Five Books That Set My Teacher Heart On Fire

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There are SO many books out there that are geared towards educators, it is often difficult to choose which ones are worth your time and hard-earned money. I read anything and everything I can get my hands on, searching for great texts to implement in my classroom as well as fun and creative texts to share with coworkers. I designed this list as a hidden treasure trove for those you who just don’t have the time to waste on books that aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. These five touched my heart and infused my soul with a new sense of purpose in teaching.

Teach Like a Pirate

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This was the very first “teacher” book I ever purchased, and I have been addicted to Dave Burgess’ writing ever since. This book will make you want to sing and dance your way through your next class. Burgess gives you insights into student engagement and then provides some of the most soul-healing examples of creative teaching.

The Wild Card: 7 Steps to an Educator’s Creative Breakthrough

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Oh, I can not EVER say enough great things about this book. A friend mentioned that this book was right up my alley, and boy was she absolutely right! Hope and Wade King are a married teacher couple who dig at your heartstrings with their real-life anecdotes about teaching with creativity. Some of their stories will make you laugh, some will make you cry, but mostly you will put this book down with a renewed sense of purpose as an educator and a whole bag of tricks for upping your teacher game.

Disruptive Thinking: Why How We Read Matters

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Like the lightbulb on the front cover, my brain exploded after reading through this text (okay, not literally). As a lover of literature and a life-long writer, I truly thought I had it all figured out when it came to anything to do with teaching English. This book challenged me to reconsider how to approach teaching basic literary concepts and offered the Sign Posts (check them out, they’re BRILLIANT and there are TONS of resources online) as tools for wrapping student brains around tough topics.

180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents

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These two educators cut down to the nitty-gritty and outlined an entire school year full of ONLY teachings that were going to transform their students as readers and writers by June. I have written all OVER the margins of this book (I know some of you are appalled at the thought of writing in a book) and have tabs sticking out to earmark the resources they provide to get you started on some useful lessons. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by everything you’re expected to teach, this may be the book to help you decide on what’s important.

Girl, Wash Your Face

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This isn’t a teacher book, per se, yet it resonated with my educator heart on so many levels. Rachel Hollis is like your down-to-earth gal pal who is pep-talking you to stop letting everyone’s opinions dictate how you run your life. She is so honest and speaks to a range of topics that get you thinking about the balance that you may (or may not) have between your working life and personal life. If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed with teaching, relationships, home life, and everything else that is tossed into the mix, go grab Girl, Wash Your Face.

How To Challenge The “Good Enough” Mentality

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“Ms. C, I finished my paragraph. Is this good enough?”

When I first started teaching at my small, rural school, this phrase was practically set on repeat. Student after student would approach me with their work, asking if it was “good enough”. I would look at the page and see that the student was calling two sentences a full paragraph. I would encourage them to write more. They would return to their seat, write, and come back up to my desk. “Okay, is it good enough now?”. I would glance down at the paper and see that they had added one additional sentence to their paper. Cue blood-curdling scream and commence tearing out my own hair.

I couldn’t understand why these students didn’t intrinsically WANT to try harder, why there wasn’t this inner drive to produce work that they could actually be proud of. Even the phrase itself, “good enough”, set my teeth on edge. Good enough for what? Whenever I heard a student utter that phrase, I wanted to retort, “If you have to ask, then you already know that it isn’t” (Okay, I may have said something like this to a student once). It’s maddening, mostly because we assume that they know what their work is lacking, and we think the only reason the work isn’t being done can be boiled down to pure, unfiltered laziness. Whoops.

When Enough Was Enough

I suffered through a year or two of listening to the “good enough” refrain, until one day in class I was approached by a top-achieving student. This student turned in the day’s written assignment and when I looked down at it, I was shocked. There was barely any writing on the paper. I called the student back to my desk and asked if they did not understand the assignment. Here was the reply:

“No, Ms. C., I understood the assignment. I’ve seen what some of my classmates have been turning in, and it is NEVER as much as I do. So, I guess I just don’t see the point of doing more if it doesn’t matter.”

I. Was. Stunned. This student’s words sucker-punched me right through the gut and left me feeling kind of dizzy. It was me. I was the reason that kids were aiming for “good enough”. Now, that’s kind of harsh considering there are other factors such as home environment and the student’s choice of friends that play into their drive to succeed. Yet, I knew at that moment what the power of a teacher’s expectations had on student performance. I was rewarding laziness by allowing sub-par answers, and students that worked hard to truly answer the questions were noticing. That was the day I decided that “good enough” was dead.

