Monthly Archives: October 2012

Week 9 – Math Carnage: Blood on the Pumpkin


Guess who was the only person to hurt themselves while carving pumpkins in class today?

We were using those pumpkin carving tools you get at Freddie Myers.  They are flimsy but are supposed to be impossible to hurt yourself with.  Ha!

After the kids estimated the number of seeds, counted them, did the math assignment, and composted the guts of the pumpkins, they were allowed to carve them.  I was helping a pair of them with the carving when I kept seeing this red stuff beading up on the design I was carving.  First I thought, did they use red ink to mark out the design?  Then I thought, did they put red on the inside as a joke?  Then I thought, “Why is this pumpkin bleeding!?”  And then I realized it was me.

I’d write more but I’m typing without my index fingers.  Yes, both index fingers.

Week 9 – Frankenstein’s Bellwork (Rarrr.)


This morning’s Bellwork, like Frankenstein’s monster, took over the class this morning.  It started out simply enough (a little brain here, a little kidney there — just kidding) with this prompt: “Make a list of as many ideas as you can about autumn in your Bellwork Journals.”  The students had done this before with their information on Alexander the Great.  You see, I’m trying to create prompts that require students to brainstorm ideas.  (Wow.  It is “a little brain here.”) Idea and Content is one of the Traits of the 6+1 Writing Traits that I so adore.  And although I have always used the suggestions that Education Northwest gave me for bridging between brainstorming and Idea and Content, I’ve never been really pleased with the results.  I want students to use their research or what is in their heads as a resource.  I want them to take the time to really dig into their prior knowledge, to do more than just skim off the tops of their heads — I want the whole brain!  I want them to dig, I want them to think.  I want them to understand that what they have in their heads is useful.

Writing that sounds ridiculous.  Could it be so obvious?  Even as I sit here shaking my head at what I wrote, I know that students totally discount anything in their binders, notebooks, or between their ears as useful sources of information.  (That is, unless it is somehow connected to getting donuts.)  It’s as if, when asked to come up with ideas, students scan their short term memory and call it good.  98% of the good stuff is outside of short term memory, if they will only reach for it.  In order to get them to reach for it, there needs to be success associated with the reach.  (Oo, donuts…)

So, I tried something new with the Bellwork a while ago.  I grabbed big sheets of butcher paper and put them on either side of the classroom.  When the students came in, they independently listed everything they knew about Alexander of Macedon, writing this down in their Bellwork journals.  Students were given only about 3 minutes to make the list. (Long enough to make them reach for ideas.)  Then I put them in groups and told them to write all of their ideas on their group’s butcher paper, with these caveats: there must be no sentences, only words and phrases, and they must not repeat.  After about 5 minutes, I stopped them.  They counted up all of their words, crossing off any repeats, and reported to the class how many ideas they had generated.

I liked this, and I could see that students were delving deeper, but it was lacking the motivating success factor for the group that came up with fewer words.  For some of the more competitive students, this will do, but I don’t like to use a negative as a motivator.  Too many students will just give up.

This time, I added a wrinkle.  I put the papers up for the other group to see.  Then I gave the other group a chance to challenge any of the ideas that they believed did not relate to autumn.  There were some good challenges.  One student had written down her ideas as her brain jumped from thought to thought, jumping completely off topic.  She was able to reconnect some of her recorded ideas to the concept of autumn on the fly when challenged, but not all of them, and so these were marked off, just as off-topic details in a story or an essay are cut out.


Brainstorming Autumn

When a new total was counted, and the students were confident with their idea bank, I asked them to write a poem using only the words on the two sheets.  After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, I allowed them the use of one article, one preposition, and one conjunction.  I wasn’t planning on that, but it did give me a chance to review what these grammatical terms mean.  Students also wanted license to change the form of the word, as in from “falling” to “falls.”  This, I thought, was great.  I also told them to use alternate meanings of words.  As in a “Snickers” bar as Halloween candy, or the wind “snickers” at trick or treaters.  One of my writers asked if he could mine words for their letters to make new words.  Although I praised his thinking out of box, the answer was no.

Here are some of their offerings:

Student A)

Death masked before sunset.

(This is just the first sentence of the poem, at the student’s request.  I ask permission from my students before including any of their writing in this blog.)

