Thursday, December 29, 2011

Writing a Research Paper

Take a big breath. It's going to be okay. Writing a research paper is an experience that can be related to child birth. It takes a lot of time to develop and there are parts that you may find to be extremely painful; however, when it's all said and done, you can create something beautiful. That's what the research process is all about: taking materials that are available to you and creating something new. Remember, writing a research paper is just a long series of tiny steps, and you can take tiny steps. Now let's get started.

1. Select a Topic: Choosing an appropriate topic is absolutely essential. This will be the foundation of the whole research process, so choose carefully. You will want to select a topic that interests you, because reading and writing about the topic will be less painful. Think of the things about which you are genuinely curious, and let your curiosity guide. Remember that you can change or alter your topic as you begin doing research, so don't put too much pressure on the initial choice. Just choose a topic that you like and one which fits the guidelines for your assignment. If you can't think of a topic, check out this list of research paper topics to help you get started. Choose a topic that is not too broad to sufficiently cover and not so narrow that you won't find any research on it.

2. Gather Resources: Reading all of the available material your topic is probably not possible if you have a deadline for your paper, but you should collect as many resources and materials as you can before you begin closely reading. In this way you can assess how much information is available on your topic before you dive in too deeply. Also, determine whether your internet sources are credible. Cut and paste web links into a text document and retrieve or request whatever physical sources you can access. Once you understand how much information is available to you, you can again revise your topic. This time consider what most interests you about your subject in light of your recent research.

3. Select the Works You Will Read: Since reading the works will take a substantial amount of your time, before you read anything briefly pursue each source to see if the author's writing style is at your reading level. If a text is too complex for you, you're probably better off selecting a text that is easier to read. Oftentimes academics deliberately make their writing dense and cryptic, rather than writing in a way that is clear and easy to understand, in an effort to demonstrate their intelligence. But you don't have to play this game. Choose writing that is easy to understand. You will probably get more meaning out of it and, ironically, sometimes the people who use the most words say the fewest things.

4. Read the Texts: This is the part of the research process on which students are most likely to procrastinate. Once you have the information in your head, you'll want to express it, but many students are threatened by nonfiction texts. Don't be scared. You won't have to read everything. Reading a nonfiction text is not like reading a novel. You don't have to read them in a linear fashion, from front to back. Feel free to cherry pick. Only read the information for which you are looking. You can skim and scan; however, if you decide you will quote, paraphrase, or otherwise reference information from a text, make sure that you thoroughly understand it, lest you appear foolish.

5. Take Notes on Your Research: As you are reading your resources, pieces of information will intrigue you. If you are researching a topic in which you are interested, you may find portions of the text exciting. These are the things of which you should make note. If you own the text, highlight or underline good information or otherwise make a memo of the page number and source in your research notes. If you are using electronic sources, just cut and paste interesting information into your word processor for easy quoting later.

6. Write Your Thesis Statement: Your thesis statement is merely a sentence that says what your are going to do in your paper. Usually they begin with "I," such as in the following example: "I will explain the causes for World War I." It is important that you keep your thesis statement in mind throughout the writing process. If you find yourself including information in your paper that does not fit into your thesis statement, you should alter your thesis statement to reflect what your paper is doing. Don't let your thesis contain you. As you write, you may go back and forth between multiple routes in your paper. You may decide to go both ways. It's no matter, because you can always revise your thesis to match your writing.

7. Create Your Rough Draft: The goal of a rough draft is basically to fill paper. Everything may not be perfectly organized. You may make mistakes in grammar, punctuation, and word choice. You may fall off of your thesis, but the key here is that you are producing writing. As you are writing your rough draft, you may go back and reread what you wrote, improving it when possible, but don't get hung up on revision. Put your research notes into an essay, and logically weave them together, removing the bits that don't belong and commenting when insights occur to you. Your goals should be to accurately represent what your sources have said about your subject, as well as putting yourself into the paper.

8. Make Quote Sandwiches: One of the most useful development templates when writing a research paper is what I call the quote sandwich. There's no rule stating how much of your paper should be references to other texts and how much should be original writing, but in my opinion commenting with more than a sentence or two before and after a quote demonstrates that the researcher is controlling the paper, not the research. So here's what you do: first, introduce the argument that your quote will support. Then, introduce your quote word for word. Use quotation marks and if your quote is longer than four lines, use block quotes. Lastly, explain how the quote relates to your argument. Don't assume the quote explains itself, because it doesn't. Even if it seems obvious to you, it's still your job to explicitly explain how the text you've introduced into your paper connects to and furthers your argument.

9. Bring It All Together: Before you ask for the opinions of other people, make sure that your paper is doing what you want it to do. Read through it several times. Fix any grammar, punctuation, and word choice errors that you notice. If you're unsure, consult an expert or research the issue. Make sure that every argument in your essay can be logically connected back to your thesis. If an argument does not connect to your thesis, expand or revise your thesis to include it or omit it entirely. Begin your paper with an interesting statement, idea, or question and attempt to meaningfully conclude your paper. Once you are confident in what you have written, it's time to get feedback.

