Teaching on Halloween: Tips to Avoid Distraction

halloweenThere are some days during the school year when teaching high school feels a little like herding cats.  For me, those days include Valentine’s Day, Friday before spring break, homecoming week, and Halloween.  Halloween is especially tricky since it tends to come right after all of the homecoming and spirit week shenanigans, plus it involves copious amounts of sugar, late night outings, and attire that is not always conducive to learning.   Some years, I trek on through the transcendentalists (the unit that happens to land in late October most years) without acknowledging the distractions at all.  From a  curricular design perspective, this keeps my plan tight, but from a practical standpoint, it almost always ends up in an incredibly labored (and generally ignored) lecture with very little successful learning.  On the other extreme, I do not want to sacrifice all meaningful learning by giving that day to mindless busy work or that classroom management nightmare called free time.  Below I am sharing some ideas for Halloween activities for the English classroom that embrace the holiday, while holding on to academic standards.  I’d love to hear your suggestions, experiences, and comments below.

1. Read and analyze a spooky poem or short story. With short works, students can get into the holiday spirit and thoroughly analyze a work without zoning out like they might with longer texts. Some of my faves include:

  • “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe (Great for American lit classes)
  • “The Apparition” by John Donne (Great for British lit classes)
  • “Ghost House” by Robert Frost (Great for all levels)

2. Give a short Halloween research assignment.  Students can research different aspects of Halloween and write about them, create posters, or present them to the group.  The History Channel site is a great place to start. You can divide students into groups to each research a different aspect of Halloween, like pumpkins, costumes, trick or treating, witches, etc or the ways that different cultures celebrate a similar holiday.

3. Give students a creative writing assignment to write a short ghost story.  You can have students read them to the class and select a winner.  If you trust your class, turn out the lights and bring a flashlight to shine for the spooky reading.

I’d love to hear your ideas and tips for teaching on Halloween!  At least Halloween is on a Friday this year, so we won’t have to worry about students dragging in the next day in a candy coma! Happy teaching!

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


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!

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