Student B)


Maple trees die

Scary monsters kidnap bursting children

Red rain.

Wind snickers over angry black birds

Flickering torches in pumpkins

Spiders mask a haunted house.

Skeletons and mummies divorce tombs.

Chilly leaves within the night.

Crisp air rakes death.

Hidden creepy crawlies ghost trees.

Midnight moons howl.


Student C) wrote a type of sonnet.  We studied iambic pentameter last year and she was trying her hand.  She decided not to try for 5 feet as there simply weren’t enough words to mimic a sentence.  So she went for four (sometimes three).  Listen for the rhythm.

Orange, yellow, red, black.

Windy, rainy, monster costumes

Flickering torches, Dracula haunts

Houses, bats, creepy crawlies

Halloween monsters haunt Death.

Visions, thunder, lightening, Blackness

Ghosts, chapel tombs haunt.

Flickering masks, crows snickering

Zombies creep, families die

Autumn haunts Halloween, Death

Death haunts haunted houses.

Lightening, red, black Ghouls

Bursting Thunder, Tears falling.

Yes, Autumn is here!

Students who finished early were allowed to write again.  This time they were allowed prose, and all the grammatical conditions that go with a paragraph, or more poetry with words not on the brainstorm list.

Student D)

October, coming with autumn to haunt you. They hide, the Boogeymen, when they put on their masks.  We take them as children.  How would we know?  Those with the best costumes could be their costume.  A person-zombie could be a zombie! Highly unlikely though.  Lights flicker when they are near.  Soon Halloween is over and they hide in their dark caves.

Student E)

In the starry night, I hear howls.  Hidden in the gloom, I see a flicker.  The trees are dark, but leave their mark.

(In this case a flicker is a beautiful bird found locally in the Puget Sound.  It is a type of woodpecker.  The student here is playing with the dual meaning of the word, “flicker,” implying both or either a flickering light, or a flicker bird.)

I have to admit, I did not expect this lesson to take over the period, but it did, and I’m glad.  Cobbling together ideas to make a brainstorm which was then used immediately to create a piece of writing did seem to give students a sense of success — they were able to recombine those ideas and throw the switch to bring them to life.  There was definitely a mad-scientist kind of feel in the room when the students were in charge of their universe.  I don’t know if they have had the lightening strike connecting brainstorming and Idea and Content yet, but, fortunately, I see the monster looming.
Any good Igor knows what the good Doctor wants.  But those parts don’t come easy — you have to dig for them.  And when you put them all together in just the right way, you get a monster that stands the test of time, and won’t be put back under with just any old mob with pitchforks and sixth graders.

The other group’s brainstorm.

Week 8- The Cost of a Definition


I love the Merriam Webster Dictionary website and keep the link on my browser’s Bookmark Toolbar.  Just keep that in mind.

So yesterday I was feeling a little lazy (I have a cold) and decided we would spend our literature time looking up vocabulary for this very difficult piece of non-fiction.  The essay is “Etruscan Civilization” from A History of Rome by M. Cary and H.H. Scullard.  Here is an example of the words I was front-loading. (I love that term.  Sounds like I’m using a bulldozer to cram information into my students’ heads.)  We had alluvial, macchia, gable, entrails, gentillician, thalassocracy, debauchery, enervate, etc..  There were over 30 SAT and GRE level words there.

So, why the hard stuff?  You want your students reading above their current reading level in the classroom where you can help them.  (At home, you want them reading just below because you have to bank on them not having help.)  My current students are all well above their grade level, and so I pick readings with vocabulary that will make them work for comprehension.  The thing with these high-flyers is that they will tell you they already know the meanings because they are good at context clues.

And predictably some of the students were there, hand raised, ready to tell me that they already knew what sumptuous meant.  I never tell students that they don’t know, and instead ask them to define it.  The exchange sounds like this:

After a few seconds of hemming and hawing from said students, I say, “Go look it up.”

“But I’ve heard it before!” they often wail.

“Great.  Go look it up.”

“It was sumptuous!” they cry.  “It means it’s sumptuous!”

“You can’t use the word to define itself.  Go look it up.”


“Go look it up.”


“Go look it up.”

“Grumble. Mumble. Grumble.”

