A is for Assessment

ExamI have thought for some time that if I ever get myself together enough to write a book in the field of education, my subject would be assessment. It’s probably the issue I think about the most often. It truly bothers me that it’s done so poorly—not just with standardized tests, but also in classroom settings. It’s too big for a blog post, but I will put a few of my thoughts together.

Several years ago, and some of you have been reading this blog long enough to remember, I read Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. When I read that book, things really clicked for me. I cannot honestly say that I create UbD units for everything I teach, but one aspect of UbD that has really stayed with me is authentic assessment. I don’t give tests, even though UbD says tests are fine in addition to performance tasks. I give quizzes, but rarely with multiple choice, true/false, or other types of purely objective questions. I tend to ask more open-ended questions that require students to tell me what they know about a given topic. Aside from these types of quizzes, the main types of summative assessments I give are writing assignments, discussions, and projects.

Our school is incorporating more project-based learning. Project-based learning is not the same thing as doing projects. I have had to do plenty of projects in school that were more or less busy work and didn’t demonstrate much learning. Those old dioramas come to mind. Quite a few posters come to mind as well. However, I do recall doing some projects as a part of project-based learning that required deeper learning. For instance, in the sixth grade, I created a tour guide for Venezuela. I am sure that my social studies teacher required certain elements, such as tourist destinations, exchange rates, and the like, but what I remember is researching the country and creating the pages in my guide so that I my readers could learn everything they needed to know about the country in order to prepare for a visit. I still remember showing the project to my language arts teacher, who told me, “Oh, now I want to go to Venezuela.” I remember doing the work and what I learned because it was an authentic assessment that placed me in the role of a tour guide writer who needed to convince readers to visit a country, and it felt fantastic when my language arts teacher liked the project. My social studies teacher easily could have asked us to write a research report that included the same information, but I doubt I’d still be remembering the research report more than 30 years later, nor would I remember what I’d learned about Venezuela. The most important thing is that I did all the work. I did the reading and research. I created the tour guide. My teacher must have given me class time, but I recall sitting by myself in the library, with a copy of Fodor’s Travel Guide, encyclopedias, and other books.

One of the reasons I am an advocate for authentic, project-based assessment is that I have seen the students’ engagement in the learning, and I have seen how it helps students to learn and remember more of what they learn. There is a saying that has been bandied around to the point of cliché, but it’s worth sharing at this point:

Franklin Quote

Some years ago, a student gave me a card that I have cherished. In it, she wrote that she felt the work she did in my class was relevant. To be quite honest, the work I assigned, especially before I became thoughtful about designing for understanding and authentic assessment, was not always relevant. In fact, it often wasn’t. Students should understand why what they are learning is important and what they might do with it in the future. We’re not always great at communicating the importance of the work we assign. We need to reflect on the work we ask students to do. We need to determine what it is that we want students to learn, and we need to plan lessons and assessments that will help the students learn that information. We also need to give students agency and choices. Students should have a role in selecting reading and writing assignments. They should be given opportunities to discuss what they are learning in their reading and writing, too. It is in this way that we can involve students so that they learn.

None of that is to say that we do away with essays or tests, but we need to ask students to apply what they are learning in our classes so that they understand they’re not learning it for a test. I have only scratched the surface and don’t feel I’ve said a whole lot here, but please check out some of my other posts on assessment for more, and of course, more will come, as I can’t seem to leave this topic alone. (See tags and category links below for more on assessment.)

Chalkboard background: Karin Dalziel

photo by: albertogp123

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Professional Development Books that Influenced my Teaching Practices

I am asked often enough for recommendations of this sort of thing that I thought I’d share.

Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe was the first truly useful and completely life-changing professional development book I read. I utterly altered the way I taught after reading it. It seems obvious to think about larger questions and determine what I want students to learn or be able to do by the end of a lesson or unit, but I wasn’t doing it before I read this book. This book is an essential in project-based learning. Some of my older posts written as I reflected on reading this book still get more traffic than anything else on this blog. Try searching for the tags “ubd” or “understanding by design” to read them.

After reading An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students by Ron Berger this summer, I completely revamped the way I teach writing, and it’s really working well. For more information about writing workshop in my classes, check out these posts: Writing Workshop Part 1, Writing Workshop Part 2, and Writing Workshop Part 3. One of our history teachers and I discussed how this process could be used in his classes as well, and he has begun to implement it with excellent results. We had an enthusiastic sharing session about it last week. I am so thrilled. The side benefits: 1) students are returning to the work, even after it’s been graded, to refine it further (not every student, true, but the fact that any student is doing this is remarkable to me); 2) no issues with plagiarism, which is a benefit I didn’t even consider when I started (but it makes sense if you are sharing your work with all your peers, you wouldn’t plagiarize it); 3) our classroom is a true community—one student commented on course evaluations that “we are always collaborating” and another said that the class is like “a family.” Students are beginning to ask for workshop. It’s amazing. I can’t say enough good things about how it has changed my classroom for the better, and it’s really because I read this book that I opted to try it out. One thing I’d like to see: an update of this book with consideration of using technology tools. Ron Berger carries around a massive amount of original student work, and digitizing it or doing the projects using digital tools would really help. A new section explaining how to do that would be great (I volunteer as tribute, if the folks at Heinemann or Ron Berger himself are interested).

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you might remember the summer I went to a Teaching Shakespeare Mini-Institute. It was phenomenal. The performance-based methods advocated by Folger have increased my students’ engagement in Shakespeare and have helped them grapple with his language and themes. I have used Folger methods with students of all backgrounds and levels, and they just work. I couldn’t teach without this book. It makes me sad that there isn’t one for every play I’d consider teaching, but this volume has Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth, and two other volumes have been published that incorporate 1) Hamlet and Henry IV, Part One and 2) Twelfth Night and Othello. I would love to see one on Julius Caesar. I think that play is hard to teach, and it is so frequently taught. Could be useful. Anyone want to go in with me to design a good Caesar unit? Let me know.

Penny Kittle’s book Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing helped me understand the importance of modeling, of the teacher as learner. The book includes a DVD, so you can see Penny’s writing workshop in progress. She discusses how her students keep writer’s notebooks, how she incorporates minilessons and conferences, the ways in which she teaches genre, and how she assesses. It’s fantastic.

I have a lot of books on my shelf that I really need to get through. Hopefully, with some changes coming soon, I’ll have some time to do that.

So now it’s time for the real conversation: which resources do you recommend?

Just for the purposes of full disclosure, I’m an Amazon associate; however, none of the authors or publishers have offered me compensation for sharing these books, and I share these books with you because they have truly been helpful to me. The associate links are a convenience for those who wish to purchase from Amazon.

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UbD Educators Wiki

Keep Calm and Wiki OnSome years ago, after reading Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, I started a wiki for teachers to learn and share UbD units and ideas. Despite having over 500 members, the wiki doesn’t see a lot of new content. At this stage, I think only two members regularly contribute new content, and one of them is me.

If you are interested in helping, this is what we need:

  • Units and ideas from teachers in a variety of fields. Perhaps because I am an English teacher, and mostly English teachers keep up with this blog, most of the early contributors to the UbD Educators wiki were and still are English teachers, but as I said, aside from me, only one other English teacher is still actively posting units. I admit to using it myself just to keep track of my unit plans, which is fine, but it isn’t very interactive. If you teach using UbD, especially if you don’t teach English (but even if you do), please consider sharing your plans.
  • Chapter reflections. Miguel Guhlin made shell pages for chapter summaries. I admit I am conflicted about this because ASCD, Grant Wiggins, and Jay McTighe have been so supportive of the wiki, and I would hate to do anything that might prevent people from purchasing their book (which I think all teachers should read). However, I think it might be a great idea for people to use those pages to share their reflections and insights from chapters. If you have insights to contribute, please do.
  • What’s missing? What subject areas do we need to include? Links? Resources? If you think something should be on the wiki that isn’t, please add it.

