A Decade of Shifts in Thinking

As we close out one decade and enter a new one, I’ve found myself reflecting on my teaching career quite a bit these days. When I think about who I was then, I am reminded of how much in the education world has changed, but also how much my own beliefs have shifted since I walked into my first classroom. So, I thought I’d try to compile a list of some of the things I used to think about teaching that no longer hold true in 2020.

When I Started Teaching I Believed:

1. You can be a well-liked teacher or an effective teacher, but you cannot be both.  

I probably listened too closely when someone uttered the tired old phrase, “Don’t let them see you smile until Christmas.” There was a period in my early career where I thought the only way to command respect (note the use of “command” instead of “earn”) was to be all-business, all the time. If the kids liked me, it’d only be because they recognized how serious I was about the work of high school English. What I was missing was that the only serious thing about any of it was that I was taking myself too seriously.  

I don’t begrudge new teachers who feel this way; I recognize now that in the absence of experience, I leaned hard on rules, procedures, and a freshly-starched shirt and tie to convey some sense of effectiveness. What I had forgotten was that most of the teachers I still remembered fondly (and the ones who  inspired me to be a teacher myself) were ones I genuinely liked as people. I also falsely assumed that students only liked teachers who had low expectations (the “easy” teacher, or the one who only shows movies) or ones who were warm and fuzzy. I was not (and still am not) those things.

I wish I knew then what I think I know now—I think students mostly just want to know that you care about them. Relationships are integral to teaching, and often the reason someone can be an effective teacher. I still don’t hate a shirt and tie, though.

2. When it comes to teaching English there is a canon and kids should read it

    I am sure that I am not the only one to see this shift in his thinking, and in fact, there is nothing revolutionary about the fact that I believe the opposite of this now; this has been an argument made by people long before I set foot in a classroom. The only real change, I think, has been that this belief in challenging the canon has become more mainstream. This is a sad thing, in some ways, because we’ve had students who needed diverse books for as long as we’ve been reading in schools, and it may seem like only recently ELA educators have made this a large priority. That said, I also see it as an opportunity for us to show our diverse populations of students more characters who look like them, as well as characters who do not share our students’ experiences. 

    When I started teaching, it wasn’t that I didn’t believe our students shouldn’t be reading YA fiction, graphic novels, diverse voices/texts, or living poets/authors. But, I thought part of our job as English teachers was to expose students to the “great works of literature” so that they could be a part of the larger cultural narrative. What I never stopped to think about was “whose cultural narrative?”or “what makes a ‘great book’?” At this year’s NCTE in Baltimore, Julia Torres of #DisruptTexts made the excellent point that rapper Kendrick Lamar is a Pulitzer Prize-winning musician, and yet how many of our students see his work on a standardized test? Challenging our notions of what students should be reading is one of the most vital conversations teachers and school leaders should be having right now. 

    I’ve worked with and for people who were vehemently against using YA in the high school classroom, because it isn’t “challenging” enough. As I’ve made an effort to read more YA, I recently thought to myself that while I enjoyed a lot of the titles, it was true that I felt more connected and challenged by literary fiction written for adults. But, there’s a perfectly good reason for that—these books are not written for me! So, something we may want to remind ourselves before we defend teaching our time-honored classics is that we teach these books to students, many of whom are young adults. Shouldn’t they get to read books written for them and not for us?

3. Technology, more often than not, gets in the way of real learning.

    When my school began piloting 1:1 devices at the beginning of the decade, I was pretty skeptical about it. I liked having a computer myself so that I could keep an up-to-date class website, and sure, PowerPoint was great. Every so often, when I assigned a project in class, it seemed like a good time for students to use the wide variety of technology at their fingertips. But, at the end of the day, I was an English teacher, and the main thing we needed to be doing in class was reading books and writing essays. I saw technology as a distraction.

    Enter: Google’s G-Suite. For the first time, I saw ways that technology could transform the English classroom. Collaboration was a real, possible thing, when in the past, students always seemed to be going through the motions. The number of ed-tech companies/websites/tools exploded, and suddenly we had things like Actively Learn or Common Lit—technology designed specifically for English classrooms that allowed teachers to really look at data on how well kids read. When it came to student writing, I could finally get a good sense of how much and how effectively students revised their work. Where I started as a bit of a cynic, now I serve my district as one of four technology mentors, working with teachers in my building to come up with ways of effectively integrating technology in their lessons. And yet…

    I’d say my thinking on technology in the English classroom this decade has perhaps had a circular arc. In the last year or two, I’ve become acutely aware of how distracted many of our students can be when they have screens in front of them all day. I think back to the start of my career and the times I struggled with getting students to meaningfully collaborate, and now I have to take special care to teach students that not all tasks are meant to be worked on in pairs, and that sometimes what they believe is collaboration is actually verging on outright plagiarism. 

