a list of materials that you absolutely will need for that week’s lessons. This includes Bell-Ringers, worksheets, homework assignments, Exit Slips, handouts… everything. Make a point of getting to school a bit earlier than everyone else and before you do anything else, get your copies made for the week. Paperclip them into piles according to grade level or class, and keep them somewhere organized by day. Now, you’ve just freed up (at least) one prep period standing in line at the copier, and probably made your week a little bit more blissful.

Here’s to you finding more time for the things your heart truly loves, and investing less time on silly tasks that drain your creative brain.

If you’re looking for a great organizational hack for managing absent work, read my article on a Stress-Free System for Absent Students.


Absent Work Bins

Christmas Gluten-Free… and Easy


Guest Writer: Colleen Cavagna-

Since finding out this spring that I have a gluten intolerance, I have been slowly going through each holiday realizing, with shock and frustration, all the things that I can no longer eat during the holidays. Now, I could have wallowed in self-pity and made everyone around me feel terrible about my new eating regimen but, since I am not the Grinch and not one to miss out on my favorite foods during the holidays, I did my research.

I have happily been trying out gluten-free (GF) versions of the dishes and treats I really don’t want to miss out on and if your diet is also gluten-free OR if you have guests that are gluten-free, I have done all the work for you on how to have a Merry Christmas for everyone. For tips that focus on the main feast, head over to my earlier post that explains how to make the perfect GF gravy, stuffing and other dishes!

Now on to the topic close to most of our hearts… desserts.

  1. Cream Puff Cake

During the cold weather, I think back to my youth when my father and mother made cream puffs. We would drag ourselves into the house from sledding with frozen fingers and toes to be greeted with cream puffs and hot chocolate, mmmm. Well, making cream puffs with GF flour that tastes like I remember wasn’t something I considered possible – until I tried a recipe called Custard Cake. With my first taste, my tongue said, “Whoa, cream puffs,” while my eyes said, “Wait, this doesn’t look anything like cream puffs, what’s up?” Frankly I didn’t care, I just kept eating. I had to fight off my husband for the last piece.

Follow the directions exactly, and you can enjoy this GF dessert that everyone will delight over. This recipe came from Nicole’s Gluten on a Shoestring blog.

Cream Puffs
3/4 cup All Purpose Gluten Free Flour
1/4 tsp Xanthan Gum 
2 Tbsp cornstarch
4 eggs,  at room temperature, separated
1 Tbsp lemon juice
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbsp vanilla
9 Tbsp butter, melted and cooled
2 cups warm milk (about 95°F)
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting


  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 8×8 baking pan and set aside. In bowl, mix flour, xanthan gum (omit if your blend already contains it), and cornstarch.
  • In stand mixer, whisk egg whites and lemon juice on medium-high speed until frothy. Add half of sugar and continue to beat until stiff peaks form (about 2 minutes). Transfer egg white mixture to another bowl and add yolks to the mixer bowl with the rest of the sugar and vanilla until combined.
  • Add the melted butter to the yolk mixture and beat well. Then add the flour mixture and the warm milk to the bowl in three parts each until just combined. The mixture will be very thin (watery). Add the beaten egg whites to the batter in three parts as well, whisking GENTLY to combine after each addition. The batter should be light and fluffy. Pour into the prepared pan and place in center of preheated oven. Bake until the top of the cake is lightly golden brown and springs back when pressed gently in the center (about 1 hour and 5 mins to 15 minutes, depending upon your oven).
  • The cake will shrink up when removed from the oven and cools. Dust lightly with confectioner’s sugar before serving or top with a pudding then dust with confectioners’ sugar, or top with fruit or a fruit mixture or, or, or, the possibilities are endless!
  1. Frosted Sugar Cookies

Christmas just isn’t Christmas without frosted sugar cookies. Big fluffy Santa’s, snowmen, stars; my mouth is watering just thinking about them. Well, fear not, you can still have your sugar cookie Christmas fix with this recipe. These ones are soft and thick with your favorite frosting!  Celeste at Life After Wheat provided this wonderful recipe.

Sugar Cookies

¾ cup shortening (I used butter)
1 cup sugar
1 egg
½ Tbsp vanilla
1 cup prepared vanilla pudding
4 cups All-Purpose Gluten-Free Flour
1 tsp Xanthan Gum
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt


  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream shortening (or butter) and sugar together for 1 minute. Add egg and vanilla; mix until smooth.
  • Add pudding and mix on medium until blended. Add remaining ingredients and mix for 1 minute. Dough should be just slightly sticky. If it’s too thick/crumbly, add additional pudding or milk 1 Tablespoon at a time until you have the right consistency.
  • You can wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate up to 4 days at this point, or proceed to baking. Roll dough out to desired thickness (I did about 1/4″) on a surface that is lightly dusted with gluten free flour and cut into desired shapes.
  • Arrange cookies on cookie sheet lined with parchment paper 1 inch apart and bake 8-10 minutes until they appear set and the bottom edges are just barely (just barely!) starting to turn a golden brown.
  • Let cool on cookie sheet a few minutes before removing to a cooling rack. Frost with your favorite frosting and decorate as you like.
  1. Jam Thumb Print Cookies

This means Christmas! They taste so good with your homemade jam and rolled in nuts. I wanted them to taste as close to the gluten version as possible, so I just modified the recipe I have been using for years with delicious results!

