How to Get Something out of Education Blogs

Though I have been blogging about education for almost two years, I still do not flatter myself with the notion that I’m an expert; however, in those two years of blogging and reading others’ blogs, I have learned a few things that I think make the experience better for everyone, whether you blog yourself or not.

How to Find Blogs

The best method I have found to find blogs that you like is to check out blogrolls. Most bloggers keep a blogroll, or list of blogs they link to, in a sidebar to the left or right of the text on their own blog. If you find a blog you like, chances are you might like some of the blogs listed in their blogroll.

Another good method for finding good education blogs is to visit the Carnival of Education every week. EdWonk’s blog is the home of the Carnival of Education, but he has encouraged other bloggers to host it on many occasions.

Read Blogs Written by Teachers in Your Field

Two years ago, I would have to say that the edublogosphere was somewhat dominated by English teachers. It is, I suppose, our natural inclination to write, so that is perhaps not surprising. Today, however, bloggers can be found in every discipline, whether K-12 (elementary, middle, and secondary) or college, math, history, English, foreign language, social studies, science, and more.

I would encourage educators to read a few blogs written by someone who teaches the same subject matter for the same reason that we all have departments and department meetings in our own buildings — we share ideas with one another and our shared subject matter means we will be teaching the same things, more or less, so we would do well to listen to one another.

But Don’t Neglect Blogs Outside Your Subject Matter

Just because the blogger teaches science and you teach history doesn’t mean you can’t learn something from his or her blog. Whether it’s commiserating over the teaching craft and the shared hurdles all teachers face or just branching out and learning how someone else approaches his/her subject, you can learn a lot from bloggers outside your subject.

Engage in the Conversation

Don’t be afraid to leave comments and ask questions. If a teacher describes a lesson that you want to try, but you’re not sure you understood all the particulars and want more information, just ask! I think edubloggers as a whole enjoy the conversation on their blogs. At the same time, if you disagree with an edublogger, go ahead and say so, but stay within the bounds of civil discourse, or the blogger won’t listen to you. I know I wouldn’t. Would you?

Don’t Worry Over Bloggers You Don’t Like

Time for me to fess up. Two prominent edubloggers get on my last nerve, as they say here in the South, so I don’t make myself more furious by reading their blogs, even if they link to me. I won’t go so far as to link them or tell you who they are. If you have a blog, don’t feel compelled to link to or read bloggers you don’t like just because other bloggers do. This bit of advice might seem like a big no-brainer, but I can remember actually reading the blogs of these two edubloggers I don’t like for some time, my dislike intensifying all the time, just because I was sure I was missing something since everyone else linked them. With all the choices available today, trust me, you’re not missing anything.

Use an RSS Aggregator

I mentioned using RSS aggregators or feed readers in a previous post, and won’t rehash all of that here, but suffice it to say it will make it easier for you to keep up with your favorite blogs.

Try Technorati

If you’re looking for posts on a certain subject, you can discover new blogs through Technorati. You can search for certain tags. For instance, let’s say you want to read about Geoffrey Chaucer. You can search for Geoffrey Chaucer at Technorati and find out what bloggers are saying about Chaucer. You might run into lesson plans, comments from readers about Chaucer’s works, or even Chaucer’s own blog, but the point is that you will most likely find interesting blogs through Technorati.

Follow the Links

Bloggers link to sites within their posts for a reason — whatever they linked to will help you get more out of their posts. Again, this might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t bother to check out the links.

Try is an online bookmarking system. In the early days of Firefox, I noticed that my bookmarks would mysteriously disappear every once in a while. I love Firefox, but I hated having to find my links again. Plus, I didn’t have the same links saved on my work and home computers, so I sometimes got confused looking for sites. solved all of that. I have all my favorite links stored at Try browsing for education links, and you will find some great new blogs. If you find a user with a real knack for finding great education websites, you can subscribe to the RSS feed for their education tag and be notified when they add new links.

