Teacher Tips: How Can I Ever Catch Up With This Work Load?!?!

catching upIt always astounds me how much this job does NOT get any easier!  10 years in and I still find myself hopelessly in the weeds on a monthly, if not weekly basis.  My grades, emails, lesson plans, meetings, and everything else seem to pile up when I am busy teaching and then all of the sudden the panic sets in.  Today I want to share a couple of tips that I have picked up along the way from my own experience or from wise teachers I’ve worked with.  Please share your tips in the comment section below!

1. Take a day off: This is a tricky (and in my opinion, last resort) kind of tip, but sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures! With a whole or half day off, you can force yourself into a coffee shop, library, or other productive work space to just jam through your work load and come back on top of your game.  There are some caveats here though:

  • You have to pick a day that has an easy sub plan so you don’t end up spending extra hours planning and grading sub work.
  • You have to be in a supportive administration situation if you are going to be forthcoming about your reason for taking the day off.
  • You have to use this plan sparingly because your kids need you.

2. Make prioritized lists: I live and breathe lists and they are the only way that I can survive the week.  If you are feeling overwhelmed with your task lists, try prioritizing them by what needs to get done each day, week, or prep period.  That way there is some light at the end of the tunnel. If you realize that your lists are unreasonable given the time allotted, start taking out the inessentials.

3. Tell students the grading machine is broken: A dear, former department chair gave me this advice.  She said that when she was woefully behind, she would assign work and not grade it.  She would simply tell students that the grading machine (her) was broken.  When done very intermittently, students are still motivated to do their work because they don’t know when the grading machine will be in or out of service.  I’ve not tried this one yet, but she always told me that it worked like a charm.

4. Say no: If you get so behind that you can’t see over the piles of things to do, say no to the extras like letters of rec, club moderating, covering for a co-worker, etc.  It is not easy, but sometimes you have to give yourself permission to say no.

5. Treat yourself: Before you sit down to fill out endless report cards or grade the mountain of essays, get yourself a snack, treat, or special coffee to take a little bit of the pain away.  In my experience, this will keep you on task a little longer.

6. Make a survival lesson plan: Every once in a while, you have to let go of the dynamic best practices and give an assignment, project, related movie, or other lesson that allows you to catch up during class time.  Be careful of this one because you don’t want to end up in a survival lesson plan habit.  No teacher wants to be the one that is being criticized in the faculty lounge for showing a movie everyday.  On the other hand, everyone understands that the occasional survival plan is what keeps teachers’ heads above water.

7. Remember the real reason why you teach: When this job feels like a whirlwind and your to do list looks impossible, don’t forget the reason you started teaching in the first place. It really is a labor of love.

Anchor Papers: A Journey Toward Better Student Papers

anchor

I’ve recently had an ah-ha moment about teaching writing at all levels using anchor papers.  Anchor papers are basically a set of papers that each represent the characteristics of a particular grade range. For example, given a writing prompt about Native American mythology, I could have a set of anchor papers in which 1-2 papers are solid As, 1-2 papers are solid Bs, 1-2 papers are solid Cs, 1-2 papers are solid Ds, and 1-2 papers are Fs.  When we are finished with our literature unit on Native American mythology, I can have students write on the prompt with a clear rubric.  When the papers are complete, I can give students the unmarked anchor papers to categorize and grade based on the rubric.  After we have discussed which papers received which grades and for what reasons, students can self-assess their own papers with clarity. Then I could use a similar rubric with the next paper on Puritan literature, allowing students to self-assess without anchor papers before they turn it in for my grading.

Anchor paper strategies are common in the test prep world, but I think they can be just as helpful in our regular curriculum.  I teach  juniors, so at the beginning of the year, we do the Score Write activity from college board and I have seen a marked improvement in their SAT essay style writing as a result of the anchor paper technique.  Preparing anchor papers for ourselves can be a daunting task, but I think the long-term results will be well worth it.  Below I am sharing reasons to try anchor papers and tips for preparing them.  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below!

Reasons to use anchor papers:

  • Anchor papers elevate the concept of modeling. Instead of just modeling unattainable perfection, anchor papers help students at all levels see the range of essay skills.
  • Anchor papers show that there is more than one way to achieve a rhetorical purpose. Showing students papers from a variety of writers with multiple perspectives, helps students see that good writing comes in many forms and realize that their unique voice is valuable.
  • Anchor papers clarify the directions. Anchor papers can help students grasp MLA, paragraph formatting, and other directions and help students pay closer attention to the rubric.
  • Anchor papers develop metacognition skills. Metacognition and self-assessment are incredibly important skills for students to learn. Anchor papers force students to pay attention to the way that they think about the topic and the rubric without just throwing something on paper and letting the teacher sort it out.

