Idea Expansion: Helping Their Ideas Explode

I stumbled upon a lesson this week that had my entire class erupting in giggles, awed at their classmates’ similes, and patting each other on the back for their ingenuity. For a group of middle school students who struggle with English, this was a huge win. If your students are writing narratives with sentences like, “He is tall,” instead of “He towered over the others, casting a shadow across the room,” then this post is for you!

Narrative Peer Revision Assessment (2)

Every October, my school district hosts an Annual Horror Story Contest in grades 7-12. Every student attempts to write a 3-5 page story rich with suspense, mood and, of course, horror. I teach four sections of middle school – if you have experience reading the work of this age group, you know that reading these can be both extremely entertaining.

These students are exploring new ideas that often explode into stories of non-stop action. Yet, most middle school students fail to grasp the concept of pacing (everybody dies all at once) or conventions (“Then they ran to the barn and hid in the hay and tried not to sneeze and heard footsteps approaching and they started shaking and…”).

I worked hard with my middle school students to discuss pacing, to offer guidance in the early stages of writing to avoid pacing issues. Students created rough drafts and we went through a round of peer revisions using my Narrative Peer Revision Assessment and the students were SO helpful to each other!

However, as I scanned the stories, I kept seeing really short descriptive sentences like the one mentioned in the opening of this blog post. I knew I had to find a way to widen their thinking.

So, the next class, the students came in and on the whiteboard, I had written the following: 

IDEA: “I am so tired.”

EXPANDED: “My eyelids drooped as I fought off sleep. My legs felt like lead balloons as I dragged myself across the room.”

I asked my students to write everything down in their notes. Then, we got into a lively discussion of how relateable drooping eyelids were when you’re really tired – everyone in the room had felt that at least once in their life! Then, we talked about lead. So many of the students nodded vigorously when I asked them if they had ever done so much running that their legs were heavy enough to feel like lead! BOOM! I had their attention.

I decided to get them involved more in the lesson. On the board, I crossed off the word “tired”, and asked them for other adjectives that would make sense. Soon we had the words “tall”, “beautiful”, “anxious”, and “angry” on the board.

Counting off by fours, I broke the students into small groups (I only have 12 students in this class, so this worked. If you have more students, come up with a fifth or sixth adjective and break them up like that. Any more than two or three students per group may allow one student to sit back and let the others do the work! I assigned one of the sentences they had come up with to each group and asked them to expand that sentence in their notebooks.

For example, Group One had the sentence, “I was so tall.” Group Two had the sentence, “I was so beautiful.” Etc. The rules were, they couldn’t use the original adjective, and they should aim for one or two sentences as their Idea Expansion. I gave them a five-minute timer to keep them on track.

Can I tell you something, educators? I never expected to have so much fun with such a simple concept. These kiddos got right to work, trying their hardest to come up with an Idea Expansion that was truly great (and some tried really hard to come up with similes to make everyone laugh).

Once the timer went off, every group would share out. I asked the groups who were not sharing out to write down the Idea Expansion – I typed every Idea Expansion up on the SmartBoard as the group told us their ideas so anyone who couldn’t keep up could get everything written. Everyone was giggling, handing out compliments for similes done well, and it was probably the most joyous lesson I have ever experienced.

After all of the groups shared, I had the students take out their narratives and, with a highlighter, they were to comb through their stories and find at least three (3) instances where there was an idea that could be expanded on.

Their reaction? “Ms. C. can I highlight more than three?” 

Me: “You sure can.” 

I repeated this lesson three more times that day. Every single class went just as well. I even caught my one group of 8th graders that can be tough cookies when it comes to engagement giggling over some of the idea expansions.

Sometimes the best lessons are discovered by accident. I hope this joy spreads to your own classroom, and you find yourself having just as much fun as we did. Happy Teaching!


Begin This Year With a New Story

This summer I took a much-needed hiatus from writing and creating and thinking about writing and creating. The past year was an emotionally- and physically taxing year for me, and as much as my workaholic personality didn’t like the idea, a break from working was EXACTLY what I needed to start this school year refreshed and truly able to invest myself in my students.

Over the summer, after spending countless nights with friends enjoying hikes and night swimming after a day on the boat, I realized how truly happy I was – I couldn’t stop from smiling most days. Who wouldn’t be happy with sunshine in their hair and a furry puppy happily running around your feet every day? Yet, this realization that I was happy – truly happy – made me realize how unhappy I had become during the school year. So, I made a conscious decision to start this school year by doing a total clean-out – of my home, my classroom, and my poor attitude.


