Using the Grade Book for Data-Based Teacher Reflection {with Freebie}

The end of a term is a good place to pause and reflect as a teacher.  Maybe it’s the end of the semester, trimester, or even marking period.  Maybe you have most or all of the students again the next term, or maybe you get a fresh batch.  Regardless, the term provides a good reflection point.

If you’re entering student grades for progress reports, report cards, or otherwise catching up on grading, it’s also a good point to take a closer look at the grade book to get some data for your reflection.

Data and evidence are big trends in education right now.  And there’s something to be said about having numbers (to back up what we as teachers already know.)  The grade book shows us how many students successfully submitted an assignment and how well, overall, students scored on an assignment.  So, taking a pause to look at specific assignments by the numbers can provide some data worth reflecting on.


What grade book items should you look at?  Here are a couple ideas, with reflection questions:

  1. Grade book item with the MOST successful submissions.  This is the item that most students were able to submit, but also to complete successfully.  Looking at scores, most students would have at least a passing score, but you may even see most students in the A or B range.
    • Reflections: what was different about this assignment as compared to other, less successful assignments?  What support did students have in completing the assignment? What may account for high levels of engagement?  Looking at the submissions, were there any pain points?  In particular, you may see the pain points mainly on the lower scoring submissions.  And what can you take away from the success of this item that could be applied to other activities and assignments?
  2. Grade book item with the lowest grades/ most low grades.  This is the item that had the lowest scores from the most students that submitted.  It may be that many students submitted, but scores were overall lower than normal or even lower than expected.
    • Reflections: what were the pain points?  Where were students stuck or confused?  What question or part was skipped or incorrect most often?  What support would students need that they did not have in completing the assignment?  Was there a prior knowledge issue?  Was time, schedule, or interruptions as factor– short week, snow day, substitute teacher, local or school even affecting focus and community? Was there confusion in assignment requirements– possibly noted by students clearly trying, but missing the mark?  (For example, is students are answering a question on central idea by explaining theme– that might indicate a reteaching or prior knowledge issue.  If they demonstrating a misunderstanding of a text, that might indicate more time, scaffolding, or support in reading and analyze the text in class.)
  3. Grade book item with the MOST MISSING submissions.  This is one where students are not even turning anything in!  It’s not that they are getting low scores, but they are not even submitting the work.
    • Reflections: Is there an issue with students getting started?  Perhaps they get overwhelmed with the requirements and would benefit from chunking of the activity, or additional scaffolding. Are they lacking the prior knowledge needed, including but not limited to understanding how to complete the task?  (I saw an assignment where students were supposed to correct the errors in a passage, but they didn’t understand how to do so– in this case, demonstrating the task improved outcomes).  Are the instructions lengthy and students are not taking the time to read them?  Is there a ‘late penalty’ issue that may have discouraged students from submitting– perhaps related to a schedule or distraction issue?  If not too late, can students be offered an immunity to increase submission?

Looking for a resource to guide your data collection and reflection?  The Teacher Grade Book Reflection includes 2 pre-printed pages with guided reflection, plus and open sheet.  Fully editable. slide2

Other factors to consider:  Where was the assignment from (home created, found or purchased online, school provided, curriculum vendor)?  Can you create or find similar items OR should you do your best to avoid?  Is revision necessary?  Would scaffolding be more effective?


Done reflecting and ready for the next semester?  Check out these resources for Start of the Year (or Semester) Get-to-Know-You Activities.  Plus, check out tips on how to make students HATE poetry and how to survive teaching it!

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Culminating Project Ideas for A Christmas Carol


A Christmas Carol is a timely text for Christmastime, though it can work in other places as well– especially given Scrooge’s new-found desire to “Keep Christmas all year.”  There are lots of options for related culminating projects to expand on or analyze the text.