Despite the fact that the main page has included a note that all the materials can be viewed by lurkers, and that you do not have to join the wiki to see anything, I still receive requests to join at the rate of one or two people a week, and none of the new members has made contributions in years. I don’t mind lurkers. If the early contributors had minded lurkers, we would have put the information behind some kind of registration wall. I am opposed to making people jump through hoops to access the materials, but I think this wiki has the potential to be a much greater repository than it is, and it can only become a great repository if we build it together.

I would be interested to know if people join with the intention of contributing but then feel shy about sharing their work online (overheard and paraphrased at the ISTE conference: Share your work. Teachers don’t share their work because they don’t think they’re doing great work. They ARE doing great work, but no one knows about it if you don’t share). Do people skim over the note about lurking and join because they think they will get to see more more materials if they do? I am genuinely curious, and I am not sure of the answer.

My hunch, as much as I hate the idea, is that folks are joining without reading that page, thinking they will access more materials if they do. The reason I think this might be the case is that I had a wiki for my students, and even though I clearly stated that only my students would be permitted to join the wiki, I still received requests until I finally had to turn off the ability to request membership because I was really tired of processing the membership denials for teachers who simply didn’t read. In the case of the UbD Educators wiki, over 500 people have joined, which is awesome, but they haven’t contributed, which is a lot less awesome.

On a side note, most of the visits to this blog are from folks looking to read UbD-related content, so I know there is real interest in the subject, and I know that teachers are looking for guidance and ideas. It might be nice if we could build up the wiki a bit so that they had some resources. In case you are worried, the materials are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, Noncommercial, Share-Alike license, meaning that work posted there can freely be used and remixed with credit given to the original author, but not for profit.

I guess I will get into how I feel about sites like Teachers Pay Teachers some other time. Not sure I want to stir that particular pot right now, and to be honest, I’m not really even sure why I feel the way I do about the site, so until I can articulate my thoughts more clearly, I’m just steering clear. I will say I think teachers fall into two camps when it comes to sharing: 1) people who share everything; 2) people who refuse to share anything. I have been lucky enough to know a lot of teachers who share, and I have benefited enormously from their ideas. Through their generosity, they have made a better teacher. At it’s core, that is all the UbD Educators wiki is about—sharing ideas so that we can all benefit and become better teachers.

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Real World Problems, Real World Learning

One of my favorite aspects of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s book Understanding by Design is the real-life unit plan model they describe for a health class. In order to help students learn more about healthy foods and healthy eating, the performance task asks them to design a balanced meal plan that allows for dietary restrictions (such as diabetes) for campers. This problem is a real world problem that students might encounter in that each camp employs a real person who plans menus in the same way. It requires students not only to think about healthy food, but also variety and appeal as well as certain health issues that may (or perhaps already do) affect them. It’s a great assessment. I think it’s in the same book that students are asked to design the best form of packaging for candy so that the most amount of candy can be transported while maximizing space in the truck transporting it while still ensuring the packaging is convenient. I have left my copy of the book at school, so you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t remember this exactly right, but I seem to remember that spherical packages would maximize the space in the truck and enable the most amount of candy to be transported, but for obvious reasons, spherical packages are inconvenient.

It reminded me of a real world problem I heard about when I visited Carolina Day School in Asheville, NC not too long ago. The middle school was considering replacing the long tables in the cafeteria with round tables, but the administration was concerned that they would not be able to fit enough round tables to seat all the students in the cafeteria. The assistant principal knew the seventh graders had been learning about area in math, so he gave the problem to them to solve. I don’t know what they decided, but I think it’s a great way for students to learn about real world applications for math. I always hear students complain, often about math, that they can’t see how they will use the skills in “the real world.” Of course, I know they will use the skills in all kinds of ways they may not be able to imagine, but I think sometimes teachers don’t always give students enough real world problems so that students understand the relevance of what they’re learning. In his last blog for The Huffington Post entitled “Best Ideas for Our Schools,” Eric Sheninger argues for authentic learning: “In my opinion there is no other powerful learning strategy than to have students exposed to and tackle problems that have meaning and relevancy.”