[tags]education, blogs, RSS,, Technorati[/tags]

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Teacher Attrition

Most of us have heard the dire statistics regarding teacher attrition.  Perhaps as you sat in your teacher education courses, you were even asked to look to the left and right — of the three of you, one would quit within the first three years in the profession and another would quit within five.  Teacher attrition is blamed on many factors: NCLB, difficult students, lack of support from administration, and lack of adequate preparation or mentoring.  Of course, all of these problems exist.  I left public school teaching for all of the above reasons.  I was ready to quit teaching for good after four years because of all of the above reasons.  One of the things I still find difficult about being an educator is that I don’t feel as if I am trusted to do my job — to make educational and curricular decisions in the best interest of my students, evaluate them fairly, and plan and execute meaningful lessons and assignments.  I’m not sure this feeling ever leaves a teacher because I have had colleagues who were near retirement who still felt this way.

Some days, I think teachers get a great deal of satisfaction out of their jobs — because truly no feeling can top working with a class when everyone’s really getting it and engaged in learning — and those days are worth the days when we don’t feel appreciated or satisfied, but it’s difficult, and I don’t think a lot of people are willing to or may even be capable of the endurance it takes to make a career of teaching these days.

I think positive feedback is important.  I think teachers need to feel less alone, and I think it is critical that that feedback come not only from mentors or peers, but also from administrators.

Read more:

[tags]teaching, attrition, education[/tags]

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Classroom 2.0

I was invited to join the Classroom 2.0 community by Nani. I wanted to try it out for a few days before I wrote about it here just so I could be sure it would be something I’d stick with. Several familiar “faces” have joined up with Classroom 2.0. One of the interesting things about Classroom 2.0 to me, however, is the number of unfamiliar faces. The community is built around the subject of using Web 2.0 in the classroom, and I think it could be a good resource for anyone who wants ideas about integrating blogs and wikis (and other similar applications) into their curriculum.

[tags]Classroom 2.0, wikis, blogs, education, technology[/tags]

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The Literary Canon

A Room of One's OwnI recently read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own for the first time (I know, but I had been meaning to get to it). Woolf argues in this classic essay that the main reason women do not populate the canon of Western literature is simply that they haven’t had time and opportunity (never mind encouragement) to write. She points out, and rightly so, that we do not begin to see major women writers until the nineteenth century (with a few exceptions, of course).

Harold Bloom, that famous champion of the closed canon, once opined,

I began as a scholar of the romantic poets. In the 1950s and early 1960s, it was understood that the great English romantic poets were Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, John Keats, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But today they are Felicia Hemans, Charlotte Smith, Mary Tighe, Laetitia Landon, and others who just can’t write. A fourth-rate playwright like Aphra Behn is being taught instead of Shakespeare in many curriculums across the country.

I have never heard of the women he mentions, with the exception of Aphra Behn, and I have no plans to ditch Shakespeare in order to teach her, but Bloom’s argument bothers me on a number of levels. First, I see no mention of Mary Shelley, arguably the most influential of the Romantic writers in that Frankenstein so captured public sensibilities that it continues to be adapted and even remixed up to the present day. He is insinuating women can’t write as well as men, and even if that is not his intention, he mentions later in the article I quoted above that four great living writers include Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, and Philip Roth.

Last weekend, I worked very hard on a list of major works for the British literature curriculum at my school for next year. It’s not finalized yet, but I was very proud of it. I deliberately tried to find good works by women that not even a Harold Bloom could object to opening the canon to (and I don’t think he objects to Jane Austen), but it was difficult, and I was reminded again of how many “Shakespeare’s sisters” we probably lost over the centuries, for we surely did. I chose works by Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Virginia Woolf, A.S. Byatt, and Mary Shelley, among others.

I do not advocate throwing higher caliber works out of the canon in favor of lesser works written by women, but are we not to consider the possibility that a woman is as worthy of a spot in the canon as a man? I don’t think a high school survey course can begin to address the entire canon of American or British or world literature, or whatever the course is, but I do think it is our responsibility to expose students to a variety of representative works. And I don’t think neglecting women writers so one can teach more Shakespeare plays is representative. What is wrong with studying one or two Shakespeare plays at most in a high school class? That would still expose students to the great Shakespeare while allowing room for other authors. Then, when students are studying in college or even reading on their own, they might decide to read more Shakespeare.

