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So you’ve crafted the perfect discussion question about a chapter, but the room is full of crickets.
Or, just as bad, you have to wrestle apart two students who have taken things personally and are now ready to rumble, Outsiders-style.

How does an ELA teacher sneakily prevent literature discussions from going haywire, and what should we do in the heat of the moment when the drama begins?

Chatting with me today are two AWESOME fellow teachers, Jonathan and Lisa from Created for Learning.


Determined to coach your students into a growth mindset? Want them to value learning, and not just grades, absorbing your feedback and persevering to the finish line?

Well, as with most educational theories, fellow ELA teacher Mrs. Spangler in the Middle and I have found that there are some hurdles to getting middle school (and even high school) students into a growth mindset that actually sticks (and doesn't just sound good).

Why Growth Mindset Matters
Sara: Middle schoolers are still deciding who they are and still figuring out how to “do school”, so teaching them how to problem solve, calmly get through obstacles, and not give up on themselves is a critical foundation to build now, not later.

Lisa:  Middle School students need help to get a sense of the “big picture” to understand that what they do now affects their future (both immediate and long term).  Students need to see their learning as relevant to their college and career goals.

Struggle #1: Students who don’t want to work
Sara: Sometimes there's an underlying issue, but some students are still maturing and don't want to do “work” that isn't “fun”... so just telling them to persevere isn't going to suffice. I truly don't know a way around this other than a one-on-one conversation, because every student is SO different here. For example, I've known boys who were this way because they were already working a job and wanted school to be their fun place, and others who didn't want to work because they hadn't found their strengths/passions yet and weren't motivated to do much of anything. Those two scenarios had to be handled very differently.

Lisa: For me, these are the students that bank on social promotion and therefore don’t see the value in trying.  This is when I have to make trying valuable with my classroom reward system.  I tried this idea out this past year for a marking period to see what would happen by giving reward points (not tied to grades in any way)  to students for answering class questions or turning in work on time.  Even though this is an external form of value, it does get the ball rolling and will hopefully feel good enough to translate into internal motivation.  I found that my students were more invested in what was happening in class when reward points were used.

Struggle #2: Students who are ALREADY trying their best
Lisa:  For students that are already trying their best, growth mindset is a lot of baloney because they don’t see the effort paying off.  In this situation, I have made sure that the work that I ask these particular students to do is something they can actually complete successfully.  Once they start to experience to see good grades, their attitudes pick up and then they are willing to try things that are a bit more challenging.

Sara: This issue depends on the student. If it's a high achiever who is already working hard, then she might not like being told that she has to keep going or work even harder; she wants a reward. At that point, I either need to do a better job of recognizing what they ARE doing right, OR I need to chat with them individually about goal-setting, such as improving a weakness or growing a strength.

If it's a student who is still struggling despite a lot of effort, then it's time to ask questions about what they're doing. In many cases, they are working harder instead of smarter, like using a study method that isn't a good idea (and then feeling dejected when the test score isn't good). Help lower achievers learn grit by changing their process.

Struggle #3: Students who police their peers from trying too hard
Sara: In my school, the term “try-hard” was a derogatory name thrown at high achievers. Fortunately, there were a few ways around this. One was to make the reward good enough that the students wouldn't care if they were called a name. Another is to directly address it with the victims or the entire class. My dad always says, “When you're in front, people will shoot arrows at you.” Talk about this concept, and help students understand that “haters” are just jealous.

Lisa:  I went through this a bit this past school year.  I honestly asked the students “Why wouldn’t you try your best?” and turned it into a discussion and lesson on integrity.  We talked about what we “stand for” and then put these words on our own paper mirrors that I displayed in the room as a constant reminder of what we want others to see when they look at us.  

Struggle #4: Students who claim they’re trying (but it sure doesn’t look that way)
Sara: In this case, sometimes the students either don’t know what grit TRULY looks like (and thus don’t know that their version of “working hard” isn’t true grit), OR they are putting in the time and energy into something they need more training on. For example, a student who is terrible at grammar may have actually tried to proofread his paper, but the bad grade on his essay doesn’t seem that way.

When the latter happens, my job is to get to the root of the problem and try to coax them out of their rut, whatever it is. If I know that my student doesn’t have all the skills he needs to proofread, then it’s time to find out if it’s a widespread issue throughout the class, worth fixing in small-group differentiation or a large-group lesson.