The Weber School’s students recently won first place in the Moot Beit Din competition. Moot Beit Din asks students to apply Jewish texts to current problems. The competition offers students an opportunity to determine in what ways Jewish texts are still relevant as a guideline for modern life and also how they can use these texts to grapple with issues in our society today. In terms of Jewish studies, it’s about as authentic as it gets: not unlike Model U.N. or Mock Trial. Once students participate in these types of activities and describe their experiences, they make connections between what they’re learning and the “real world,” and their excitement is palpable. Just take a look at this video (which features some of Weber’s students):

In many ways, just approaching an assignment differently can turn an activity that may not ask students solve a real world problem into one that does. The other day, I was in our school’s Learning Center, and I found an assignment left behind by one of our tenth graders. It was based on the chapter of The Great Gatsby in which Nick attends Gatsby’s party for the first time. Students were asked to write an article as the gossip columnist for the local New York newspaper in which they describe the party, including some of the rumors about Gatsby and speculations of their own. It’s a great approach to a traditional summary. Students are asked to recall and predict, which are not necessarily the highest order critical thinking skills, but are good skills for reading comprehension. If they had been asked to write a summary of the chapter, they wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much, nor would they have produced work that was half as fun to read or that approached a real world situation they might encounter—how to write for the kind of authentic audience that reads a newspaper and is relying on the writer for information. Students see the relevance of this kind of assignment much more readily than the see the relevance of writing a summary, yet both assignments essentially ask students to use the same summary writing skills. The main difference is in their approach.

The headmaster of Carolina Day School told me that he felt students should be blogging because there was a ready-made authentic audience in a blog that gave a writer a reason to write beyond earning a grade for a class. They are no longer writing just for their teacher, but also for a larger audience, and more importantly, for themselves. Assessments that ask students to grapple with real world problems don’t necessarily require a huge shift in the kinds of skills and learning that are assessed so much as they require a shift in thinking about how we approach teaching and assessing skills and learning.

Feel free to share some of your ideas for authentic assessments in the comments.

photo by: JD Hancock

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Why Fiction Matters

Our EscapeGrant Wiggins made a lot of waves yesterday with a post the ASCD blog The Edge in which he calls for banning the reading of fiction in schools in order to encourage boys to read and help students improve nonfiction reading skills. He says he wrote meaning to provoke, and he certainly did. The blog doesn’t provide a means of linking to comments, but I felt a voice of reason in those comments was Estelene Boratenski. She’s right in pointing out that people listen to Wiggins, and it wasn’t clear that he was writing in the spirit of A Modest Proposal. I don’t have a lot to add to the public outcry.

If you have read any of my archives, you know I’ve long been a proponent of backward design. It just makes sense pedagogically. Wiggins and writing partner Jay McTighe wrote about backward design in Understanding by Design, which remains the single most influential professional reading I’ve ever done. Wiggins was very kind to my readers and to the participants at the UbD Educators wiki. For a short period of time, I blogged with Grant at a now-defunct group blog about educational matters. I have the highest respect for Grant Wiggins.

I also have the highest respect for fiction’s ability to teach us about who we are. I think one thing we need to do to engage boys in high school reading is to offer them choices, but one cannot generalize that boys necessarily like nonfiction more than fiction, and I have known boys who have enjoyed reading such fare as Wuthering Heights, Beloved, and The Scarlet Letter. I think a lot of fiction isn’t taught in a way that necessarily grabs boys, and that’s where backward design comes in. It gives the literature teacher a hook—an issue the novel grapples with that makes for interesting discussion. It is for this reason that one of the essential questions that frames discussion in my classroom for the year in my British Literature and Composition course is How do our stories shape us? How do we shape the world around us with stories?

I wouldn’t argue that we currently incorporate enough nonfiction into our curricula. I think nonfiction is important. I also don’t quibble with the idea that we need to do something to get boys to read. Guys Read is on to something there, I think. I also don’t argue about the fact that we need to examine the choices we make in terms of what books are taught. But I don’t think throwing fiction out the window is the solution.

Literature, fiction, shows us who we are. It teaches us about the human condition. In the words of Hemingway, arguably that most male of writers, “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and the afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and places and how the weather was.”

