Plagiarism: An Ounce of Prevention

ID-10067793This is the text of an article I wrote from SmartBrief on Education.

I do not enjoy being the plagiarism police with my middle school students. For me, detecting plagiarism and determining consequences take more energy than investing time into proactively planning assignments that don’t lend themselves to copying.

Here are some steps I take and recommend to try to prevent plagiarism before it begins. I won’t claim that these will make the assignment plagiarism proof, but they will certainly make it more difficult.

  1. Discuss the idea of plagiarism on a personal level. Have a conversation about how annoying it is when someone copies them on a superficial level such as hairstyle, clothing, catchphrases, etc. Then, take it to a deeper level and discuss how they would feel if someone stole the product of their hard labor. Perhaps even share some current plagiarism scandals in the news.
  2. Explicitly teach the skills of paraphrasing and summarizing. It is not enough to tell students to “put it in your own words” or “don’t copy” because many don’t know what else to do. It doesn’t have to be boring. For example, they enjoy when I challenge them to take a couple of paragraphs of text and summarize them in exactly 12 words.
  3. Incorporate some form of collaboration, discussion, and feedback into the project. Also, add the element of publicly sharing their work in on online format. These encourage students to produce original work due to the social pressure of their work being read by more than just the teacher.
  4. Add a personal reflection component—either within the assignment itself, or thinking back on the process of completing the work.
  5. Connect the assignment to something you have specifically done in class. Incorporate a news article they read, a video clip you showed, or a class discussion into the final product.
  6. Break the assignment into chunks and have required check-ins regularly. Some students copy because they waited until the last minute and are rushing.
  7. Conference with the student throughout the process. This will allow you to determine to what extent they are understanding their topic. For instance, you could ask them what surprised them most from their research thus far. In addition, some part of the assignment should be completed in class with teacher supervision.
  8. Designate one specific source they must use (ideally a current one).
  9. Add a piece that cannot be copied. For example, students could interview an expert or design an oral presentation.
  10. Most importantly, design assignments utilizing higher-order thinking skills and creativity. When students are required to explain, problem solve, evaluate, hypothesize, or compare, it is nearly impossible for them to find this kind of assignment online from which to borrow. To illustrate: rather than writing a biography of a president (a sure recipe for plagiarism), have them write a mock letter to the post office or the White House persuading the officials to designate a new stamp or holiday to be held in that president’s honor due to his many accomplishments.

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Low-Tech Learning as a Novel Concept

Today’s students have never known a time when computers didn’t exist. What’s more, they have the ability to carry a ridiculously powerful computer in their jeans pocket. Funny enough, even while having an electronic appendage with instant access to the world, I am noticing more and more that students appreciate being exposed to low-tech experiences.

I introduced the concept of Genius Hour (which I call Passion Projects) to my sixth grade students last month. They were given the option to learn a skill, create something new, or find a way to help others. I was quite surprised that, when given completely free reign, less than 15% of my students chose anything that involved technology. Instead, they wanted to learn how to do handicrafts such as knitting, cooking, cake decorating, and sewing. Also popular were model building, designing, and creative writing. Over a quarter of them are designing fundraisers to help charities close to their hearts. I did not expect that they would eschew technology. When I thought about this a little more, I realized it is because technology isn’t new for them. It is completely integrated into their daily lives so when given the task of choosing something new to learn, they opted to stray from their beloved technology.

Then it happened again. The middle school where I teach has an advisory period and a couple of days a month, this time is devoted to teacher-led clubs from which the students may choose. As each of the teachers introduced his or her club, the ear-splitting cheers were for clubs such as board games, knitting, eco-art, brainteasers, and the like. Although there were several clubs involving technology that will no doubt be equally as popular, I was again struck that students were also excited to learn hands-on skills or participate is low or no-tech activities.

The following week, at an assembly on the history of our school, the presenter showed pictures of girls in home economics classes cooking and sewing. This led to a classroom discussion about the “olden days” when students were required to take either home economic or shop classes. As I described these classes to students (because I took them), they were full of questions as to why we don’t still offer this kind of education because it sounded so “cool.” They were clamoring for the opportunity to cook and sew. Who knew this old-fashioned class would sound so interested to today’s students?