The new school year is the perfect time for a fresh start for our students, but it is also the perfect time for us to ditch the negative stories we’ve been telling ourselves about teaching and create new, fascinating and inspiring ones! We, as educators, have this really cool opportunity to affect the lives of upwards of 100 children a day. We are the first face they see in the morning, the ones that help them recognize that they are valued, they are loved, and they are going to go out into the world and do things we couldn’t even dream of doing! So, this year, let’s start off by tossing out the negative messages we see online.

Make a new story this year – a story that doesn’t include bashing your principal,  complaining about your co-worker’s shortcomings or groaning about that student. It is so easy to fall into the grumbling, complaining, negative-nancy mindset (I know, I fell into it last year). Take a moment to write out a list of the things that you absolutely love about your district, administration, colleagues, and students. This is the best way to begin changing the story you are telling yourself about teaching. My first list is below:

  1. I love the big personalities of my middle school students.
  2. I am so grateful for how close-knit my middle school colleagues have become.
  3. I love that my district listens to its teachers and adjusts whenever possible to accommodate emergencies, family issues, class issues, etc.
  4. I am so grateful that my district is willing to take risks with new material, technology, and ideas – they are willing to grow and offer opportunities for the students!
  5. I am so grateful for my colleagues that check up on me and offer a friendly ear. The ones who listen to help, and can be trusted with personal information.

Write yourself a list, and really dig in deep to the things that you love about your kick-ass school, colleagues and students – maybe even your significant other and family as well!

After writing my little list, I put it down and did what I automatically do – checked social media (anyone else a habitual social media checker? Such a bad habit, I know!). Nearly immediately, one of the teacher pages I follow popped up with a funny meme that was joking about how difficult parents can be in teaching. I chuckled. Then, I realized that even though it was meant in good humor, I was really only feeding into the same negative mindset I had developed the previous year.

In an effort to get myself on course, I decided to unfollow that page for the time being. You don’t need to go unfollow all the funny teacher pages you have on your social media – just make sure that you recognize the potential those funny memes have to drag you back into a mindset that may make you slightly, well… miserable.

Go out there and root out the story you’ve been telling yourself about teaching, your district, your students or the community. Toss those grumblings to the side, and sketch out a new story. One filled with optimism and hope, inspiration and possibility. One of happiness.

Because Teach… kids learn from educators who are happy. Make yourself one of them.

Clearing Physical and Emotional Clutter

Why the hype on shows like Tidying Up With Marie Kondo? Is there any solidity behind the idea that of getting rid of excess stuff? If you are feeling overwhelmed, or constantly searching for a way to streamline your classroom so that it feels more organized, this post is for you.

Our physical environment is a direct reflection of our mental state. This is true for our homes as well as for our classrooms. If your classroom looks anything like mine does at the end of the year, you are probably chuckling right now. One research study found that when there are multiple forms of stimuli (clutter) competing for neural representation (your focus), most humans were already doing a small form of multi-tasking by IGNORING THE JUNK.

As teachers, we already have a million different things to focus on… clutter vying for our attention should be the least of our worries. Yet the benefits of keeping an organized classroom go beyond aesthetic.

Having a clear space physically boosts your energy.

Have you ever came home to a crazy house with things all over the floor, dishes in the sink, laundry in a pile and disorder everywhere? How did you feel? Chances are, you felt low-energy and overwhelmed immediately.

Re-imagine walking into your home, things are in their correct place, the dishes have been scrubbed and put away, laundry is neatly placed in dresser drawers… how do you feel now? Refreshed? Ready to put your teacher things down and enjoy being home?

Exactly. Your physical space allows for you to have a fresh slate. Your energy is much higher when you come home and don’t subconsciously start pulling together a to-do list a mile high of chores that, quite frankly, will not get done when you’re already tired from teaching.

This same principle applies to your classroom. Students respond on a energetic-level to the organization of a room. If the room appears put together, then they subconsciously assess, “Mr. Teacher values order and organization. I will need to make things neater.” One less thing to try to teach! Another positive? Coming to work each day to an organized classroom will also lift YOUR energy!

Having a clear space provides clarity of thought.

Without a mental to-do list a mile long (grade those papers, drop off that form to the principal, fill out mentor worksheets, email librarian about books, etc), your brain is now free to create new thoughts. Ever felt bogged down with brain fog? One reason you may be experiencing this is because your brain is overloaded with things to THINK about, all reflected from your physical environment!