That, to me, seems to be the best reason to teach fiction.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Felipe Morin

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“To End Where I Begun”: Backward Design and Shakespeare

I am presenting at NCTE tomorrow morning at 9:30 at the Yacht and Beach Club in Grand Harbour Ballroom South. You can download and/or view all my session materials here.

Note: I think if you visit the presentation on SlideShare and download it, you can get the notes.

Here is my handout for my Macbeth performance task that I discuss as an alternative to a performance.

Here is a graphic organizer for my comparative video exercise for Act I Scene 1. I use the filmed versions of Macbeth directed by Jack Gold, Roman Polanski, and Geoffrey Wright for this activity.

Here is a Wordle made from the text of Macbeth that I use to introduce students to themes in the play.

Chris Shamburg’s radio play of the “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble” scene.

If you want to explore the UbD Educators wiki (Understanding by Design, ® ASCD) for a variety of resources, feel free to check it out. You don’t have to join to lurk; you have to join to contribute your own work.

Links to my previous work aligning Folger methods with backward design:

Blog posts about Folger/teaching Shakespeare:

Links to other helpful resources:

If you would like to see the Shakespeare Made Easy activity I mentioned, please visit and join A Way to Teach. You’ll find a lot of great resources there.

If I can think of more stuff to add later, I will, so bookmark this post if you’d like to access it more easily.

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Frankenstein

One thing I share with my department chair is a geeky love of planning assignments. I should probably have been grading papers today, but instead I finished my Frankenstein unit and created a performance task based on an out-of-date (and apparently no longer used/updated) WebQuest. I did think the ideas were sound, but I also thought that some of the websites in the WebQuest were somewhat biased, and I wanted to present a bit more of a neutral view. I think it’s a solid assignment, however, and I just wanted to tweak it.

You can view my UbD unit for Frankenstein here. The WebQuest, with some major overhaul, is located here.

Update, 12/29/09: I have created a Google Earth tour based on the travels of Robert Walton and Victor Frankenstein that you can download. I am submitting it to Google Lit. Trips and will let you know if they decide to publish it as well.

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UbD Educators Wiki

I recently posed a question for discussion on the UbD Educators wiki. At this point, the wiki has over 100 members, and one would think it would be more active, but to get down to brass tacks, I’m the most active member of the wiki. The wiki is not closed to lurkers, so if all you wanted to do was get ideas for teaching, you wouldn’t need to join. Lurkers cannot edit pages or join discussions, however. I am interested to know what can be done to make the wiki more of a true repository of UbD units and discussion. I use the wiki when I am planning a new major unit, and I have found the two templates, the UbD Filter and the UbD Unit, to be helpful when planning units. The feedback at the start was very good, but member involvement has declined somewhat.

I spent some time today tagging pages in the hopes that the information might be easier to find. As always, I encourage members to join up and contribute. We have no math, science, fine arts, foreign language, physical education, or special education units, and we have only one (one!!!) technology education unit and one social studies unit. I suspect a lot of members teach these subjects, and often when people join up, they tell me they are doing so because their school or district is encouraging or requiring UbD; therefore, we ought to have more units in those areas, I should think.

UbD is something I strongly believe in. I have seen it bring more transfer, coherence, and, well, understanding to my own teaching. Planning using UbD guidelines makes me think about all aspects of what I teach and helps me plan more authentic lessons. One compliment I received from a student is that I always “try to make [learning] relevant to our lives.” Creating more authentic audiences for writing tasks has been a goal of mine this year, too, and planning using UbD has helped. I truly feel that this wiki could be an excellent tool, but I admit that right now I feel a bit like I’m in an echo chamber over there.

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Macbeth Unit Plan

I have not been happy with my Macbeth unit for some time. I sat down with my department chair today and brainstormed, and I have come up with a new plan that includes some serious tweaking and a performance task that I’m in love with (I only hope the students will be, too). I have left my old unit plan up for comparison.

I spent most of the evening reading through Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth, and I have decided that most of the unit will consist of lesson plans from this text. Even if you decide not to use all the lessons in this book, it’s an invaluable resource and perhaps one of the single most important additions to your professional library if you teach Shakespeare. Almost all of my learning plan consists of lessons from this book, and because of copyright restrictions, I have provided only the page numbers for your reference.