As a PD junkie, I come across dozens of articles each month lauding the use of technology in the classroom and detailing the myriad ways that technology can replace the old-fashioned classroom assignments. Don’t get me wrong—I am in no way anti-technology. I am as addicted to my devices as the next girl. However, I don’t find that students are nearly as engaged in most educational uses of technology as adults would hope. I’ve even heard students complain about too much screen time in school. Perhaps this is because some of the crafty, not necessarily pedagogically sound, projects that teachers are enamored of have merely been replaced by digital versions of equally dubious merit.

I think that perhaps one of the reasons so many teachers of all ages have jumped on the digital bandwagon is that we feel it is something that defines us as current or means we are teaching 21st Century Skills. It could also be that the use of technology in school is exciting for the teachers themselves because many weren’t exposed to much when they were in school. I know that I am often excited when I see the classroom possibilities of a new app or program. My point is not that technology doesn’t belong in the classroom, it does. It is that we may be overestimating the amount of engagement bang for our buck that tech provides. Not everything in our classrooms needs to be digitized and our students will appreciate the chance to experience the excitement of analog learning in a digital world. Excuse me while I go read my book (on paper, of course.)

Collaborative Constructivism in Language Arts Class

At several professional development sessions I attended this year, the speaker reminded us, “The person doing the talking is the one doing the learning.” This hits home for me because I am a constructivist at heart. It is one of my core beliefs that adolescents need social interaction in order to engage with the material and discovery to cement the learning. To that end, one of the instructional techniques I use nearly daily is that of Gradual Release of Responsibility (“I do, We do, You do” process), but I usually begin with the step: “You do together.” I find that the students are very motivated by the challenge of “figuring things out” and end up retaining the material better.

An example of how I use collaborative inquiry is with grammar, usage, and mechanics (G.U.M.) instruction. We are studying the characteristics of a personal narrative so today’s lesson was on dialogue punctuation rules. Rather than going through a book, worksheet, or power point, I had the students open up their choice reading books to a page with dialogue. Working as a group, they determined the rules of how to use commas, quotation marks, capital letters, paragraph breaks, and dialogue tags and wrote their responses in a chart. After they finished, we shared and they all added any missing information to their chart. Finally, I gave them the actual rules for punctuating dialogue and they determined which ones they had gotten correct (resulting in lots of cheering) and which ones they had overlooked. The culminating practice assignment was to write a properly punctuated conversation between themselves and another person (real or fantasy/positive or negative) with each person speaking at least three times. The feedback from the students was that the assignment was great fun and all were fully engaged in writing their conversations.

This same process works well with other topics such as capital letter or comma use, but I also use this technique for lessons beyond G.U.M.. For example, last week, I distributed a stack of eight brief memoir mentor texts to each group. Working together, they each read a couple and then attempted to determine the commonalities between the texts. I was pleasantly surprised at their rich discussion and the resulting list of qualities and characteristics of personal narratives they compiled. They hit the nail on the head and I didn’t have to lecture once. I am excited to read what they write as a result.

MORE Short Stories and Texts to use with Notice and Note Signposts

I know that many of you are excited about using Notice and Note by Kylene Beers and Robert B. Probst in your Language Arts classrooms. I have previously posted about some short stories I used last year to teach the signposts. Since then, I have had other requests for more story ideas. I thought it made sense to use short stories  and texts that are typically found in grade-level literature anthologies to save teachers time making copies. For each of the stories below, I found signposts. You and your students may find even more. Of course, I would never use all of these in one year, but I was trying to make a resource that may be of use to you based on the materials you have. Enjoy! I love teaching close reading using the signposts.