    While I still think that technology has transformed my writing instruction (my students do most of their writing in class and Google docs allows me to be in there with them, coaching them as they write), in the end, I still think I’d rather students read from a physical text. Studies have suggested that it is better for us than reading digitally. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but there’s just something about opening a physical book.

4. You don’t need to collaborate with others to be an effective teacher.

    Maybe this early belief of mine is true. Certainly, there are lots of very smart, passionate teachers who are reflective and adaptive in their practices. They may even keep up on all the professional literature for their discipline. Maybe they take webinars, or attend local professional learning. Their students consistently do well when you look at traditional metrics. Sure, I think you could pretty much be a lone wolf, shut your classroom door, and be a good teacher. But imagine if that person did all of those things and was willing to work collaboratively with others?

    No doubt about it, some of my most rewarding moments in teaching have been ones where I was working alongside and exchanging ideas with others. The first six years of my career, I worked in a collaborative pair with different special education teachers. While some partnerships may have been more effective than others, each one of these experiences introduced me to different teaching styles, but also different perspectives on what was and wasn’t working in our classes.

    If I could do it all over again, I’d have joined Twitter much earlier. Through Twitter, I have connected with so many other passionate teachers. I connected with Kate Baker, another NJ high school English teacher, which led to our serendipitous meeting at ISTE 2016. After Kate and my wife, Shari Krapels connected, the three of us collaborated on a number of presentations at various local and national conferences. Through this one connection, I have found a professional home and countless new friends in CEL, and if I can help it, I won’t ever miss another NCTE or CEL conference. All of this is personally fulfilling, but I get to bring everything I learn back to my students. No doubt about it, joining Twitter has made me a better teacher.

    This year, my supervisor allowed Kelley Kulick and I to co-teach our journalism class. In addition to getting to teach alongside one of my good friends, our student newspaper, The Lance, has never been better, in my opinion. The quality of the newspaper is because of the students who write for it, no questions asked. But because Kelley and I get to design this course from two different perspectives, and bounce ideas off of each other (as well as share the grading), I believe our students are getting us at our best. 

    I really thought, when I started teaching, that doing things my way and on my own would make me a happier and more effective teacher, but time and time again, that’s not been the case. If you don’t already have a meaningful professional partnership, go get one. Make it your New Year’s Teacher Resolution.

5. New teachers should keep their heads down, work, and wait for tenure before getting involved in anything.

    I have a feeling that many people may identify with this one. I remember that besides getting my lesson plans and grading done, my main priority as a new teacher was to survive. Survive to the end of the day, to the end of the week, to the end of each year, to the first day of tenure. Then I could breathe. Sure, I had questions. Of course I had opinions, but those could wait until I had job security. Fake it until you make it, right?

    What I didn’t foresee was that I’d work a string of maternity-leaves and that when the time came that I “could breathe,” I was already teaching for six years. And because I lived under a strict mantra of “keep your head down” or “don’t rock the boat,” I missed out on a lot of opportunities to grow as an educator. More importantly, my students missed out on lots of opportunities to have a better teacher.

    We all know that the teacher shortage and teacher burn-out are very real things. With more and more teachers leaving the profession, often early on, it’s clear that we could do more to engage those at the start of their careers. New teachers should feel like they are contributing as much to the school and their profession as experienced teachers are. There are lots of ways to get this kind of buy-in–more intentional coaching and on-boarding of new staff, meaningful mentor/mentee relationships, co-teaching models. One thing that I really suggest, and something that would have made a huge difference for me at the start of my career: attending a national conference.

    I am always most hopeful about our profession when I see in-service students and early career teachers at national conferences like NCTE and ISTE. There is definitely some faction of our profession that would decidedly eye-roll at the sight of young people engaging professionally before amassing a certain number of years of experiences, but so often, this is the problem. By setting up these arbitrary (and imaginary) barriers of “when you’re enough of a teacher” we further isolate those that will be the future of our profession. So often, it is these new teachers who have most energy and imagination to try profeessive new approaches in their classrooms. Why punish that? 

    Do what you can to nurture and encourage your new staff, because in the end it will be better for your school and your students.

So, as we enter a new decade that promises to bring with it even more changes and shifts, I challenge you to confront them head on. This doesn’t mean accepting everything that is thrown at you wholesale; you should still be a savvy consumer. But, if you find yourself resistant to a new idea, initiative, or philosophy this decade, ask yourself the following: do I resist this because I don’t want to think/do a new thing or because it doesn’t align with my current philosophy? Whatever your answer to that question, make sure to follow it up with why?

