Posted in Teaching

Advice From a Teacher: Recommendations for Writing Help


As a teacher* I’m frequently asked for advice on teaching, learning, studying, reading, and avoiding getting sick. While I don’t consider myself an expert on any of these things, I always try to give some helpful suggestions.

So… I’ve decided to start sharing those suggestions on my blog, hoping that my small pieces of advice might travel a little bit further.

* NOTE: I’ve decided to stop referring to myself as a “former” teacher. I am a teacher. I have a valid, current teaching certificate and over fifteen years of experience in the classroom. Regardless of the fact that my current job is not teaching, I am still a teacher.

Advice From a Teacher

Last week, a friend of mine sent me this question about his daughter:

“Any recommendations for helping a new 5th grader to write better? Any good grammar books for her to learn from? Any habits I should be forming with her for reading and writing? She did not do so hot on the STAAR test, but super enjoys school.”

Here’s my reply:

The short answer is that I don’t have a good short answer. But here are some thoughts:

Does she like to read? Find something she loves to read and get her to read a lot. Reading good writing is key to writing good writing. If she likes Star Wars, I’m currently loving the Origami Yoda series by Tom Angleberger. Some people probably consider it more of a “boy book” (<– ugh, I hate those words) but I love it. I also love many other books and can compile a list if you want. (I did compile that list! See below.)

Rather than force a grammar book on her, which could easily kill her passion for writing and/or her soul, get her to practice writing about things she likes. Letters to people, a description of a favorite movie or book, a story she made up. If you’re really serious about getting her some help before school starts, you could hire a writing tutor, but I would try to find one that will make the experience fun and interesting and not just drill her with test prep. There might also be a camp or something she could attend. I know we have some in Austin. (I’ve compiled a list of those too.)

For essay writing, I do have a book I recommend. It’s called Reviving the Essay by Gretchen Bernabei, and it’s an awesome teaching tool. It comes with many useful exercises and great examples. But it probably wouldn’t be seen as a “fun summer activity” by most kids, so you’d still need someone to guide her through it. Also, the exercises teach kids how to write REAL essays, not 26-line timed standardized test crud. Which brings me to my last point…

Standardized tests are mostly crud. (See example of cruddy test materials below.) If she’s doing well otherwise in school, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. However, not worrying is easier said than done. If getting better at the test questions will make you and your daughter feel better, you can always access released tests online and practice with those.



Books I Love That I Recommend for Fifth Graders:

  • The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger
  • Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar
  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio
  • The Lost Track of Time by Paige Britt
  • Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
  • The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy by Nikki Loftin
  • The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
  • Greenglass House by Kate Milford
  • A Tale Dark & Grimm by Adam Gidwitz
  • The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. #1) by Jonathan Stroud

Austin Summer Writing Camps for Kids:


The Awesomeness of Gretchen Bernabei:

If you’re a writing teacher, I highly recommend buying a copy of Reviving the Essay. You will definitely get your money’s worth. But if you’re a parent looking for some writing exercises for your child, check out Gretchen’s website. She offers a wide variety of downloadable writing advice, including strategies to help with the STAAR test.

Speaking of the STAAR Test…

THIS is what the STAAR Writing Test answer document looks like.



But don’t worry. Good teachers know it’s crud and they will teach your kids to write well in spite of it.  🙂

* * * * *

Need advice from a teacher?
Send your questions to cariejuettner[at]gmail[dot]com.

Posted in Teaching

3 Useful Things I Learned While Teaching Middle School

I had another teaching dream recently. I was back at my old school. A new teacher (I think his name was Kevin—he looked like a Kevin) asked me if I was new too. I told him no, that I had worked there from the day it opened until a couple of years ago. Then I left, and now I’m back. I said, “And I’ll be regretting it in 5… 4… 3…” (Yes, my dream self actually said this, while demonstrating the countdown on my fingers. The sad truth is that I’m just as dorky in my dreams as in real life.)

For a while, the dream continued down a fairly realistic path. He asked what I’d been doing while I wasn’t teaching. I told him about my writing and then gave him some advice about who to avoid in the hallways. After that, things got dream-weird. In this case, that meant teachers actually lived at school. We slept in sleeping bags in the common area between the main hallways. Coffee was something that had to be stirred like hot chocolate and was consumed lukewarm from tall pint glasses. (You know, dream-weird.)

Soon my brain woke up enough to disregard the sleeping bags, Kevin, and the whole idea of going back to work. Instead, I started trying to think of the most useful things I learned during my teaching career.

After ruling out unlimited patience, the ability to smile while being talked down to by a parent, and a high tolerance for Axe Body Spray, I came up with the following three things, all of which could also be helpful to people in other professions.

1. How to Remove Permanent Marker From a Dry Erase Board

In this video, my lovely assistant and I will demonstrate how to save a dry erase board from a Sharpie attack. Really. It works and it’s unbelievably easy.

2. How to Determine Whether or Not to Eat Food Given to You by a Student

It’s Valentine’s Day. Or your birthday. Or the last day of Teacher Appreciation Week. Little Ralphie walks up to you with a big grin on his face. He says, “This is for you,” and places a slightly melted chocolate chip cookie on your desk. WHAT DO YOU DO? This flow chart will help you figure out which edible gifts are safe and which ones should be discarded while wearing rubber gloves.