Birthday Box Jane Yolen Memory Moment
Catch the Moon Judith Ortiz Cofer Contrasts & Contradictions

Memory Moment

Charles Shirley Jackson Aha Moment

Again & Again

Eleven Sandra Cisneros Again & Again
Fish Cheeks Amy Tan Contrasts & Contradictions

Words of the Wiser

Flowers and Freckle Cream Elizabeth Ellis Words of the Wiser
Jeremiah’s Song Walter Dean Myers Words of the Wiser
Miss Awful Arthur Cavanaugh Contrasts & Contradictions

Words of the Wiser

My Grandmother’s Hair Cynthia Rylant Memory Moment
Names/Nombres Julia Alvarez Again & Again
President Cleveland, Where Are You? Robert Cormier Tough Questions
Priscilla and the Wimps Richard Peck Contrasts & Contradictions
Seventh Grade Gary Soto Contrasts & Contradictions
Smart Cookie Sandra Cisneros Words of the Wiser
Sneeches Dr. Seuss Aha Moment

Again & Again

Thank You, Ma’am Langston Hughes Contrasts & Contradictions
The All-American Slurp Lensey Namioka Contrasts & Contradictions

Aha Moment

The Landlady Roald Dahl Aha Moment

Memory Moment

The Medicine Bag Virginia Driving Hawk Aha Moment

Tough Questions

Words of the Wiser

Memory Moment

The Richer, The Poorer Dorothy West Aha Moment
The Scholarship Jacket Marta Salinas Contrasts & Contradictions

Tough Questions

Words of the Wiser

The Stray Cynthia Rylant Tough Questions
Tuesday of the Other June Norma Fox Mazer Contrasts & Contradictions

Words of the Wiser

Who Are You Today, Maria? Judith Ortiz Cofer Words of the Wiser

Choice Reading Personal Book Challenges

ID-10022022I participated in a wonderful #titletalk Twitter chat last night. I mentioned that I provided my students with a list of independent reading Personal Challenge options for them to choose and undertake. Several participants asked for a copy, so I promised I would post it this morning.

Here is a little background about this list.

First, for the last six years, I have devoted the first 10 minutes of every class to independent choice reading. I currently teach at an independent middle school and have 45 minute class periods (the longest I have ever had to teach middle school ELA is 52 minutes), but I believe choice reading is time well spent. We have a slightly shorter school year than the local public schools, so I changed the traditional 40 book challenge to 30 to accommodate.

Second, my school emphasizes the study of literature so, with the exception of one, the challenges are for fiction books.

Third, there are no rewards for these challenges. They are merely a fun option to get them engaged and they seem to enjoy setting their own goals.

Fourth, there is the option to design their own challenge which several students chose to develop.

If I come up with any more ideas, I am going to add them to the list for next year. Please let me know what you would add.

Below is the document I created with details of the challenges. Feel free to adapt for your own use.

Personal Book Challenge Ideas

Update: this is a graphic I created of the Personal Book challenges using Canva.

Mizerny Personal Reading ChallengesPersonal Reading Challenge

image courtesy of:

Just Because It’s Fun, Doesn’t Mean It’s Easy

I’ll admit it—I enjoy being known as one of the “fun” teachers in school. It gives me great satisfaction to know that my students enjoy coming to class and that they often share what we do with their parents when they get home. I work tirelessly to present material in ways that are not only effective, but also enjoyable. It gives me pleasure to hear their giggles in the middle of an activity. It’s one of the reasons I continue to love my job even after all of these years.

Unfortunately, there are many colleagues who are not so enamored of my fun class. They are under the misperception that students enjoy my class because it is fun and therefore easy. Some have even said as much. They don’t believe the students could possibly be engaged in rigorous educational endeavors. This is absolutely not the case.

To these other teachers, rigor (by the way, I hate that word when applied to education) usually just means hard. It means more worksheets or problems assigned every night. It means the teacher drones on and on while requiring students to take copious amounts of notes. It means rote learning and very little critical thinking. It means they are not allowed to “help” each other learn. It means the child’s interest in or connection to the material is irrelevant. It means assignments that might be beyond the reach of their students. It means that many students fail their tests. It means many students dislike their class.