An Ode to New Teachers


Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

I have a soft spot for new teachers. I see them on the first day of school, and despite their content areas, their ages, their work experiences, or any of the other myriad qualities that make people unique individuals, somehow, they all do a number of similar things.

They immediately stick close to the few people they know. These people are often other new hires, met in the new staff orientation a week prior. In a school like mine that hires a fair amount of graduates, you’ll sometimes see new teachers sit with their own former teachers, or an older acquaintance that already works there. This is smart. There’s safety in numbers.

The new teacher also asks a lot of questions. To anyone who will answer them. Or the opposite–they avoid asking questions because they’re afraid of appearing unprepared. Either way, the anxiety can be tremendous.

When the full staff comes together for opening meetings, exchanging “how was your summers” and “I can’t believe we’re backs,” the new teacher is often quiet, either because he’s nervous, or because he’s trying to determine the pecking order. Who are the movers and shakers? What “cliques” exist here? The new teacher either stares blankly, or laughs without really knowing why when the rest of the staff chuckles at a principal’s inside joke, funny to them because they understand the context for the quip.

And yet, amidst the nerves and reticence, the assessing and evaluating of their surroundings, new teachers tend to have that unmistakable quality that unfortunately, some veteran teachers forget to embrace: excitement. There is a verve that new teachers possess that I love to see at the start of a school year. You see it in the way that they diligently prepare exciting lesson plans, full of the shiny new best practices they learned about months prior in their teacher training programs. Have you ever had the opportunity to see a new teacher’s classroom? You’ll rarely find another room in the building more impeccably decorated. New teachers, more often than veteran teachers, are unspoilt. They see the possibility in this profession. While many experienced teachers still feel the same way, it is the new educator who dreams of helping kids learn and is incapable of spotting the hurdles that often get in the way. This is a good thing.

I have a soft spot for new teachers because even eleven years in, I still vividly remember being one. I was an alternate route candidate, which meant that unlike my other new teacher colleagues, I had no formal teacher training. No student teaching. No educational theory. No observations. Nada. Zip. Nothing. I had an extraordinarily brief stint in the private sector as a recruiter, and I realized almost as soon as I started that I should have followed my gut years earlier and gone into teaching. And yet, in my private sector job, what did I do for the first two weeks? Watched training videos. Hours and hours of training videos. It made no difference that I had no background in recruiting because these tutorials walked me through every possible scenario and situation I would ever face in this line of work. Have a question? Consult the videos. Want more information? Open the binder that accompanies the videos.

In teaching, though, there was no equivalent. Sure, you can find great resources online, and now you have Twitter, but the only tutorial in teaching was going to come from actually doing the job. I remember that this excited me, though. It was the career equivalent of taking off the training wheels, or driving your car without your parents for the first time. It was exciting. It was fun. That is, until I hit my first roadblock, and it absolutely wasn’t.

I love my job and most people would tell you that a large part of my identity is defined by the fact that I am a teacher. What most of those people probably don’t know is that I seriously wondered if I could keep doing it after my second year. I failed a lot–I had a tough time forming good relationships with my students, and was usually convinced that I was mucking it up–that these students were better off with anyone else. But, I also had the support of a talented and compassionate department, who helped me realize that what I was going through was normal and appropriate for someone new to the job (especially someone like me, with no formal teaching preparation).

Teaching is a trial and error job. There are best practices, and certainly there are “do nots,” but like our students, we learn through failing and doing better the next time. The best teachers are the ones who can reflect on their practice and can take criticism in stride. But, when you’re new, it doesn’t matter how smart, poised, or prepared you are. This is hard, and even the most excited new teacher will feel like a failure no fewer than a million times his first year (and maybe half a million times his second year, third year, and on and on and on…).

That’s why, in a field that by some estimates sees 8% of its teachers leave the profession a year, it is extremely important that seasoned teachers and administrators nurture their new hires. We owe it to the many new teachers in our schools to shepherd them into this profession. We should be sounding boards and, when asked for it, offer advice. We should encourage our new teachers to persevere, but also reassure them that while the job itself doesn’t necessarily get easier, the confidence that you bring to it does increase. But even more so, we should remember that when we support new teachers, we help them become better teachers, which in the end, is in the best interest of our students.

Teacher-created Video Series: 3 Great Ideas for Using Videos With Teachers and Parents

This post is the final one in a series about using teacher-created videos in your classes. For the first post in the series, “3 Great Ideas for Screencasting Software,” click here. For the second post, “3 Great Ideas for Using Teacher-Created Videos with Students,” click here.

