My goal for this year is to figure out how to integrate 20% time projects into my classroom. So far, the students have been at it for two weeks, and the momentum seems to be building, which is a good thing when working with students.

Up to this point, most of the work has been in the way of brainstorming topics for projects. Yesterday, the students did a Bad Idea Factory brainstorming session. It was a kick and the students came out of it with a bunch of good ideas. It worked much better than the regular run-of-the-mill brainstorming session that we did last week.

This must be due to the fact that students (and probably people in general) have a hard time thinking when there is pressure to have a good finished product, which is definitely the case when a person “brainstorms.” However, with the Bad Idea Factory, the pressure is gone. There is no wrong answer in trying to come up with bad ideas. They are all just bad.

I was amazed at the ideas that sprang from this activity. One group wrote “getting pregnant.” I told them that was definitely a bad idea! However, some of the ideas were brilliant. One student came up with the idea to go to another school for a few days. It might seem like a bad idea, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought about the potential there for an interesting project. Here are a few of the notes pages from the students.

img_1457 img_1458



This is how I handled the Bad Idea Factory in my class. I talked a little about what I wanted the students to do. Then I showed them a short video of a student explaining how the Bad Idea Factory helped him to find a good project topic (click here for the video). After that, we went into the library where there are good tables to use for group work. I arranged students into groups of 4 or 5 to sit around the tables. On each table was a large piece of butcher paper and enough markers so everyone could write on the paper. Then, I turned them loose.

Like I said before, the results were amazing. I gave the students about 15 minutes to brainstorm, which is a good chunk of time for students to come up with ideas. Usually, after this much time in a normal brainstorming session, a good number of the students would just be sitting there. That was not the case with this. The students were engaged for the entire time, and I eventually had to shut them down. Students then had the opportunity to walk around for a few minutes and read what the other groups came up with. They really enjoyed this.

To end the session, we went back to the classroom and I gave them 5 minutes to write down any ideas for projects that they might have thought of during this exercise. Several of the students seemed to have a pretty good idea of what they wanted to do.

I don’t think the Bad Idea Factory is a tool that can only be used for 20% time projects. It should probably be used in most cases where students are fishing for ideas. However, it is a must when doing a 20% time project. I feel that this is where the best ideas are going to come from for our projects this year.

For an idea of what the Bad Idea Factory looks like, check out the video.


I just finished up summer school classes today. As a part of the class for the last few days, students had to create a choose-your-own-adventure story using Google Forms. At first glance, the project seems pretty big. There are several steps in creating the story, and getting it all to work out in Google Forms takes some patience and attention to detail. However, after having worked on the project with several students, I found that it is a pretty simple project once they get their minds wrapped around how it works.

This is where the problem rears its ugly head!

A good bunch of students do not like to wrap their minds around anything if they think it has to do with learning. It is amazing how many students would rather sit and look at the wall instead of using their allotted learning time wisely. I think that some of this is human nature, but some of it also has to do with the fact that thinking is work, something teens try to avoid like a kiss from aunt Susan.

This is where technology projects come in handy. Notice that I said technology projects, not just technology. Technology by itself is not the key to engaging students. A computer is only good if the task at hand is meaningful or has a purpose. John McCarthy says in his Edutopia article, “Igniting Student Engagement,” that there are three components to successfully egaging students:

  1. Connect skills and  concepts to student interests.
  2. Engage students in professional dialogue with professionals in the field.
  3. Challengs students to solve a problem, design for a need, or explore their own questions.

This makes a lot of sense, and with technology, the possiblility of accomplishing these tasks is very real. Just think of how much easier all three of these suggestions are when using tech in the classroom.

Too many educators, and especially too many adminstrators, think that having a shiny bank of chromebooks in the front of the room take their rooms and schools to the cutting edge of technology. However, those shiny chromebooks are only good when the students use them to think and learn. Sure, wordprocessing and research are good, but put those skills to work in having a student creat a product that can be share with classmates and even the entire world.