I strongly believe in what two of my edu-heroes say about rigor. Both Kylene Beers and Harvey Daniels say that there can be rigor without rigor mortis. This first time I heard each of them say that, I wrote it down in my notebook with a huge exclamation point next to it. It truly speaks to my philosophy of teaching.

Below, I will give an example of how I teach a fairly boring required skill (comma usage) in a way that challenges and engages my students. These are some of the activities my students do in class. I don’t use all of them every time and there are a few more not listed here. They are in no particular order.

  1. I show funny examples of comma misuse (such as this one) so they can see how commas avoid confusion.
  2. I show funny examples (such as this one) of how commas placed in different locations change the meaning of the sentence.
  3. We discuss the ongoing debate about the use of the Oxford comma.
  4. I give them a set of mentor text passages using all of the different types of comma usage. I have them work in partners or groups to see if they can determine the rule being exemplified in each passage. We share these together to make a master list. They are so excited when they get them right.
  5. They do scavenger hunts in their choice reading books for interesting sentences with commas to share and determine the rule being used. The more advanced version is to have them work together to find examples of every comma rule.
  6. They become human commas to punctuate sentences. I have a group of students write a sentence a couple of words at a time on individual white boards. I have them line up in order and the human commas must stand in the correct positions.
  7. I give them a passage using all of the different comma rules but with the commas missing. I tell them there are exactly X number of commas in the passage and challenge them to find every one. They generally work on this in pairs, but it could also be an informal assessment.
  8. I show them a video such as Flocabulary’s Comma Camp. There are other songs about commas online, but I have not yet used any of them.
  9. If they want to practice more at home, they can play online games. NOTE: these change often and I preview them every year, so I did not provide a link.

Over the years my students have enjoyed all of these activities. At no time was there a lecture with me requiring them to take notes and there was a lot of collaboration involved. Many of these activities require strong critical thinking skills as well. Most importantly, they remembered what they had learned because they were active participants. One of them even bought me this plaque because she saw it while on vacation and determined that I had to have it.

There’s no reason that the serious business of education needs to be serious. So the next time you hear laughter coming from the classroom of the teacher next door, please don’t assume the students are goofing around. My students aren’t.


Short Stories to use with Notice and Note Signposts: Part 3

Because I had many twitter friends ask for this, I am posting a portion of a transcript I sent to a friend about the short stories I used to practice finding the Signposts in Notice and Note as promised.

I teach at an all-girls school so many of the stories have a female protagonist. Because of this, I am giving you lists of short stories that I found on other websites as well. I used many of them when I taught at a co-ed public school.

I love stories by O’Henry, Saki, and Guy de Maupassant. I also enjoy using sci-fi short stories with middle schoolers.

Even though I only teach girls now, I could see the signposts being a huge benefit to teaching boys as well because they are so much more concrete. Also, any short story has signposts in it, so find the stories you like the best to use in class.

Here is how I organized the first several weeks of school:

  • I reviewed the literary elements of Setting, Plot, Characterization, Conflict, and Theme.
  • We applied these literary elements to our study of the summer reading novel, Surviving the Applewhites.
  • Then, I introduced the signposts one at a time using a story that we walked through together. I read it aloud and they identified signposts as I read then we discussed. I used Beers and Probt’s lesson for Thank You Ma’am as my guide. For your reference, I have listed this story as the first one underneath the signpost.
  • Then, I gave them a story in which to identify signposts independently. You will see that the same story is listed in a couple of different categories. In that case, it is because I had them identity both of those signposts in the story.
  • We also reviewed all of the literary elements in the short stories.
  • You will also see that there are less stories under each category as we progressed. This is because the girls were understanding the signposts so well that they said it felt redundant to do the identification twice so I bumped it down.
  • Finally, I showed the Pixar shorts and they found signposts, plus we focused on the literary elements I specified in each one. I did this for a parent visiting day lesson and it was a big hit.
  • Now, we are reading a novel and as they read they are identifying the signposts. I printed up bookmarks for them with the signposts on them that I found on Teachers Pay Teachers. They actually cheered when I handed them out and they say it really helps.