Using Video (and other methods) to Flip the Faculty Meeting

“The big question is, What’s the best use of face-to-face time? My argument would be it’s not talking about the hat policy or fire drill procedures.”

– Jon Bergmann

Although there may have been a time where the faculty meeting was the most effective way of delivering information to staff, we can probably all admit that we’ve sat through many meetings that could have easily been replicated in an email. Even more frustrating? Sitting in a PD session meant to encourage teachers to try a dynamic, engaging best practice…that is delivered via PowerPoint slides. But, just as we’ve seen that teachers can create videos to maximize face-to-face time with students, administrators can capitalize on those same methods to reinvigorate the (sometimes) dreaded faculty meeting.

Sarah McKibben, writing for ASCD, detailed a number of school leaders who have made the move to flipped faculty meetings. Some have created videos using many of the methods detailed in Part 1 of this series, whereas others use email, blogs, their school websites, or other methods to communicate any information that doesn’t warrant a discussion. In doing so, administrators are able to use that faculty meeting time in a more meaningful way–for professional development, small group work, or discuss an article/topic that was shared previously. In some cases, flipping the faculty meeting replaces the physical meeting in its entirety.

Now, I know that some of you may be thinking, “what do you do about people who choose to not watch the videos/read the blog/etc. in advance?” While I’d agree that those people would be unprepared for the face-to-face time that follows, I would challenge you to think about how many people are truly engaged and paying attention during the old-fashioned “laundry-list agenda” faculty meeting. In fact, the expectation that teachers will actually have to apply what they learn from a video/blog post may actually raise the stakes and lead more people in the room to engage with the material that in the past, they were able to tune out.

Using Video to Communicate With Parents

Parents in many districts know how to get in touch with their child’s teacher if they have questions. Usually, in my experience, this has been through email and the occasional phone call. I find that most of the time, parents just want to be in the loop about not only their child’s progress, but also, the teacher’s expectations and how he/she believes a class should run.

A district website with dedicated spaces for departments (at least on the middle/high school level) and teacher pages helps. But, what if, on those department pages, schools made the effort to provide videos of their supervisors and teachers discussing their teaching philosophies? Or if these videos could capture what is happening inside our classrooms? I’m not naive enough to think that these measures would obfuscate the email to a teacher, but they could certainly provide an extra point of reference.

Another idea that my #CELmate and friend Kate Baker has written about extensively is flipping your Back to School Night. I won’t rehash too much, because she does a much better job than I could explaining her process here.  I have also seen a similar post about flipping Back to School Night from Catlin Tucker, which you can read here. 

Regardless of how you choose to do it, the goal is to give parents the opportunity to experience what it is like being a student in your class. If you use these technologies frequently with their kids, then show them what that kind of learning looks like. The plus side? It can help dispel some of the myths that sometimes arise around flipped learning, such as, “the teacher is just assigning me videos and doesn’t teach.” If you communicate to parents beforehand that they should watch a Back to School Night video, then you will have the opportunity to engage in a follow-up activity in person. In a night full of whirlwind presentations and paper handouts, the visit to your classroom may be the one that stands out.

Teacher-created Video Series: 3 Great Ideas for Using Teacher-Created Videos With Students

This post is the second in a series about using teacher-created videos in your classes. For the first post in the series, “3 Great Ideas for Screencasting Software,” click here.

So, now you’ve chosen the software/application that works best for you. But what should you do with it? How can you use video to enhance your lessons (and not simply substitute one thing for another, or add something more to your plate)? While I think everyone is able to create their own videos, there are so many out there already. If you’re not quite ready to take the leap, a bit of Googling/YouTube searching will almost certainly result in some great stuff that other teachers were happy enough to post online.

3 Great Ideas for

Using Teacher-Created Videos With Students


  • Use Video to Flip Your Lectures


This is really easy to do once you have chosen the video software with which you’re most comfortable, and what is nice is that other than recording your voice/image, you don’t necessarily have to do a ton of new work.

Take one of your tried-and-true PowerPoint/Google Slides presentations. Then, using your preferred screencasting application, record the lecture that you would normally give in front of your whole class. From here, you have a couple of options.

I prefer to load my videos to YouTube, as it makes it easier for students to watch a teacher-created video on multiple devices. This can also help you if you’re dealing with equity issues; if a student does not have working internet at home, or a laptop computer, he/she may still have a smartphone or tablet, both of which are well-suited to viewing YouTube videos.

You can use a traditional flipped-lesson approach, assigning these teacher-created videos for homework. Then, the time you used to use in class to present material can be used instead to answer student questions and practice skills.