Student are also affected by clutter in a similar fashion. When THEY are organized, they do better on longer projects and in general. When they are in a CLASSROOM that is organized, their mind is more able to wonder deeply. The human brain appreciates order, especially when students are absorbed in a digital world that is so hectic for a large portion of their life!

Counter: Some kids thrive in clutter.

I know someone out there is thinking this – some kids thrive in clutter. They probably have a creative brain that processes information differently. Their brain can handle the madness. However, as adults, we cannot assume all students thrive in this environment. It is our job to provide a clean, orderly work space that all of our students can thrive in. Our clutter-resistant students will need to get their clutter-fix from their bedroom at home!

How Do I Clear My Classroom of Clutter?

  1. Get ruthless. Look at your classroom walls and, before you do anything else, take done the posters that are NOT aiding in your students’ learning. That one poster with tiny text? Take it down. That other poster with a TON of text? Take it down. The information on posters should be able to be consumed within a few second of glancing at the poster itself. You are not trying to teach students through a poster (I hope not, anyways). If it is a topic you value, make it into a mini-lesson that you give periodically throughout the year. Get rid of anything on your walls that is outdated, not colorful, boring, or just too busy.
  2. Clean Off Your Desk. Seriously. Take ten minutes and clean your desk. File away papers, throw away wrappers, dust off that inch of dirt from the school year. Once it is clean, sit down in your chair. Doesn’t it feel better?
  3. Air Out Your Cupboards. And by air out, I mean, completely go through each of the cupboards in your classroom and start tossing out materials from fifteen years ago that you are keeping “just in case you need it someday”. If you aren’t emotionally ready to throw away some things, keep a specific place for outdated materials. Then, next year, look through them again and see if you still want to hang on to them. Organize supplies in containers, papers in folders or binders, and make everything have a specific place. Make each shelf a certain grade level, or a certain subject area, and only put things there that belong. It is AMAZING how much easier the school year goes when you know where everything should be.
  4. Go through your units and determine what is working and what needs to meet the flame. My love of Game of Thrones came out in this one, mainly because I am SO bad at throwing out old units/worksheets that I used to love. I cling to them like a long-lost child, promising myself I’ll find time next year even though I haven’t found time in four years. This is the time of year I shake myself by the shoulders and get – it – together. My recycling bin is usually full by the time I’ve combed through each unit (you caught me, I don’t actually light my papers on fire).
  5. Toss old supplies. Then, make a list of supplies that you will need to replace for the following year. This is essential to having a hassle-free year, and will save you multiple headaches next year.
  6. Organize your Google Drive. Someone had to say it… get in there and tackle that unruly beast. My first four years of teaching I never once organized my Google Drive, and when I finally got around to it, OH MY GOSH WHAT A NIGHTMARE. Color code your folders, develop a system of organization (I create one folder for each grade level, then I create folders for each novel we read, then I create folders for each skill I teach during that novel.)

When you are done with de-cluttering your classroom, you should feel a sense of accomplishment but also relief. Cleaning your physical environment aides in also helping your emotional state as well. Anxiety and overwhelm are directly related to how much our brain is trying to tackle.

Your mind is the most powerful tool you have. If doing some organizing can sharpen that tool and allow us to utilize it to our best potential, then the time invested is entirely worth it.



Avoid These One-Pager Mistakes


The English Language Arts world seems to be afire with talk of one-pagers. This unique assignment allows students to have a creative outlet in an otherwise text-heavy course. Don’t be fooled, however, this assignment is extremely rigorous when it comes to analysis and deeper-level thinking. Not only is this assignment a breath-of-fresh-air for students, it is also MUCH easier for English teachers to grade compared to an essay.

English teachers would all agree, any assignment that cuts down on grading time, is an assignment worth giving. However, I’d like to share with you some of the mistakes that I fell in to when I first assigned this to my 7th grade class, in the hopes that you can avoid repeating them.

Mistake #1: Being Dazzled By My Students’ Artistic Skills…Not Their Analytical Skills


I had a group of 7th grade students who were my pride and joy. These students had shown maturity from the start, and the majority of them were so passionate about their learning. I had never had a group quite this precocious, so I chose to try my very first one-pager with them.

I placed emphasis on the creative side of the project, and walked them through all of the required elements. I stressed that the project must show effort and thoughtfulness, as well as be creative and colorful. Looking back, I had emphasized the artistic elements far too much (as I was assuming that the students would need encouragement in that area) and not placed enough emphasis on the analysis and writing elements (as I was assuming they knew I wanted them to focus on them… this was English class after all).