10. Get Feedback and Polish: Sometimes it takes a new set of eyes to see an old problem. Writers may assume that their intended meaning will be understood, when readers may require more information or additional explanations. That's why it's important to get another person's feedback before you submit your paper. If at all possible, you should schedule some time with your teacher or professor so that they can give your feedback on your writing. Since they are the one's who will be evaluating your work, their input would be most valuable.

Writing a research paper is an art, not a science, so no single set of step-by-step directions will apply to all situations. Nonetheless, the process discussed in this post has worked for me many times in the past and may work for you as well. Please leave any comments or experiences that you'd be willing to share below. May your composition process go smoothly and interestingly.

By Mr. Morton

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Helping your Child Become a Better Student

Is your child struggling in school?  Would you like to help them become a better student?  I just read this moving article on helping your child become a better student, and it brought up a few really good points:

1.  Communication is Key: parents must communicate with children and children must communicate with teachers.  Teachers must communicate with parents and students.  The more communication that is occurring, the more likely each party is to spot problems and intervene.

2.  Monitor as Closely as Your Must: some children are independent, others require encouragement.  Allow your student to  develop responsibility, but don't allow them to fail.

3.  Focus on the Positive: Success is relative and school is not for everyone.  This does not mean that every child can't learn, but there aren't enough spaceships out there for everyone who wants to be an astronaut.  If your child is improving, celebrate the successes. 

I encourage you to read the whole article.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Teaching Main Idea

Some readers never struggle with identifying the main idea of a text.  If you teach reading class, it is likely that you are one of those readers, in which case you may not understand the process involved in determining the main idea in a passage.  If this skill comes easily to you, you may not realize that recognizing the main idea is a multistage process, and struggling readers may have trouble taking any one of these steps.  This article will explain how readers extract main ideas from texts and will better prepare you to teach students to identify main ideas in nonfiction passages.

Determining Main Idea

Determining the main idea in a text is a second order reading skill.  That is to say, readers must first comprehend the text.  After comprehending the text, readers must further examine the information within the passage and find commonalities.  By finding connections and drawing conclusions, the reader ultimately makes a logical inference determining the primary idea in text.  To further complicate the matter, many texts often contain nonessential information that may distract readers from the main idea of the passage.  So readers may have to recognize and disregard information that does not relate to the main idea of the paragraph or passage.  Here are some tips to help struggling students identify the main idea in a variety of passages:

1.  Read the Entire Passage: many so-called experts will tell readers to focus mainly on the first and last sentences of a paragraph to find the main idea, and while at times this may prove useful, test writers are aware of this trick and often won't structure their paragraphs so simply.  Additionally, it is a best practice to read and comprehend the texts on which you are evaluated, rather than trying to cut corners and find "too good to be true" shortcuts.

2.  Ask, "What is the author doing?": Make sure that you answer this question in your own words.  If you have to cherry pick information from the text to answer this question, you do not have a thorough understanding of the text and should reread the passage if time allows it.

3.  Practice Makes Perfect: As with most things, we improve our efficacy through practice and repetition.  So, practice identifying main ideas in a variety of passages with these main idea worksheets.

The "Another Good Title For This Passage" Trick

Another favorite trick of the test writers is to ask test takers what "another good title for this passage would be."  Inexperience test takes are often confused an misled by this question.  Victims of this trick mistakenly believe that they are actually looking for the best title of the passage, but that is not the case.  Rather, this question is a disguised form of the main idea question.  So, if you encounter such a question at anytime in the future, remember that you are not actually looking for the best title.  Rather, you are attempting to find the title that most accurately summarizes the main idea of the text.

Teaching main idea can be most difficult for good readers, to whom this skill comes naturally.  But, by remembering that identifying the main idea of a text is actually a multistage process that requires instruction, modeling, and practice to learn, you can teach your struggling readers to reliably identify the main idea in texts.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Essay Writing Rubrics

Interpreting one's writing quality is often a value based judgment: even amongst professionals no author receives universal approval.  So as a teacher required to evaluate the quality of students' writing, it is important to have a clearly defined rubric that will add objectivity to the process. 

Essay Writing Rubrics

When planning a unit of writing instruction, it is best to focus on a few skills.  Model these skills for the students and give them practice activities to develop these skills, then assess their writing based on their mastery of those skills.  In other words, if you don't teach students comma rules, then don't assess them on their ability to use commas.  Such a practice is both unfair for the students and complicates the evaluation process for the teacher.

Focus on:
  •  Structure - if the students uses topics sentences or adheres to an organizational pattern that you are requiring.
  •  Formatting - I require my 7th and 8th grade students to use most of the MLA style conventions.  I don't accept 20 point cursive fonts, pictures, or glitter.  This will prepare them for future essay writing.
  • Object of Instruction - This will vary: if I am teaching narrative writing, I usually teach and require climaxes or turning points in students' stories.  I also require attention catchers and closing statements.
 Depending on how you are teaching your writing unit and what skills you find to be the most important for your students, you will most likely require a customized rubric.  If you are looking for a good place to start you can visit my website: I have created a variety of essay writing rubrics that you are free to use and/or modify.  