I suppose I’m just thinking out loud about curriculum choices. Well, I shouldn’t be surprised at the reticence to welcome women writers, even in this day and age. Even as far back as the 1850′s, Harold Bloom had a compatriot in Nathaniel Hawthorne:

America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash — and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed. What is the mystery of these inumberable editions of The Lamplighter (by Maria Susanna Cummins), and other books neither better nor worse? Worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by the hundred thousand. (Letter to William D. Ticknor, 1855)

[tags]literary canon, scribbling women, women writers, teaching, literature, education[/tags]

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PBWiki has recently removed all ads from educators’ wikis. You can read more about PBWiki at a recent post: Wikis for Educators. Consider giving PBWiki a try. They have nice templates and great customer service, as I mentioned in the previous post. Now that they are ad-free, they’re even more educator-friendly than they were in the past. In addition, you can access educator videos.

[tags]PBWiki, wikis, education[/tags]

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Interactive White Boards

I mentioned the fact that I use a SMARTBoard interactive white board in my classes, and I have received an e-mail and a comment about SMARTBoards.  In my book, if two people are wondering about it, perhaps it warrants a post.  Before I begin, however, I need to issue a disclaimer.  I haven’t used other interactive white boards, so I’m not sure how they work.  Second, I don’t work for SMART Technologies, and I am not necessarily endorsing their product.  I am very happy with their product, but it could be that other interactive white boards are just as good.  Finally, I need to add that this is my first year teaching with a SMARTBoard, and I don’t know it inside-out myself yet, so I haven’t begun to figure out all its potential uses; I can only speak to how it has transformed my own class.

What is a SMARTBoard?  It is an interactive white board, which means that it is hooked up to my classroom computer and works much like a touch-screen monitor.  I can access any program on my computer from the SMARTBoard at the front of the room.  Here is an FAQ for the kind of SMARTBoard I have.

SMARTBoards come bundled with software specifically for use with the SMARTBoard, including gallery content and templates.  I think the math materials look pretty good, but I will be the first to admit that the content provided for English/language arts is elementary and not really helpful for high school.  However, if you keep in mind that you are only limited by what you can do with a computer, then the fact that the bundled content isn’t that great shouldn’t be a problem.

What do I do with my own SMARTBoard?  The biggest way in which my SMARTBoard has changed my teaching is that I am able to save notes written on the board in class.  I tend to save them as pdf files so that my students can download them at home, but they can also be saved as SMART Notebook files (for which one has to have free SMART software installed), images, and Power Point files.  I write on the board as I would any white board, but the difference is I don’t have to erase.  I can add as many new pages as I need to add to get the content up, and then I can save the whole thing.  I can copy and paste images into my notes, as I did when I wanted to show students the parts of a Greek theater (see the second page).

I use the SMARTBoard to access the Internet in class.  We have viewed YouTube videos with the SMARTBoard (it’s also great for displaying DVD’s played through the computer).  I also have used it to demonstrate how to do something in a computer program, such as how to login to our class blog and post an entry, how to alter our wiki, or how to manipulate text in programs such as Word.  It’s so easy to demonstrate how to do something on the computer with a SMARTBoard.

Another frequent activity my students do on the SMARTBoard is correcting usage errors.  Many language arts teachers may be familiar with the DOL activity in which students are presented with two sentences containing grammar, usage, and mechanical errors.  The students learn grammar through correcting the errors.  What I am able to do with DOL’s on the SMARTBoard is type the sentences up in Power Point and display them.  Students come to the board and make the corrections using proofreading marks (which has an added benefit in that they understand what the marks mean on their own papers when I use the marks).

SMARTBoards work great with Power Point presentations, enabling the presenter to switch slides easily.  One can also write on the slide using the SMARTBoard pens to add information or clarify or emphasize a point.  You know how it is when you’re a teacher — it’s easier to keep tabs on all the students if you’re in front of the room, and a SMARTBoard enables you to access your computer from the front.

One thing I really like about having a SMARTBoard is that if a student has a question I can’t answer, we can explore it together right then.  I can pull up the Internet and we can search for the answer.

