Teaching Tip: Bring in pop culture…even for a common writing assessment.

Prompt:  Write about a day you experienced a food fight at lunch.

Prompt:  Write about your favorite day with a friend.

Prompt:  Describe how you would eat an oreo cookie.

No, I didn’t make those up.  Those are some of the prompts that my students have had to write to throughout the years.  (Can you say…yawn? Can you imagine having to grade 165 of those essays?) 

This year, we were asked to step it up and make our common writing assessment match the World Class Outcomes put out by our district.  The best part was that I was able to choose my own prompt.

I knew that I wanted to make it cross-curricular, make it real world, and make it so that students couldn’t plagiarize. I met with the science teacher on our team to see what the students on our team were currently studying and to see if she had any ideas of how to work together on this assessment.  Luckily, working with Ms. H turned this into a great unit, and we were able to not only connect my assessment with her curriculum, but we were able to connect it to pop culture.  If you read my book review about bringing in pop culture, you know that I think it’s important.

We decided that if we brought in the idea of GMOs from science and added in a little Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, we would have engaged students.

I first asked the students two questions:  Who has read or seen the movie The Hunger Games?  Who can name some GMOs that were used in the story?

That was all it took.  I told them the scenario and the writing prompt, and you could see their minds already swirling:


In the movie “The Hunger Games,” the Capitol (a term used to refer to what we would call the government) produced genetically modified organisms called jabberjays to spy on rebels. Unexpectedly, these birds bred with mockingbirds, creating a new hybrid bird called the mockingjay. The Capitol did not intend for this to happen, and the bird became a symbol of rebellion.

Writing prompt: 

Suzanne Collins, the author of The Hunger Games, is writing her fourth book in the series. She is asking readers to send her recommendations of other GMOs that weren’t in the previous books/movies. You will dream up your own genetically modified organism, which would be dropped in by parachutes during the Games, that could be beneficial for one player or detrimental to a player from another district. Your task is to write at least a one-page letter to Suzanne Collins PERSUADING her to use your invented GMO in her story.

Before writing, the students needed background knowledge of GMOs and how they currently affect today’s society.  They watched part of Dr. Oz’s show about GMOs, along with reading an article about them in a science magazine.  They were also provided with links of websites to research in order to do their own thinking and note taking.

In Science, the students were learning about Punnett squares and Pedigree charts, so the students first designed their new GMO for the Hunger Games.  Would they combine animals or plants or both?  Would their GMO help or hinder another tribute?  Can they show the transfer of genetic material in which their GMO was created?  Can they explain how they genetically engineered their organism? I absolutely loved seeing their drawings of their new GMOs; I will post some of my favorites another time.

In Language Arts, they wrote their letter to Suzanne Collins.  I have to admit, even though it is taking me FOREVER to grade these puppies, they are enjoyable to read.  They couldn’t possibly plagiarize their information; their ideas are fresh and original.  My favorite part is reading how they would incorporate their GMO into the Hunger Games. 

To make the common writing assessment even more exciting, I decided to turn it into a writing contest.  I will take the top ten or so letters and have volunteer teachers vote on their favorite three.  Then I will buy those three students lunch one day.  I will even mail the top ten letters to Suzanne Collins; who knows, maybe you’ll read about one of my student’s spectacular GMO one day.

So the next time you are trying to come up with a writing prompt for your students, think big.  Think cross-curricular.  Think pop culture.  Then enjoy having engaged students…even while they are “just completing an assessment.”


When your student brings you an autographed copy, it totally makes your day. 💜

Teaching Tip: Try Google Classroom

ARRRGGHHH!  That’s what you could hear me screaming one Sunday night last month.  I was hoping to set up my students on Doctopus, so that I could send out a document, but our grading program wouldn’t let me download their email addresses.  Just when I was about to throw my computer out the window, I remembered an email that I received about joining Google Classroom.

Each year, I “fall in love” with some new technology program that makes my teaching life easier.  Two years ago, it was Edmodo.  Last year, it was Doctopus.  This year, I have fallen in love with Google Classroom.  Not only was it easy to set up (obviously, since I was able to figure it out one Sunday night), but it is much easier than Doctopus.  I didn’t need to upload any email addresses; I received a classroom code much like Edmodo.  My students were able to sign up on their own.

The greatest part about Google Classroom is that it creates a template of your assignment for you and you are able to send it out within seconds.  Your students don’t have to “share” the document with you, nor make a copy of the document that you send them.  It also gives you the choice, like Doctopus, whether you want students to be able to just view the document, edit it as whole class, or allow each student to write on it individually.

I also love that students have to “turn in” their assignment on the Google Doc once they are finished.  This way, you aren’t grading a paper before the student has fully completed it.  At a glance, you can also see how many students have completed the assignment and who hasn’t.  Once they have “turned it in,” the student loses editing rights so that no further changes can be made.

You can leave them a grade and comments, and it will email the student to let them know their assignment is graded.  When you “return” the assignment to them, it gives them the ownership back.  I love this part because they are able to make the changes and “resubmit” it to raise their grade with the changes that the teacher has recommended. 

Students can view upcoming assignments, along with assignments that are also late now.

There is also a place to put announcements for students, but since I use Edmodo for communicating with my students, I don’t use this feature.

Of course, every program isn’t perfect.  I wish that there was a timer on when I can send out an assignment, like there is on Edmodo. In other words, I could set it up now, but it wouldn’t send it out to the students for another two days. I wish that I was notified that a student resubmitted their assignment for another check in from me. I also wish that I could create small groups, so that I could differentiate a little more with the assignments.  Maybe there is a way to do all of this, and I just haven’t learned it yet, but if there isn’t, can someone contact Google for me? :)

I’m sorry, Doctopus, but our love affair is officially over.  I appreciate the joy that you brought me last year, and but I am moving on.  It isn’t you, it’s me (the dreaded break-up line)!  I just need to move on with my life.

Edmodo?  You are still number one in my teaching life.  You let me send text messages to my parents and students.  You let me keep a library of notes for my students.  You also give a place for our students to collaborate and ask each other questions.  Even Google Classroom can’t replace you.

So, instead of throwing your computer out the window, be open to trying new ideas.  Who knows?  You might fall in love with a new program to make your life easier.

Teaching Tip: Ice-Breaker - College Application Committee

It drives me insane when an 8th grader says, “It doesn’t matter this year.  I will work harder when I get to high school.”  When did they ever get the idea that this year in school isn’t important?

I decided to start the school year with an activity that would get my students collaborating in groups, along with “encouraging” them to realize that you have to plan for college NOW!  Okay, that may sound a little harsh, but I think that my students were surprised when they learned that I make their high school class recommendation in December!  No, my students, you shouldn’t wait until May to start trying in school.

I found this activity on the englishteachersfriend website one year, but I had never used it before.  I started with having the students in groups, and I told them that they were the Gator College Application Committee (our team is called, “The Navigators”).  I passed out a sheet with the information about the the ten applicants, and I told them that they could only choose six. I didn’t give them any more directions than that…I let them go. 

It gave me a chance to sit back and observe who were the leaders in the group.  Did the groups establish the requirements for their college first?  How were they going to decide on the applicants?  Who was talking?  Who wasn’t participating?

It was interesting to see which groups made academics their priority, while other groups thought about who would bring money to the college or who was the most motivated. Of course, there wasn’t one class where everyone agreed.

When they had their top six applicants, I had them stand if their group chose the applicant’s name that I called.  They had to give me a reason as to why they chose that applicant.  I also had other groups, that weren’t standing, have a chance to argue why they didn’t choose that person.

When they were finished, I had them reflect on the activity.  Did I really care who they chose for their applicants?  No!  I cared that they thought about the process they used as a group.  I cared that they started thinking about what it takes to get into a good college, even in 8th grade.  I also cared that they paid attention to how important it was for everyone in a group to participate.