Monday, May 16, 2011

Effective School Projects

Winding Down the Year with Projects

If your class is feeling at all like mine right now, you're probably eagerly awaiting the end of the school year.  But with the high stakes in education these days, we can't afford to waste classroom time.  So what better way to take the focus off of the educator than to make the students the active agents in the educational process?  And how can we activate students in this way?  To create a student centered classroom, we can provide students with opportunities to create artifacts based on learning goals.  In other words, we can assign students projects.  Check out this list of project ideas to create fun student centered activities to use in your classroom today.  Here are some guidelines in giving out good projects:

  1. Give students an appropriate amount of freedom: for students to have a sense of ownership over their projects, they need a certain amount of creative freedom and control.  Yet, for the project to have educational value, goals need to be set and structure may need to be imposed.  Consider your students educational maturity level when setting project goals.  Students who are less mature will need more structure and more clearly defined project goals for the project to be successful.  
  2. Have a clear rationale: your rationale is your reason for assigning students the project.  Having students build a model of the globe theater is certainly a constructive project, but the rationale for having students build such a model, for devoting so much class time to that project, will be thin.  Make sure that your project is clearly building a skill or creating a knowledge base and align your project goals with your state learning standards to establish a solid rationale.
  3. Don't give students too much time: the more time that you give students, the more likely that they will squander that time  Often, the time will be squandered with misbehavior which could lead to fights or other serious problems in the classroom environment.  By giving students a little less time than you'd expect that they'd actually need, you will motivate the greatest number of students to immediately focus on the task at hand.  Also, if you find that students have been working hard, you can more easily extend the time than reduce it.  
  4. Set daily goals: by establishing expectations for each class period, you can help pace students who need more structure.  If you are concerned that your students are not progressing at an appropriate rate, set daily goals and communicate your expectations with your students.  This may prove particularly helpful with large projects that span the course of many periods. 
  5. Define group roles: If you find that your students need additional structure and oversight to complete the project to your expectations, you can create and assign group roles for which each member may be held accountable.  This removes the aspect of collective punishment that tends to accompany group assignments while simultaneously reducing the amount of coattail riding and piggybacking.  The only difficulty with this approach is actually devising balanced group roles for each project.  
Ultimately, the less time you spend defining roles and establishing expectations, the easier it will be to execute the project.  But if students aren't staying on task or following the schedule that you've imagined, it is your responsibility break the assignment into simpler tasks and motivate failing students.  By redirecting negative energies into constructive forces, your classroom will come alive with productivity and maybe after some successful executions, they will become responsible enough to have more productive freedom.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Making Inferences

Making inferences is a skill by which students are often evaluated on state reading tests.  Additionally, according to Bloom's Taxonomy, analyzing implications is a higher order reading skill than comprehending text.  Therefore, good readers make inferences.  To make an inference, a reader or listener takes information provided by the writer or speaker, combines it with background knowledge and prior information relevant to the situation, and extracts an unstated or implied idea from the communication. 
Inferences are related to implications; in fact, they are the same thing.  The difference is relative to the position of the agent.  Speakers or writers may imply an idea, either consciously or subconsciously.  When an idea is implied, it is expressed without being explicitly stated.  If the listener or reader understands this unstated idea, he or she makes an inference or infers the idea.  For example, person A might ask person B for a ride home. If person B does not feel like transporting person A, person B might respond with the following statement, "My car is pretty crowded."  Though person B never clearly says, "No, I won't give you a ride, person A," this is the implied message.  If person A does not make this inference, person A might insist that he or she can fit in the trunk or sit on someone's lap, whereas person A will have to be more explicit.  When a communication barrier cannot be crossed, there is said to be a gap in understanding. 

The area between what is clearly stated and what is understood is much contended.  Whether in courts of law, classrooms, or casual conversations, implied messages are not always understood and inferred messages are often unintended or faulty.  Inferences are not always objective: they are subject to the reader or listeners beliefs and preconceptions, but they must be based on evidence or else they are assumptions, not inferences. Often times multiple conclusion can be drawn, particularly if the writer or speaker is being intentionally vague or ambiguous.  But in such cases where multiple inferences can be supported, and the reader is expected to determine a correct response, the reader must identify the best or most likely explanation.  Such as in the following example:

Example Implication
Kevin nervously went to the locker room after practice.  Today was the last day of try-outs and he wasn't sure where he stood.  Kevin always tried his best, but he wasn't the fastest, or the best hitter, or capable of catching a fly ball.  Still though, he wanted to be on the team because his dad loved baseball and Kevin wanted to make him proud.  A crowd of guys was huddled around the team list and most were celebrating.  After they thinned out a bit, Kevin looked for his name.  Jimmy Swanson, Kevin's neighbor, was standing next to him.  Jimmy hollered out, "Yes!  Shortstop," and pranced away. Kevin lowered his head and walked away from the list.  Water welled in his eyes.  It would be a long walk home.