I know many other features exist, and as I said, I am still learning all the uses myself.  For instance, I know that I can record our SMARTBoard sessions like a video.  One of our math teachers can access the graphing calculator and demonstrate calculations.  You are only limited by your creativity and what you can do with a computer.

[tags]SMARTBoard, interactive white board, technology, education[/tags]

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Nikki Giovanni

Nikki GiovanniI haven’t written about the events at Virginia Tech. Coverage has been ubiquitous at my house — my husband writes about crime, after all. It occurred to me some time after the horrible events on Monday that Nikki Giovanni was a professor at VT. I love Nikki Giovanni’s poetry and was honored to have the chance to meet her and talk with her for a few moments back in 1998. She was incredibly nice and signed books for my daughter and for me. It occurred to me to wonder if the murderer — an English major — had the occasion to run across Giovanni in his studies. After all, I studied at UGA, and while I was never in her class, I sometimes passed Judith Ortiz Cofer in the hall (and tried to hide the fact that every time I did it, I shook with nervousness over being in such close proximity to a writer I admired). One of the teachers at school today mentioned Giovanni had indeed taught Cho Seung-hui and demanded that he be removed from her class. I’m trying to understand, with all the information coming to light about the warning signs that this young man was disturbed, why he was still studying at VT.

One of my students was visiting the campus at Virginia Tech this weekend, and he was all but settled on going there until this happened. It isn’t that he felt the campus wouldn’t be safe — it stands to reason that since this horrible event happened once at VT, the school will take measures to prevent another occurrence. What prompted my student to change his mind was that the school’s climate won’t be the same… and such a state of fear will reign over the campus that it will impede his freedom. He’s probably right. I’m glad he came home from his visit OK. He’s a pretty great kid. But I’m sure all the students who were senselessly murdered (and their admirable professors) were pretty great, too.

It just… doesn’t make any sense, and I don’t know what else I can say aside from that.

[tags]Virginia Tech, Nikki Giovanni[/tags]

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Ahab’s Wife

I am cross-posting a review I wrote of Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife here because I think other English teacher geeks out there might enjoy this book.

Ahab's WifeFrom one brief mention of Ahab’s wife in Moby-Dick, in the manner that God fashioned Eve from Adam’s rib, Sena Jeter Naslund has fashioned Ahab’s Wife:

[W]hen I think of all this; only half-suspected, not so keenly known to me before—and how for forty years I have fed upon dry salted fare—fit emblem of the dry nourishment of my soul!—when the poorest landsman has had fresh fruit to his daily hand, and broken the world’s fresh bread to my mouldy crusts—away, whole oceans away, from that young girl-wife I wedded past fifty, and sailed for Cape Horn the next day, leaving but one dent in my marriage pillow—wife? wife?—rather a widow with her husband alive? Aye, I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck; and then, the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brow, with which, for a thousand lowerings old Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey—more a demon than a man!… I see my wife and child in thine eye (Moby-Dick, Chapter 132 “The Symphony”).

And what sort of a woman would be a match for Captain Ahab?  Naslund’s Una Spenser is Ahab’s feminine counterpart — where Captain Ahab is consumed by vengeance, Una learns forgiveness for all; Ahab is destroyed by his hate for the white whale, while Una survives and prospers because of her love.  This, then, is a woman to marry Ahab.

You do not need to read Melville’s Moby-Dick in order to appreciate Ahab’s Wife, but I would strongly recommend that you do so, for your appreciation will be much deeper.  Una begins her story in medias res, as memorably as Melville begins Moby-Dick: “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.”  Una is pregnant and decides to travel to Kentucky to have her child.  She recounts the two most horrible moments of her life, then takes us into her past when she was twelve and first moved to the Lighthouse home she shared with her Aunt Agatha, Uncle Torchy, and cousin Frannie.

At the age of sixteen, Una runs away to sea as a “cabin boy,” and encounters horrors as her ship is destroyed by a whale and she is forced to survive on an open boat in the water.  She endures a disastrous marriage and is forced to use her sewing needle to support herself.  She feels immediate attraction to the elemental Ahab, and the two are happily married until Ahab encounters Moby-Dick in the Sea of Japan.