Here are several Culminating Project ideas to use with A Christmas Carol:

  1.  Scrooge makes reference to the workhouses as an option for the poor.  Students can research workhouses and poverty.  In addition, students can analyze the impact of poverty on the story.  Another research topic is Dickens’ own past and how that may have influenced the story.    slide3
  2. Create a wreath or other Christmas symbol and decorate or incorporate key quotes from the story.
  3. Compare A Christmas Carol with How the Grinch Stole Christmas (either movie or book work well).  How are they similar?  Why is this theme of a grouch getting reformed at Christmas so appealing?  Create a multi-media project with screenshots or movie clips.
  4. Examine the idea of “Keeping Christmas all year” (Or a similar belief from another religion or belief system.)  What does that mean?  How would it be shown or done?  Create a poster or PowerPoint.slide2
  5. Retell the story as a children’s story.  How would it be adjusted for the younger audience while still keeping the main ideas?  Illustrate it.


Each of these projects, plus more, is included in the A Christmas Carol Culminating Projects resource– with options for Task Cards, Choice Boards, or Student Menu for deployment.  Rubrics provided as well.  Assign select projects or let students self-select from the full set of 16 projects or from a condensed 12 project set.

Culminating projects can be a great way to warp up a text with tasks like researching, retelling, reflecting, examining or going beyond the story.  Projects also provide hands-on learning, and can be student-directed, with options like Choice Boards or Task Cards.  Plus, they can help stretch time and budget by spanning several days.

Check out Activities for Teaching a Christmas Carol or Winter Reading for the Secondary Classroom for more ideas.

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5 Ideas for Christmastime in the Secondary ELA Classroom

December is a challenging month.  Even in the secondary classroom.  There are only a few weeks, sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas (Winter) Breaks.  Thanksgiving causes disruptions with a short week, or even a whole week off.  Then there are a few “normal” weeks before the allure of Winter Break– along with holidays, travel, and just time off– distract students again.

One way to engage is to use Holiday-themed materials— a strategy that is fun and effective for students and teachers.


Here are some Holiday themed materials and ideas for those fleeting weeks in December:

1. Read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.  In the story, Christmas is treated almost entirely as a secular celebration.  Research workhouses and discuss Scrooge’s position on workhouses or why Scrooge was, well, a Scrooge.  Or compare one or the film or play versions with the original text– which is a great way to spend the last day or so before break actually begins.  Depending on the classroom, you can discuss ideas about “The Christmas Spirit” and what that means.  Culminating projects can work nicely around holiday parties or general distraction.  Not time to read the story?  View one of the movie versions for discussion or analysis– or have students write a literary analysis on the film same as they would a text.


2. Create a multi-media project about their Christmas/ Holiday time traditions.  Students can share their experiences.  They can discuss the similarities and differences between their traditions and that of their classmates.  This is a positive activity in diverse classrooms; in addition, it can work well in classrooms that appear more homogeneous as it helps students see that we all have differences and similarities.

3. Read “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” and analyze the poetic devices.  Have students write a persuasive essay on whether–or not– children should be told about Santa Claus. Students can write their own Night Before Christmas poem, imitating the elements of the original, then share with the class.

4. Practice Literary Analysis by examining a Christmas Carol (or Winter song) for literary and poetic devices.  Christmas and Winter songs take over the radio stations, store muzak, and even show up in Christmas commercials.  This activity is a fun way to use that seasonal sound.


5. Create literary character Christmas lists or New Year’s Resolutions.  Choose one or more characters from texts read in class.  Students can write a Christmas list for the character based on details from the text.  Alternately, students can create a Wish List if they or the character do not celebrate Christmas.  Another option is to write New Year’s resolutions for the character.  Include reflection for students to explain their choices and thought process, and help in objective grading.

Done with Christmas?  Check out some Winter themed texts and ideas!

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5 Ways to Survive the Days Before Thanksgiving Break (And Still Engage in Learning)

Maybe you’ve managed to keep the momentum of learning and engagement up to this point.  You may have even survived Halloween— perhaps with some timely creepy stories.  But now, it’s November.  And there are breaks around the corner, tempting students with distraction.