The following links will give you a place to start when planning a technology project to use in the classroom:



Recently, I attended the GAFE Summit in Riverton, Wyoming. I will have to admit that attending a professional development conference just as the summer begins did not particularly appeal to me. I didn’t really know much about the conference, only that it would be centered around Google Apps.

I have to say that this was probably the best conference/event that I have ever attended. I came away with so many new ideas that I am still not sure how to implement them all in my classroom.

If you are unfamiliar with the GAFE Summit, Click Here. This link will give you some info on the “who and what” of what takes place at one of these conferences. This is how I would sum it up. Basically, it is a two-day conference packed with top notch sessions on how to use Google Apps in the classroom. These sessions are led by teachers and education professionals that know what they are talking about. I attended sessions by Rushton Hurley, Delaine Johnson, and Jeffery Heil.

Here are a few of the things I learned that I just haven’t been able to stop thinking about:

  1. I learned how to help students to use Google Draw to draw comic strips. I actually did this with my summer school students this last week, and they loved it.
  2. I learned how to use Google Forms to create “choose your own adventure stories.” I haven’t tried this one yet, but it is on the docket for later this week.
  3. I learned how to implement 20% projects in the classroom.

These, of course, are just a few of the highlights. I have several pages of notes on little tricks and tips that I can use in the classroom. After two days of classes, my head was so full it was starting to spin.

Looking at the lineup, there are a bunch of these conferences taking place across the globe, so there should be one near you in the future. I would highly recommend these conferences to anyone who wants to add some new tools to the belt.


Today, I had a discussion with my classes about projects. They are facing a pretty heavy project in class at the moment, and I wanted them to see that taking the easy way is usually not the best way. Looking into the world of big wall rock climbing shows what it really means to use a project as a means of making oneself better.

This short video is an excellent starter for this conversation. Tommy Caldwell doesn’t look at a mountain and try to find the quickest, safest, most efficient way to the top. If he did, he would walk up the back of the mountain. Instead, he looks at the mountain as a project.

Look at the definition of a project: “an individual or collaborative enterprise that is carefully planned and designed to achieve a particular aim.” Caldwell isn’t just trying to get to the top of a mountain. He is trying to climb the Dawn Wall in a way that has never been done before. He wants to show that he has the mental and physical fortitude to overcome the mountain in the hardest most challenging way possible.

After watching the video with the students, we talked about how they could be like Tommy Caldwell in the face of the projects I assigned in class. Too many people look at a project and choose the easiest and quickest way to get it done. Instead of doing that, I encouraged students to do something that showed thought and hard work.




One sure fire way for a teacher to burn out is to spend hours and hours pouring over student papers. Grading has to be one of the biggest culprits of killing teachers. Anyone who has spent much time in the classroom as an instructor has done it, and anyone who has lasted long in the classroom has figured out a means of enduring it. But a teacher does not need to put up with all of this tedious grading for hours on end.

Some seem to think that this is the lot of a teacher. I have worked with many teachers in the past, some having worked for decades, who feel this is just the life a teacher has chosen to lead. Somehow, they have figured out how to manage the hours of work.

I’ll be honest, I am still not now what I consider to be seasoned teacher. I still do not have my first ten years down. However, I do know this; if I had to spend several hours a night grading papers, I would not still be teaching at this point. I probably wouldn’t have made it through the first few years.

The Problem

Being an English teacher, there is plenty of grading to do. Papers are the big time eaters. There is nothing more depressing to a first year teacher than a pile of 100 student essay, all written to the lofty 5 page length requirement, laying on a desk next to an extensive rubric that grades for everything from style and voice down to the last poorly place comma. Of course, reading the papers isn’t all that bad. The hard part is making comments and marking the rubric and then rereading the paper to check for grammar errors. This takes time. I have worked with teachers in the past who take up to a 1/2 hour per paper graded. With a 100 papers, this is some serious time, most of which has to be done outside of normal school hours.

I’ve been there. I’ve done it.

But now I have seen the light (I’m trying to see how many cliche’s I can use!).

Read these next few words knowing that I will explain what I mean in the next few paragraphs. Grading papers, especially student writing, is overrated.