So, did Kevin make the team?  Well, the answer isn't clearly stated in the text.  While it is possible to support both conclusions, one is much more likely than the other.  Although one could argue that Kevin cried because he was so happy that he made the team, this ignores the text that explicitly states that Kevin can't catch the ball.  Also, based on prior knowledge one might deduce that time seems to move slower when things are not going well; therefore, since time is moving slower for Kevin, he did not make the team.  Although it is never clearly state, based on the information in the passage, it is more likely that Kevin did not make the team or at least that his name was not on the list. If you are looking for more practice, check out these inferences worksheets at

Making inferences is more difficult than understanding and locating information in a text, but it is something that good readers do.  To make an inference, use your background knowledge or prior information to draw logical conclusions based on textual details.  Though your inferences may not always be valid, by simply making inferences you open the dimensions of communication beyond the explicit.  

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How to Get a Job Teaching

Finding a job teaching is truly one of the most difficult things that I have ever done (three times).  This task is particularly difficult in a saturated field like English or social studies.  Even with years of meritorious achievements, proven student growth, and a record of community contributions, I still feel at times like I am stuck in my current position, but I know that nothing is more difficult than landing the first job.  In this blog post I will offer valuable advice to prospective candidates and particularly student teachers who, after leaving the worst unpaid position in the whole school, are likely to run into a stonewall of opposition in a field where the candidates are so ubiquitous that most administrators don't even have the time or decency to properly reject them.  Pay attention.

  1. Get Certified in an Area of Need: This is the path of least resistance for someone new to the field. As with many other things in our world, the governing forces of supply and demand control the market.  There are more English teachers than math and science teachers because people who are good at math and science become engineers, financial analysts, or something else that pays well; contrarily, people who are talented at reading and discussing literature and history have few viable opportunities to earn a wage besides teaching.  This makes for a large pool of candidates responding to every posted history and English teaching position, and the competition may be overwhelming.  There is much less competition for science, math, and special education teaching positions, and if those don't interest you, there is an emerging need for technology teachers.  If you are reading this blog on the inter-webs, you might just be a good candidate for such a position.  However, getting certified to teach in an area of demand does not guarantee you a job.  Even as a math, special education, science, or technology teacher, administrators won't throw jobs at you.  You'll still have to go through the interview process.  But you'll get more interviews with less effort.  If you're too committed to your course to change it, you'll want to continue reading.

  2. Collect Artifacts: The term "artifacts" refers to student generated work.  Not worksheets, like the valuable reading worksheets offered at, but authentic student creations (think projects) like colorful handbooks, homemade board games, comic strips, or other work that will reflect your student centered approach.  As a student teacher, you have a fleeting opportunity to collect work like this.  Therefore, you should assign students projects where they have the opportunity to create standards based artifacts.  Select the best examples and tell the respective creators that you are very pleased with their work.  Ask them if you may keep their work to model the assignment to future classes.  This will boost their pride and confidence and you will be able to assemble a quality portfolio.  When I say "portfolio," I'm sure many recent graduates have flashbacks of the tedious, useless portfolio made in college for assessment purposes.  Rather, you should create a new, sleek portfolio containing only items of value: quality artifacts, letters of recommendation, special certifications, and other compelling documents.  This serves two purposes. First, you can show how creative your approaches to teaching are, and it is always more convincing to show than to tell.  Second, it will take the interviewers eyes off of you.  If you are being considered for a teaching job, it is likely that you will be interviewed by more than one person.  While you are making eye contact with one of the interviewers, the others may be burning holes through you trying to figure out if you're too soft, too ignorant, or otherwise incompetent.  What better way to divert their stares than by offering them beautiful, authentic student work at which they can marvel?  This approach will take the focus off of yourself and show them what you can do for their students.  So, if it's not too late, get something tangible out of your strenuous student teaching experience in addition to a couple letters of recommendation: assign your students opportunities to showcase their creativity and collect the best samples.
  3. Distinguish Yourself from Your Rivals: If you've ever been to a teaching job fair, you've probably been greeted by seas of skirts and armies of black suited robots waiting in lines that should have amusement park queues.  As discouraging as the scene may be, you will have a few shimmering opportunities to form memorable connections if your stars align correctly.  Such a connection could lead to an interview, which could lead to a job, which could lead to an exciting career, so help the stars out a bit by making an effort to distinguish yourself from the pack.  Here are a few exemplifying suggestions on how you might distinguish yourself from the others:

    • Wear an original tie or accoutrement: Though the fish tie might be a little much, wearing a tie that expresses some personality will more effectively create attention than the stripe, solid, or checkerboard patterns.  Of course, nobody is going to hire you based on a tie, but an outstanding accoutrement might create an opportunity for you to form a memorable connection in the hard earned moments when you do speak with administrators and recruiters.   