How I Transformed “Is This Good Enough?” to “Is This The Most Relevant/Analyzed/Thoughtful Answer?” 

How do young children learn how to act? They watch adults and model after their behavior. This can be a positive thing, depending on the adult that the child is watching. The same rule can be applied to how children learn how to write – they read writing and imitate it.

So, the very first thing I did was create models of exemplary paragraphs. I showed these to students. We went through these paragraphs to identify topic sentences, located relevant evidence, and discussed whether the explanation was thorough enough. We studied these paragraphs. Every time I assigned a new type of writing assignment, we repeated this process of modeling work and going through the model to point out all of its best features. Students had a CLEAR idea of what was considered acceptable.

I no longer accepted basic vocabulary in their answers.

Once my students got used to modeling exemplary work together, I decided to set my expectation bar even higher. I stopped accepting written work with vocabulary such as “very”, “many”, “good”, “bad”, “things” and “stuff”. We created synonym charts for these words and I saw kids having fun as they started “leveling up” their vocabulary – a term that I started using. A vast majority of my students love video games, and so the idea of gaining a new “level” was enough to get them giggling and trying to find a better word than their original choice.

I Stayed Consistent

Bottom line? I would not let a paper even be considered for grading if it was not written correctly or I found any basic terms in it. The students learned quickly to complete the work right the first time, or they would be revising the work over and over until it was right. I cannot tell you how many times I heard a child whisper to a classmate, “Ms. C. won’t take that like that” and I just smile because they’ve started to not only recognize weaknesses in their own writing, but also in the writing of their peers. That, my dear friends, is powerful.

Does this get tiresome as teacher? Yup. Do you consider accepting their work after six failed tries and one frustrated child? Yup. Don’t fall to temptation. The reward is SO worth it once they learn the techniques and apply them.

Improvement

Through modeling, I empower my young learners. Instead of just slapping failing grades onto dismal assignments, I let them explore writing as a guide for their own. As more and more time goes on, I watch them break away from the samples and start taking risks in their own writing. I notice that the students who had been motivated even before this paradigm shift are striving to accomplish even more now that they see that putting in the effort is being celebrated.

I no longer have students coming up to me to ask, “Is this good enough?”. Instead, they ask, “Did I place the comma in the right spot here for my evidence?”, “Is this the strongest piece of evidence for my topic?” or “Does this sound like a good transition to the next paragraph?”.

Guys, I teach middle schoolers. Let that sink in for a moment.

Maybe students aren’t just lazy, unmotivated and apathetic. Maybe they haven’t seen enough of what GREAT looks like. Maybe they’re just waiting for someone to say, “No, that’s not good enough. Yet.”

The (Unwritten) Rules Of The Gym

We’ve all been there: your muscles are straining, sweat dripping into your eyes as you push through just one more repetition of your last set… and someone taps you on the shoulder and asks if you’re using the machine next to you. POOF! Focus, gone. Or you finish one set of an exercise and Joe Know-It-All approaches you with unsolicited advice on your form. Cue the ultimate eye-roll and heaviest of sighs.

You owe it to your fellow lifters to learn about the unwritten rules of the gym that reigns in most, if not all, fitness facilities to avoid making these irritating mistakes. Here are the top ten unwritten gym rules that every gym-goer should know:

