How I Use Notice and Note in Class (part 2)

I am not going to summarize Notice and Note or the Signposts here, but I will tell you a little about how I used them this year in class.

First, I thought about different approaches and decided to teach the Signposts one at a time. My classes are only 45 minutes long so each initial Signpost story lesson took one period and the rest of the lessons were on subsequent days. I chose a short story that I thought perfectly illustrated each Signpost. (One example in the book is “Thank You Ma’am” by Langston Hughes to show Contrast and Contradiction, so I used it first.) I walked them through the story, modeling my thinking and stopping for reflection. We discussed the essential question that accompanies each Signpost and how it was revealed through what they found. The next day, I gave the students copies of a different story and had them read through and highlight the Signpost. They discussed what they marked in small groups and then shared aloud what they had found and, most importantly, what they thought it meant.

After we had covered all six Signposts, (which took about two weeks), I moved on to applying finding Signposts in Pixar shorts and popular movies/TV which was a big hit. The ultimate goal was that they could find relevant Signposts in the class novel we were about to read—which, coincidentally, was Walk Two Moons. (I had chosen the novel at the end of the prior year and it is covered extensively in Notice and Note.)

The first thing I did was to hand out a cardstock bookmark I had made with all of the Signposts listed (and the students actually clapped because they were so excited). I divided the novel into chunks, and after each chunk there was a class discussion. For the first discussion, I merely asked students, “What did you notice?” and volunteers shared what they had found with the whole class. Students were giving each other positive feedback and actually enjoying annotating. As we progressed through the novel, I incorporated this and many other ways for students to show what insight they had gained from the Signposts they had found besides whole class discussion. NOTE: I generally only spend about 3 weeks teaching a novel so these activities took place every few days over a few weeks’ time with writing workshop in between.

With the two subsequent novels we read, I instructed them to concentrate on one or two specific signposts only. For example, when we read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, I asked them to focus on finding examples of “Words from the Wiser” because I knew that this would lead them to the themes of that particular novel. I was pleasantly surprised when they asked if they could annotate other Signposts and also highlight more than I was asking (such as foreshadowing—they LOVED to find foreshadowing for some reason) which I delightedly approved.

Some of the feedback I got from students at the end of the each novel and at the end of the year validated my choice to use the Notice and Note Signposts in my classroom. Many students said they felt smarter using the Signposts because they could contribute more to discussions. It was not uncommon for them to give each other praise for finding something “profound” or “insightful” in the text. One student told me she had always read every book that a teacher assigned, but she had never truly “gotten into” and “understood” a book as well before. This is but some of the anecdotal evidence that affirms my love of Notice and Note as a classroom strategy for close reading with the middle school students.




Why I Love Notice and Note (part 1)

I have always taught at schools where the English curriculum incorporates reading of novels as a whole class. This post is not to debate the relative merits or deficits of teaching a whole class novel, but rather to show how Notice and Note by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst [] made the task of teaching a class text even more enjoyable than it had been in the past.

Not surprisingly, I enjoyed English classes as a kid and loved that we read novels together. I may never have chosen to read The Great Gatsby or The Canterbury Tales were they not required class reading and I ended up loving both of them. However, I always felt there was some secret code or language that my teachers could understand but which I didn’t speak. They were able to discuss the finer points of plot, characterization, symbolism, and theme, yet I often felt that I was not understanding the books because I had not always found these same things myself. True, I made copious margin notes writing down what the teacher had said and scored well on tests and essays as a result, but I usually beat myself up for not having an a-ha moment about a piece of text until the teacher pointed something out and it seemed so obvious. (Wait, Eckleburg’s eyes are not just there because they’re creepy? Oh, duh!)

Fast forward many years to 2008 when I became an English teacher. When I made the switch from special education, I was determined never to put a child in the position of feeling stupid for not seeing what they I so “obviously” saw. (I also swore never to over teach a novel and kill them with vocabulary and worksheets—but all of that is in a previous post.) As such, I read everything I could on the subject. How fortunate for me that How to Read Novels Like a Professor by Thomas Foster, The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller [Donlayn’s blog:] and Readicide by Kelly Gallagher [from Kelly’s blog:] came out at about the same time I made the switch to teaching English. They gave me permission from an expert to do what I wanted to do in class—to help students understand what they read, to promote a lifelong love of reading, and to avoid killing that love when teaching novels.