Depending on your school schedule, Thanksgiving Break may present an additional challenge.  All the schools I have attended and worked at had a partial week the week of Thanksgiving.  Classes were held Monday and Tuesday, sometimes Wednesday as well, before the long weekend.  While engagement may be tentatively possible, concentration remains an issue.  (Throw in any holiday parties, and you might be down to just Monday for attempted instruction!)

Of course, we want to make the mots of our instructional time.  But sometimes, I think, it’s good to pull a few tricks from the bag.


Here are 5 ways to Survive the days before Thanksgiving Break (and still engage in learning.)

1 . Show a movie and treat it as another text to practice and reinforce literary analysis.  Students can examine literary elements as used in the movie, including symbolism, mood, foreshadowing, and character development.  They can even write a literary analysis essay about the movie, same as they would a novel, short story, or poem.  Remind them to focus on the literary elements.  A scene from a movie can work, as can a short film, such as any of the Pixar shorts or others like “The Present“.


2.  Show a movie or part of a movie adaptation of a story read in class to compare movie vs. book.  Students can watch and record difference between the two.  Conclude with higher-level thinking, by having students evaluate which version was better.  Have students focus on the events or include medium in the discussion.

3.   Since Thanksgiving often includes travel of some distance to visit family, have students work on real-world writing by Planning an Exciting Trip.  Students research and plan a trip (tourist visit), either in their town or another location.  Make it Thanksgiving themed, by having students plan a trip related to their family’s travel, or leave the project open ended.  They can research locations and prices, plus make a real itinerary.  Real-world writing can help with engagement, even in challenging times.


4. Put students to work writing about Thanksgiving with a fun, creative writing activity.  Students write Thanksgiving Rap or Rhyme which can include personal writing about what Thanksgiving means to the student and/ or it can be done as a more general, expository writing.  But in rap or rhyme format (I use both terms, because many of my students would work on a rap, but balk at “rhyming.”  Marketing is a thing….)  It’s a change of pace, but also requires a lot of thought to present their ideas in a rhyme.  Also can include discussion of different rhymes, along with end-rhymes.  In addition, students can present to their rap or rhyme to the class, like an open mic or poetry slam.  Presentations work well around holiday parties and other food.

5. Practice thanksgiving themed demand writing.  Push students to focus for a short chunk of time– consider a challenge like a 30 minute prompt to push them through.  This works well for a single day activity.  Students generally can focus their attention– even just before break– on a short burst of activity, like a demand writing.  Remaining class time can be used for students to review their essay to reflect out loud or in writing on how to improve their timed prompt.  Or take the time to discuss the topics they wrote about in groups or class.  Provide topics for the students, brainstorm ideas together, or let students loose with the theme of Thanksgiving (which may include gratitude, Black Friday, family visits, and more.)

Of course, once you get through Thanksgiving Break, it’s time to deal with Christmas/ Winter Break looming over the horizon!  Remember, holiday-themed materials can work well at the secondary level, too.

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Best of the Best: Real World Writing with the Company Project

Students are all types.  Some are into reading, others like to analyze and use that to get through literature.  Some are college bound and understand the concept of being “well-rounded.”  Then there are the others.  They may be college-bound, but in science or tech fields.  Or they may not be interested in college at all.  These students may struggle with engagement in the secondary English classroom.  They’re the ones that ask, “When am I going to need this again?”

Oh sure, we can talk about the value of being able to read critically or support your argument.  But students can’t always see that those are the core tasks they can use anywhere buried in pages of stuffy old books or tedious essay writings or insipid creative writing.  If we’re lucky, they tolerate those things just to get credit and move on.

One way to engage even reluctant learners is through authentic learning– activities clearly based in the real world.  Even better if the activity includes student interest.  There are many benefits to such authentic real-world-based tasks.


One of my most successful real-world projects is the Company Project (or Build a Business.)  Many students can relate to having an idea for a company, product or service.  In creating a company for their project, I can harness their interest in this business venture and channel it into authentic, real-world writing tasks.

What sort of writing could a person starting a business use?