If the student is having a skills issue (and not a content or learning issue), then it might be time to address their weakness in a non-threatening way. I have humorous student “diseases” posters that help us talk about “Procrastinitis”, upset binders, silence infections, and other student problems.

Lisa: I typically find students who get a poor grade on their test insist vehemently that they studied.  When I ask the students what exactly they did to study, more often than not I find that they simply looked at their notes.  That’s when there’s a discussion of “How to Study”.  I even made a video about it to help drive the concept home. Once the student realizes that studying takes time, I’ll usually hear “I don’t have time for all that!”   Then, I try to counter this by relating it to a lack of practice in sports.  I’ll ask the students if the top football player (or any famous player at the moment) just sat on his couch and ate chips all day, would he still be the best?  The answer is always an emphatic  “No!”  So then I’ll say “How can you be the best if you don’t make time to practice by completing your work or to put in the work of studying?”  Boom!

Do you have more ideas? Tell us in the comments!

*Be sure to scroll down for the giveaway!*

Most of us became English teachers because we love reading. Some even have the passion and self-discipline to remain consistent readers while teaching.

I, however, am not one of them.

I’m terrible at balancing reading into my teacher life, which is made worse by the fact that I’m a picky reader. (There - I said it. Don’t turn me in to the ELA Police!)

I’m usually in the thick of an English Teacher Reading Rut: too busy reading student work and professional documents to squeeze in the latest hot book, much less the OTHER worthy titles being published seemingly every minute. And each school year, that problem gets worse for me, whether it’s due to my professional life (like adding on more to my plate) or my personal life (like adding a human to the world). I WANT to be reading, but I can barely read news headlines, much less the newest YA fiction.

As a result, picking out newer books to read or recommend is a real struggle. Even when I turn to a list of award winners or flip through a Scholastic catalogue, the lists are long enough that I can’t possibly read them all, decide which ones I need to buy for my class, and match them with the right reader... at least, I can't do it alone.

The question becomes, how can well-meaning English teachers find the best books to read, recommend to students, and buy for classroom libraries?

1. Build a relationship with a teacher or librarian you trust.
Even if you don't have a large English department of colleagues nearby, even one great librarian or teacher friend whose opinion you trust is a HUGE asset. If he or she knows your criteria and is actively reading, he or she can tell you if a book is worth buying and pitching.

In fact, my local library does "teacher requests" and creates PILES of books that meet what a teacher is looking for. It doesn't hurt to ask!

2. Follow teacher-readers on Instagram.
I stopped following certain types of readers on social media and started following more TEACHERS, ones who will not only look for similar qualities in a book but will be sure to recommend the REALLY good titles worth exploring.

To see a list of 40 recently-published books recommended by fellow English teachers, click through this Instagram loop!




3. Pick up the book you’re the most excited about.
If you've got a pile of books to catch up on, start with the one that YOU truly want to read. You'll be more motivated to fit it into your life, and your book talk to the class will be more enthusiastic.

4. Recruit trustworthy student beta readers.
If I know a few mature readers well (and also know their parents will be supportive), then I sometimes hand a new book to such students and ask them for their honest opinions. These readers often tell me what I need to know - both in terms of how engaging it is AND whether or not there's anything inappropriate that would cause me to pull the book from my shelf.

Do you have more ideas?
Tell us in the comments!

Enter to Win a Gift Card for Books!

The giveaway below is being sponsored by the following English teachers:

Secondary Sara, Tracee Orman, Nouvelle ELA, Hello Teacher Lady, Jen Maschari, The OC Beach Teacher, Read It Write It Learn It, Doc Cop Teaching, Mrs. Spangler in the Middle, Hanson Hallway, The Language Arts Classroom, Literary Sherri, Making Meaning with Melissa, Reading & Writing Haven, Erin Beers, Bs Book Love, and The Marvelous Middle

a Rafflecopter giveaway

We all know “good” and “bad” speakers when we see them, but it's shocking how often we teachers either ignore bad habits, don't explicitly teach good habits, or accidentally reinforce bad speaking with the types of speaking we assign.