Tips for Preparing to Use Anchor Papers:

  • Embrace the process. It may take you a year to gather anchor papers to be used next year.  You may have to dig through old portfolios.  Don’t pressure yourself to have it all together  immediately.  Make a goal and stick with it to see long-term results.
  • Consider getting permission and taking names off papers. Personally, I like to get permission from previous students before I use their paper as a model or anchor and even with permission I take their name off to avoid any awkwardness from current students who know previous students.
  • Creating a range is important. I’ve heard arguments for showing only the top papers, but I think that students learn a lot from seeing what doesn’t work in addition to what does.
  • Set up an atmosphere of respect.  Be sure to have a game plan to preface the anchor paper grading activity, so that students know how to grade on the rubric with objective, appropriate language.
  • Authenticity is best. I don’t know if any teacher in the world has time to write 5-10 anchor papers for a prompt, but even if you do have that kind of time and energy, I think authentic papers will work better.

What do you think?   Need more resources for teaching writing?  Check out Essay Architect!

Tips for Creating Emergency Lesson Plans

 

emergency lessons

Every year in September, teachers at my school are required to submit emergency lesson plans, which are to be used in case we are absent and unable to complete regular sub plans.  In 10 years, I have only used my emergency lesson plans once, but on that day, boy was I glad they were there!  Whether emergency lesson plans are a school requirement or if you are just making them for your own piece of mind, today I want to share a couple of tips for making the most out of emergency lesson plans.

1. Keep it simple. Remember that this emergency plan can be used at anytime during the school year so it is usually best not tie it to a particular unit so you don’t have to update it during the year.  I also think it is best to avoid a lesson that includes a lot of photocopying because you don’t want to waste paper if the lesson never gets used and it is not likely that an emergency sub will have time to copy on the morning of said emergency. Finally, remember that you will not be there to give lengthy explanations, so keep all directions clear for both sub and students.  It is also helpful if you include a seating chart and roster for attendance/notes.  Seating charts should be updated monthly, quarterly, or semesterly if they change.

2. Think about things you wish you had time for.  With all of the standards and areas of focus in our classes, we run out of time for some of the fun stuff.  This can be an opportunity to bring that in.

  • Poetry: You can give students the characteristics of a sonnet, haiku, villanelle, or other type of poetry along with a couple of examples and then ask students to write their own poetry following the models.
  • Articles from The New Yorker, Time, or other interesting source: You can make a class set, half set for partners, or have the sub read the article out loud to the class. Then leave a few thought provoking questions to be answered by students or groups.
  • A fun grammar, vocabulary, or frequently made mistakes activity: Remember that cute idea or handout that you pinned on Pinterest, but you never have time for?  Here’s the time!
  • A short story, poem, or informational text in your textbook that you don’t have time for usually.  Students can read the selection and answer the questions at the end individually or in pairs.  This is as simple as possible with no copies needed!

3. Consider meaningful test prep. I teach mostly juniors so SAT and ACT test prep is ever present in our minds. For other grades and situations, you can substitute other kinds of appropriate test prep.  I have tons of SAT/ACT multiple choice test practice booklets that show up in my school mail box every year and so I used to use those.  Now, we are moving to a one to one iPad school so I can make use of the SAT prep site number2.com.  I also leave an SAT/ACT essay prompt and give students half the period to brainstorm ideas and half the period to write.

4. Know your sub pool.  Think about the people who are likely to sub for you in an emergency situation.  If you work for a large school or district, you probably don’t know the subs as well as I do in my small school situation.  You want the plans to be clear and easy to execute for any sub that opens your door.  Be careful of overusing technology or content specific instructions if your subs are not equipped with the necessary skills, passwords, or jargon.  In my case, one of my fellow teachers on his or her prep period will probably get roped into covering me.  Because I know how stressful that can be, I leave a little thank you note and a $5 Starbucks card in my emergency sub plan folder as a sign of good will.

5. Post prominently. If your emergency sub plans are in the third drawer in the fourth file cabinet, they are not likely to be utilized in a sticky situation so post them where the sub/admin will see them. You may also have a buddy teacher who can point them out if the sub is having trouble finding them.   I have mine behind my desk labeled in big, bold letters (see image above).

What questions, suggestions, or tips do you have for leaving emergency lesson plans? We’d love to hear from you!

 

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