  • Company History (narrative writing)
  • Business Letter (for common communication– plus envelope!)
  • Response to a Complaint (also includes complaint letter writing, a useful skill)
  • Advertising (a specific form of persuasive writing)
  • Script writing (for a commercial)
  • Business Card (design and text)
  • Poster display (such as might be a conference, convention or expo)

With several distinct and separate parts, the project is quite flexible for different amounts of time or tasks.  If time is short, complete the poster showcasing the company only.  Or add on the other parts to fill additional time.


I’ve found the combination of high-interest and engaging-activities to make this project fill well just about any time of the year.  Use before or around school breaks or other schedule disruptions.  Or use after standardized testing for a change of pace.

One of the drawbacks of authentic learning is the process to set up the resources and grading.  The Company Project includes all the materials you need to put your students to work creating their own company, and all the related writings.  (And you can point out that a small business very well might do all of the different writing tasks when starting out.)    Plus, it’s on sale Nov 1 and 2nd to celebrate the blog hop!

Thanks for stopping by on the blog hop!  And here’s a free Business Envelope Handout (also included in the Company Project):

(Right click to save the image to your computer)


Part of the Best of the Best Blog Hop

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6 Strategies to Survive Teaching Poetry

I’m not a big poetry fan.  Just like I’m not a big fan of fantasy novels, professional basketball games or anything coconut.  But as an English teacher, it’s kind of expected to include teaching poetry somewhere in the curriculum.  I had to figure out one or more ways to address the problems I had with poetry.

Some problems I had with poetry related to how much I dreaded the study of poetry as a student (which is basically where the 5 ways to make students hate poetry post came from.)

Other problems I had with poetry related to teaching and grading poetry in my own classroom.  Here’s what I came up with– 5 6 strategies that help me survive teaching poetry:



Grading Student Understanding of the Poem.  Do they “get” it?  The biggest issue with grading is how poetry is approached in the first place.  In my days as a student, much of the emphasis of poetry was on the “meaning”– which we could “get” through feelings and understanding and other apparently ethereal methods.  This doesn’t work out so well on multiple choice questions.  Worse since I’m really not one of those touch-feely people anyway.  So either I would get the meaning “wrong” or my understanding of the poem was wrong.


  1. The first is to grade students largely on understanding, identifying, and examining use of poetry devices.  These are generally objective standards– if a student identifies personification in the text, they are either right or wrong on it.  This can be part of larger analysis, with weight on accurate identification– the objective grade item.

2. Another approach is to rely on textual support (combined with sound arguments.)  Students defend their position using appropriate textual support.  The support can be evaluated on how well it is used and how well it provides support.  A well-supported argument may or many not match other students, readers, or teachers’ understanding of the poem (including any so-called “right” meanings.)  Textual support can also be the basis of activities that make connections— such as text-to-text or text-self.

Note: some poems and texts may have commonly understood meanings– while grading and discussion may be on student understanding, it is important to recognize any commonly understood ideas about texts. 



Writing poems may or may not follow any of the rules or conventions of poetry.  Would you mark down young e.e. cummings for capitalization or punctuation use?  Would a hurriedly grading teacher recognize the import of Emily Dickinson’s dashes if she was just a student in class?  I’m not convinced I would recognize the next convention-breaking genius as different from the student who has little concern or understanding of punctuation in poetry.  I wouldn’t want to crush a budding poet by marking down their convention-defiance.  So what to grade on?


  1. Grade on student reflection.  Poems would be noted as completed and the weight of grade would be on the student’s reflection.  Reflection items would include accurately identifying poetic devices used in the poem, along with examination of what the effect of those devices is in the student’s poem.  And even if they thought it was effective or not.

2. Students have set requirements for one or more poems.  In a portfolio of several poems, students might be assigned different poem types or use of different literary devices, and graded on those items, while other elements are left as ‘art’ or completion scores only.

3. The Write Your Own: Poetry Imitation project where students will imitate a model poem.  The model poem provides a source of literary analysis, including theme and select poetic devices.  Then students include the theme, topic, and select literary devices in their own poem.  Inclusion of those items provides a solid basis of generally objective grade items.