I am not naive enough to think that this will make all students turn in their work and start working toward college this year.  However, gentle reminders throughout the year about what it takes to get into a good college will give them something to think about.  Maybe I will even go a little less insane this year.

If you would like to use the materials created by others and myself, you can access them here:

College Application Committee Process

Gator Graduates College Instructions

Gator College Reflection



It was hard to contain my excitement when I opened my mailbox, and there was a box from Amazon.  At first, I thought, Oh no, what did I order that I forgot about? But then I realized that it was a gift.  Who doesn’t love gifts?  I was touched that someone went to my wish list on Amazon and bought me the Mentor Author, Mentor Texts resource book by Ralph Fletcher and the young adult novel called The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.  I quickly sat in my lounge chair and started marking ideas in the teacher resource book.  It will help me with my writing program this year.  The young adult book is one that my students have talked about, but I have never read.  They will be excited to see it in our library…well, when I am done with it.Thank you so much. You made this teacher’s day.  And thank you, Redditgifts.com for helping teachers in the classroom. High-res

It was hard to contain my excitement when I opened my mailbox, and there was a box from Amazon.  At first, I thought, Oh no, what did I order that I forgot about? But then I realized that it was a gift.  Who doesn’t love gifts?  I was touched that someone went to my wish list on Amazon and bought me the Mentor Author, Mentor Texts resource book by Ralph Fletcher and the young adult novel called The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.  I quickly sat in my lounge chair and started marking ideas in the teacher resource book.  It will help me with my writing program this year.  The young adult book is one that my students have talked about, but I have never read.  They will be excited to see it in our library…well, when I am done with it.

Thank you so much. You made this teacher’s day.  And thank you, Redditgifts.com for helping teachers in the classroom.

Who Doesn’t Love Playdough? = An Ice-Breaker Activity

Today was the first day of school with 162 eighth grade students.  As a team, did we go over our rules?  Did we have them attend a regular class?  Did we send them home with homework?  NO WAY!  We decided to let them play with playdough.

It doesn’t matter how old you are…playdough is always fun…even if you’re 13 or 30.  We decided that we wanted to do an activity that gave students a chance to get to know some new people, have a chance to chat with them, and use their creativity during this process. 

First, we took four decks of playing cards and randomly passed them out to students.  They had to find the group that had their same exact card (ex: all 3 of hearts made up one group), and then they sat at a table in the classroom.  Next, they had to find one thing that everyone in their group had in common.  Some found that they all loved sushi; some found that they had all moved to CO from CA; one group found that they all liked the Broncos and Peyton Manning.  Each group was given one small cup of playdough and a paper plate.  They had to form something with their playdough that symbolized what they had in common and put it on their paper plate with their names. 

It was so fun to walk around and listen to their conversations, and it was a great way to have them meet some new people, in a risk-free environment.  While they were working, we randomly asked them a “get-to-know-you” question.  A good place to come up with some questions is this site.  This helped them to talk to each other while they were working.  Their answers to some of the questions cracked me up.

When they were done, they did a gallery walk to see what others had created.  Two students left the group to do the walk, and two students stayed to answer questions.  After five minutes, they switched. 

So, if you are looking for a fun ice-breaker activity, try doing something with playdough.  It definitely brought back memories of my early days of teaching kindergarten, and the students seemed to enjoy it just as much.  Throw away the rules list for now, and let your students be creative.  They are more likely to remember this activity than if you just told them about your class.

Teaching Tip: Learn by Doing

Some say you shouldn’t read your work email when you are on vacation. Boy, am I glad I didn’t listen to this advice. This summer, I received an email by the editor of AMLE magazine (Association of MIddle Level Education) asking if my teammate (Ms. S) and I would write an article for the magazine about our cross-curricular debate unit. After doing the happy dance, (I mean I contemplated this email with much professional trepidation…not), I quickly replied that we would be honored.