I also am not shy about how much I love using the station rotation model of blended learning that Catlin Tucker talks about extensively (see her blog here). A key component of a good station-rotation can often be the use of an “in-class flip.” Follow the same steps as outlined above, but instead of having students watch the video at home, they can actually watch the video at one of the rotating stations during class. This also can solve issues of equity; while many of us may not work in a 1:1 device environment, we may have access to a cart of laptops, or a classroom desktop computer. This model allows for a small group of students to watch a short video (I’d keep it to five minutes or so) on one screen. While they do this, their peers may be working in another small group with the teacher, or independently at another station.

In either scenario, if you’re worried about accountability (ie. How do I know they watched/understood my video?), EdPuzzle is a fantastic, free site that allows teachers to embed questions in any YouTube video (another benefit to adding your own videos to YouTube). You can then monitor student progress and formatively assess them on information conveyed by the video.


  • Use Video To Explain Rubrics


While I have used teacher-created videos and screencasts for a few years, this is something that I only just started doing. You may have rubrics or grading guidelines that you use often. And yet, simply handing students a rubric does not guarantee that they understand the assignment. There have been many times where I have spent a good portion of my class explaining and teaching the sections of my rubrics (perhaps this is a sign that I should simplify them? Definitely something I should look into…), and if you use this same document again and again, those minutes are going to add up over the course of a school year.

So, I’ve made a short video to explain the categories of my writing rubric. I use this same rubric for all argument essays, and students should understand how to use when completing drafts. The first time I used this rubric, I spent some time in class going over it, but I also made the video available. Now, I can direct students (and parents) to that video as a first step, freeing up more of my class time to work on the actual writing of their essays.

You can do this for nearly any procedural thing that you do often in your classes. I have made videos that explain my course and used them at the start of the year, which has allowed me to get started with the curriculum on the very first day of school. I’ve also made tutorials for using various technology tools that we use throughout the year. Anything that allows you to maximize the face-to-face time you have with your students is a plus in my book.


  • Have Students Create Videos to Demonstrate Their Learning


Using video in student projects is nothing new. I have seen countless students create “movie trailers” for books they’ve read, or produce other creative work using their parents’ video cameras, and then, their smartphones.

Something that I think we can encourage more of though, is to have students demonstrate their learning via screencasts. What if a student talked through her writing choices in an essay, while highlighting or circling specific words and phrases? Or, if a student solved an equation in math, and made a video explaining his process? With video, we can rethink how we ask students to “show what they know.”

I challenge you to ask students to produce a video in place of a traditional quiz or test (not all the time, of course). Think about using a portfolio process where students can reflect on their learning via a screencast, while they open up the various assignments they’re talking about.

You may find that students who typically struggle on traditional assessments may actually know a lot more than we think if provided with a different way of showing it.


These are just three of the endless possibilities for using videos with your students in a meaningful way. In the final post of this series, we’ll look at ways that schools are incorporating videos outside of the classroom and in the larger school community.


Teacher-created Video Series: 3 Great Ideas for Screencasting Software

A little over a year ago, a few different spheres in the education orbit collided right in front of me, and I have been reaping the benefits since. I had the good fortune to hear Jon Bergmann speak at ISTE 2016 (I talk about this a little bit in my ISTE 2016 post here), initiating my research into the flipped classroom. At around the same time, I discovered Catlin Tucker’s blog. Tucker is an ELA teacher and Blended Learning extraordinaire. I found a lot of crossover between these two leaders’ voices, with both clearly outlining the WHYs and the HOWs behind their respective educational philosophies.

More notably, I’ve been using the station rotation model of blended learning, something that Tucker writes about quite frequently (My favorite blog posts of hers related to this model are here, here, here, and here). But, no matter how you blend your classroom, I am finding that the most powerful and game-changing choices we can make is to use short, engaging teacher-created videos.

This post will be the first in a series about introducing these videos with your classes.


3 Great Ideas for Screencasting Software

    Teachers sometimes bristle when there are calls to give up on the “sage on the stage” model. I know that I was a student who responded fairly well to a good lecture. I am not quite ready to admit that the whole-class lecture is dead (here’s a really interesting NY Times Op-Ed about this very topic).

    But, I do think that we can take those awesome PowerPoints/Google Slides, and using screencasting software, modernize what once took us a whole period to do in front of 25 students. Here are three great tools for doing that:

  • Quicktime: This program comes standard on Apple computers. Open it up, click File→ New Screen Recording. The program will record whatever is on your screen and the computer’s microphone will pick up your voice. If you narrate over a presentation, you can save the video file and share it on your LMS, YouTube, or both.


  • Screencast-O-Matic: This site is made specifically for making screencasts. There is a free version, which gives you the ability to make up to 15 minute videos, and also to upload the video to YouTube. The pay version ($18.00 p/y) provides you with more recording time and more uploading options, along with some other features.


