Posted in Teaching, Writing

Attics, Windows, and Weirdness

Happy Monday the 13th! Muahahahaha!

I realize it’s usually Friday the 13th that you have to beware of, but once you see what I have to share with you today, I think you’ll agree that this date has a sinister side too.

The Horrors of Standardized Testing

First, it’s STAAR testing week. If you’re a teacher or a student in Texas, that’s enough to make you shudder right there. If you’re reading this post between 8:15AM and 12:45PM central time, please know that I am stuck in a silent room with thirty seventh graders and no access to the outside world, trying to keep myself from going crazy by anagramming their names in my head and making mental pie charts of the types of shoes they’re wearing. Oh, the horrors.

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More Entertaining Horrors

Don’t worry; there are other, better horrors today too. For instance, my short story, “Window,” was published today at Havok. It’s a flash fiction piece, so it’s short enough to read on a bathroom break (<– if you have a job with unscheduled bathroom breaks, thank your lucky stars) but there’s a pretty strong creep-factor packed into those few pages.

Think you’re too scared to read it? You better decide quick because the story will be free to read today only. Beginning tonight at midnight, it will be available only to subscribers. So, in order not to be reading it during the witching hour, you might as well buck up and read it now. If you enjoy the story and have a Havok account, consider rating it. The stories with the most votes will be included in the upcoming print anthology.

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If you read “Window” and survive, then check out my longer short story, “The Girl in the Attic.” This story was originally published in Growing Pains by Sinister Saints Press, but it can now be read for free in Allegory. There’s no clock ticking on this one, so read it at your leisure. It’ll give you a good reason to put off cleaning out your attic for another year.

Horrors of the Weird Variety

If you’re not dealing with standardized testing today and can’t bring yourself to read about creepy windows and attics, then spend your Monday the 13th considering this madness.

A few days ago, a couple of very good friends of mine stayed at our house. They slept in our guest room, which is also my office. This isn’t usually a problem, but these particular very good friends are also very good pranksters, and my collection of books and office supplies offers them plenty of fodder for their mischief. I never know what I’ll find (or not find for days, weeks, or months) after they visit. This time was no exception. Shenanigans were definitely afoot, and I know I haven’t discovered them all yet.

One thing they did was use my set of wooden letters to leave me a message on my bookshelf. That was easy to spot and pretty cute. They also left me a cryptic note that looks like a piece of a larger puzzle, something I haven’t even tried to figure out yet. That’s also harmless and cute. But today when I looked up from my desk, I got more than a little creeped out when I saw THIS:

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That is a stuffed pony that I loved when I was a little girl wearing the fake witch nose I wore last year for Halloween.

Not only is it really, really, really, really disturbing, but I had no idea where these very good friends got my witch nose! These people are not above a bit of snooping. I know this because my wooden letters were in the closet. Then again, they were in a box clearly labeled “SET OF WOODEN LETTERS” so, yeah, not hard to find. But my witch nose? Even I couldn’t have told you where that thing ended up after Halloween. If I had to guess, I’d say in the trash or in a box in the garage.

I immediately texted the above photo to my very good friends and asked them where the heck they found my witch nose, wondering just exactly how much of my stuff I need to keep under lock and key during future visits. The reply I got did not make me feel better.

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Um, what?!?!?! Freaking out, I showed the photo to hubby, who said, “You just now saw that? I did that months ago.”

*sigh*

Apparently, I am not very observant. When I get home from actively monitoring the STAAR test, I’m going to take a GOOD, LONG LOOK around my guest room and see what other little treasures I can find.

But I’m not going in my attic. Nope, nope.

Posted in Teaching

Advice From a Teacher: Recommendations for Writing Help

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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:

#1:
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.)

#2:
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.)

#3:
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…

#4:
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.

Resources

Books

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:

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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.

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Ugh.

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

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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.

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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.)