Jam ThumbprintsIngredients:
½ cup butter
¼ cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
½ tsp salt
1 ¼  All-Purpose Gluten-Free Flour
½ tsp Xanthan Gum
½ – 1 cup chopped nuts


  • Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Cream butter, sugar, and 1 whole egg and 1 yolk (set aside the white for rolling the cookies).
  • In a bowl, combine flour, salt, xanthan gum (only add this if your flour does not already include it.)
  • Add vanilla to creamed butter, sugar and eggs – mix. Then add flour mixture. Dough should be slightly sticky. Add more flour as needed to get to right consistency.
  • Put dough in refrigerator for 1 hour or overnight if you don’t have time right now.
    Shape dough into balls, roll in whisked egg white, then roll in chopped nuts (I use pecans, but you can use whatever nuts you like best).
  • Place on a parchment lined cookie sheet. Press your thumb in the middle of the dough ball to make a nice deep indent. Maintain a ridge at the edge of the cookies so that the jam does not come out.
  • Bake 8 minutes, remove from oven and add enough jelly to each cookie to fill the indent, return to the oven and bake an additional 13 – 15 minutes or until dough is cooked.
  • Allow to cool and then enjoy.

Obviously, there are plenty more desserts we all like for Christmas, but this will give you a place to start for your gluten-free guests (or yourself) that your gluten guests won’t even realize are gluten-free!

If you want to bake a pie, see my Thanksgiving post for a GREAT pie crust recipe to make your pies GF too. January is my time for baking bread (well all of winter really) – before I become gluten-free – so perhaps my next article will tackle that tricky topic. Enjoy yourselves and have a very Merry Christmas.

“Check-Ins” That Allow Student Ownership of Education

If there is anything that I am a huge advocate for, it’s student ownership of their education. Allowing students to take ownership over their education solves various issues that arise year after year such as apathy towards grades and behavior problems in the classroom. Students that are in charge of what they are learning, and can advocate for themselves inside the classroom are empowered. They want to do better because they feel as if they are the ones in control of what they are learning. If you wish to create empowered students in your classroom, one way to start is to create a “Check-In” system.


Students need to know what the end goal is before you begin a unit or a lesson. There is nothing I enjoy more than going to a training where the day is mapped out and it is clearly evident what I will be gaining from the hours I am investing in their program. Students respond similarly. So, before I begin each unit or a major lesson, students are asked to go do a Check-In.


Student Check-In Station

In my classroom, I have a cardboard organizer where each student has their own folder. I teach enough students that some slots have three or four students’ folders in one slot – the students get used to sharing. When the students are asked to do a check-in, they go back to the organizer, grab their folder, and locate the exact page I have listed on the SmartTV (yes, my district is quite fancy).

I designed a rating scale for each of the Informational and Literature Reading Common Core State Standards that was SUPER student-friendly. I transformed each Reading Standard into an “I can…” statement at the top of a page that students can understand without much explanation from me. Then, underneath the I can statement is a rating chart from 4 to 1, where 4 = “I got it!”, 3 = “Almost!”, 2 =”Kind of” and 1 = “Nope”.


Each number has a corresponding emoji because that’s what my kids absolutely love right now. For each rating, I broke the standard down into a few bullet points to make choosing their rating a bit more scientific than just guessing. My students will read the bullet points and mentally check-off which ones apply to them.

They then give themselves a rating under the Tracking My Progress section, provide an explanation for why they rated themselves that and then write down one solution for improvement in the future.

Once they have finished their Check-In, they return their paperwork to their folder and return their folder to its slot. Then, class commences! We repeat this process halfway through the unit, and then again at the end of the unit. This prevents any students from slipping through the cracks and intimately informs my teaching on an individual student level.

Etiquette for Check-Ins

The biggest reason that Check-Ins work and continue to work for me are that students trust that what they write inside of their folders is only between them and I. I do not read them out loud in class, nor do I address my concerns about their answers in front of any of their classmates. If I need to do re-teaching, we decide on a time for additional practice with a standard without making it extremely obvious to their classmates that they felt inadequate. Students can be kind of hesitant at first to admit that they don’t know something, so make sure you handle the first round of Check-Ins well. After they build trust in you, they will start to be brutally honest in their Check-Ins, which is fantastic for informing your future teaching.

Please be sure to check their answers after class. I often will place a check-mark near students who felt they were in the 3 or 4 range, and I will leave a short note to any students who felt they were a 2 or 1. This shows them that I am reading what they are writing, and it gives us another line of communication outside of class discussion or having to approach me one-on-one after class.

If you plan to implement a system that empowers your students’ learning in some way, write to The Genius Educator and let us know what you have planned!