How Will You ‘Make’ This Year?

We are ready to start our second year with our amazing D-Lab! Many of us already have ideas about how to integrate making, creating and design-thinking into their curriculum this year. Just in case you need some inspiration, here is a collection of of some cool ideas I found on Pinterest and other sites. If any of these piques your interest let me know and I will get you more information and start planning with you. Many of these projects can be altered to fit any curriculum!






The Write Approach

You may disagree with me, but I do think this is worth saying: You are wasting your time in the classroom and your personal time grading at home by assigning writing without explicitly teaching the writing process. And by process I do not simply mean a graphic organizer.

This, officially called by education researchers, “Writing Process Approach,” is defined as teaching each step of planning, organizing, drafting, revising, and reflecting. It not only has statistically proven to improve writing but it has also proven to relieve the inevitable anxiety. A study in 2014 concluded that since most of the anxiety stems from being graded, students were less fearful of the grade because the focus was spent on the process and not the final product. And, the students’ final product have less mistakes, so students grades tend to be higher. (Bayat, p.1139) 

For me, I find that the process approach yields stronger writing. My high expectations each year are consistently met because of the incremental steps I take with my students.

Here is a compilation of research-based strategies mixed with strategies I have picked up over the years from various colleagues and conferences for teaching formal writing. They might not all work for you, but if you are interested in adopting a process-approach, there are hopefully a couple nuggets for you.


This would be the step following or coinciding with the preliminary research where students gather information and textual evidence to use when they write. A study done in 2002 had kids memorize and use pneumonic devices,  like PLAN, so that they could do this on their own.   According to this research, students who were taught how to use and to memorize these pneumonic devices wrote “essays that were longer, contained more mature vocabulary and were qualitatively better.” (De La Paz and Graham 2002, p. 687) I find this alone to be a bit elementary. I talk about how to expand this a little later.

Screen Shot 2017-03-17 at 7.35.53 PMOrganizing

Here is the next pneumonic device in the conclusive study that the process approach works:

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Writing a thesis statement can be intimidating for students.  I use the DBQ Project’s chicken foot method for the standard five paragraph essay, but the most important part of the puzzle is that first part: topic + opinion (without saying, “I think,” or “I believe.”)

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How valuable would it be for kids to realize that thesis statements should really be in all forms of writing (well, except for creative writing). History, response to literature, science, and even math writing can utilize the common vocabulary. For more complex thesis statements, for 8th graders, Jill requires them to add a phrase in the beginning acknowledging that the statement about to be said can be refuted. Phrases start with “although” or “while.”

When organizing complex essays that expand to numerous topics and body paragraphs, students can break down their main ideas from the PLAN and WRITE phase to body paragraph topics. Each body paragraph topic could be listed on a separate page. And students can organize and number their supporting ideas based on the paragraph topic. This really helps in the preliminary research as well.

During this phase, a graphic organizer can be useful. Read Write Think has a good one! Essay Map


While many believe students should have the freedom to choose where in the introduction to place their thesis statements, the best way to teach it is as the last sentence of the introduction. This is because  it is the most logical for students to understand when first learning to write in this way, students need to understand the rules before they can break them and this is what is expected of them in high school. (Did you see how I modeled a complex thesis statement there? ) 🙂

So, obviously this is what I teach to my students. Below is a diagram that I learned from Jill many years ago that helps give students the general outline of writing a research paper or a persuasive essay. She coined him Essay Man: the ultimate writing teacher’s boyfriend…..and for you male teachers out there, Essay Woman works great too. 😉

Essay Man

TIDE is a pneumonic device that breaks down the body paragraphs or paragraphs that stand alone. Students color code as they write.  It is important to specify how many pieces of important evidence they need. For every piece of evidence, they need a detail.  Ann has a ton of resources for TIDE, so see her for help!

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There are many ways to skin the cat on this one: self-assessment, peer evaluation, conferencing one-on-one with students, etc. But, it should always include you, the teacher, giving them feedback at some point in the process. We have all given students copious notes for improvement after giving a grade. But, they never read them. All they care about is the grade. And, we can’t fault them for that because the grade is all that matters. (see grading blog post)

The absolute best time for feedback is during this phase of writing. I make it a rule to never sit down when they are writing. There should be regular coaching. My biggest struggle is helping the kids that don’t advocate for themselves and ask for help. So, I brought in the big guns. Kimmy and Ann are amazing assets and I encourage you to reach out to them and invite them into your classroom to help kids revise their writing. Having another teacher in the room who is an expert in helping struggling kids, especially with reading and writing, is pretty much life-changing.  The amount of time your name is called goes down exponentially!