Based on what I loved in Readicide, I began teaching novels in a student-centered format (similar to what Ariel Sacks recently wrote about in Whole Novels for the Whole Class). She and I differ slightly in approach, but the gist is the same. I want kids to read and talk about the books and don’t want to interrupt the flow of their learning with useless activities. Teaching novels this way was actually more work for me because I had to be an active facilitator and mentally present in each and every class discussion because there were no worksheets to hide behind. It was worth it, though. I found that as I gradually released the responsibility, the students soared. This approach was very successful and the students generally asked me when we would be reading our next novel because they enjoyed the experience so much.

Imagine my delight when I attended a reading conference last summer and saw the genius team of Beers and Probst present on their wonderful book, Notice and Note, that made it easier for me to release responsibility even sooner and enable instruction to be even more student-centered than before. To me, it was a middle-school student friendly version of How to Read Novels Like a Professor that I had enjoyed so much. It was a simple blueprint for helping students find the “important” parts of novels they read without needing them pointed out by a teacher. It gave them the tools they needed to engage in a text and make sense out of what they read. My next post will focus on how I use the Notice and Note Signposts in my class.

Fun with Argumentative Writing

Yesterday, I finally had the opportunity to see Kelly Gallagher present in person. (*pausing for fangirl memory*) I’ve practically memorized his books and apply many of his ideas on a daily basis. After hearing him speak about teaching argumentative writing to adolescents, I was not only validated in my own beliefs and practices, but I was inspired to share some of the most engaging writing activities I use. (By the way, if you haven’t checked out his website, you must– Even though it has been the expected result of writing instruction where I’ve taught, there’s much more to argumentative writing than the 5-paragraph essay. There are also more topics to argue about than whether a school should adopt school uniforms. (In fact, that topic has been so overdone that the students groan if the subject is even mentioned.) While the ultimate goal is to have students write a coherent, logical, organized argumentative essay, the steps in getting them to adequately defend an opinion do not have to be mind-numbingly boring for either the students or the teacher.

I like to build up to a full-blown essay with several smaller practice writing activities. Kelly Gallagher does this too. In his wonderful book, Write Like This, he shares many of the low-stakes writing assignments he uses to practice with his students. I’ve used several of them in my classroom. For example, I enjoy playing “Would You Rather” with the entire class as a verbal and kinesthetic activity in which they move to a side of the room based on their choice and share aloud. My students also respond well to arguing in favor of a specific consumer or entertainment product over another. He also uses mentor texts extensively (as do I) to allow students to “read like a writer.”

Here are some other writing activities I do in class:

1)   It’s fun to read the picture book I Wanna Iguana and analyze the techniques Alex used to persuade his parents to buy him an iguana.

2)   I teach the meaning of the rhetorical devices Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. Then, I teach them hand signals corresponding to each word (hand up as in an oath, hand on heart, and hand to head, respectively) and which Wizard of Oz corresponds to each term as well (Lion, Tin Man, and Scarecrow, respectively). We then analyze several ads for these techniques and do a word sort into these categories. They attempt to use all three techniques in their writing.

3)   As a class, we write a letter to the foundation of a fictional recently deceased billionaire asking for a donation to an organization the class has determined is worthy of the funds. We must use Ethos, Pathos, and Logos in our request.

4)   We do a group activity I call “Selling Ice To An Eskimo.” Each group draws one card from each of two piles. In the first pile is a useless junk item such as ½ roll of masking tape, a dead houseplant, or a pack of pink construction paper. In the second pile is a random fictional group such as The Elvis Impersonator Club of Omaha, The Retired Hamster Trainer Association of America, or The Motorcycle Doctors of the U.S. As a group, they determine why that group would want that object, then design and present an ad targeted to them. They love this and it cracks me up.