IN OUR DEFENSE, speaking in all its forms is the category of English class that is usually given the least attention in teacher-ed programs, so when we attempt to teach it ourselves, we have to either self-teach best practices or fall back on what we remember from our own days in grades K-12... but some of those actions belong in the past.

(I should also mention that some of these are things I learned the hard way, so by no means do I claim to be a perfect teacher! Learn from my mistakes to save yourself some stress.)

Though there are always exceptions to these suggestions, here are some situations that English teachers should seriously think twice about before we assign and assess speaking.


Teacher friends, moment of truth: in my top ten list of irritating scenarios as an English teacher, one of them is looking at a student’s so-called “improved” draft that looks exactly the same as the last time I saw it.


If I make time to give formative feedback on a rough draft, I want the student to USE IT. If the student got the chance to revise a final draft and raise a grade, then the new one needs to fix the last draft’s problems instead of ignore them.

And if students are asked to REVISE their writing, heaven help them if they only fix a few commas and try to get past me.

Part of the problem is that true revision is real work. It’s difficult. It takes time, asks for focus, and requires really challenging decisions (such as which sentences to cut or where to add more). Plus, not all students are skilled enough to even RECOGNIZE which sentences NEED attention, so asking them to identify weak word choices can be nearly impossible.

Though I can’t solve the world’s revision problems in the scope of one blog post, here are a few ideas to get started.

(P.S. - You might also like the sister blog post, 10 Ways to Get Students to Proofread Effectively.)

1. Establish the difference between proofreading, editing, and revising.
Don’t assume that students know the difference between finding errors, fixing errors, and changing content. (I’ve put these three vocab words on tests before!) Even if they do know the technical definitions, they might need coaching about exactly how to do each one.

2. Use metaphors to explain why it’s important after all.
To really make the differences from #1 clear, I like to explain that proofreading is like checking your teeth, whereas revision is like a makeover. Those visuals help illustrate how proofreading is about the little fixes, but a good revision makeover will create “bigger” changes.

3. Give visual examples of “before” and “after” writing.
Many can be found online, but don’t be afraid to show students your own draft and EITHER revise it in front of them, revise it with them, or show them an already-revised draft and ask them to find the differences.

4. Show them what authors have said about revision.
One of my co-teachers, who is also an author, likes to preach that “revision is radical”, and she has shown them her past drafts (with real editors’ comments on them) to talk about what she changed over time. Another author, Shelley Pearsall, literally stacked all her drafts of one book into a pile that was taller than she was.

If you can find a local OR well-known author to make it visual and add credibility to your case, bring them in for a visit!

5. Require turning in BOTH a rough draft and a final draft…
… or use the revision history of Google Docs creatively. I have sometimes asked students to color-code what they’ve added or changed between drafts (with a highlighter).

6. Encourage them to read their work out loud.
Though I usually teach this as a proofreading strategy, it’s also good for revision. If a sentence is too long or a word choice is bad, those problems and others become obvious very quickly when read out loud. (Need a starting point? Check out my FREE revision read-aloud activity!)

7. Stress peer reading just as much as peer editing.
Peer editing is fine, but I think we teachers don’t ask students to do enough peer READING. To me, the difference is asking students to ignore the grammar and “be a picky reader”, telling the writer where they lost the reader’s attention, which parts they couldn’t visualize, or which moments weren’t clear.

8. Raise the stakes for the assignment.
Students are more motivated to revise when there’s a good reason to push for perfection, whether that’s because the assignment is important for their grade OR, even better, when people OTHER than the teacher will be reading their work. (For more on this, check out this blog post about getting guest speakers and judges into your English class.)

9. Show off the students who do amazing revision makeovers.
When a student REALLY bites the bullet and does dramatic revision (or perhaps starts over entirely), my co-teachers and I try to praise the student quietly AND publicly to show students that revision isn’t just something that authors do.

10. Honor it in a writing portfolio or display.
If you use a digital or paper-based portfolio, keep a tab for revision, and let students show off their best rough-to-final draft transformation. (Want to take it to the next level? Dedicate bulletin board or chalkboard space to showing off great “before” and “after” student writing side-by-side!)

(Click here to see an updated list of ALL my editing, revising, and grammar lessons.)

Do you have more ideas? Tell me in the comments!
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