  1. Always re-rack your weights when you’re finished. Think of it as burning more calories through an extra, mini-set. Or don’t. Either way, RE-RACK ‘EM!
  2. Always use headphones if you’re listening to music. I don’t force my choice of music into your ear canals during my work out, so get your earbuds on and let me still like you as a person as we listen to our own music, independently.
  3. Don’t give advice unless someone specifically asks for your advice. Did you see me beckon to you from across the room? Did I call your name, and implore you to bestow your valuable knowledge onto me? No? Then, don’t do it.
  4. Unless they ask you or it is an emergency, do not spot someone else’s lift. First off, it’s weird. Second off, it’s weird. So, unless this bar has slipped from my grasp and is pressing into my windpipe, do not spot me.
  5. If the gym is busy, do not take up multiple machines/areas. This is just common courtesy. If you notice that the gym is busy, don’t do circuit training that day. Just… don’t be selfish, Tina.
  6. Don’t leave your things on equipment you are not using. Or, I may remove them myself. Jus’ sayin’.
  7. Don’t surf the internet/spend excessive time on your phone if you’re taking up a machine. Getting on your phone to change the song, or shoot out a quick text reply is understandable. Scrolling through your social media feed as people are waiting for your machine is totally not cool, and some people have no qualms about shaming you for it. You’ve been warned.
  8. Wear deodorant. Need I say more?
  9. If you’re sick/contagious, stay home. Please, for the love of all that is good in the world, stay home. If you’re not sure if you’re still contagious, chances are, you are. Don’t. Do. It.
  10. Move away from the weight rack to do your lift to allow others access to the weights. This one isn’t always the most obvious, as a LOT of lifters will not move that far from where they pick up the free weights if they don’t imagine that anyone else is in the gym at that time that can handle that kind of weight. Just a good, general rule of thumb, move far enough away from the rack that someone can get to the weights without interrupting your lift.

Here is one bonus rule for those of you who are chuckling right now about the list. Don’t hit on someone when they are lifting. Most people come to the gym to let off steam after a hard day, or to get their day started right. They truly are not there to check out the hotties and get some numbers. Don’t be that creep that tries to woo someone with your charm while they are just trying to get away from you to finish their sets.

What are some more unwritten rules that you wish every lifter knew?

How Students Who Grow Up In Trauma-Households Learn Differently

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Imagine that one time that you went to reach for your wallet and realized that it was no longer there. A blanket of cold dread pushed from your scalp to your toes, your heart rate increased, and you may have felt momentarily dizzy. This was your body’s quick reaction to intense stress. It may have only lasted for a few seconds until your body leveled off the stress hormone and you could think rationally about the whereabouts of your lost wallet.

Now, imagine having that flood of stress multiple times a day, every… single… day. Our students who grow up in trauma-households are experiencing this constant overload, whether that be from physical abuse, verbal arguments that are psychologically scarring, all the way to a parent withholding love from the child as a punishment. Eventually, the child learns unhealthy ways to cope with the trauma.

  1. Regression

If your student utilizes regression (learned helplessness), you may notice that when faced with difficult tasks or consequences for their actions, they revert to babyish actions. They may even speak in baby talk. This tends to happen with children who did not receive much physical touch nor loving care as a child. The student may have acted babyish when younger to frustrate a caretaker, forcing the caretaker to become physical with them and provide that physical touch (though not in a positive way).

How to teach these students: If you notice a student practicing regression, first and foremost, view them as the courageous soul that they are. Can you imagine having never experienced physical touch or care, and yet still being brave enough to seek it out? These types of students won’t just “grow up” if we toss that careless expression at them. They require our gentle, yet firm understanding as they eventually move through this stage in their life. We, as educators, cannot provide the physical touch they crave, yet we can provide a safe haven for them while they work through their past traumas. Gentle reminders of how the student should act may encourage them to begin acting as they should for their age level. They will slowly realize that they receive praise from adults when they act as they should, and not when they regress to childish actions.

Dramatic Reactions

Place yourself back to the time when you thought you had lost your wallet. That stress reaction that occurs is what we refer to as the “survival brain”. You cannot think rationally when your brain is in this state. Students who face trauma often are trapped in survival brain mode, and the slightest further stressor can either cause them to become angry, explode in tears, or want to flee (fight or flight). Something as small as a wrong look from a classmate could be enough to set off a dramatic reaction.

How to teach these students: Create a plan for these students in the case that their stressors become too much. Often, the reason these students explode dramatically is that they can’t handle everything at once and are unsure of what to do. By sitting down with them and setting up a solid plan during these moments, the student not only feels supported by an adult but has a safety net for situations that are overwhelming. This empowers the student as well as teaching them healthier coping mechanisms. The eventual goal is for the student to not need an adult to guide them when they are facing these extreme stressors, so having the student create their own coping plan is essential to further growth.

NOTE: Some students may try to escape their reality at school by overusing their coping method. Be sure to set very clear expectations that they follow their plan only when the student is overwhelmed to the point of being unable to cope.  