The stories I used:

(NOTE: we have copies of a book by Jamestown Publishers called Best Short Stories: Introductory Level that included many of these stories. I have put an asterisk next to those titles. Many of them are available online as well.)

Contrast and Contradictions:

Thank You Ma’am by Langston Hughes

* Catch the Moon by Judith Ortiz Cofer

All-American Slurp by Lensey Namioka

A-Ha Moment:

*The Richer, The Poorer by Dorothy West

All-American Slurp by Lensey Namioka

Charles by Shirley Jackson

The Landlady by Roald Dahl (we read later for Halloween, but they found signposts)

Tough Questions:

*President Cleveland, Where Are You? by Robert Cormier

Words From the Wiser:

*Tuesday of the Other June by Norma Fox Mazer

 Again and Again:

Charles by Shirley Jackson

Eleven by Sandra Cisneros


All Signposts and Literary Elements: (I used this as a assessment of the signposts. I might not do that again next year. I will probably make it a group activity because the story confused a few of them.)

*Lob’s Girl by Joan Aiken

Great Short Stories recommended by other websites:

I would LOVE it if any of you would add your titles to this list in the comments. Thanks so much.

Thoughts on Avoiding Readicide of Whole Class Novels

At some point, I will formulate this into a coherent format, but these are thoughts running through my head for a future blog post.

How To Avoid Readicide When Teaching Whole-Class Novels

• My teaching changed when I read Readicide by Kelly Gallagher and The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller.

• Book Whisperer: (127) “There needs to be a balance between picking a book apart to examine its insides and experiencing the totality of what a book offers.”

• Whole Novels for Whole Class: (20) “Structure a literature program in a way that protects the reader’s experience of the story.”

• Readicide: One of the four causes of Readicide is over teaching a book.

• Readicide: (109) “My students are always reading two books at a time: one that requires the teacher to be in the room, and one that is a high-interest, fun read.”

• Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis: Goal of reading is to construct meaning.

• Penny Kittle: (19) “The study of literature is half the job; leading students to satisfying and challenging reading lives is the other, and we haven’t paid enough attention to it.”

• Penny Kittle: (21) Curriculum is presented as either “a rigorous study of the classics” or “fun reading of what’s easy. . . I am suggesting that teaching English can’t be one or the other; it has to be both.”

• Cris Tovani: Whoever is doing the reading/writing/speaking is doing the learning.

• Me: I believe in teaching the READER, not the READING.

• Me: I use the reading of class novels as a community building and learning experience and not as a means to formally assess and grade students.

• Me: Use a balanced approach. Choice and whole class are important.
My Suggestions:

1. Do not teach a book a chapter at a time. We read the book in chunks and I give a reading calendar at the beginning.

2. Provide “framing” (context, supplemental materials, and topic floods) to eliminate a barrier to understanding.

3. Structure around a theme (meets CCSS: “two or more texts address similar themes).

4. Find a literacy focus and learning target for reading. Students can’t hit a bull’s-eye if they don’t know the target.
a. I use Notice and Note
b. Ariel Sacks: Literal, Inferential, Critical
c. Jeffrey Wilhelm: Fresh Takes on Literary Elements
d. Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts: Lens, Patterns, Understanding

5. Honor their thoughts. There is no one right answer.

6. Gradually release responsibility as the novel goes on and as the year goes on. I do, We do, You do, You do together, You do alone.

7. Give writing assignments and active experiences that tie to the book and complement the text. BIBITT and Creative. Use novel as mentor text to read like a writer.

8. Don’t choose a book that is too far above their reading level. Provide supports for students who struggle and options for students who fly.

9. Quit grading every little thing! However, do plenty of formative assessments along the way.
a. Mosaic of Thought
b. I Read It, but I Don’t Get It
c. So What Do They Really Know?
d. Making Thinking Visible
e. Notice and Note
f. Stephanie Harvey and Anne Gouvidis
g. Harvey Daniels and Stephanie Harvey
h. Dick Allington

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.