    • Kneel before them: While sitting at eye level with administrators and meeting them as equals is preferable, in my experience, at some teaching job fairs there are no chairs in which you may sit to interview.  In these situations, I suggest that you recognize your position and kneel before the administrators.  Though many people ignore its importance, body language has huge conscious and subconscious ramifications on your interactions.  If you are towering over administrators and bellowing about your perfect attendance all through grade school while showering them with saliva particles, you are mistaking the position for which you are applying.  You are to serve the administrators (and the students of course, but you're not interviewing with students).  Begin your service on the right foot... or knee, in this case.  Sure, you might get a little carpet lint on your suit pants, but the fifty people who interviewed before you will look haughty after you humble yourself before your prospective masters, and you might just score an interview out of the scene. 
    • Show your skills: Convince administrators and recruiters that you'll add value to their school.  Do you know other languages?  Excellent.  Boast of them.  Do you have experience in theater, music, or arts?  That's great.  Passionately speak of your experience and involvement in clubs and organizations.  Use your skills as selling points to establish your character and show the expertise with which you can better serve the children.
  4. Be Aggressive: There is a fine line that runs between pushy and persistent, but in the cases of love and the job hunt, you'll find more success occasionally crossing the line than never approaching it.  Don't let your fear of bothering "them" prevent you from realizing your dreams.  "They" are paid to answer your questions and respond to your queries, so let them do their jobs.  Make them tell you "No." Don't just assume that they mean "No," otherwise it will be "No."  After the first interview, send a follow up letter thanking them for the opportunity.  If they don't callback, call them and ask what the status on the position is.  The prize sometimes goes to the contender who wants it the most.  Be humble and be polite, but be persistent.  Nobody will blame you for trying, and if the job slips through your fingers, at least it won't be because you didn't try to grab it. 

  5. Use Your Telephone: With the convenience of electronic communication, many job seekers are solely using email to contact administrators.  But while digital communications continue to replace the analog technologies of yesteryear, something is lost in the transition.  Do not underestimate the power of a phone conversation.  There is some intangible human quality realized in voice communication that is not expressed in blocks of text.  Years of spam 419 scam emails have conditioned people to be suspicious of unsolicited messages.  Such feelings may lead an administrator to not read past the subject line of your cut-and-paste email contact.  Contrarily, if you manage to get him or her on the phone, his or her ears will be open.  While an email may forever go unread, a hand delivered envelope demands some level of physical attention.  However, all of this does not mean that you should be a Luddite.  In fact, if you have not already done so... 
  6. Upgrade Your Contact: Include a phone number, email, and web address on your resume.  Direct the recruiter's attention to the web address.  Don't have a website?  With a content management system like Wordpress, making a website is easy.  Though you might need some help with the installation, you can make a professional looking website in a weekend.  But if you want to invest even less than that, start a free blog here and slap some information about yourself on it.  Sure, your blog will be on a subdomain of (like this post), but many administrators probably don't understand the difference between a domain and a subdomain.  They will probably never visit the page anyway, but having a web address on your resume will make you look techie.  Just in case they do visit, however, you'll want to have some content on your page.  At the bare minimum, include all of your contact information and links to your resume, but while you're at it, throw some online reading tests up there by cutting-and-pasting the HTML code for super-tech points. 

  7. Open up Your Options: As you worked through your education courses in college, you probably imagined an ideal teaching situation.  Perhaps you wanted to teach at the school from where you graduated, or one within one hundred miles of there.  While some people manage to find their way into their ideal position, for each who gains admittance twenty are barred entry.  If you find yourself on the outside of the wall, fear not; the world is big.  Each filter that you remove from your job search will produce new opportunities.  Perhaps you never imagined working in a remote rural school district for $26,000 a year, a catholic school for less, or a poorly performing urban school where violence has a daily presence. Well, consider it.  Consider private schools, public schools, charter schools, and out of state schools.  If you're willing to chase it, you might catch it.  Each stipulation that you impose against your options limits your opportunities and opportunities flee with time.

  8. Apply Where Vacancies Have Not Been Posted: If you passively wait for job opportunities to be posted, you may miss out on unpublished positions with lower competition that spring up at random.  Perhaps these administrators don't want to wade through piles of resumes and streams of unfamiliar faces.  But for whatever reason, many job opportunities go unpublished.  Therefore, sending your resume to every school within your target area can't hurt if you have the stamps.  In the spring of 2006 I sent resume packages (each containing a cover letter, resume, and three letters of recommendation) to almost every high school in Chicago (about 90 packages).  I was given three interviews for my efforts.  Though these interviews did not convert into employment, none of the positions were ever posted online.  These were opportunities that I discovered because I blindly applied.  If you throw enough mud against the wall, some of it is going to stick.

