Secondary Solutions

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Tough Questions in Teaching

tough questions

When I was a first year teacher, I tried so hard to anticipate student questions, think them through, and prepare myself.  Of course I totally failed, which is not surprising to anyone who has ever been a first year teacher.  I pretty much always thought I was in over my head and I felt the rolling eyes of my skeptical students. The surprising bit for me came recently when I realized that I still struggle with anticipating questions in order to think them out before I am in front of 30+ pairs of teenage eyes.  Here are three truths I have discovered:

  1. I will not always know the right answer or even the right way to approach a tough question.
  2. Most of the time, it is okay to admit to students that I don’t know the answer in order to buy the time to think about it.
  3. It is almost always okay to admit I was wrong and correct myself later.

No matter what grade or subject you teach, I think these truths hold up. Below are some of the toughies I’ve encountered over the last few weeks in my high school English classroom.  I’d love to hear your answers as well as your difficult questions!  Leave a comment below so we can continue the conversation.

1. Is this a reliable source?

  • I’ve written in the past about teaching students to determine reliable online sources, but most of the time it comes to a judgment call. Every once in a while, students come for my expert opinion on sites like and I have to walk through my process and reasoning with them.  This is an extremely interesting and useful thing to do with students, but on the spot, it can be super stressful for me because it is far from an exact science.

2. Can I use this image and do I need to cite it?

  • One of my classes is working on an infographic project about The Great Depression in conjunction with The Grapes of Wrath and I require a works cited page with only reliable sources for the information, but when it comes to adding images the water gets muddy.  Giving image credit is essential to the new age of digital citizenship, but using images for aesthetic purposes can sometimes get tricky when the images don’t have a clear original source or are found on blogs or wikis that do not pass the reliable source limits we talk about. I’m still working on my policy for this one.

3. Why did a character say, “insert quote here”?

  • Most of the time I have this one handled.  I’ve been teaching many of the same books for years and I’ve practically memorized several of them. And then comes the curveball.  I’m standing in front a class of 30+ thinking about the agenda for the period, looking for extra scantrons, keeping up with accommodations and modifications and obligations for specific students.  Then comes the question, “In chapter 9, why did Nick say he lost his Midwestern squeamishness?” And I answer quickly, waiting to talk instead of listening. Then after class, I realize I didn’t answer with the precision required.  I do hate that feeling, but in full humility I try to rectify the situation when possible.  I find that students respond well to my honest mistakes.

Do you ever feel this way? What questions trip you up?  Do you have a good answer for my questions?  Comment below.


Tips for Teaching The Research Paper

research paper

At my school, 3rd quarter in the English department means one thing: research paper time.  We do our best to build on the process every year so that seniors graduate with confidence and a working knowledge of writing research papers and I do think that in this case departmental support is important to effective teaching. Whether you are just starting the daunting task of planning the paper or are looking for a fresh take, I highly recommend the research paper resource product from Secondary Solutions, which can be purchased as part of the Essay Architect system or separately from TeachersPayTeachers.  This Common Core Standards Based (ELA: Writing) product on teaching research papers is full of everything you need to help students grasp the concept of completing research, plagiarism, organizing their sources, using source information, MLA format, deciphering credible Internet sources, and more!  In addition to the notes, handouts, and activities included in that resource, I would like to share a couple of my tips for teaching the research paper.

1. Think through the types of sources you want students using. We cannot reasonably expect students to decipher sources for credibility and usefulness unless we teach them where to start.  I usually require that my junior students use a variety of 4-7 sources, including a minimum of one encyclopedia, one book, and one credible online source. In my experience, if I don’t put this requirement out right at the beginning, students wait until the absolute last minute and then use less than optimal sources.  Check out this post for more info on teaching students how to determine the credibility of online sources.

2. Break it down into steps.  Procrastination is a serious sport in my high school and sometimes my students want to give up before they even start because the task seems to overwhelming.  Smaller steps help with accountability and attitude.  Depending on the level I am teaching I break down my due dates into something like this:

  • Week 1: Verification of sources
  • Week 2: Thesis and working bibliography
  • Week 3 or 4: Draft
  • Week 5 or 6: Final Paper Due Date

3. Be sure that students ask themselves, “So what?”. In the information age, it is no longer important to simply find the facts.  Students need to look into the causes, effects, or importance of their topics.  Right now, my juniors are writing about topics related to The Great Gatsby and the 1920s. I let each of them pick a different topic from a list I created so they don’t feel like they are all writing the same paper.  I  emphasize the importance of discussing more than timelines, dates, and facts.  I want them to take a critical view of the lasting cultural impact of their topic.  I also have students present their research after the paper deadline, which gives them more incentive to bring out the relevance of their topic, otherwise we will sit through presentation after presentation of dates and places…

4. Explicitly discuss plagiarism in all its many forms. I used to have a line in my research paper prompt that informed students of my zero tolerance for plagiarism policy and I left it at that. However, I’ve learned over the past few years that students don’t always know (or at least feign ignorance of) the definition of plagiarism.  Some students think that the only plagiarism is buying an essay or copying/pasting 100%.  We talk ad nauseam about issues of paraphrasing too closely and taking other people’s ideas.

5. Include time for peer critique, editing, and revisions.  After weeks of struggling through the research process it is so tempting to just collect those suckers and break out the red pen, but if we really want students to improve their writing we need to slog on until the very end with lots of instruction on the process that takes place AFTER the complete paper has been written.  PS Did I mention that this resource also has a peer editing checklist?  ;)

What are your research paper challenges, tips, or ideas?  What are your students researching this year?



Don’t Reinvent the Wheel: Best Google Doc and Presentation Templates

google templates

We create, we share, we borrow, we modify, we teach.

I’ve been trying to be more tech savvy to work smarter and have more time for meaningful connections with students.  One way I am accomplishing this goal is through use of google drive, google forms, google presentations and a host of other little tips and tricks that I share here weekly. (click those links for posts about how I’m incorporating each). I like using a lot of google products and services because they streamline together and for the most part my students have buy in to the google drive system for other areas of their lives so this becomes an academic way to use a tool already in their toolbox.  Not only are these services easy to use for creating and sharing classroom materials, there is also a super handy trick found in the google templates!  All you have to do is sign in to your google account, visit this templates page (or just search for google templates) and click to add to your drive and modify if necessary! There are tons of templates in the catalogue from google and from other users.  You can browse by category, like “Students and Teachers”, or search using keywords.  Below are a couple of my favorites:

Please note, to click and add any of the templates below, you must be signed in to your google drive on the browser.

Jeopardy: Easily modify this presentation to play an interactive jeopardy for review of any topic!


 Presentation Index Cards: Help students prepare for a presentation with these awesome digital index cards that they can use with the device of their choice.

Presentation Notecard

Essay Rubric: I recently wrote about the rubric I use, but I also like this simple, clear option!

Essay Rubric google

Group Presentation Evaluation: This is a great way for students to assess themselves and other group members during collaborative efforts.  The data comes to you as the teacher in the simplest, neatest way I can think of!

Team Evaluation

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