  • Screencastify: This one has some similar features to Screencast-O-Matic, but it has the added benefit of being a Google Chrome extension. You have the option of a free and a pay plan (24 p/y), with more features (like editing) being available with the paid version. You can record your whole desktop, a browser tab, or your webcam. Integration with Google Drive and YouTube is seamless.


    These are just three possibilities, and of course there are many more. The goal should be to choose a screencasting software that works for you and your students. You may want one that allows you the ability to edit, so that you can make your videos as clean, polished, and engaging as possible.

    So now you know which screencast software you want to use. In the next post in this Video Series, I will discuss how to use screencasting to create a new lesson or “update” an existing one.

Practicing what I preach: The teacher as writer

I’ve recently started reading Stephen King’s On Writing, his 2000 memoir that serves as a brief discussion on the habits and mindset of a professional writer. I’m not really sure why I picked it up–I’ve read little to none of his work, and I don’t usually go for memoirs*.

But, something has been gnawing at me for a few months now, and it’s this idea that a teacher (especially a writing teacher) should practice what he preaches. I frequently look my students in their eyes and say things like, “you should be reading ALL THE TIME,” or “reading and writing are like inhaling and exhaling.” So it seems pretty phony of me (amirite Holden?) to not follow my own advice.

Don’t get me wrong. I read all the time. Walk through my house and you’ll feel like one of Swift’s Brobdingnagians, traipsing past tall stacks of books, each its own little building. I can’t get enough of the reading part. But writing? Sure, I have a blog, but I don’t contribute to it with any real regularity. I write emails. Boy, do I write a mean email. Lots…and…lots…of…emails.


Hey little guy! Quit emailing and pick up a book!         (By Thomas M. Balliet (Projeto Gutenberg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

So I had already been thinking, I should make a habit of writing. There it was, hanging out in the back of my brain, amongst all of the other creatures that live there — Get that closet door fixed. Enroll in more classes. Put up that shelf. Call your mother. Write every single day. And while this nagging idea gained more life and grew– that I need to write more frequently—, there it was: King’s On Writing, plopped right in front of me on the “Summer Reads” table at Barnes and Noble. I am so glad I picked it up.

King’s chief accomplishment in On Writing is in lifting the curtain on writing well. I, too, must admit that growing up I thought that “good writing” was a skill only some people possessed, and yet King delineates very practical rules for improving your craft: setting a routine, using your vocabulary, knowing your grammar. Like many skills, writing can be honed, and even today, I need to hone my own.

So, I’m setting the goal to write every single day this summer. Come September, I will no longer be just a writing teacher, but also a writing co-conspirator. My students’ struggles will be my own struggles, and we can talk about where we hit hurdles in putting ideas on a page.

I’m looking forward to joining my own class.

*I know, that may sound weird. People try to convince me to read more of them. I recognize that there are many well-written, life-changing memoirs, but I’m weirdly stubborn about reading them. Go ahead, send me the titles of your favorite memoirs. I’m sure I won’t read them.

What The Great British Bake Off can teach us about assessment

Ready. Get set. BAKE!

My wife and I heard this triumphant starting cry easily thirty times over the course of two recent snow days. This is how The Great British Baking Show (The Great British Bake Off in its native U.K.) opens every baking challenge over the course of its seasons’ ten-episodes, and I’m not going to lie, it would excite us every time, immediately inspiring intrigue as we anxiously awaited to see what these twelve amateur bakers would create.

A quick explanation for those of you who are unfamiliar with GBBO: twelve amateur British bakers compete over ten weeks for the title of best all-around baker. During each themed episode, the contestants compete in three separate rounds with the hopes of earning “Star Baker” for each mini-competition.

Needless to say, we became hooked. We binged the three seasons available on Netflix with a strange urgency–we needed to know who would win. I’m not sure why. Other than a cake plate and bragging rights, each season’s winner does not get anything. No television deal or monetary windfall. Nothing. Just the pride and honor that comes with winning.

After several trips to Williams Sonoma and multiple Amazon splurges, we found ourselves filling in the gaps in our kitchen’s bakeware. We also purchased the official Great British Bake Off recipe book, hoping to try our hands at some of the beautiful baked goods (or “bakes” as hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins would call them). Things got a little out of control.

Then, at some point in the midst of our Bake Off/baking fervor, a thought occurred to me: The judges on this show were pretty good at assessment. My teacher brain, as it often does, was beginning to knock on the door of my baker brain (I’m being fairly generous here, as I am certainly, in no uncertain terms, not a baker).