Assessing Edible Gifts Flow Chart

(For the record, I did teach a student who gave me bacon. I ate it. It was delicious.)

3. How to Teach Your Brain to Multitask When You’re Bored, Trapped, Going Crazy, or All of the Above

* Autopilot:

Teaching is a repetitive job. When you teach five classes a day, you say the same things over and over and over. By the fourth or fifth time, you can even anticipate the questions that will be asked, the jokes that will be made, and the clarifications that will be required. This is a good time to put your brain on autopilot and get some stuff done. I often chose to plan lessons in my head or make mental lists. However, you must be careful not to zone out completely. Once, when I was simultaneously reading The Outsiders to my class and making a grocery list in my head, one student interrupted me to ask, “Did you just say chicken?” I snapped back to attention and realized that twenty seventh graders were staring at me strangely. I looked down at the page and saw that the word I’d meant to say was cheerleader. Not chicken. Oops.

* Visualization:

When you’re stuck in a boring professional development seminar with no end in sight, I recommend using visualization to transport yourself out of that stuffy conference room and into a much more pleasurable locale, like the beach on a tropical island. Turn the steady drone of the air conditioner into a refreshing sea breeze. Picture the shuffling of papers as the rhythmic sound of waves. Convert the jingle of keys on lanyards and the dings of the PowerPoint presentation into insects and alter any annoying voices into the squawks of birds. Pretend the fluorescent lights are sun rays warming your face. Since actually closing your eyes is a bad idea, stare at the person speaking, but imagine them as a tour guide who only speaks in a language you don’t understand. Feel the stress slip away…

* Survival Mode:

Of course, the absolute worst scenario in which to place a brain is in the head of a teacher “actively monitoring” standardized testing. Nothing compares to that level of mind-numbing boredom and cognitive uselessness. But you have to try something. Otherwise, you spend six hours a day, four days in a row, contemplating the life choices that have brought you to this moment, and that’s not a good idea. For some suggestions on how to survive standardized testing, check out my tips in this post from last year—Brain on Lockdown: Why Standardized Testing Is As Hard On Teachers As It Is On Students. Coincidentally, that post also begins with a teacher stress dream. Apparently they never go away.

 *          *          *

To all my friends still in the classroom… hang in there!
You can do it! You’re in the home stretch! Summer’s just around the corner!
(Call me if you need a drink.)

Posted in Poetry, Writing

Updates & Announcements


Hello all!

I hope everyone’s having a happy holiday weekend. I’m on vacation too. In fact, I’m not *really* posting this right now. I’m really eating pie(s) and playing games with my family. This blog post is all an illusion. Kinda spooky, huh? (Sorry, I think I’m a little lightheaded from all the sweets.) Anyway, I’m going to keep it short today so that you can get back to your own pie-eating, football-watching, and gift-shopping ASAP.

I just have a few announcements to make.

First, my flash fiction piece “My New Place” was published at MicroHorror earlier this month, and somehow I forgot to share it! Check it out here when you have a minute. It won’t take long to read—all of MicroHorror’s pieces have to be 666 words or less.

I’ve also received some good news regarding my poetry. Sirius Education Solutions asked for permission to reprint my poem “Enchanted Rock in September” in their Grade 7 STAAR Reading Review and Preparation workbook, and I agreed. So if you’re in the seventh grade or if you teach seventh grade reading, be on the lookout for it. I’m interested to see what questions they ask about my poem.

I entered several poems in this year’s Poetry Society of Texas’ annual awards competition, and twelve of them placed in the top ten in their contests, ranging from 2nd to 10th place. I’d like to share one of them with you here. “Old Soul” earned eighth place (out of fifty-two entries) in the Oscar A. Fasel Memorial Award.

Old Soul

Not even two years old,
but already I see your puppy face changing,
taking in the world, gathering knowledge,
new epiphanies every day.

It’s not hard to look down the road a ways,
and see you in your later years—
I can picture your graying muzzle,
and the sigh you will make
as you lower your aging bones to the ground,
the way you’ll ease yourself onto the sofa
or maybe need a little help.

You may be young, but you have an old soul.

Even now,
you look at me with those insightful eyes,
full of answers, of understanding,
full of the simplicity of a life
I make so complex.

There’s no doubt in my mind
you’ll be a wise old dog someday,
a quiet companion, a peaceful protector,
content to rest on the porch
watching the squirrels in the backyard,
thinking of your youth
and the days when you chased
their great-grandparents
up trees.

My inspiration for "Old Soul"
My inspiration for “Old Soul”

And last, but definitely not least, today I have another guest post on the Muffin, the blog of WOW! Women on Writing. Click here to read “The Gifts We Are Given.”

Okay, that’s it! You can go get another piece of pie now. Or take a nap. Or maybe a walk. Whatever you think is best. 🙂

[Note: Comments are turned off for this post, but feel free to share your thoughts on “My New Place” or “The Gifts We Are Given” on the MicroHorror or Muffin websites.]