Una crosses paths with many luminaries of her age: astronomer Maria Mitchell, writer and transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Naslund’s many literary allusions, from The Odyssey, to Shakespeare, to The Faerie Queene, and many more will delight book lovers.

Naslund has a gift for language, and she breathes life into Una — I wished as I read that I could have really known her! — and makes her setting so real, I felt I was there.  I have read some enjoyable books, but this might be one of only a handful that transcend other literary fiction to such a degree that I feel sure it will have a place in the canon of Literature with a capital L one day.  And Una Spenser is a remarkable character and proper soulmate for Ahab.

Read other reviews:

[tags]Ahab’s Wife, Sena Jeter Naslund, Moby-Dick, Herman Melville, Una Spenser, Captain Ahab[/tags]

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Tracking the Conversation

Recently I wrote about using RSS to keep up with your favorite blogs (education-related and otherwise). Some blogs publish additional feeds for their comments, but I have never really been interested in following an entire comment feed. Some posts I feel compelled to comment upon and want to know if others respond to my comments, but others I don’t, and I don’t want to have a bunch of comments in my RSS feed reader that I’m not interested in reading. I heard about CoComment from Bud Hunt, but I didn’t start using it right away. When I finally decided to try it, I was really happy with it.

CoComment has a Firefox extension that makes tracking comments really easy. When new comments have been posted in conversations you’re tracking, you will see a little red envelope (just like Gmail’s icon) in the lower corner of your browser next to the CoComment button. If you don’t use Firefox, you can install CoComment’s bookmarklet, but it doesn’t have the same notification function as the Firefox extension — you would have to go visit CoComment via the bookmark, whereas the Firefox extension notifies you when new comments have been posted.

If you choose, you can display your CoComment conversations on your website. I haven’t chosen to do that, but if you really care about what I’m saying, it should be easy enough to find. You might want to start with the guided tour so that you can determine whether CoComment looks like something you want to try. I personally have found it it a lot easier to keep track of comment threads, and it has actually encouraged me to comment more than I have in the past.

[tags]CoComment, commenting[/tags]

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Teaching Organization with Notebook Checks

In addition to conveying our subject matter, I think it is critical that teachers help students learn good study skills, such as note-taking and test-taking strategies and organization skills.  One thing I have noticed about organization over my years as a teacher is that a really organized student can usually do fairly well, even if she has deficiencies in other areas, such as reading comprehension, writing, and higher order cognition, whereas a highly intelligent student with poor organization skills almost always has trouble in school and earns grades far below his ability.  I have found notebook checks to be an effective way to teach organization skills.

Notebook checks can be conducted in a variety of ways.  My high school English teacher used to collect our notebooks each time we had a test and check them while we took our tests.  I’ve done this before, too, but it isn’t the most efficient way to check notebooks, as it puts all of the work on the teacher.  Using this method, a teacher might think of five random things he or she expects to find in the notebook, such as a certain term defined, a handout given out on a certain date, a homework assignment, a journal, etc.  One of the reasons I am no longer a fan of this method is I don’t think it really teaches the students organization.  It’s hard to justify marking points off if you can’t find something in the notebook when later the student can find it — what you’re really teaching is that they should follow your idea of organization, not something that works for them.  I contend that if they can find it in their notebooks, then their organization system must work just fine, even if it looks crazy to you and me.

When I was student teaching, my supervising teacher also gave notebook checks, but I think she gave them too much weight (two test grades), and she looked for the wrong things.  Her classes all began with a warm-up.  Two days a week, the warm-up was a grammar exercise and the other three days were journals.  She collected two grammar warm-ups and three journals at random on each notebook check.  What I don’t like about this is that I feel it doesn’t teach organization at all.  A student in her class would not need to hold onto handouts, assignments, or notes because all she was interested in was the warm-ups!

I learned a much better method for creating notebook checks from a colleague of my supervising teacher.  As a requirement for my student teaching experience, I had to observe another teacher in my [future] department/area of concentration.  On the day I observed this teacher’s class, he was giving a notebook check, and I was much more impressed by his method for assessing organization.  This method requires a measure of organization on the part of the teacher,  but I think it is more effective at teaching students organization as well.  Basically, what the teacher does is ask questions about items that should be in the notebook.  The student is allowed to search through his or her notebook for the answers.  If the student doesn’t have them, too bad — students quickly learn they must keep everything.