This last tells me I’m doing my job. So, they go look it up.  Sometimes I see a fist pump when they find the meaning, and they did know it.  That’s good, too.

Once they figured out that working with a partner and splitting up the load was faster, they moved quite quickly.  And then, the dreaded happened.  A word wasn’t in the dictionary.

Usually, when a student says a word is missing (and this is after I have assessed their dictionary prowess) I say, “Wanna bet?”  (Today I bet a student a piece of Halloween candy.  He did not take me up on the offer. “Forebode?  Try again. Check your spelling.”)  But these words were different.  Some of them were not in the dictionary (even the honking huge one that takes two kids to lift.)  When those words came up, I told them not to worry, that I would find the definitions for them.  So I went to the oracle- the best of all websites- Merriam Webster.  I plugged in “macchia”.  And it told me that if I wanted to know the meaning, I would need to pay them money.
Now, I hold no grudges about this. I have been using their work for free for years, giving nothing back but my admiration and a promise to stop misspelling things.  But, my students were very, very impressed that there are words which are so rare that you would need to pay for them.  The students began to wonder what other words might cost.  When they were finished with their word list yesterday, I noticed they were flipping through the dictionaries assigning a fee for the “epic-ness” of the word.  They found “derf” very expensive.  And “vroom” less so.  They spent the entire period just exploring the dictionary.  And giggling.  There was a lot of giggling.  (I did check that they weren’t just looking up rude words.)

They even asked if they could spend their one class with me today looking up the rest of the words I pulled from “Etruscans”.  So that’s what we did.  Of the 20 new words, my favorite was “rout”.  And that’s because, as they were hollering help to each other across the room, one student yelled, “Make sure you’re getting the right rout!”

I think we are.

Week 8- Power to the Yahoots: Student revision.


What the heck is going on here?  As part of our writing process, I allow students to score each others’ papers on a rubric created by Education Northwest.  This time  we used the Idea and Content rubric from their fabulous 6+1 Writing Traits.  (Note the use of the word “score”. They are not allowed to “edit” or “grade”.  They just don’t have the skill yet.)  After thinking about it, students wrote answers in their Bellwork Journals.

We ended up listing the goals of Peer Scoring first, oddly enough.  It looked like this:
1) To catch all the mistakes.  2) To help a writer have a stronger paper.  3) To learn how to have stronger papers ourselves.   4) To improve clarity. 5) To better understand Idea and Content.  6)  To show a writer what he/she can improve.  7)  To show a writer what they are doing well.  Most of which I thought was pretty on the nose.  I did remind students not to try to catch all the mistakes.  Sometimes this can be demoralizing.  It is sometimes better to pick a few necessary things to change instead.

Then we talked about what was hard about it, and I have to say I heard some things that surprised me. For example it came up far more than I thought it would that students struggle with the the prospect of having to give a friend a weak score on a paper.  This makes sense when you think about it. It led to a great discussion on creating a community of writers.  And as much as they all agreed that you create trust and stronger friendships by being honest, the reality of having to explain to a friend that their paper wasn’t very strong and bearing the weight of labeling those issues is daunting.  Which led us to the problem of feeling confident about the rubric.  Yesterday, I asked students to show me on a scale of 1-5 how confident they felt helping another writer improve their work.  Mostly is was 2s and 3s.  This was after scoring many papers as class.

So, we looked at one more paper.  We seriously took it apart.  We poked, we prodded, we questioned.  And when I asked students how they felt, they thought they were ready to go.

When they came in for the next class, we clarified their instructions thus:

And I let them loose.

It took them all of the period.  When they said they were done with their writer’s paper, I asked them to show me what they had done.  And, I was pretty impressed.  They gave mostly honest, helpful, clear feedback.  Nobody shirked their duty to call a spade a spade- strong or weak.

Once both parties were finished, they were required to “conference” with each other.  I told them that in their role as writer, they must be sure they understand the feedback their reader had given them because making those revisions would be the homework.  I also reminded them that they did not have to use all the suggestions made by their reader, but that they must take any “reader question” very, very seriously.

So, homework for Monday is the 3rd draft.  I’m giving them such a long time because many of the students are still hand writing their papers.  They know that the next draft will be a grammar and mechanics edit done by yours truly.  Many of the students are already making noises about having siblings, parents, and friends edit their work before they hand it in to me.

