Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Syllabus

For as long as I can remember, syllabi have been boring.

Letters on pages in Times New Roman, 12 point font staring me in the face either telling me or my students what they (we) will learn and how we will learn it. They're not only terrifying for students, but they're intimidating for teachers. Am I going to be able to write everything that I expect on this one page? Will it be overwhelming for my kiddos? Will they shut down immediately when they see this?

I can't be alone in this. We all have to have these thoughts...right?

Well, my wonderful mentor Kristy (@kmkteach) found a great infographic syllabus on Pinterest and sent it to me. Immediately, I knew that this would be the form my syllabus would shift into this year.

I'd be lying if I said that writing this syllabus took less time AND looked better -- it took about triple the time a normal syllabus would take to write, but it definitely looks better. It actually just feels better to me. It feels more like who I am as a teacher, and I'm excited to have students have this first little glimpse into who they will have as a teacher.

To see the full quality, you'll probably need to go to the website and have a QR code reader handy (inigma is fantastic if you're using an iPad/iPhone). I tried to make it as interactive and pleasing as possible while also getting down to the nitty gritty of my expectations and goals for the course. If you're interested in having the web version, please shoot me a tweet and I'll be happy to DM you the link.

I won't go into too much detail, and I just finished it today, so I'll probably find misspellings and change some things before the troops come in, but I wanted to share in case any of you are interested in using this format for your own students.

I created it using, which can take some getting used to. I suggest using a desktop or laptop and sitting down for a few hours with it. It's worth the time, in my opinion.

And without further ado...

Until next time,
Ms. Z

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

EdCamp ELA

Every time that I get thinking about EdcampELA, I get so excited. I'm excited about how much I'm going to learn, how much I hope to teach others, and how many fellow educators I'm going to get the opportunity to meet!

Okay, maybe I'm jumping ahead of myself a little bit.

So, what is EdcampELA? Well, EdcampELA is the brain child of my good friend Kristy Louden (@kmkteach). While we were sitting together at EdcampBirmingham, she looked at me and threw out an idea: let's do this for English teachers.

Edcamps are an amazing experience for professional development. I'm one of those odd birds that genuinely enjoys PD. I like to sit there and listen to other teachers talk. I love to read "teacher books" and then join book clubs about them. I check Twitter on a daily basis for any new educational information that I can get my hands on.

But none of these things, not one of them, compares to Edcamp.

What's so great about Edcamp is that it's an "unconference," which basically just means that the day is open to those who are there. There are no sessions; no keynote speakers. There are no definite schedules to follow; no defined "lesson to learn." It's all up to the people that show up. The attendees are the speakers, the teachers, and the learners. All in one day, you get to play all of the roles! It's amazing.

So the day goes a little something like this:
At about 8 am, you arrive at Edcamp. When you get there, you're given a chance to mix, mingle, and most importantly, check out The Board. The Board is a literal board (either a whiteboard/chalkboard or a virtual board) that attendees use to create and check out the schedule of sessions for the day. There are usually about 5 sessions throughout the day with multiple choices offered during those sessions. You might have one about Twitter, one about Tellegami, and one about GAFE all at the same time. You choose what you'd like to go to. Also, during this time, if you have an idea for a session you're welcome to write it on "The Board"! All you need is a sticky note and a quick description or title.

After checking out The Board, attendees are given a welcome from the Edcamp organizers and they are given the lay of the land -- AKA directions around what is usually a school you've never been to before. Then it's time to start learning!

My personal favorite part of Edcamp is the idea that you "vote with your feet," which basically just means that if you want to leave a session, no apology needed. Go somewhere that you'll learn something. Nobody's feelings will be hurt (and even if they are, they are sworn to keep it to themselves :) ). 

At the end of the day there are usually giveaways and chats between new friends. It's really a great day.

So, with that explanation out of the way, EdcampELA is a bit different than the majority of Edcamps around, as it's really, specifically for English teachers, reading coaches, literacy instructors, administrators, and librarians. Or, well, anybody interested in reading, writing, listening, speaking, and literacy skills. If that's you, you should be there!

EdcampELA will be held September 6 at Hoover High School (mark your calendars!).

It's going to be a day unlike anything else, because it really will speak to those of us there. We will get a chance to share ideas that we can DIRECTLY transfer into our classrooms. We will learn about strategies, books, skills, and technology that we can use in our classrooms without having to figure it out. We can collaborate with those who experience our daily lives in their daily lives. We can build relationships in different schools so that we have a PLN across the state! It's going to be a special experience.

So, please, join us for EdcampELA. Kristy has worked unbelievable hard to make this a great experience for all involved. She has a vision for this day, and it's one that I'd love to experience. So let's make it a reality!

When you come to Edcamp, don't feel like you have to present. You don't. But if you have a great idea, please share it with us! We are excited most about learning from each of you, so come with ideas! I know you all have them!

You can find more about EdcampELA at our website:
For tickets (THEY'RE FREE!):

Also, help us spread the word! We want diversity and collaboration, so we need as many people as we can get! Follow the hashtag #edcampELA and us on Twitter at @EdcampELA .

If you have any questions, feel free to email Kristy or myself at

We look forward to learning from and with each of you!
Ms. Z

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

AETC 2014

Today I attended my first Alabama Educational Technology Conference, and I'm exceptionally impressed.

I'll tell you a secret: I wasn't too terribly excited about going. Not only was I nervous about presenting (first time), but I'm a bit burned out on tech. I teach in a 1:1 school, and this was the first year with all students having iPads. The majority of our PD this year has focused on-you guessed it!-technology. I didn't even realize how tired of it I was until my great friend Kristy (@kmkteach) mentioned how much she missed content-specific PD. As much as we both love and are excited to have tech in the classroom, we really miss English and digging deep into that world as well.

But I was signed up to present and figured heck, why not get the most out of paying for parking?

I got so much more than that.

I won't get too specific, but the day was amazing. It began with Dr. Tommy Bice, our state superintendent, urging us as educators to step out of the box. He requested that we step up to the plate and make a difference-shake up the education world. He guaranteed years ahead without test scores effecting teachers' jobs and school accountability. He refused to apologize for adopting the CCRS, turning away from NCLB, and causing disruptions in the traditional education system. Truly inspiring. I couldn't be luckier to work in Alabama with the support of Dr.Bice.

Next I got the opportunity to see one of our assistant principals at HHS win the Marbury Award for technology integration. Dr. Sutherland (@BUCSlead) has been a wonderful leader in our Engaged Learning Initiative for Hoover City Schools. I'm very proud to work with her daily.

Then the true conference began. Jeff Utecht (@jutecht) was the keynote speaker and was jaw-droppingly hilarious. If you don't know Jeff, you should connect with him on Twitter immediately. He's taught and worked with schools and children all around the world, which makes him an interesting speaker. He showed us what technology looked like globally and how many misconceptions many Americans hold about our technological advancements in comparison to other countries. Believe it or not, we're actually behind. Rwanda and Ethiopia are aiming to have 100% wifi connection at least a year before the U.S. is projected to. 

His presentation really urged us as educators to change the CONTEXT of how we teach in today's globally-connected society. He reminded us that standards will always be standards, but we need to teach in the context that our students will experience in the world around them. Instead of focusing simply on paper-based reading skills, why not integrate reading the internet search pages? Why not focus on how we can train students for jobs that are cloud-based (which, by the way, had 1.7 MILLION unfilled jobs in 2012 due to the lack to knowledge needed to carry out the job).

To say the least, the presentation was eye-opening and humbling. I will continue to connect with Mr. Utecht over Twitter and hope to continue learning from his global experiences.

Next, I attended a session given by Kevin Honeycutt (@kevinhoneycutt). I had heard so much about him before attending the session that I was overjoyed to have the chance to meet him. His presentation argued for educators that are constantly learning, showing a love for learning, and passing that along to students. He argued for creation (with self-created businesses, startup projects, and student-driven compaines) on all levels. 