Notebook checks should not be too long, as students will take time flipping through their notebooks for the answers.  Mine are ten questions.  Missing several questions will hurt a student, and that’s the idea — students quickly learn that their notebook check grades will be better if they are organized!  Students should not be able to to guess the answers to notebook check questions.  It is possible the students might remember the answers without looking them up in the notebook, especially if they study regularly, but I think the questions on a notebook check should be specific so that students need to look up the information.  It’s also important for students to write the date on everything — warm-ups, notes, handouts, etc.

My students do warm-up exercises (journals or grammar exercises) when they come to class, which keeps students busy while I take roll and pass out papers at the beginning of class.  However, they will see little need in doing warm-ups if there is no pay-off in terms of grades, so on each notebook check, I select two warm-ups at random and ask students about them.  Aside from that, I ask them questions about terms in their notes, homework answers, quizzes, essays, or anything else that might be in their notebooks.

Sample notebook check questions might look something like this:

  1. Locate your journal for March 16.  What was your opinion? [Say, for example, the journal asked whether it was better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.]
  2. Locate your homework assignment for April 4, p. 671, ex. B.  What was the answer to number 3?
  3. Find your test on pronoun reference.  Check one of the questions you missed and explain why you got it wrong [make sure you've gone over the test! If there were any 100's on that test, you might avoid questions like this].
  4. Locate your quiz from March 30.  What was the answer to number eight?
  5. Locate your notes for April 11.  Who wrote Lyrical Ballads?
  6. Locate the Power Point Presentation on American Realism, Regionalism and Naturalism.  What is verisimilitude?

Of course, you would go on in this vein until you have ten questions about items students should be able to locate in their notebooks.  My SMARTBoard (interactive white board) really helps me in terms of questions about students’ notes.  I can go back to every date on which students took notes and see what I wrote down on the SMARTBoard, so I can say without a doubt that it should be in a student’s notes.

At first, you will have absent students complain that they were not present on the date when such and such was assigned or whatever.  Just tell them they are responsible for making up all the work they miss and mark them wrong if they leave it blank.  Over time, you will begin to hear your students ask their peers things like “What was our warm-up yesterday?” and “Can I borrow your notes from yesterday?”  And that is the idea!  It’s a good idea not to ask about items that were handed out the day before a notebook check, simply because if a student is absent on that day, he or she doesn’t have adequate time to make up the work prior to the notebook check.

I like this method more than rifling through the students’ notebooks because the students have to locate the information, which means they have to have it organized in a way that facilitates locating it, and second, it’s a snap to grade.  Just like any quiz or test, you make up a key and check the answers against it.  Sometimes answers may vary and still be correct, and in those cases, simply note what you’re looking for.  For example, in question one above, students may either agree or disagree, but they should have some opinion on the question.

One other benefit of this particular method of assessment is that it can help lighten the paper load for teachers.  I do not, for instance, collect homework (grammar assignments, for the most part, in my class).  Instead, I go over homework in class and ask students to correct their answers and use the assignments to study for tests.  Will some students skip the homework?  Of course, didn’t you?  However, an effective way to combat this problem is to simply ask students you suspect didn’t do the work to contribute their answers when you go over it in class.  Grading homework makes me crazy, so I decided I just wasn’t going to do it.  However, I still want to make sure students are doing it at some point, so I ask them about it on notebook checks.

As the year progresses, students will ask me if such and such is going to be on the notebook check.  When they ask that, I make a mental note to put it on the next one, as they are usually asking because they don’t feel like doing the particular assignment.  The randomness of your questions should keep them on their toes without making you responsible for looking at every single thing they do in their notebooks.   Over time, as students become more organized, they actually come to like notebook checks as they are a good way for students who are organized to bring up their grades.  To make it worth their while, I do make notebook checks a major grade, but I wouldn’t do them more than once a month.  Overall, their grades on quizzes and tests should rise, too, as they have well organized materials for study.

[tags]assessment, note-taking skills, notebook checks, education, study skills[/tags]

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