I tried my best to explain this in a couple of short takeaways:

Diagnostic Assessment:

Every episode of GBBO is themed (cakes, pies, biscuits, breads, etc) but the three competitions are always the same. The first competition every week is the “Signature Challenge,” which requires the bakers to prepare a recipe that is tried and true, but still fits the theme. So if it’s the “cake” episode, every contestant comes in with a cake recipe they have baked a million times before and feel fairly confident recreating for the judges. This round is clearly just a good old fashioned diagnostic assessment. The judges, Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, are getting the opportunity to see what the contestants can do before receiving any advice or guidance. What do they already know?

As a teacher, I have found diagnostics to be incredibly valuable in my decision-making. It helps me get a benchmark for where my students are and allows me to set goals that are ambitious but realistic. More often than not, a diagnostic assessment does not figure into a student’s end grade, as it’s only formative, but that data can stop problems before they begin (Think of a student who may be placed incorrectly, or just need some more scaffolding for an upcoming assignment). On the flipside, students who perform very well on diagnostic assessments sometimes are announcing themselves to their teachers as those who may need to be challenged more.

Skills Check

The second competition on every episode of GBBO is a “Technical Challenge.” The contestants are not told beforehand what they will be required to bake, and are all given the exact same recipe, though it is sparse and contains minimal instructions. The goal here is that the bakers will need to rely on the skills they already have in order to create the final product. Because everyone is baking the exact same thing, it becomes more apparent who possesses superior, practiced baking skills, and who still needs more practice. Furthermore, the finished products are evaluated blind, so the judges do not know whose items they are sampling until the end.

Since the advent of the Common Core, there has been much more emphasis on teaching students transferable skills. I’ve seen a lot of my “tests” change significantly over the past few years. It is rare these days for me to have many plot questions on an end-of-book assessment (a lot more reading comprehension and writing now); I am finding much more meaningful data in the results of these exams, and I am able to target my instruction more effectively by determining where students still struggle, skills-wise.

While this isn’t the exact aim on GBBO’s Technical Challenge (at the end of the day, it’s still a game show), I do like that every contestant is required to do the exact same thing. This makes it easy to see a range of abilities present in the kitchen/your classroom. Blind evaluation isn’t a bad idea either.


The last round of every episode of GBBO has the contestants create a “Showstopper”

bake, which requires them to show off not only their technical prowess but also their design chops. What this results in are some of the most imaginative and beautifully designed creations that you’ll ever see (and you can eat them too). If you’re wondering how this ties to assessment, it boils down to one thing: student choice.

What’s always the most fun part to watch in any episode’s Showstopper challenge is when the bakers explain their inspirations for their unique designs. You can see the pride on their faces (when the end result works out for them) as they unveil these wild pieces of edible art to the judges. One contestant literally made a loaf of bread that looked like a lion.

While understandably, not every assessment we design is going to inspire our students to lion-loaf-like heights (there is still a place for the good ol’ fashioned test, I.M.O), I do find that students learn more and are more engaged when they are able to lean into their passions and know-how while being “assessed.” I mean, this is the whole idea behind 20% Time or Genius Hour Projects, no?


When you watch The Great British Bake Off, it becomes clear very early on that what drives these people is a love of baking, and sharing that love with those around them. When they do “fail,” it is because they had the courage to take risks that didn’t pan out. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to design assessments that allowed our students the same amount of freedom?

It may not be a piece of cake, but where there’s a whisk, there’s a way…

How do you define literacy?


Is literacy just about knowing how to read and write?  (photo courtesy of Flickr user JustGrimes)


Because I am very much a believer in the old saying “everything happens for a reason,” and possess a modicum of belief in fate/destiny/whatever-you-want-to-call-it, today’s events particularly resonated with me. So, let me share a story with you.

I teach “Legends and Fantasy Literature,” a genre studies course for seniors that studies the evolution of fantasy writing from King Arthur to the present. Right now, my students are researching topics of interest for their term papers, and have been using a popular educational website to aid them in the creation of their bibliographies and notecards. As I was walking around the room, I was pleased to see one of my students helping a classmate set up an account on this website, and demonstrating how to use the site’s myriad features. I went to see if another student needed help, but before I could, I overheard something like this:

Student A: “So now your account is set up, and this is how you use the notecard function, but let me show you something.”

Student B: “What’s up?”

Student A: “There’s a little glitch in the programming that makes it difficult to type all of your information into a notecard without having to scroll, so you’re going to want to open up the code on here and delete the ribbon on the top of the notecard window.”

Student B: “How do I do this?”

(Student A tinkers on his friend’s computer and opens up a window, and then points to a line of code.)

Student A: Just hit delete on that line.

Student B (after deleting the line): OH! Okay, thanks!

