Category Archives: Reading

Outside the box

Balancing the Box

Last month, sitting in a workshop discussing the power of writer’s workshop, the inevitable question arose: “How can I find time for this when I have a mandated curriculum to follow?”

One seasoned educator responded, “I just do it. What are they going to do, fire me?”

I chuckled, along with the rest of the room, but it really got me thinking about this common dilemma so many educators face: trying to follow along with a boxed curriculum, while still trying to bring in activities and lessons that help and engage every student. We know our students and so often the “one size fits all” curriculum doesn’t fit the missing puzzle pieces. It is in these moments that we need to trust ourselves as professionals and do what is right for students.

On the social media/message app Voxer, I am a part of an amazing community of middle school English teachers from across the country where we discuss this dilemma often. The pressure to keep pace with our PLCs, complete the required assessments on time, while still having time to reteach, accommodate for those with special needs and engage students with topical, relatable activities that bring fun to the classroom can be overwhelming. It can leave teachers feeling inadequate and as if they are failing. This common scenario is definitely not good for students.

The key is balancing the box with what you think is right for your students. I often think the best thing that ever happened to education was the adoption of Common Core standards without having any approved curriculum. It forced teachers to not only truly understand the standards, but also trust ourselves to create lessons to meet those high benchmarks. Sure, it was brutal, and if you’re like me, most of those units were far from smooth, but personally, I learned so much. About the standards. About curriculum development. About my own teaching gaps. There was no box to protect me.

This is my second year with purchased curriculum, (third if you include piloting). The greatest gift my district gave our teachers was not mandating that we teach every single activity. We do have common unit assessments (three times a year) and common writing pieces (3-4 a year). Don’t get me wrong; I think having these common assessments are incredibly important. District wide we can make decisions on areas of growth for our students and teachers based on results. Even in our PLCs it is important to have shorter-term common assessments, as well. It drives instruction and monitors student growth.

What does not need to be common and identical is the way we teach the standards. I am a huge fan of UDL (Universal Lesson Design) and one of the cardinal rules is that not every student learns the same way, so if we give students options for learning, we can essentially get more bang for our buck, creating a more successful learning environment.

For those of you struggling with being trapped inside the box, I thought I would share a few things my PLC has done with our box curriculum. Hopefully you can share some of your ideas with me, as well.

  • The first time, try it all. You really do not know if an activity is any good, unless you try it. Last year my partner and I taught a chunk of our curriculum to fidelity. This year, we were able to pick what we thought was the best for students and meeting the standards. We have done a lot of taking the “essence” of the lessons and using more topical pieces to hit the same standards.
  • Give CHOICES…
    • for whole class novels or other long term projects. The only whole class novel I teach is The Outsiders. I start this right away and use it as a tool to teach independent reading strategies and review writing. I’ve never met an 8th grader who doesn’t like the classic story, so it’s a safe choice. But that’s it. When our box curriculum includes teaching a novel, we give the students choices. As my Voxer friend Joy Kirr put it, if you teach a novel for 4-6 weeks, it’s likely only a certain portion of your students are engaged with it, so you’ve lost the rest of your class for all that time. I hate to tell you, English teachers, not every student enjoys Of Mice and Men. Let it go.
    • in writing and other assessments. In my class we start the day with daily writing in journals. I give prompts, but students can always write about whatever they want. This is just about building stamina and learning to love writing. We also publish our choice writing in blogs most weeks. As far as our academic writing, the only writing that will ever be the same for every student is short formative pieces, where I need to give quick feedback. Essays? I would shoot myself if I had to read 100+ 8th grade essays on the same topic. Why would I have them write the same argumentative piece? I would much rather have students write about something that matters to them. Fortnight? By all means, write me a well-written, researched essay about the pros and cons of a Battle Royale game.
  • DON’T FORGET INDEPENDENT CHOICE READING. (I’m yelling that, btw.) I had a high schooler in the back of my car the other day who said, “Ah, I miss choice reading.” Students NEED to read books, but not the ones YOU choose. And not just in English class. This should be a school-wide culture adoption. Independent reading improves student academics in so many aspects, plus the research on how reading creates empathy is worth checking out.

Check out this video from Penny Kittle as a reminder of the importance of choice reading.