5)   “Dear Customer Service” is a writing activity I designed where each student draws one card from each of four piles. The four piles contain cards with the following:

  1. an everyday object (such as a hoodie, a binder, or a backpack),
  2. the problem with the object (such as it is lumpy, it is leaking green fluid, or it smells like it’s burning),
  3. what happened to them as a result (such as it gave them an electric shock, made their cat angry, or made their foot itch), and
  4. what they want in restitution from the company (such as rent out a movie theater for a private showing, buy them a plane ticket to Hawaii, or get them a part on a reality TV show).

Their task is to determine the backstory surrounding these cards and write a letter of complaint to company demanding restitution and satisfaction. These are hysterical!

6)   In Barry Lane and Gretchen Bernabei’s great book, Why We Must Run With Scissors, they infuse fun into argumentative writing. One of my favorite ideas from the book is an activity the authors call “The Devil’s Advocate.” The students argue in favor of a ridiculous rule, and the list of rules provided is hilarious. It includes everything from “Citizens must marry the first boy/girl they kiss,” to “All cosmetics will become illegal,” to “Walking will require a license.” The kids have a fun time trying to come up with rational reasons to defend these outlandish rules. (This is really a fun book–

I hope you enjoy these and I would love to hear your ideas as well.




Baby Steps towards Standards-Based Grading

The part of teaching I like the least is assigning grades at the end of a marking period. The problem is the cognitive dissonance between my grading philosophy and grading policies in the schools in which I have worked. Experts say that teachers should determine their beliefs regarding grades and assign accordingly, but it isn’t always that easy. Often, we must work within the system we have. Changing grading policies is a paradigm shift that not everyone is ready for. Baby steps.

I believe in supportive grading practices. By this I mean promoting a growth mindset, providing feedback during the learning process, and grading based on the standards. However, I work in a school with a more traditional system where most teachers grade based on averaging scores, use a straight points rather than a weighted system, and incorporate behaviors such as missing or tardy homework into the final grade. Therefore, I am doing what I am able within the system we have in order to reconcile my beliefs with the final grade the student receives at the end of the marking period. Baby steps.

First, I use weighted categories. Summative assessments account for 90% of the students’ grades and formative assessments are only 10%. Most parents and students believe that homework and classwork are very important, so I lend credence to that by incorporating them into the final grade. Ideally, I would be using a standards-based grading system and formative assessment wouldn’t count at all, but I am not there yet. Baby steps.

Second, I accept late work. I don’t give assignments that are busywork and all of them meet specific standards. Therefore, it is important to me that students complete these assignments. I allow students to hand in work late with a minor penalty (a flat score of 75%). Students and parents appreciate this as a kindness and I generally receive nearly 100% of student work—eventually. On the rare occasion that I do not receive an assignment, I record a score of 50%. (There have been numerous articles written about the idea of 50% instead of zeroes, so I won’t go into it here.) All of this may sound like a gift to some who adheres to traditional grading practices, but remember that formative work is only 10% of their final grade, so I am not giving them anything, but rather encouraging them to do the work and to learn. Baby steps.

Finally, I do not accept extra-credit, but I do allow for test corrections or redos/retakes. However, because my school does not adhere to standards-based grading, I must respect that. As a compromise, students in my class are allowed to redo, correct, or retake an assessment, but only for a maximum score of 73%. This does not make me entirely happy, but it is better than allowing a child to fail my class if they are willing to work to learn the information. I take partial responsibility for low scores and am willing to work with students to help them understand and accomplish what they missed the first time. At the end of the quarter, I do have a grade distribution and not everyone receives As, but no one receives Fs either. Baby steps.

None of this means that I am an “easy” teacher, that my students don’t have to do the work, or that I inflate grades. For the moment, this is my method of staying true to myself while working toward a standards-based grading system. I even managed to get everyone on my team to attend a Rick Wormeli ( on Effective Grading Practices. Change is slow, but I am confident that it will happen. Baby steps.