We spent two weeks brainstorming, planning, illustrating and creating our one-pagers. The day came to collect these brilliant projects, and I was feeling pretty great about it all. That night, I sat down to grade their hard-work, and within 15 minutes I was wanting to invent a time machine that could launch me back two weeks.

These students had done STUNNING jobs on the illustrations, but their explanations were basic and quite frankly, did not showcase the intelligence they are capable of. They had put all of their energy and effort into being creative (as I had stressed) and writing neatly (as I had stressed), which had left little time for actual analysis and explanations of their work!

Do This Instead

Walk through each element of the one-pager together. Explain the rubric in chunks, and place the most emphasis on the analysis and explanation of their ideas. While the creative side is important, and many students will revel in this new-found freedom in English class, the artistic side truly isn’t the goal of this assignment. Showing effort, putting in the time, and making sure that connections are made in each is essential. Perfection of drawing is not.

Mistake #2: Not Providing Enough Structure For All Students


When I first assigned this project, I had spent hours scouring websites to figure out the best way to assign this, created my One-Pager Final Project assignment, and had spoken with other English teachers about the project to the point where I knew everything there was to know about it.

When giving it to my students, I provided the requirements of the assignment, the rubric, and gave students a large piece of paper to finish their project on. I set them free after giving instructions.

To their credit, these students worked diligently and figured out each section on their own. However, many students were overwhelmed by the options, and tried doing “a little here and a little there”. This was not the best approach for some, who forgot to go back to certain parts to finish them and had to rush before the due date.

Do This Instead


Explain the project in chunks, over the course of a few days. Have them focus on ONE element a day, and really dig in deep. Middle school students get so overwhelmed when they have multiple requirements for a project, that they tend to panic instead of breaking it into manageable bits.

If you choose to use my One-Pager Final Project assignment, I give out page one the first day, and spend class viewing other outstanding one-pager assignments. I focus on sharing thorough explanations, thoughtfully placed images, and how color can play a part in presentation.

On the second day, I give students their Brainstorm sheets, and ask them all to focus on finding the quotes. Give students one solid example of a significant quote from the novel, then set them free to locate their own. I find that students try to ask me, “Will this quote work?” and I just ask, “Well, why is it significant to the novel?” They sometimes give a basic answer, so I prompt them again, “Okay, is that the MOST significant quote you can find?” Often, if you do this with a few students, the others will hear and start to truly dig. Just, be prepared to ward off a few students who want to get off easy.

The next day I have students brainstorm their Essential Questions. These are huge, and the main reason that they have read the novel – to connect to the bigger picture of life! I give the example of, “What makes a hero?” as an Essential Question. It’s not a yes or no answer, nor can it be explicitly found in the text itself. The students have fun with this one, but know that your lower-level students will struggle with this. Identify those students and spend class time prompting them with questions such as, “What does this novel make you wonder about?” or “When you were reading this novel, how did you connect it to your own life?”.

The following day, I have students choose their character that they will be finding character traits for. Have students write down the name of their character on their Brainstorm sheet. You can have them independently find their own character traits and quotes if they are an advanced group.If they struggle with this skill, break the students into groups according to the character they chose. Have them work together to identify character traits that relate to Head, Heart, Hands, and Feet. Then, they can return to their seats and locate evidence for the traits they all found.

The final day students come in and I ask them to locate their poem that relates to the novel. There are wonderful poetry websites out there, so have them Google search for poetry that matches a theme of the novel. One great website that I suggest is Poetry Foundation, as it is professional and has a wide variety of poems.

Once the brainstorming process has been done, I then ask students to take out a single sheet of paper. They are to sketch an outline of their one-pager, by indicating sections of the page that will be filled with the different elements. This step is CRUCIAL to students creating a beautiful one-pager. Trust me.

Final step – give students their large sheet of paper and emphasize that everything must be done NEATLY!

Mistake #3: I Did Not Review the Rubric


I know, some of you veteran teacher are cringing right now. I created a rubric that was really, quite wonderful for grading. However, I assumed that students would just understand what was exceptional work from my explanation of the requirements. Doh.

I have already explained that my students turned in beautiful illustrations with very little analysis so…I’m sure you understand how NOT reviewing the rubric went. *Sigh*

Do This Instead


Review the rubric! I know that this can be boring to most students, but honestly, they need the reminder! If I had spent even 10-15 minutes reviewing what receives an “Above Grade-Level” and what would constitute a “Needs Improvement”, I’m absolutely certain that my students would have produced better work.