 Self-assessment has also been proven to successfully improve writing.  According to Kristen Nielsen (2012) in her article, “Self Assessment Methods in Writing Instruction: A Conceptual Framework, Successful Practices and Essential Strategies,” “Self-assessment in writing signifies any teaching method that prompts writers to think about, evaluate and/or respond to their own writing.” (p. 1)  Nielson compiled list of  include: “Teach students the criteria for rating their own work,…use writing models to demonstrate specific writing skills and to give students opportunity to practice assessment,…[and] students should participate in the development of the marking criteria.”  (Nielson 2012, p.10-11) 

For my last essay, I gave students a simple check list for them to go through as they read the paper. One part asked them to color code their typed document: blue for the thesis statement, red for transition statements, green for quotes. This helped me grade too, because I could quickly see whether they can identify these vocabulary words and if they know what to do with them!

Peer evaluation can be valuable when done correctly. Often, kids are paired up in mixed-ability groups. Which is so useful for the struggling student. But what about the high kid? Where is he or she getting feedback from? You also have to be very clear about the criteria they are looking for. They are not looking for grammar or punctuation mistakes, or, heaven help us, penmanship critique. They are looking at the specific writing goals (i.e. checklist) and see if there is room for coaching. It is also important that you teach them how to give feedback. Good sentence starters are “I like” for strengths and “I wonder” for improvements.

Here is a video of a silent critique activity I have done with my students that works really well.  I learned this from the Deeper Learning Conference at High Tech High. (Forgive me: I did this for grad school and it is very raw!)


For almost every assignment I use rubrics. Not only does this tell the student why he or she lost points, but it also makes it easy for me to provide comments at the end of the semester. I can clearly see strengths and weaknesses. But, how many kids really look at the rubrics? For my persuasive essay I just did with the 6th graders, I was pretty confident none of them did.  What is the point of grading, if not to teach them how they can improve? I told all of my students that they could improve their score if they met with me during office hours and resubmitted their writing based on my recommendations. Here was the rubric I used:

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 I had all of them do a reflection which forced them to look at the rubric and I made it worth almost the same amount of points as the essay itself. Here are the questions I asked.

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I know what you are thinking: wow, it is a lot of work to teach writing! And, that is a completely fair assessment! 🙂 I plan to follow this up with more ideas learned from other teachers. Please let me know strategies that have worked for you so I can share them!


  1. 2. BAYAT, N. (2014). The Effect of the Process Writing Approach on Writing Success and Anxiety. Educational Sciences: Theory & Practice, 14(3), 1133-1141. doi:10.12738/estp.2014.3.1

  2. De La Paz, S., & Graham, S. (2002). Explicitly Teaching Strategies, Skills, and Knowledge: Writing Instruction in Middle School Classrooms. Journal Of Educational Psychology, 94(4), 687.

  3. DBQ Project
  4. Nielsen, K. (2014). Self-assessment methods in writing instruction: a conceptualframework, successful practices and essential strategies. Journal Of Research InReading, 37(1), 1-16. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9817.2012.01533.x

Lunchtime Chats: An MJS Pilot

Cult of Pedagogy, an education blog written by experienced middle school English teacher Jennifer Gonzalez, should be followed by every educator. Her content is very concrete and can be easily adapted in all K-12 classrooms. You can follow her on Facebook and Pinterest or just follow her blog and get emails when new articles are posted. Recently, she posted a very interesting article about Piloting. This is the new wave in PD. It is a teacher-led, grassroots approach to solving a problem or fulfilling a need in our classrooms and school.  Click here to read the article! 

So, when Lisa approached me about an important need she found: that teachers have little time to really discuss curriculum across a grade level, at least in middle school, I thought maybe Piloting could work. This is where the ‘Lunch time Chat’ idea was born.  Our first Lunch Time Chat will be focused on 6th grade. Lisa will be meeting any 6th grade teacher who would like to participate in P-3 to problem solve how 6th grade can become more cohesive in what we teach. We will open this up to different grade levels next month.

If you see a problem or need you would like to solve, see me and I would be happy to schedule a Keep Calm time for interested people to come together!

#teachingisbetterwithfriends #keepcalmandlearnsomethingnew #mjspilot



The Case for Doodling In the Classroom

Have you ever been teaching something you find very important and you look down at one of your students and they are deep into a very detailed doodle? You think to yourself: “How could this student not be paying attention? How rude of them!” But, did you know that there is probably a higher chance that the doodlers in your class are actually retaining more information than the student who is obediently staring at you as you speak? Yep, that’s right. As much as we might hate to admit it, doodling can and should be allowed in our classrooms. I fought it for a long time, but I am a fervent believer in doodling today.