I’m impressed with how writing an essay has empowered my students.  They are enjoying writing, and I think it is because it is a conversation.  What they have to say is important.

Week 8- The Power of Pothos: 6th Grade History Essays


Alexander History Essay Test Question:

In a four paragraph essay (Intro, 2 body, conclusion) brainstorm, outline, and draft (1st) this question:  Compare and contrast Alexander the Great and Iskander the Accursed.  Defend what made him great.  Explain what made him accursed.

Student 1- The Power of Pothos   (Pothos means an unquenchable yearning)

In this essay on Alexander the Great, I will question wether he is all that great or not.  I will pick out the important parts which make him who he is and what he did.

I will start with the things that made him a great and reasonable conqueror.  When he was young one of his great achievements was taming a wild horse, which he used for almost half of his life. I think this shows his self-bravery, throughout.  Later in his life as he rules most of Asia, he captures his enemy’s wife and children, but takes very good care of them, even if they are different from him.  He is also “great” for his intelligence in political strategy, for example when he fights one of his last battles with King Porrus, even though Porrus surrenders, Alexander is impressed with him and gives back his kingdom.  But possibly he did this to make a good ally.  It’s also very impressive that when in battle Alexander is always encouraging his men and does not take all the glory just because he is king.  Lastly, Alexander’s love for the arts and philosophy shows why he kept his powerful pothos.

Now I will explain what some cultures think of Alexander as a cursed king.  I think the over all terrible thing that happens is that his power corrupts him to even kill his own historian for giving him wisdom.  Second to that is his forgetfulness of the importance of the Persian palace as he burns it to ashes.  3rd to this is the massacres that he goes through with no explanation.  And fourth of all was what he left behind him, because after he died he left the countries he conquered in a world of unrest.

I left my reader off with lots to think about.  But overall I think that Alexander corrupted himself with the power he earned through all of his accomplishments.

Student 2- Essay Comparing and Contrasting Alexander of Macedon

This essay will mainly be around the question “Compare Alexander the Great to Iskander the Accursed”. They are both Alexander of Macedon, but two different points of views on him. I will compare them both, and contrast them both.
Now I will compare the two. He was both when he built roads, and killed the Persians and King Darius. He was also both because he was mortal. And his troops responses considered him to be both. And he was known almost all over the entire eastern side of the Earth for doing great things and terrible things.

Now I will state the differences between the two. He was great because he was very smart (politically). Another reason for him being great was how he was nice(ish) to his troops! He motivated and helped them (sometimes, only when Alex needed them to continue). And some people almost loved him for what he did! Now I will say some of the things that made him terrible. One thing that made him terrible (and probably the most obvious one to) is that he killed so many people that were innocent! And that made a lot of people hate him. Plus he was a terrible ruler!!
Well, time to wrap it all up. I think that there are two sides to every story. And to understand the story, you have to understand both sides. And my personal opinion on Alexander is that he was terrible! Mainly because, no one should want to kill so many people and no one should want to conquer so much land. Especially if you’re not prepared to deal with it.

Student 3- Great or Not so Great?

In this essay I will explain how Alexander of Macedon was Alexander the Great and how he was also Iskander the Accursed. During Alexander’s life the Greeks were pretty much the only people who thought that Alexander was great. The rest of the world thought he was accursed. Many people at this time were both great and bad. It was just the time period.

This paragraph will explain how Alexander of Macedon was Alexander the Great. A feat that made everyone around him impressed was when he tamed an “untamable” horse named Bucephalus. He also built large postal roads going through all of Macedonia once he conquered the Persians. Alexander unties the Gordian knot. The legend of the Gordian knot was whoever untied the knot would become the lord of Asia. Alexander also made Tyre become a peninsula as oppose to an island when he built the amazing Tyre causeway. Alexander also invaded Persia for revenge when the Persians burned down Athens. The Greeks were happy about this because they thought something like, “Yay! He’s gonna avenge us!” Last, another thing that made him great was when Alexander gave King Porus’s kingdom back.