Worried they’re going to be too bored? I download the rubric page as a PDF and crop out out section of the rubric. Then, on the day we work on Essential Questions, I review only that section of the rubric first! It’s bite-sized, their eyes don’t glaze over, and they understand what they need to focus on!


I hope this helps other educators who have been considering doing this assignment! For those of you who do one-pager assignments, what elements do you require? Share your favorite one-pager student work with us!



9 Brain Break Activities to Incorporate In Your Classroom Now

I used to secretly blame children’s lack of focus on behavior, motivation, or poor upbringing. Katie can’t read for more than ten minutes without glancing down at her shoe, picking at her eraser, or staring out the window. This was frustrating to me, so I tried to find something or someone to blame.

But the truth is, we are an entirely unfocused society as a whole. Technology has reprogrammed our brains to quickly take in information. The skill of sitting quietly, comprehending slowly, reflecting and daydreaming has become nearly extinct. Yet, teachers are often asking students to complete activities that require such concentration.

Research shows that the average middle school student’s brain can concentrate on direct instruction for 10-12 minutes tops. With 40+ minute classes, the only way to get and keep the attention and engagement of middle school students (and all the way up to adults!) is to provide them with brain breaks. Brain breaks get students’ blood flowing, moving oxygen to the brain. This will not only let them relax for a few minutes, but research shows that students who take brain breaks produce higher quality work than students who are asked to work through an entire class period. Pretty cool!

First, I’ll share a list of the more fun brain breaks for the classroom. These are intended as complete breaks from the lesson. 

Silent Speed Ball

Find an area where you don’t mind students throwing a ball around. No one can talk or make a sound – being silent is the aim of the game.

The ball is tossed between classmates. Students cannot throw the ball back to the person who threw it to them. If a player misses the ball, talks or makes a bad pass, that student is out. The last two players are the winners.


I love to pick some of the top hits that students are into for this brain break. Play the music and have the students dance (yes, this will be hilariously awkward). When the music stops, students have to freeze. Whoever moves, is out. Keep playing until there is one person left. Those students who are out are an extra pair of eyes to judge the others.

Heads or Tails

Write out a list of true or false questions (I write them on random life things so we’re still learning). If a student gets the answer wrong, the must sit down. The last student standing is the winner!

If students believe the answer is true, they place their hands on their heads.

If students believe the answer is false, they touch the floor.

Random Exercise

Create a list of random, easy exercises (such as jumping jacks, lunges, arm circles, etc) and have one student choose from the list. Students will complete the exercise to some music of your choice.

Stop the music randomly, and all students must stop their exercise. Whoever doesn’t stop in time must sit out. The last one standing is the winner.

Timed Chatter

Sometimes kids are just bursting to get a chance to chat with their neighbor. For this brain break, set a timer for three minutes and let them get up and chat with a friend. Ask them to use Cafe Voices (pretend they are sitting together in a coffee shop. Their voices are not loud, but also not whispering. Just, conversational).

Below are some educational brain breaks that sneakily keep kids learning as they get their blood flowing to their brains! 

Vocabulary Around the World

Get a list of the class’ most recent vocabulary words. I use Quizlet and display the definition on the SmartBoard. Two students stand next to each other and must call out the correct vocabulary term. Whoever says the correct word first moves on to the next students.

Once a student has gone all around the room back to their original seat, they are the winner.

Heads or Tails 2.0

Write out a list of true or false questions all based on subject matter that you have covered over the entire school year. This is a great review game as well.

If a student gets the answer wrong, the must sit down. The last student standing is the winner!

If students believe the answer is true, they place their hands on their heads.

If students believe the answer is false, they touch the floor.

Synonym Chase

Students should all be given a small whiteboard and a dry erase marker. The teacher asks all students to stand by their desk.

The teacher will write one word on the board, and students must write down the first synonym that comes to mind. Then, they must look around the classroom. Any student that has the same synonym written as them, they need to “link up” with. Those students can THEN work together to determine the next synonym.

Students that do not write a correct synonym must sit down. The game is over once all students have linked up together.

Memory Kerfluffle

Create a stack of cards with an example of one literary element on it. Around the room, place papers that have the different literary elements on them (on the door, on a cupboard, on the back table, etc).

The teacher will read the example out loud, and students must Shuffle (feet can’t come off the ground) to the literary element that they think it is. They must be touching the paper with their hands.

Any students who choose the wrong literary element must sit down. The last student to choose the CORRECT literary element each turn must also sit down. The game goes until one student is the victor!


 What are your favorite Brain Breaks?


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