Having to slog through day after day, week after week of studying poetry– the analysis of devices, digging into meaning, parsing odd phrases and laden word choices.



  1. Rather than create one several week long grueling slog through the study of different poems and poetry, create thematic units that include fiction and poetry.  Study the role of dreams such as with short stories like “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and pair it with a poem like “Dream within a Dream.”  Study  Snow Poetry, like “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” with the snowy setting in “To Build a Fire” an analyze the way snow is used in the settings.  Treat poems as just another text, rather than set off in a special unit.  Then it’s a day or so of poetry study in the context of a larger idea, broader theme.
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Activities for Teaching “The Monkey’s Paw.”

This short story about wishes-gone-wrong is a fun creepy story for Halloween.  It can also work well as a study of wishes at any time of the year!


Here are some activities for engaging and examining the story:

Write a prequel for the story.  There are two other people who made wishes– and regretted it– the story ominously foreshadows.  Students can choose one of those people and write a prequel about their experience, using details from the text combined with creative writing.


Reading Questions can help guide students in the reading, helping them look for specific information and to think about the text as they read.  Part of a close reading process, this can be used during reading, after reading, or as  a re-reading strategy.

Graphic Organizers provide another method to explore the text, which includes a visual component.  Compare the wishes.  Analyze life before and after the wishes are made.  Analyze different literary devices used in the story, such as foreshadowing and conflict.

Personal Writing about a time when it didn’t work out.  In the story, the wishes appear to be granted, but in a way that is disastrous for the characters.  As an anticipatory set or a culminating writing, students will write about a time when something didn’t work out as they wanted.  (Also works as a stand-alone writing activity.)


Movie vs. Book— there have been several film versions of this story over the years.  Choose one or part of one to analyze and discuss.  It’s a great method of engagement.  Having students evaluate, with support, is good higher-order thinking.  There is even a Simpson’s version.

Compare the wishes in “The Monkey’s Paw” with wishes in “Aladdin.”  Both are short stories, so it’s not too challenging to work in the partner story.  They each approach wishes in a completely different way, which is a fun and engaging comparison to make.

Write a 5 paragraph essay on “3 Wishes.”  This is a fun but effective short essay.  It works for writers of all levels as it’s structured to support lower-level writers while also helping higher level writers to practice form.  Works great with any story about wishes– and it’s free!  This goes well with the 5 paragraph essay model, which is a fill-in-the-blank template to guide students.

Check out some other stories good for Halloween time!

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Activities for Teaching The Raven

What a fun poem of darkness and madness.  Maybe those should go together, but I do find this tale of a midnight dreary has high engagement, in spite of the length and language.  There are a lot of activities to do with “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe to help students dig into the text.


Activities for the Raven:

Prepare for the poem by defining challenging words and allusions first.  One great way to do this is to create a list of vocab terms and phrases in order of the text for students to refer to while they are reading.  Like a make-your-own annotated version.

Guiding students with reading and inference questions is a useful way to make sure they are engaged and processing.  Good questions can also help draw their attention to certain parts of the poem to review and think about.

Watch a video version of the poem or listen to an audio version for some differentiation.  The Simpsons did a version of The Raven, once, which gets student’s attention.  It’s the Simpson’s, but it’s accurate to the text and includes images to help with understanding- and discuss if students agree with Bart’s commentary.  Or read the poem dramatically for students to help them hear the increasing madness (bonus for really getting into it!)


Tweet the poem!  My students really enjoyed the “Raven Tweets” activity where they had to retell the poem in short ‘tweets’, like on Twitter.  Then we discussed (or wrote, depending on the class) how that format affected the mood.  It was part of ongoing discussion of media and literature.

Analyze the literary devices in the poem by putting them on sticky notes on the board.  There are a number of literary devices used, giving lots of choices for sharing.  Can also lead to discussion about the use of those devices.

Write a prequel to the poem about the relationship with Lenore.  Could be written as a narrative or as rhyming poem in the same format as the original.