This paragraph will explain how Alexander of Macedon was Iskander the Accursed. He became cruel by acts that drove him insane. The death of Hephaestion made him insane and I am also sure the death of his only son ever also drove him insane. Another thing that would make him insane is that he killed his second best friend (Hephaestion was his first best friend) Cleitus at a drunk party. Cleitus was a general. One thing more that would have made him psycho is when he became deathly sick which not only reminded him that he was mortal but he really wanted to die in battle. He also became more evil when Callisthenes says he needs to stay Greek. That made him really mad. He was additionally Iskander the Accursed when he persecuted the Zoroastrians. Another not to good deed was he was funding his campaign with slaves. It was pretty bad when he burned Persepolis on top of all that.

Overall, I think Alexander of Macedon was neither good nor bad because I do not think his deeds did much to me. I have shown how he is both good and bad so remember not to just say he was one side and one side only. The reason his deeds grew worse is because absolute power corrupts absolutely. Finally, the source of Alexander’s strength was he thought he was the son of Zeus which gave him mental power which gave him physical power in the body.

Student 4-  Accursed or Great?

Is Alexander the Great not so great?  Some call him Iskandar the Accursed.  He can be either but sometimes he is both.  For example, in the desert, his men gave him the last of the water in a helmet.  Instead of drinking it, or giving it to him men, he pours it on the ground.

Now, if we zoom in on Alexander’s bad side, one, too, can see the deaths caused by so called “Alexander the Great.”  The massacres he commits are too great a number to count all the lives dead by his hand.  But, I would estimate about… 450,000 innocents and enemies slain.  He was brutal and bloody, pushing people off of cliffs, some by opposition’s own free will.  He pushed his men too far over the limit of their abilities, killing without trial, and suspending freedom of speech.

Though, we do have to give him credit for the empires he conquered.  He was kind to his men by cheering them on to greater lengths.  Agreeing to turn away when he knew it was too far.  If he saw fit to reward, he does.  So brave, as to not turn back when he only had an army of three men with him against a few hundred.  His men truly loved him.

Now one can see the different views.  He funded him men, so they cound have less death in their army, but funded it with slavery, not so great.  One sees not he is both great and accursed.  What does, my friend, he seem to you?
It’s not a bad start.  –  Me

Week 7- Tests as a Learning Tool (How boring does that sound? Ipes!)


Do my kids know Alexander of Macedon or do my kids know Iskander the Accursed?  They know both, and I’m bubbling over.

Structuring a test for success takes a lot of time, but it pays off.  This unit’s process looked something like this: First, students took notes on a few PowerPoints and Michael Wood’s In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great.  Second, students use their notes to write questions for a game.  I usually use a chutes-and-ladders style board on the overhead projector.  Third, I use the questions they created (and I have vetted) on the test.  By the time they get to the test, they have reviewed the information several different ways, not counting any of the studying that they might have done on their own.  A student has to work very, very hard to fail the test.  (And when they do, they are generally trying to tell me something that has nothing to do with History.)

The test is presented in short answer questions if not an essay.  I like the short answer questions method over anything else.  Students can learn to dig for an answer.  For example, students had a hard time remembering that Alexander’s engineers built a bridge to Pir Sar where they massacred the refugees (according to Arrian, one of Alexander’s biographers — poo to historian Lane Fox), but 300 of his men climbed the Sogdian Rock where he accepted the Bactrians’ surrender.  For a short answer, they don’t need the names Pir Sar or Sogdian Rock, per se.  They can describe the scene, and I will know what they are talking about.

So, they really knew their stuff.  Yet, many of them failed it, officially.  I require students to write using Academic English.  The number of answers correctly answered are checked, answers with grammar issues but are correct are circled, and wrong answers get an X.  When I was finished grading, I called those students with a B or less up to the desk.  First, I praised them for their command of the information.  But then, I focused on capitalization issues and periods at the end of sentences.   As I graded, I circled the places where mistakes were being made.  I want students to get so used to capitalizing sentences and using periods that then never have to think about it.

I offered these students a deal.  They could keep the grade they earned, or they could take their recesses and breaks to re-write the questions they missed either grammatically or informationally (is that a word?).  Anyway, they asked the best and obvious question?  “Will my grade go up?”  Yes.