According to many studies, doodling effectively aids in executive functioning and multi-tasking. One study concluded that people doodling during a lecture could recall 29% of the the information given while the non-doodlers averaged 5.8%. In fact, they attribute this retention to the fact that doodling does not allow the brain to day dream, which takes a lot of the brain’s energy away from the task at hand. Doodling requires way less energy and keeps the brain focused on the speaker.

So, what if we started class one day by saying, “Students, I am going to share this information. I want you to listen and engage in class discussions at times. But, while you are listening, I encourage you to doodle.” We know that every student will be so excited for this. And, all of us with those fancy white board tables will rejoice at the fact that doodling is actually aiding in their learning!

Now, what if we then said, “Students, not only are you allowed to doodle, today I am going to teach you strategies for how to improve your doodles. Maybe you can even draw what you hear or see in the text.”   Taking notes with doodling even has a name: sketchnoting! It is the new spatial note-taking device that is hitting the education world by storm.

In fact, here is a sketchnote sharing different ways you can use doodling in your classroom!


Source for this picture

EdWeek: The Power of Visual Note-taking

If sketchnoting interests you, I encourage you to do a simple search for it on Google and you will be so surprised at how much is out there!  Give students who learn spatially a chance to learn their way. Outlining is not for everybody!

Tips for beginners and doodling and the link to my cover picture


Google Hack: Use Docs to Design Templates for Individualized Assignments

Did you know that you can type a document on Google Drive and save it in template mode? Students can then use it as a worksheet, only modifying their individual assignment. This is a great strategy for small groups to collaborate on ideas and organize research, or simply work independently on an assignment. Students love this because they can type their work and edit it later. Teachers love it because they can access their work at any point to make sure they are on task and creating beautiful work.  Students also rarely loose their work this way! 

Templates allows for easy differentiation or individualized instruction, as you can share different documents with different students. You can write personal notes, give hints, create scaffolds based on the needs of each student.

Here is a video for how to do this:

To learn more cool Google hacks, come to the Google Help workshop with Larry and Travis at lunch on Tuesday January 17th from 12:15-12:55 in my room.  

Sign up here for this workshop or any other for January

Some more cool links to Google hacks:

22 Cool Things You Didn’t Know You Could Do With Google Drive

A couple hacks from Teacher Priorities:



Simple Tips to Manage Technology in your Classroom

As great as technology is for students, it can definitely be a headache for the teacher. We have all seen this scenario: twenty students all focused diligently on their screen not listening to any of your tips and not reading any of your directions. Their one problem solving method is to blurt “I can’t do it” and then repeat your name numerous times until you come and rescue them. By the time 45 minutes is up, you never want to hear your name again. Not to mention that half the students were off-task while you were helping individual students.

I know a lot of us can relate as we tackle bringing 21st century devices into our classrooms. This week I did a lesson using Google’s “My Maps” which is a collaborative tool for annotating maps. I knew I would have to prepare for a lot of hands raised with “Mrs. Wirth, I need help.” But after carefully reflecting on past experiences teaching with technology, I decided to take a different approach to technology. Below are the criteria I used for designing my lesson with the help of Adrienne:

1. Make sure you have students close the computers before giving directions (close lids, push 6 inches in front of you, hands on lap, etc). This way, you know they are at least attempting to listen. 

2. Hand out, display, or put on Schoology detailed the directions that are easily accessible to the students. This way, students can refer to the directions as questions arise and for students who are ready to go ahead. Provide an extra step or challenge for early finishers. This will give you time to really help the kids that need it. 

3. Set the expectations before they begin. For instance, discuss what good choices are and bad choices are regarding the tool. Consequences for going off task? What is considered off task? What does a good researcher look like? Etc. 

4. Provide tools that enable students to solve their own problems. For questions, a teacher’s role in bringing technology into his or her classroom is not to teach how to do everything, but to provide tools for students to discover solutions on their own. For instance, you can remind them that Google and YouTube how-to videos can be used to help them. Encourage them to problem solve by using the Help feature in an application or google their question.  IT and Tech experts do it all the time!

5. Use the students. Enlist helpful or “techy” students to help out their peers. You can even have a lanyard attached to an “Ask Me” sign they can wear, which turns into quite a badge of honor. 

6. WALK AROUND! Technology should never be left unmonitored. The more you walk around the less funny business will happen and the more you can correct misunderstandings about the assignment. You can also give hints for how to do things, even if you refuse to tell them! 🙂


Here is my lesson for My Maps. This application can be used to annotate a story that takes place in different settings, create a travel journal, map out empires on a modern map, map a pilgrimage or historical journey, calculate distance and area, etc. Students can work together on the same map from different places and computers. They can add drawings, videos, writing, and pictures.