Needless to say, I was blown away by this conversation. There was so much happening here that I did not expect, and by the end of it, I found myself smiling like a goofball. Let’s forget for a minute that I witnessed a student demonstrating problem-solving ability on his own. Let’s also forget that this student was sharing his workaround with another student, and facilitating learning in a way that was completely student-centered and did not require my intervention. I was absolutely impressed by both of these things. But, the thing that stuck out for me was that here was a student who possessed a kind of literacy that I am completely devoid of, and yet, it was wholly necessary in his English class in order to accomplish a task.

Tonight, I had the opportunity to moderate #njed on the topic of “Reading Across Content Areas,” which is why I think today’s lesson was so serendipitous. But, all of this has me thinking, what can we do, as teachers, to replicate and foster moments like the one I described?

Marc Prensky wrote for Edutopia in 2008 (a whopping 8 years ago) that “programming is the new literacy:” 

“I believe the single skill that will, above all others, distinguish a literate person is programming literacy, the ability to make digital technology do whatever, within the possible one wants it to do — to bend digital technology to one’s needs, purposes, and will, just as in the present we bend words and images. Some call this skill human-machine interaction; some call it procedural literacy. Others just call it programming.”

In many ways, my experience today was this idea coming to fruition, and I would love to see more of this kind of thing, but there still remains the one caveat—I have absolutely no background in coding.

However, I do think that what we can do is become facilitators of the kind of intellectual curiosity that already exists in students like the one I described. If there are multiple literacies, a teacher’s role can be engaging with students and encouraging them to use these literacies to work out a problem independently and maybe even teach a peer (or his teacher, which my student was kind enough to show me, today).

#ECET2NJPA – Reflections

I know, I know. It’s been three months since I’ve posted anything. This was one of the things about blogging that worried me before I started one–that I’d start off with a lot of steam before life inevitably caught up to me. That blogging would become a much lower priority than reading student essays or you know…grocery shopping…procrastinating…playing video games…

But, I want to cut myself a little bit of slack because the original intention of 3 Great Ideas was to share other teachers’ ideas, not just my own. And let’s be honest–starting a blog that relies heavily on teacher collaboration right before summer vacationMaybe not the best plan. Oh, well.

Whatever, though. Teachers-if you’re reading this, I still would love your great ideas. Send them to me. This entry, however, is about #ECET2NJPA which I had the pleasure of attending during the weekend of 9/24 at The College of New Jersey.


The #ECET2NJPA Convening took place at TCNJ on 9/24-9/25. (photo courtesy of http://www.ecet2njpa.org)

I literally do not even know where to start. ECET2, which stands for “Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers” is a national organization, with the NJ-PA convening representing about 200 educators from New Jersey and Pennsylvania. If you’re looking for an education event where everyone is positive and shares a similar philosophy, then start getting involved with #ecet2 Twitter chats on Sunday nights. It has seriously grown my PLN by leaps and bounds.

The convening had multiple sessions over two days; I was excited to finally get to participate in a #BreakoutEDU during a session led by the wonderful Veronica B. Dougherty. If you don’t know anything about BreakoutEDU, well…it’s awesome. Think of those “Escape the Room” events popping up all over the country, but now adapt it for education. We had the opportunity to work on a 45-minute Breakout (or break-in) that incorporated multiple disciplines and ability levels. The best part about this activity for me was that there were very few instructions–we had to really use our problem-solving skills to get into the BreakoutEDU box.

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Don’t worry–we did it! (Photo courtesy of Shai McGowan’s Twitter)

ECET2 events also have educators speak in front of the whole group under the heading “Cultivating a Calling.” There were so many wonderful and different stories told–some heartwarming, some inspirational, some funny, and many with elements of all three. Glenn Robbins and David Aderhold’s stories, while very different, showed the impact that innovative leaders can have on a school’s culture. Mike Ritzius made us all laugh while detailing his creative problem-solving skills and reflecting on the ways that many of our careers tend to meander in unexpected directions. Meenoo Rami reminded us that much of the time, our job as educators is only as effective as the positive relationships we have with students. For me, these talks were empowering, insightful, and energizing.

Finally, a big takeaway for me after #ecet2njpa was that educators need to go to more events like this one. I felt this way after #ISTE2016 too (read all about that here), but there is something to be said for being at an optional workshop/convening/conference. Every attendee wants to be there, and you make so many valuable connections. There are always lots of practical things to take away, too–new tech tools, pedagogy, philosophy–but that stuff is just the icing on the cake. I’m really starting to see that the bedrock of meaningful education is in a network of teachers who collaborate and care about the success of all students.

Shout-outs (Shout OUT!) to all of the people on the steering committee for putting together a fantastic weekend of learning.