I get some flack from other educators for giving students full credit on re-doing tests.  But I look at it this way: 1) students review the material again, adding more myelin to the brain.  2) Students learn what the Academic norms are with minimal fuss.  3) They are generally happy to be able to say to their parents, “I got an A!” with just a little more work. This improves their work ethic.  4) Failure is really their choice.  They can’t really say that I just gave them a grade if they have the opportunity to go back and fix mistakes.

Some educators have said to me, “But that’s not real life.  In real life you don’t get to take tests over.”  But that’s obvious bullshit.  I can rip out a sweater as many times as I like.  I can take the Bar exam over and over.  I can take my driving test and the GREs again and again.  The question I have for these educators is, “How badly do you want your students to remember the information you are trying to cram into their heads.”  Furthermore, being drug away from your recess/lunch/after school activities for most students is worth more in the long run than taking points off of some ephemeral test.

So, half of the class will be in here, taking up my prep period to re-do the test.  Hallelujah!

Week 7- Your Spelling is a Measure of Your Intelligence


Or at least that’s what people think.

My third year of teaching, I worked with a boy who would not write anything.  Ever.  Jon wouldn’t pick up a pencil in Language Arts class. He had major holes in his learning, which was why he was in my remedial English class in the first place.  He sat in the front row, and was a generally pleasant young man if not sometimes a little surly.  He would draw, talk, participate, but refused, flat refused to write one word.  Questions only made him angry, and since I could see he was a natural leader, the other boys following his lead on just about everything, it would have been a major mistake to push it.

For the first week of school, he dictated to me what he wanted to say.  There came a point when this was untenable. My class started out with 24 students, but was quickly expanding.  When I just couldn’t do this anymore, I asked the boy to sitting next to him to write for him.  This went on for a while until it was time to take the first test.  The boy next to him could not write his test for him, and so I finally sat him down and asked him why he wouldn’t write anything.  By that time I had proved to him that I cared, and that he could trust me.  He hemmed and hawed, but it finally emerged that he was embarrassed by his spelling.  He had understood an earlier teacher to equate his spelling ability with his intelligence, and he simply could not bear to have people think of him as stupid.

I was amazed that something like that could have such a profound effect on a young person.  I explained to him that spelling could not be a measure of intelligence.  I knew by working with him over the past few weeks that he was smart.  Hell, I could see it in his eyes. I told him that I am dyslexic and if spelling were a criterion for intelligence, I never would have gotten into grad school.  He agreed to take the test, and I agreed not to grade him on his spelling, at least not for a while.  He took the test.  He aced it.  As his confidence grew, he learned how to use a dictionary and how to spell-check his work.  He grew by leaps and bounds.

Today, I worked with a student who went to a school where spelling didn’t matter at all.  He writes phonetically, and sometimes it is a mystery as to what he is trying to say. The other day, when he was typing out a test, he became discouraged because almost every word he typed had a little red line under it.  He started to look for ways to get out of it.  When I saw his sentences completely underlined in red, I took his computer away from him, found the spell-check function, and turned it off.  When I handed it back to him, I said, “I’m dyslexic.  Those little red lines make me feel bad about myself.  They stop the flow of my writing.  I’ve turned them off.  When you are done, we’ll spell check it.  But not until then.”

Fortunately, nobody has ever told him that he is stupid because he doesn’t spell, but because of the nature of the work students were doing today, he was truly anxious about pairing up with another writer.  Students are revising their first drafts by having a classmate read their essays back to them.  I call this a Clang Session.  He knows that his spelling would keep another student from understanding his writing.  So I worked with him myself while the other students paired up to do revisions.  I read his essay back to him from his grubby and crumpled binder paper, reading it as it sounded.  We spent the entire period finessing the language and making the essay clearer without once referring to the spelling.  Jon’s experience haunted me.  It was as if he was there with me, hovering over my shoulder and reminding me of the damage that I could so easily do.

When my current student and I had finished with his paper, he was all aglow.  He loved the way it sounded, and how clear his ideas were.  His eyes sparkled.  He didn’t know he could write so well.  I was so proud of him.

We will have to deal with his spelling.  That can wait until the third draft.  But at least we won’t start from an emotional deficit.  He knows he’s smart.  He knows that with work he can spell just as well as anybody else. But he also knows that bad spelling is keeping him from communicating his ideas to his peers.  Because it isolates him, he can see why spelling counts.