I used Wordle to create the Macbeth Wordle/word cloud I reference in the learning plan. You can easily create one, too. I would advise taking out words like “exit, exeunt, Macbeth, and lady” as well as other character names as they will skew the word counts in favor of character names instead of common words, such as “blood, night, sleep, and hands.”

The lesson I called “If it were done” comes from Joe Scotese and can be found at his site A Way to Teach. You will need to register and earn at least five points before you can download this lesson. Joe has a great site, and I highly encourage you to join up, particularly if you teach British literature or Shakespeare in any capacity. Essentially, the lesson involves a close reading of Macbeth’s soliloquy alongside a version from Shakespeare Made Easy; students learn that Shakespeare says a great deal on many levels with his word choices (this activity will really blow their minds; it blew mine!), and that modern translations cannot adequately substitute for the original.

Finally, you can download a PDF of my performance task. It is customized for my class. If you would like, you may keep the PDF I created for my class, but you won’t be able to make changes to it.

Addendum: I can no longer customize these handouts. Please feel free to use the one I shared here.

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Grendel’s Ima

I have been doing some tweaking with my Beowulf unit. In the past, my performance task has been to compile an annotated résumé for Beowulf. It’s good practice for their own résumés; my students have to compile résumés for college applications toward the end of their junior year, the year in which they study Beowulf at my school. It’s also a close-reading exercise, as each item on the résumé must be supported with an annotation. What has bothered me about it is that I want it to include more writing. Sure, it’s a specific kind of writing that I think is important. Suffice it to say something about it was bugging me, so I tweaked it this year. Instead, I will ask my students to write a letter of recommendation for Beowulf. The purpose is still the same: to analyze Beowulf as an epic hero. The assignment just looks different in the end. If you’d like to download this new essay assignment, here it is: Beowulf Letter of Recommendation. You might try this PDF converter if you want to make changes.

When I read Beowulf in high school, I didn’t like it much. Well, I hated it, if the truth be told. I took a sophomore level class in college on British literature up to 1700, and we read Beowulf again. I have no idea why, but this time, I loved it: perhaps a really good teacher, a different time of life, whatever. I have loved it ever since. It’s one of my favorite works to teach, and I enjoy being able to start the year with it. I am completing a unit on Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxons this coming week. My students, for the most part, seem engaged. I won’t fool myself into thinking all of them love it as I do, but certainly they seem interested and are participating. One of the classes I teach began referring to Grendel’s mother as Grendel’s ima. This term makes sense if you know a bit of Hebrew, for it is the Hebrew word for mother. I work at a Jewish high school, and I loved it that my students made this fun connection, so I started using the term, too.

I just collected my students’ interactive notebooks for the first time, too. It was really interesting. The two British literature classes did a good job on the notebooks. I saw real reflection and thinking. I am hoping the notebooks will become a more natural reflecting tool as the year wears on. I really liked a peek at their thinking. The connections they make and the ideas they are putting down in their notebooks are insights into what they see as important. I suppose that’s why I liked the Hebrew connection to a piece of Anglo-Saxon literature.

My department chair has talked me into using the Interactive Notebooks as my professional development exploration/goal this year. It’s new, and it can be something that I can pilot and perhaps present to my colleagues after I’ve tried them this year. My goal is to help students improve critical thinking and make connections. So far, at least based on what I’ve seen in my British literature courses, it’s working. On the other hand, I have some work to do in the other courses I teach. First of all, I don’t think all of my students have buy-in. They’re used to my old notebook checks, and they’re balking at change. Second, it’s new to me, and perhaps because it’s new to me, I haven’t found that balance of support and freedom that my students need. At any rate, I’ll talk about notebooks next week, and now I have some good models to share for students who might need them.

I’d like to be able to tie all this back to my title again, but everything I keep thinking of sounds cutesy and forced, so I’ll cop to it: I really just wanted to title this post “Grendel’s Ima.” L’Shanah Tova.

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