Every teacher resource book says that you should try writing what your students are writing. Truth alert: I admit, sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. I wouldn’t ask my students to do anything that I couldn’t, but I don’t always take the time to write the assignment the students are working on also. (Why do I always feel the need to do a truth alert on my blog?) However, after working on a collaborative article with my teammate, I can now relate this experience to my own classroom. This is the first time that I have ever had to write collaboratively with another person.

1. Collaborative writing is difficult.

My teammate and I have two very different styles of writing. We are both strong writers, but to make our article cohesive, we had to approach the article in our own way. For example, my part of the article comes in the middle, but I had to write out her part also in order to make my part flow. Student terms: Let students learn and work in a way that is best for them. Don’t always try to control the process.

2. It’s easier to work with a friend.

When we worked on the article, I worried about her feelings, but in a good way. I wanted to make sure that we were both heard. It was also easier to tell my friend if I didn’t like her suggestion, and it was easier to hear suggestions about my writing from her. Student terms: When it comes to collaborative writing, let the students choose their partner. This might apply to their peer revision groups also.

3. Revision is important.

We were asked to keep our word count to around 1500 words. I now understand my students’ frustration when I tell them to keep their debate speech to 2-3 minutes. I understand why they want to hit me when their speech is at five minutes, and they have to cut out half of it. However, by our fourth attempt at the article (yes, we tried to write it four different ways), we found that cutting the word count down actually made it sound better. We also asked the help of others (thank you Mr. M and Aunt Agatha for your contribution), and their advice was wonderful. Student terms: Offer suggestions on student writing WHILE they are writing. Don’t always wait until they turn in the final copy. Their final paper will be more of a pleasure to read.

4. Mentor text is extremely helpful.

Before we started writing, I took out all of my AMLE magazines and studied the articles. I had already thoroughly read the magazines (they are my favorite), but I never studied them for structure. Seeing the layout of what was expected for an article was helpful. Student terms: Show the students mentor texts BEFORE they start writing. Teach them the structure; it will help with their writing confidence.

5. Positive feedback works wonders.

My teammate and I anxiously awaited a response from the editor after we sent in our article. When she replied in an email with, “(It) was engaging and well-written,” I couldn’t have been happier. If she had returned it with a bunch of red marks or only negative criticism, I would have been crushed. I am sure that it will still be edited, but I now have the confidence to write future articles, as well. Student terms: Students need positive feedback also. Focus on what they are doing well, and only pick one or two skills for them work on in the future. This will help with their confidence.

Our article will be published in the Nov/Dec issue of AMLE, right before we present at the AMLE conference. I couldn’t be more excited. Now, I can finally tell my students that I am a published author, and then spend November, during Nanowrimo, helping them to become published authors also.

So to the people who don’t read their work email over the summer, you might be missing out on an exciting adventure. Either read your email or ask your spouse or child to screen it for you. It isn’t always bad news.


Hi, I love the idea of a cool poster. Could you create one that says, "Believe You Matter" for me? It is my theme all year. It would need to be appropriate for an 8th grade classroom. Our colors are purple, black and silver, if that is helpful. I would even barter something from my own classroom to send you. ;) thank you.

Asked by


Hi there! I know this is a little plain, but I felt like everything else I put made it look too frilly and took away from the message. Let me know if you want me to spice it up a bit (I can!), I just kind of liked it plain.

Exciting Stuff!

These were my dance moves when my past student and her mom gave me a special surprise the other day:


Recently, they went to a book signing by Veronica Roth (Divergent series) and Margaret Stohl (Beautiful Creatures), and they gave me signed copies of the authors’ new books.  Veronica Roth even personalized it! 





It’s great to be a language arts teacher at times! Thank you, Miss A and Mrs. R, for being so generous.  You made my day! I can’t wait to read the books.  Wahoooeeee!