  9. Survey Your Friends and Family: While it's nice to imagine a world where jobs are awarded to the most qualified candidates, often this is not the case.  Sometimes, and perhaps more often than sometimes, it's about who you know.  Therefore, much can be gained by networking within your social circle.  Every time you have a discussion with someone you know that extends as far as "How are you?" mention that you have recently graduated and are looking for a job teaching.  You might think that since these people are not in education, they have not connections with educators, but more likely than not, the person with whom you are communicating has a person in their family who is involved in education.  If they mention that their sister is a teacher, or that their dad's friend is an administrator, go out of your way to give them your resume.  While most of these connections won't be able to get you a job because the school won't be hiring, or because your resume will never arrive at the target destination, your connections are too valuable to ignore.  A good connection will get your resume on top of the pile at least. 

  10. Look Past the Last Day: As the summer wears on and the interviews dry up, you might lose your spirit.  Maybe you'll look into a master's program or consider a career change, but do not give up until you can truly go on no longer.  Though most schools hire in the spring and early summer, many poorly run schools don't satisfy their hiring needs until the final days before the school year and sometimes as much as two weeks after the school year has begun.  Even during the year, life happens.  People's plans change and opportunities arise overnight.  If after all of this you want to continue the job hunt, start substitute teaching and continue your job search internally. 
Finding a teaching job is not an easy thing for most people to do.  The competition is plentiful but the positions do exist.  I hope that these secrets that I've shared with you will help you realize your dreams and make the world a better place.  

    Monday, April 18, 2011

    Whoa. Interactive Worksheets.

    So, I've been working on this new thing: interactive electronic worksheets.

    Right now, I've developed this idea to the point where teachers can post these activities on their websites and blogs. Here's how it works:

    1. Teacher posts this code to his/her page:

    <center><object width="640" height="480"  > <param name="Figurative Language Practice 4" value="figurative-language-practice-4.swf"> <embed src="" width="640" height="480"> </embed> </object></center>

    This code will display figurative language practice 4, which contains twenty examples of figurative language taken from Golding's classic novel, Lord of the Flies (shown below). There are many other electronic reading worksheets at and new worksheets are being added daily.  Unfortunately, (as with all flash) this code won't work on blogs, but it will work right here on

    2. Students go to the teacher's page and complete the activity.  Students have to enter their name, which prints out with the results.  This will cut down on one student completing the activity and printing 10 copies of the results page for each of their friends.  Since the answers shuffle, cheating will also require a little more effort.

    3. Students print their results.

    4. Students give their teacher the results.

    5. Teacher can count the activity as an extra credit grade or standard assignment (depending on how much access the students have to computers). No grading required. Just enter the grades.

    Cool, huh? I'm thinking that this might catch on. Anyway, try it out yourself.

    Pretty cool, right? I wonder what the future will hold.

    Wednesday, April 13, 2011

    Tuesday, April 12, 2011

    Persuasive Attention Catchers

    Attention catchers, leads, attention grabbers, attention getters... By whatever name your school or state refers to them, it is important for students to start their five-paragraph persuasive essay with some sort of technique that will engage the reader.  This blog post will show you some tried and true attention catching techniques to teach your students. 

    1.  Ask a question or series of questions: This technique functions exactly as described.  The writer begins their essay with a question related to the topic or a series of questions.  Beginning an essay with a question can be an effective technique, because when people encounter questions, questions force people to think.  Because most people are trained to respond to questions, this can be a powerful rhetorical technique; however, students need to be taught to write proper questions.  They should understand that persuasion is an art, the art of mind control, really.  So it is not appropriate to begin your essay with a neutral question like, "Should students have cell phones in school?"  Merely rephrasing the prompt is not enough.  I teach students to put a slant on their questions.  My students are taught to begin persuading from their first sentence through their entire paper.  So a more appropriate question (or series of questions) is one for which the writer already knows the answer.  For example, "What if you were taking a difficult final exam and you were struggling to concentrate on a math problem, when a loud rap song began playing?  Would this help you focus?"  Clearly I know that it would not, and this is the point.  Good persuasion will force the desired response.

    2.  Tell a related anecdote: This technique can also be very effective, so long as the students understand a couple basic points.  First, the anecdote needs to be short.  Students must be reminded that they are writing persuasive essays, not narrative essays, so their anecdotes should only be a few sentences or they risk being perceived as writing "off-mode."  Second, the anecdote must be related to the topic.  An unrelated anecdote would be worse than forgoing an attention catching technique entirely; therefore, students need to understand that an good anecdote will be related to their topic and will set the stage for persuasion.  Just as when a student leads with a question, the anecdote should begin persuasion immediately.  The point of the story must somehow reinforce the writer's argument.  An anecdote that does not reinforce the writer's argument will make the piece of writing appear unfocused. 

    Sidenote: If you are currently working on a persuasive writing unit, perhaps this list of 101 persuasive essay topics will help you plan your unit.

    If I am teaching students to respond to a timed assessment, those are the only two techniques which I teach, because they can be used in nearly any circumstance.  However, if I am teaching the multistage persuasive writing process, I might teach these other techniques.