Disassociation

Some children learn how to basically shut down and disassociate from the negative situation. Their brain “zones out” until the terrible experience is over which, to an educator, can look like defiance and flat-out insubordination. The child may have developed this coping mechanism to the point where they are unable to speak once their brain shuts down, and may stare straight ahead until they are able to escape the potential threat.

How to teach these students: If a child shuts down, there is only one action to take – send them out of the room to the guidance counselor or another adult equally as soothing. The child cannot be allowed to sit in class and not complete the tasks that you have set forth, but becoming frustrated and trying to force them to work will create a hostile environment for the child. They need you to be calm, patient and understanding at all times, even when they’ve shut down. As time goes on, you may work with the guidance counselor and the student so that the student can build up more and more trust in you. They may get to a level of trust with you where gentle coaxing during class could bring them out of their “zone out” to join their classmates. As the student ages, they should be working to come out of their disassociation on their own without an adult’s help.

 

Ultimately, wonderful teacher, these students need a caring heart and an understanding ear as they work through the traumas of their past and present lives. Their thoughts may frequently return to the trauma they are afraid will be waiting for them at home. Be gentle when reminding them to get back on task. Remember that you probably can’t save the child from experiencing the trauma, but you can be the warm smile they see each and every day they come to school, the kind tutor who guides them through their schoolwork, and the encouraging voice that helps them to recognize their own unique talents… maybe for the first time in their life.

 

Contraction Surgery

Written by: Katrina Cavagna

Are your students having trouble identifying where to place the apostrophe inside of their contractions? Are they just not “getting” contractions in general? Are you looking for something extremely fun that may actually stick in their minds for more than one class period? Try Contraction Surgery!

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Contraction handout students completed after the lesson.

 

So I have to admit, I had way more fun with this lesson than I ever imagined was possible. I bought a low-end pair of nurse’s scrubs, $5.00 stethoscope and colorful band-aids from Amazon, then borrowed latex gloves from the school cafeteria and masks from the nurse! In total, I spent about $30.00 for this lesson that I’ll be able to use again, and again, and again…

 

Intrigued? Here’s the scoop on how to pull this lesson off!

First, print off a bunch of words that can be made into contractions. Don’t want to create your own? Download the printable here. Cut each word group out into strips. Then, on easel paper, write in large letters “Contraction Surgery” (hopefully your handwriting is better than mine!). Display the easel paper at the front of the room either on an easel stand or on the whiteboard.

Desk Arrangements

I arranged my desks into groups of four. I want my students to have more practice collaborating on in-class activities. This lesson could be done individually. It’s entirely up to you and the needs of your specific students. You know best! At each group of desks or desk, place the same number of bandaids as there will be “patients” or groups of words that the students will be making into contractions.

Props

If you want to make the lesson really fun and engaging for the kids, have each student put on a pair of latex gloves (check for allergies!) and a mask as they enter the room. With my groups of four, I had the students choose one of their groupmates to be the doctor, and that student was the only one to get completely dressed up (saving some class time). The other members of the group were assistants to the doctor.

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On display when the students entered the room!

Introducing… Doctor Teacher!

I informed the class that I had had an occupation change overnight, and that I had received many new patients in the ER. I needed their help to perform multiple surgeries to save patients’ lives. They giggled a bit, some were in awe of my costume, and others were eager to get going. We went over what contractions were on the board (this was a 7th grade group, so they had had prior experience with contractions).

Let the incisions begin…

I then passed out a strip of words for each student. Each student was in charge of placing the “incision” with their scissors in the correct place to create the contraction. They had to problem solve together to determine what letters needed to be taken out during the surgery. Then, they had to open up their colorful band-aid and determine where the apostrophe should be placed in order to “stitch the patient” back up. Only the designated doctor of each group could perform the final surgery, but they needed their assistant to help them place the band-aid on the easel paper at the front of the room.

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These were some messy surgeries! However, the hands-on approach of this lesson allowed students struggling with the apostrophe placement in a contraction. Winning! 

Clean up the “body parts”…

What a BLAST! The kids were talking about this lesson for days afterward, and the Contractions practice worksheet I gave them afterward really highlighted which students were going to need one-on-one instruction on this topic. In total, the lesson lasted twenty minutes and we had time to read from our favorite class novel!

Don’t have time to make the materials for this lesson? Get them from my TeachersPayTeachers store here.

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