Also check out 5 Creepy Stories for Halloween!

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Activities for Teaching “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (Now part of a Secondary ELA Seasonal Blog Hop!)

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a ghostly story that commonly shows up in classrooms around Halloween.  There are a lot of ways to work with the text in the classroom.  It’s possible to stretch this story over a week with projects that analyze and examine the text as well as reach beyond it.


Activities for teaching “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow:”

Reading questions and graphic organizers provide a structured method of analysis.  The text can be challenging because of the old language and vocabulary.  Study the different ghost stories, compare Ichabod’s race with the horseman to the tales, or compare characters.

Include some differentiation by reading aloud to the class, finding an audio book version, or having students create a dramatic reading of the text.  (Bonus, have student’s create an audio version that you can use in later years.)

For an anticipatory set, students can discuss and/ or write about whether they believe in ghosts.  An expository essay about their own views– providing support on one side of the issue– is good practice at short, opinion-based essays (sometimes referred to as argumentative essays, as they lack research.)  Good practice as essay formation as well as making strong arguments.

Since there are many film versions of the story, comparing with all or part of one of the movies is an engaging higher-level-thinking activity.  The Disney version is a short, comical, animated film that fits well in the class.


Have students create a mobile or diorama of the food at the Van Tassel’s part or map the locations in and around Sleepy Hollow using details from the text.

Students can research then-and-now ideas related to the story, such as the town of Sleepy Hollow New York, or one-room school houses vs. modern schools.  Create a multimedia project their findings.

Analyze or discuss whether the story is a ghost story or a tale of a prank by Brom that ran Ichabod from town.  Students can take sides and argue their position.

The Headless Horseman’s Story is a fun writing project.  Students write from the point of view of the headless horseman, himself.  They’ll retell the chase with Icahabod but have creative freedom beyond that.  They may even decide if the horseman is a ghost or is Brom Bones playing a prank (both possible from the text.)


Group project ideas together to create a Choice Board or make Task Cards to provide student choice and engagement.  Or assign a whole-class project with resources and time available.  It’s a fun story with lots of opportunities to explore and examine.

Studying Rip Van Winkle?  Compare the two stories for similarities and differences.  Such as use of the supernatural and impact of setting.

Need other creepy stories for Halloween?  Or looking for a massive, money saving bundle full of Halloween activities?  Gotcha covered.

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“You Knew Teaching Had Low Pay”

Sometimes, a teacher might mention their low pay.  One of the most common responses is, “Well, you knew what you were getting into when you became a teacher.”

Wait.  Let’s look at this.

When I was 18, I knew that teachers got “low pay.”  But I did not, and could not, have fully understand the implications and far reach of that “low pay.”  And I honestly thought it would be “okay” since I’m a frugal person– I don’t bother with the latest gadgets or shiny, new cars.  I have no interest in buying shoes or handbags or even racks of clothes.  I rarely eat out, etc.  I figured I’d be fine on that low teacher salary.

At 18– even at 22 when I accepted my first teaching job– I did not, and could, not have understood what that “low pay” really meant.  Because at the time, that was more money than I’d ever made in my life!  It seemed like it would be enough.

Except, those wages basically don’t keep up with the rising cost of groceries or gasoline.  They don’t leave much room to replace an old computer or even a pair of work shoes when I’ve walked the soles off from laps around the classroom.  Or buying even a used economy car when the last used car finally gave up for the last time.

And those low wages don’t leave much room for adding a child or two. Those wages don’t leave much room to buy a house with a yard for a family.

I simply could not have understood what those wages meant at 18 or 22.  I did not have the perspective on the cost of life– even a frugal one– and how it compared to the low pay of being a teacher.  I may have thought I knew, but I didn’t.  I love teaching.

Even though it’s hard to provide the life I want for my family.  Quite frankly, it’s not fair that my children have to sacrifice because I get paid so little to teach other people’s children.

Teaching does have low pay.  Without perspective, it’s hard to truly understand what that means now, and for the future.


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