One of my favorite things that he recommended was having students work in companies for a semester. They were given "money" to "buy" things that they would need in order for their companies to be successful. I'm thinking about taking this concept and putting it toward my PBL project for next year. Stay tuned! :)

I then went back to hear more from Mr. Utecht. The two sessions I attended were amazing. The first was based on Google Apps and how to use them in ways that we don't consider at first. The second informed us of how to use blogs as an eportfolio system. Both of these sessions were unbelieveably helpful. Here are the links that he gave us with resources from the sessions:

Also, here's a bonus interesting link from Jeff about how Wikipedia is actually more accurate than your most recent textbook (even in HISTORY!)

Lastly, I presented with Nikki Robertson (@NikkiDRobertson) on Doctopus, Goobric, and Google Hangouts. You can find my video on how to use Doctopus and Goobric below. I'm just getting started with making vidoes, so beware!

If you're able to attend next year, I highly reccommend this conference. You can go ahead and mark your calendar for June 9-11 2015!

Until next time,
Ms. Z

Monday, June 2, 2014

Why Grade/Subject Level PLCs Aren't Enough

I'm exceptionally lucky to work with amazing English teachers on a daily basis. I have been shocked at the level of passion that these teachers have, even after 20 years. However, I rarely get the opportunity to discuss lessons and ideas with all of them.

My school requires that we meet with our PLC once per week during our off periods. This time is usually spent sharing and creating, critiquing and praising. It's a time that's always very interesting to me as a new teacher. I usually develop ideas, borrow resources, and, sometimes on really good days, feel a bit better about what I do in the classroom. And as much as I do enjoy meeting with this's just not enough. Luckily, a lot of people agree with that.

When I began working at my school, there was already a group in place that called themselves the Writing Team thanks to our department head Chad Cooley. This team works vertically in order to better develop an expectation at each grade level of where students should be. This team meets completely voluntarily after school about once a month/once every 2 months. We've spent this year laying out a plan that I think will be great for the department that we're going to try next year. We're focusing on creating a "toolkit" that students will become familiar with throughout high school - in academic vocabulary, worksheets, handouts, and assignments - so that things don't need to be constantly retaught due to a misundertanding rather than not understanding the content. It's an exciting process, and it's one of the things that I believe will truly make a difference in shaping our school and building our students' writing skills.

Two of our principals, Jennifer Hogan and Carrie Busby (@jennifer_hogan, @hhsbusby), have begun a new team that will work on literacy in all areas of the school. They have dubbed it the Literacy Team. It's much different from Writing Team, as it incorporates all subject areas. We have science teachers, math teachers, administrators, history, and English teachers all prepared to work together to improve literacy in our school. We are reading The Core Six Essential Strategies for Achieving Excellence with the Common Core as the basis of our first year. Split into groups of 3, we will focus on one of the 6 strategies focused on in the book. I can already feel the change that this will make at HHS. It's an exciting endeavor for the students, but also for us.

We, as educators, need to build off of each other. We need to know where our kids are when they come to us and how to prepare them for where they are going. As a teacher working in a large high school, I know that this can be difficult. I know that there isn't always time to sit down with an entire department and discuss what each of us is doing in class. But I think it's important. I think knowing what our students have read, touched, written, felt, experienced, and learned thus far in their education gives us a better idea of how to push them forward instead of running the endless wheel of reteaching.

Let me give you an example of what I mean-
When I began working with the Writing Team, I created a Google Form that I asked the department to fill out. Basically, I wanted to know what we all called different parts of an essay. We had discussed the need for a more common academic vocabulary when teaching and discussing writing, and this was our first step in interpreting where we stand. I turned this form into an infographic using Here are our findings:

I apologize for the bad quality of the image. You can see the results here as well:

Although we would never ask all teachers to use certain vocabulary, it was important for us to know what our students had called a certain part of an essay. If I'm introducing a topic sentence and call it a claim, I can tell students that it's similar, or the same as, a topic sentence. They should then be able to tap into their prior knowledge to better understand the concept, and I won't have to reteach the same concept that they already know.

I'm excited about where my department and my school is headed when dealing with vertical learning communities for educators. I personally believe that it will benefit our students, our faculty, and our administration in the future. I hope that this becomes something bigger than what it is in these beginning stages. We all have a lot to learn from each other. It's time that we start collaborating in a real, noteworthy way.

Until next time,
Ms. Z

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

PBL Passion Project: Take 2

I'm planning a new pretty exciting project for next year, and I'm ready to share my outline. For those of you who might be planning something incorporating PBL, 20% time, and close-reading, this may get you thinking :). I hope it helps!

I've read a lot of information on Genius Hour or 20% time, and I tried to, sort of, include it into my curriculum this year. However, I did a really bad job. For a few reasons: I didn't give kids enough time to write and to explore in class; even though my kids were writing about what they enjoyed, there were still deadlines, meaning that it was still just an assignment to be graded; and lastly, my students didn't have a discovery to make -- they lacked direction.

If you've read my blog before, you know that I had my students blog this year about something of their choosing. They were required to write 6 blog posts of 500 words that followed the QOEGV rubric. And as awesome as this may have been, it wasn't enough. They weren't reading closely. They weren't citing things properly. And by the end, they had said all that they wanted to say and were simply rambling to reach word count requirements. Who does that help? Nobody.

So, for next year, I'm completely revamping this project.

Instead of having students jump right into blogging, we're going to do a lot of close reading practice. This will be done for the first semester. I want students to get the feel for how to read closely and develop a toolbox of strategies to use out on their own later in the year. I'm plan on having students use writing notebooks and as a jumping off place. We'll do these every few days -- learning how to develop an argument and do research on a topic with valid sources.

We'll also focus on an Article of the Week once a week on Fridays. I plan to use this as my 20% time, if you will. Students will collaborate and discuss issues based on the Article of the Week and then learn how to respond to the article through writing. This will teach close reading and writing strategies. You can read more about AOTW here.

By the end of the semester, I hope that students will have found at least one topic that they are interested in exploring deeper. Students will then, at the beginning of the second semester, turn this topic into a guiding question, which will lead them for the rest of the semester. This question should, obviously, be broad enough for students to be engaged in for an entire semester, but narrow enough to eventually answer.

For the rest of our Fridays together, students will participate in PBL workshops in which they will write, discover, ask questions, and share. I have a lot of developing to do with this part, but I'm envisioning blogs, researching articles, round table discussions, and mini-presentations. I really want my kiddos to move at their own pace in this workshop, too. I will set deadlines for the end of the 9 weeks (1 mini-presentation, 1 round table discussion led, and 3 blogs written, for instance), but let them choose when and how to accomplish these tasks.

For their end product, students will create a synthesis packet and write a synthesis essay discussing their topic and their research. This will cover the standards from the CCRS while still giving students autonomy on what to write about.

I'm excited to try this, and even though it's a lot of time to commit to one project, I see it being amazing. I want to put learning into my kids' hands, and I think this is the way to do it.

Until next time,
Ms. Z

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The List of Accountability

I read a blog post recently (I apologize, but I can't remember from where) that suggested we as teachers need to do a spring cleaning of both our mind and our lessons. The best suggestion? Make lists. List what worked, what didn't, what to scrap, what to save. Just write it all down.

So, that's how I started my list-writing obsessiveness. I'm not kidding when I say that I have lists everywhere - on my iPad, my phone, sticky notes on my computer, paper jumbled in my bag - of things I want to change for next year. Ideas I have for next year. Excitement that I have for next year. Most of the lists are about lessons that I tried, units that should be completely redone, or strategies to research over the summer.

But there's this other list that I wrote, and I want to add it here for no other reason but to hold myself accountable - 

Awesome ideas you had but were too afraid to try:

1. 20% time
2. A BRAWL (thereadinessisall is amazing.)
3. Socratic Circles with coaches (check out Esther Wu on for more info)
4. The big Gatsby project -- Who is really at fault?
5. Writing to write and reading to read -- AKA making time for things I believe are important.

I spent the majoirty of this year finding myself as a teacher rather than pushing myself as a teacher, and that bothers me. I didn't stretch myself in a way that I want to. Did I do some new and interesting things? Sure. I love the blogs that my students wrote, but I want to do more. I want my kiddos do more. To know more and be more.

To be fair, I put my toe in the pool with some of these things but never fully jumped in. 
But next year? 

Watch out.

 Cannonball coming

Ms. Z

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Standards Based Grading - Beginning the Process

I recently received an email from one of our board members suggesting that our school system would soon move toward implementing standards based grading. At first I was confused - we JUST implemented 1:1 technology this year. Now a grading change? That's a lot in a small amount of time.

I had never even heard of standards based grading until this October (I am a first year teacher, remember). One of my principals held a few PD sessions over lunch with discussions on the different articles in ASCD's Effective Grading Practices edition. We read many different articles that all called for grading reform. When we turned our attention to the article "Grades That Show What Students Know" by Robert J. Marzano and Tammy Heflebower, I immediately questioned the value of standards based grading. I had just graduated college and was supposed to be trained in the new educational trends, yet I had never been exposed to this type of grading. I didn't know how to respond to the idea of implementing an entirely new system of grades. I didn't get it, to be honest.

I didn't understand the concept of standards based grading, true, but more importantly, I didn't understand how utterly broken our current grading system is.

Suddenly, I became faced with the question that we all have to answer at some point as educators: what do my grades represent?

I decided that I wanted my grades to represent mastery and learning rather than behavior, and it was time for me to stare at my mistakes and questions in the face and make sense of my grading practices. Here are just a few of the thing I've begun to consider -

-Turning in assignments on time is important, but isn't the work turned in what really matters? 
-Bringing materials is a necessity, but should I be grading HIGH SCHOOL students on this?
-No matter how much I love for students to do group work, it will never prove individual mastery.
-Practice should not be counted against students. No wonder they're afraid of failing.
-Students should be given multiple opportunities to prove mastery. This promotes creativity.

As we move to standards based grading, I have a lot of things to change. We all do. But it's important that we stay open to this change. Ultimately, it keeps teachers and students accountable on an equal playing field. Students will leave our classrooms confident and sure that they are capable of living up to a standard.

There are plenty of implementation questions that are still on the table. How will my computer-based grade book work? How will GPAs be weighted? What about elective classes? (If you have any tips, please share!)

I'm excited for the change, and I'll be slowly introducing my implementation process here on the blog if you're interested. 

Until next time,
Ms. Z

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Literature Groups...Finally

For a long time, I've wanted to explore the world of literature groups (or cirlces. It sounds more grown up as groups to me). I decided to take the plunge with our American drama.

My mentor Kristy Louden and I decided that we would go out on a limb and teach A Streetcar Named Desire this year. Kristy had never taught it before, so we decided to try it out together.

As we began discussing how we wanted to go about teaching the play, one of the most important things that we wanted to do was to create a standout unit, one that is very different from anything either of us had ever really done. And, maybe more importantly, different from anything any other 11th grade teachers were doing. If we were going to go out on a limb and break away from the norm, we wanted to do it the right way.

When we dug into the play a bit deeper, we saw the many different views or lenses that we could teach through. And we thought. And couldn't decide. And made lists. And scratched things off. And finally, we decided that, well, we just couldn't pick one lens.

Finally, it hit Kristy, and our focus literature groups were born.

There are many differnt avenues that we could have gone through with these literature focus groups, but we decided on the 6 that we viewed as the most prominant in the play: feminism, patriarchy, symbolism, language, historical/cultural influences and contexts, and conflict. All of these focuses ease into each other eventually, and they seemed to make a lot of sense based on what would interest our students and what their greatest struggles are.

I created the unit based on lessons from Kelly Gallagher's Deeper Reading, my teaching bible. Each group had four activities, with each activity (minus the fourth) being different than the other groups' activities. Basically, there were 19 activities to create for the groups. I wanted the activites to hone in on the focus of each group and build upon one another. The most difficult part was the placement. Each activity could be so deep that it became difficult to decide which would be the earlier and therefore more superficial of the group's activites. Overall, though, it worked out extremely well.

My students were more drawn into the play than they have been with anything else that they've read this year. I've seen grades improve dramatically. The responsibility factor is really affecting them too. Students feel a connection with their group members -- there are relationships forming that haven't bloomeed all year! -- and they feel responsible for seeig their group members succeed.

I won't say that it's because the unit was well-written (although I am proud of it). A Streetcar Named Desire is a fanstastic play that speaks to all ages, races, and cultures. It's a soap opra drama that students eat up like nothing I have ever seen. Sure, there are some that weren't drawn in, but watching the hands shoot up to read aloud is enough for me.

I'm thrilled that I decided to try literature groups, and I'm so proud of my students for responding in a positive manner. I'm proud of their maturity with each other and the subject matter and their ever-growing responsibility.

Without a doubt, Streetcar has made it into my "keep pile" for the year.

I'm considering putting up the unit on TpT, so keep an eye out if you're interested!

Keep on reading,
Ms. Z

Monday, March 3, 2014


Last Saturday, I attended TEDxBirmingham, which I can say, without a doubt, was one of the most inspiring, transformational experiences of my life.

I was first introduced to TED talks in my college linguistics class. In an instant, I was hooked. I have spent many hours, shamelessly, learning from these speakers and connecting with their words. As an English teacher, I love words. Spoken or written, words are my passion, and TED talks brought out that passion in a new and exciting way.

TED talks are based on the idea of inspiration, and that's what I love most about them. Their topics range from science to education, activism to anthropology. There is a TED talk out there for everyone, and I highly recommend finding one that speaks to you.

One of the assistant principals at HHS, Jennifer Hogan (@jennifer_hogan), sent out the information about TEDxBirmingham late in 2013 to the faculty and staff, and I jumped at the opportunity to attend. Because this was the first TEDxBirmingham, seats were limited, and applications were required to get a ticket. Mrs. Hogan pointed out in her email that there was an opportunity to apply for a scholarship. This scholarship was given to educators and was labeled as applying for an Educator Fellow. Only 20 applications were accepted and asked to attend TEDxBirmingham for free.

I applied. I was accepted. I was thrilled.

I'm glad to say that the K-12 Relations Coordinator, Dylan Ferniary, came to find each of us during the conference and helped us meet each other. It was a rich experience to meet all of these fellow educators and to share this conference with them. It is Dylan's hope that we, as educators, can begin to network more in-person. We will continue to stay in touch and experience TED events together.

TEDxBirmingham had wonderful speakers in many different subject areas. Each TEDxBirmingham speaker was fantastic, but there were a few that stand out to me and spoke to me, personally.

Malik Kofi is a 12-year-old prodigy on the cello, but he is also so much more than that. Malik let each of us know what we can inspire, not matter our circumstances or age.

Victoria Hollis works with the students of Birmingham City. She brought the audience to their feet with her inspirational plea to remove the descriptors for students and view them all as equal and as children.

Glenny Brock has dedicated many years to restoring the Lyric theater in downtown Birmginham. Remember your city, she urged us, and make it the best that it can be.

Jen Barnett, a once-business owner, reminded us to never quit. Even in times that Jen couldn't see the light, she was able to laugh it off and push herself harder than she imagined possible. Her bravery, she says, is her best quality and what makes her special and a standout.

Pat Hymel reminded each and every one of us to revel in admitting failures and errors - not matter how great the consequence of our action. Admitting our mistakes leads others to do the same.

I highly recommend attending a TED or TEDx conference. I walked out of the conference a person different than the one who had entered that morning. As educators, it's extremely important that we continue to push ourselves for our schools, ourselves, and our students. Even though I am a brand new teacher and I may not be quite as jaded or uninspired as some, I am and will forever push myself and my bounds.

At the end of the day, I walked out of the TEDxBirmingham conference asking myself, "What would my TED Talk attempt to inspire?" I'm still not sure, and right now, I don't have to know. But I'd like to know that, one day, I might inspire somebody the way that each speaker at TEDxBirmingham inspired me.
Link to Livestream above.

Sometimes, all it takes is a little inspiration.
Ms. Z

Friday, February 28, 2014

Student Blog Links

Here is the full list of my students' blog links. If you have time, please try to check them out. My students have worked extremely hard on these and are adding to them all of the time. I tried to make sure that all blog links are added in the list and that there are no repeats. If you find a mistake, I apologize!

Blog link

Until next time,
Ms. Z