Having common language, goals and assessments district-wide, but especially in your PLCs is incredibly important. Looking at data, at each level should help drive instruction, but don’t get trapped by the box curriculum. It is there to help frame your lessons not determine the needs of your students. So, don’t feel guilty when you veer. You might need to. As long as you are heading in the right direction and doing what is right for your students, you are not failing anyone. In fact, celebrate the fact that you are the kind of educator who does whatever it takes to make sure his or her students succeed. I celebrate and commend you. You are my people. Cheers!

I Have a Confession to Make

I am an English teacher. I love words. Reading them. Writing them. I would love nothing more than to sit and read the day away. Of course, I’m also a mother, which means free time is a luxury. For many years I’ve had to apologize to my students for not picking up the book they insisted I read. “But Mrs. Allison you HAVE to read it.” I would feel so guilty as the books lay comatose next to my bed, gathering dust.

But no more. Reluctantly, I entered the world of audiobooks. At first, I felt that I was cheating. I have always recommended audiobooks to my reluctant readers. In fact, my son read the first Harry Potter while listening along to Jim Dale’s narration. As an English teacher I felt a bit guilty initially. I thought that not reading books was somehow not giving the words the respect they were meant to have. Hogwash!

Now, I devour books. I listen while I’m running, brushing my teeth, driving. I always have the corresponding book on hand, too, and read intermittently, when I get a moment of quiet. I still enjoy seeing the words, but I get so enveloped in each story, I can’t wait to drive somewhere alone.

I can now read all those recommendations from students. I can recommend the latest books to eager readers. I can be a part of the book conversation and celebrate reading in my classroom.

Plus, I can still do all my mom duties.

Today this English teacher loves words: reading them, writing them and listening to them.  I’m really hoping I don’t kicked out of the club for this.

Reflecting before Relaxing: Ending my School Year

When I end the school year, I try to take a moment before I reach full blown summer mode to reflect on my year. Today I chose to sit down for a few minutes and decipher my report card: the survey my students take to grade me. It includes quite a few questions that I take to heart: have I treated them fairly, am I easy to understand, do I care about them. I’m a huge proponent of getting feedback from my “customers” and unlike the local retailer who has to bribe consumers with coupons or chances to win $100 gift cards, my students gladly take the time to be honest with me, especially when I give them class time to do it.

In August, I set out to make my classroom a place of readers and writers. So, this year I added a few specific questions about each. Did student attitudes about either change? Answering on a Likert scale, here’s what my students responded.


For the most part, attitudes changed for the better. I was generally pleased, but that bottom end still bugs me. I know there is still work to be done.

What I did:

I tried desperately to create a culture of reading. Students were to read at least two hours every week. On Fridays, they would have a book talk with their group members where each would share one assignment from this grid. Based on the standards, I wanted students to try to make more meaningful connections with their books. Plus the assignments gave them something to talk about. I also shared what I was reading, and we had whole class book recommendation time. At the end of each trimester, we would make book trailers and write reviews on Goodreads.

What I would change:

I would no longer require students have their grid assignment done for homework. I want the focus to be the reading. Instead, I would give them time just before book talks to do some sort of reflection for the week, then share that. I’m considering dropping Goodreads and somehow incorporating their reviews instead into student blogs. I love the online community, but we just don’t have time to utilize it. Also, I would do more individual book conferences. In a 47 minute class period it takes me a week to get to every student, but the one time I did accomplish it this year, it was powerful.


Like reading, I’m very pleased with the attitude change. The negative attitude (1-2) dropped significantly. Of course, still work to do!

What I did:

I wrote a blog post about this a few months ago, but basically, I kept my promise. We wrote every day and we shared in some form every day. Monday-Thursday we wrote in our journals and Fridays we blogged. In addition, we wrote many other genres: stories, essays, letters, etc. In a nut shell, we wrote a lot.

What I would change:

First of all, I would personally write and share more. I can stop what I’m doing for three minutes and write at the beginning of each period with my students. The times I have shared my writing, the students loved. It’s powerful to be a model. Sometimes I forget that. I would also try to carve more time for personal feedback. Whether that’s an official writing conference, or even just an email or comment on a Google Doc. I need to make it a priority to make sure I give each student something to improve. It’s how we all grow.

It was a great year, and I’m thankful my students thought so, too. Now, it’s time to start summering. The stack of books on my nightstand are waiting.