    3.  Startling Fact or Statistic: These are a little more difficult to use, as students will require means of research to locate such information; however, if the instructor does not find it to be unethical, students might be able to improvise some believable facts or statistics.  For example, according to a survey I took in my school, 7 out of 10 students who use cell phones in school are not on the honor roll.  Of course, I never took such a survey, but who would be able to prove that I had not?  Anyway, teaching such a method is a bit controversial, so perhaps it is best left out of your lesson plans, and it may be best to encourage students to only use the startling fact or statistic when they have the ability to research their facts.

    4.  The Related Quote: It's been said that no matter what you want to say, someone has said it better.  And while I don't wholeheartedly agree with this notion, I do know that there are a lot of really nice quotes out there.  If students have access to the internet or a big book of quotes, or perhaps they are well read and have good memories, than using a quote is a very classy way to get the attention of the reader and my favorite method of catching the reader's attention.  Of course, if students don't have those means available, perhaps they remember the words of someone in their life (Mom, Dad, Teacher), in which case they could still use the quote to begin their persuasive essays.

    This post has shown readers 4 ways to catch the attention of the reader in persuasive essays.  Remember, no matter which technique students are using, they angle or slant their lead so that they begin persuading the reader immediately.  May your students move mountains with their words.

    Monday, April 4, 2011

    Teaching Text Structure

    Students are often required to identify the structure of texts on standardized reading assessments.  For this reason, it is important that they are exposed to the various patterns of organization: cause and effect, chronological, compare and contrast, order of importance, problem and solution, sequence or process writing, and spatial or descriptive writing.  Each text structure is fully explained at  Each pattern of organization can be represented using a corresponding graphic organizer.  So the first thing that I do when teaching students about text structure is define the terms and show how each graphic organizer relates to each term.  Later, when they are reading passages to determine the text structure, I will have them put information from the passage into the appropriate graphic organizer.  This has three benefits:  First, it generally causes students to work more thoughtfully on the activity since they are graphically representing text, not just be filling in blanks or circling choices.  Second, the activity has a sort of "autocorrect" feature where if the text they are analyzing does not fit into the graphic organizer, students should eventually identify that they are mistaken.  Lastly, the activity is both student centered and time consuming, so that they may take ownership over there work while freeing up time for your to work individually with students who require more assitance.  Teaching students how to identify text structure is beneficial to all parties.  Learn more about teaching text structure at where there are worksheets, interactive practice quizzes, PowerPoint lessons, activities, and videos all available for free.

    Sunday, March 13, 2011

    Why Teach 7th and 8th Grade Students Nouns?

    The ability to determine that a basketball is a common, singular, concrete noun seems like a relatively useless parlor trick.  Though there appears to be little value in knowing this, I believe that this is fundamental to learning the more valuable skills of understanding sentence structure, punctuation, and grammar.  When I was in high school, I remember struggling to write papers.  Not because I didn't have any good ideas to express, but because my understanding of sentence structure was poor enough to limit my expression.  Since I didn't have mastery of punctuation, I found myself rewording my ideas just to fit in the few templates that I had mastered.  For this reason, I believe it is important to teach students about parts of speech and, ultimately, how to clearly and fluently express their ideas in writing.  So I start at the beginning with my 7th and 8th grade students.  I figure that if they don't know how to recognize nouns and verbs, they won't learn to identify subjects and predicates.  If they don't learn to identify subjects and predicates, they won't be able to understand clauses and punctuation rules.  I never presume that my job has been done for me, so I reteach my students nouns, even if they claim to have mastery.  I find that teaching my seventh and eighth grade students more advanced information about nouns seems to raise their interest and the value of my lesson.  Therefore, I show them concrete and abstract nouns.  I teach them when one should add just an apostrophe an no "s" to show possession.  And I fuse these concepts along with the basics into one quick lesson.  After we have covered the basics, I have them practice identifying nouns with these noun worksheets, and then we move on to verbs. 

    Wednesday, March 9, 2011

    Teaching Idioms

    Teaching students to understand idiomatic expressions is complicated by two factors.  First, idioms are often cliched examples of other figurative language techniques.  For example, "Reminding Tommy to stay in his seat was like beating a dead horse."  This idiom is actually a simile.  The only distinction that this simile has is that it has been used so frequently that it is now cliched and, hence, an idiom.  The second complicating factor is that most elementary students have had little exposure to the many antiquated idioms floating around in the language.  If a student cannot recognize that an expression is commonly used in language art large, that students will have difficulty identifying (and understanding) idioms. 

    However, I do not believe that these complications are insurmountable.  The best way to prepare students to recognize and interpret idioms is to give them exposure to idioms.  Given enough leading context, thoughtful students should be able to decode the most cryptic and archaic idioms.  Fortunately, I've gathered many of the commonly used idioms and presented them into double-sided worksheets with which students can gain more practice identifying and interpreting idioms.  Visit my website now for free idiom worksheets.

    Sunday, March 6, 2011

    Teaching Students to Identify Themes

    One of the more challenging skills that I've attempted to teach my students is how to identify the themes in stories.  In the past, I defined the term, provided an example or two, and asked students to identify the theme in a story.  Then we would hit a wall.  Some students would readily locate and express challenging themes in texts, and some just wouldn't be able to wrap their heads around the concept.  I would become frustrated, and we would move onto something like homophones, homonyms, and homographs.  But this year I had something of a breakthrough: by teaching students theme in the more understandable terms of "the big world lesson" and "the small world of the story," I was able to reach more of my students this year than in the past.  Using this new method of teaching theme, I resolved some of the problems that my students were having with understanding theme.  The last challenge I faced was giving students enough practice with identifying themes that they would reliably identify themes in texts.  Immediately after learning theme, students need more practice identifying themes than one story can provide.  So while we attempted to identify the theme in each text that we studied as a class throughout the year, I found it useful to compile very short stories into theme worksheets, where students would read examples, identify themes, and explain their answers.  I hope that these methods and resources will help your students to better identify themes in texts, and thanks for paying attention.


    Saturday, February 26, 2011

    Teaching Fact and Opinion

    Identifying statements of fact and statements of opinion is a skill that is frequently evaluated on state tests.  I find that students often get hung up trying to determine whether a factual statement is true or false.  If they believe that the statement is false, they may be reluctant to label said statement as a fact. because many people are conditioned to associate the term "fact" with the idea of "true" or "correct."  A good way that I have found to break students of this habit, which may do them harm come test time, is to teach the concepts of fact and opinion in the following way.

    Teach students that facts can be true or false.  Students should be taught that a factual statement is one that can be proven to be true or false, and that statements of opinion cannot be proven.  For example, I may say "Mr. Mortini is ten feet tall.  This is a statement of fact.  We can all see that it is a fact that is false, but we can easily prove it to be false, therefore it is factual.  Now, if I said that Mr. Mortini is tall, this would be an opinion.  A person who is shorter than Mr. Mortini might agree with this statement, but a person who is taller than Mr. Mortini would likely disagree.  Since there is no way to prove the statement beyond argument, it is a statement opinion." By teaching students that facts can be true or false, they will stop wasting energy trying to determine whether facts are accurate and focus their efforts on distinguishing between statements that can be proven and cannot be proven.

    Teach students that opinions can be supported with facts.  Students may continue to struggle with the notion of proving an opinion.  For example, if I make the statement, "Drinking orange juice after brushing your teeth tastes bad," some students will argue that this is a fact.  I will ask, "Why?  How can you prove this?"  They will respond by saying that when they had done it in the past it tasted bad (personal experience), or that we could have a random sample of people do it and all of them will agree (polling).  I point out that this may be a very popular opinion, but that it is still an opinion.  Or I will point out that the statement was not, "10 out of 10 people I asked agree that orange juice tastes bad after brushing your teeth."  I tell them to respond to the statement that was posed, not to over think it.  Then, I show them how facts can be used to support opinions.  1.  Michael Jordan averaged over 30 points a game.  2.  Michael Jordan averaged over 2 steals a game.  3.  Therefore, Michael Jordan is one of the best basketball players ever.  I show them how we can prove the first two points to be true or not true, thereby making them fact, but that the third statement could never be proven.  It can be supported, but not proven.

    Give students practice identifying statements of fact and statement of opinion.   I created a couple of worksheets that should prove helpful in this task.  They are double-sided and contain 25 statements each. Go to ereadingworksheets now to check them out: fact and opinion worksheets, and may you have great success in teaching your students to distinguish between facts and opinions.

    Increase Your Students' Reading Test Scores

    I've been a Chicago Public School teacher for six years now, and according to ISAT data (the Illinois state test that elementary school students take) my students have demonstrated remarkable growth.  My reading classes are averaging growth of 12.5% each year, and I believe that these scores reflect authentic learning, not an increase in test taking skills.  Additionally, 95% of my students are classified as "low-income," so I'm not producing this growth in some candy land suburb where teachers have the benefits of technology and materials.

    The way I produce this growth is by focusing my instruction on the skills that my state (and probably your state too) has articulated that students should know at their grade level.  Skills like identifying text structure, figurative language, or the narrator's view point, to name a few.  When trying to buy or find materials on the internet that would provide my students with the necessary practice to become adept at these skills, I found a paucity of available materials, and the materials I did find seemed to lack in quality or were not rigorous enough.  So, I created my own.  The combination of effective teaching strategies and quality resources have proven successful in providing my students with useful literary skills that just so happen to be evaluated on state tests.  
    Hoping to help and inspire other educators, I have now made my materials freely available at my website,  For each assignment I include PDF files (for perfect printing), RTF files (so that you may edit each assignment to fit your needs or to personalize the assignments), and HTM files (so that you may preview each worksheet in your browser before downloading the file).  Responses from users have been overwhelmingly positive, but I still have big plans for improving and expanding the site, particularly in the realm of elearning or creating true electronic worksheets using Adobe Captivate.  If you are a reading, English, writing, or language arts teacher looking for free materials or just some inspiration, please visit to access a wealth of resources.