Just ask any student: “How many of the comments did you read that I spent hours writing knowing they were words of great wisdom that would make you a better writer?”

The answer for 99 percent of the students I have worked with is, “None. Well I did look at the grade at the top, but after that, none.” Teachers are killing themselves by hours of grading and commenting when the students are not even paying attention.

The Solution

Don’t grade so much. This means something different for every teacher. This is what it means for me.

When grading anything that resembles a test, I use multiple choice bubble sheets. My school does not have a scanner to grade these, so I have improvised by using the Catpin Bubble Sheet Generator. I just make a bubble sheet for the test. Then for the answer key, I use a hole punch and make a master. I then use this to grade the test. I can do a whole class in less than five minutes. No more looking back and forth at a master test or answer page. Just overlay the master, mark those that are wrong with a marker, and count up how many the students missed.

This,  of course doesn’t help with writing projects. Here is how I handle the grading of papers.

To start, I plan class activities in such a manner that I will have some time to grade papers while students are working independently and quietly in the classroom. My plan, in most cases, is to have the papers graded, within one class period (we are on the block) before the students leave the room.

The biggest change I had to make in my grading style was to get over making comments on the papers. Anymore, I don’t even write a word on most papers I grade. I read the paper one time through and then go to the rubric. On a sticky note, I record the grades according the rubric. I then tuck these grades into a separate pile, mark the paper as graded with a check, and move on to the next paper. Except for the check, there are no other marks on the paper! Remember, the students are not going to read them.

I can feel the cringing and screaming from all you seasoned teachers. Students need feedback! Well, we’re not done with the papers yet. Let me restate that. The students are not done with their papers yet.

Usually, in one of the next few class periods, I give the students back their papers with a rubric. They grade their own papers by analyzing what they have written in comparison to the rubric. I have many different means of doing this. Sometimes, I also give them some exemplar papers to read before they read theirs, so they know what a top notch paper looks like. When they are finished looking over their own paper, I show them the grade that I gave them. They then compare what I observed when I graded their paper to what they found.

The students give themselves their own feedback. I do not have to tell them a thing. This is students being critical of their own work and becoming better writers. In my experience, students like this means of grading. Students often comment that they like getting a paper grade within a week instead of waiting for a month, which is going to be the case if a teacher spends a 1/2 hour on each paper.

Cutting down on grading does not mean that a teacher is slacking off on the job or that a teacher doesn’t care about student learning. It just makes sense. On top of that, it keeps me sane!




I have spent countless hours in the past few weeks trying  to answer this question. In my current classes, I am attempting to come up with a means to grade students that is fair.

I guess that, first, I have to determine what the word “fair” means. A fair grade is one that reflects what a students knows. Knowledge, in this case, needs to be set as some sort of standard. This standard is then categorized into grades dependent on what a student can show he/she has learned. Just thinking about this makes my head hurt!

Is is fair to get a bad grade if a student is working as hard as they possible can, even if they do not get all the knowledge? This is a  good question, and to be fair, I guess I have to say yes, if the grade is indeed showing knowledge. I guess I am thinking that when a student gets an “A” in English, that a college will assume that the student has the skills associated with “A” work. This does not mean that the college will assume that the student worked hard, and therefore, although he/she can’t write well, will still work hard and perform well in college.

This is not the case. A students with an “A” needs to be able to write effectively and efficiently. That student should also be reading at the appropriate grade level, maybe even above.

So I guess, if you haven’t figured it out already, my conclusion is that grades need to reflect what a student knows. The hard part is knowing what standard to use to base this grade on. However, with the Common Core, this is made simpler. A teacher simply uses the proficiency benchmarks as the standard for what students need to know. If they show proficiency, then they deserve the grade.

This, however, brings up another issue. Is proficient sufficient to get an “A” or is proficient just “B” grade work? What does a teacher do with someone who is showing advanced skills? What does that even mean?

I am going to have to think about this one for a bit!

Back to school!

Here is a great video to get you excited for school. Okay, that’s a bit of a stretch. This will at least make you laugh. To teach, you have to love the profession.

%d bloggers like this: