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Setting the Scene for Inspiration

I have a confession: It may be summer but I’m not the best at switching off and relaxing. 

In my defense, I know I’m not the only one. I firmly believe it’s the way we teachers are wired. We’re passionate about our jobs. We care about our students. Sometimes to our own detriment… That’s why, when I ended up in hospital with a giant kidney stone just one week before final exams and report deadlines, I knew I needed to approach this summer vacation differently.

Hospitals aren’t exactly the cheeriest of places but I lucked out; I had the presidential suite of hospital rooms. As I stared out at the cotton candy sunset sprinkling rose gold favors over the city skyline, I experienced a sense of clarity and wonder that until then I’d been too busy to even realize I was missing.

(I’m almost certain it had nothing to do with the morphine.)

Now that I’m home, instead of rushing straight into lesson planning for September, I’m planning to spend my days refreshing my mind and recharging my soul. Or at least refreshing my G&T and recharging my kindle. 

Vacation vs Vocation (see what I did there?)  

You shouldn’t be thinking about marking or report writing or lesson plans… but I have a sneaking suspicion, if you are anything like me, you will anyway. So how about you give your practical brain a holiday and let your creative brain run wild instead? (To reaffirm, I teach English. Not Science. I may not know how brains actually work.)

We humans learn best when we engage all our senses. That’s why I always put so much thought into my classroom environment. And because I’ve already spent so much time on this topic, you don’t have to! 

So, here are my FIVE free tips for easily generating a creative and engaging classroom environment...

      1.     Turn your classroom into a gallery
Make a feature of your students’ own work. This tip is a triple whammy. You don’t have to dredge up any of your own creativity. You already possess everything you need. Best of all, your kids will feel a sense of pride at having their efforts displayed.

      2.     Press play to set the right tone
The way you set the scene for learning in your classroom might be overt, it might be covert. A sneaky tool to counteract any less-than-positive mindsets your students bring into the classroom is music. You can theme your soundtrack to your lesson or simply to the mood you choose to create.

3.     Get the conversation started
There’s nothing worse than a closemouthed classroom. Coaxing responses from quiet or disinterested kids can sometime feel like pulling teeth. Bypass the awkward silence every day by writing a new question or quote at the top of your board. The more provocative or challenging it is, the more debate and discussion it’s bound to prompt.

4.     Build a ‘Wonder-Wall’
If thinking of a new question every day feels a bit daunting, turn the tables and get your kids to do it instead! Get them involved; give them a space on your bulletin board to pin their own thoughts. It can be questions about the content you’re studying, or just general teenage musings on life…

5.     Bring your classroom to life
OK, so filling your classroom with plants isn’t technically ‘free’ but the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual benefits are invaluable. And it really doesn’t have to cost the Earth — you can even grow your own from cuttings. Simply having plants in our workspace improves our concentration, memory, mood, and creativity. What better way to bring life to your classes?!

If you are looking to invest in some incredible resources this summer, my fellow coffee-shop teachers are an endless source of inspiration — and they’re absolute lifesavers when my own creativity is running low. Check out some of their most beautiful and time-saving designs.
from Presto Plans
With twenty posters, each explaining a common question stem, this hardworking package is the perfect way to decorate your bulletin board AND prepare your students for standardized tests. It even comes with a long bulletin board title poster!

from Addie Williams
Set the tone for the new school year with these cute and concise mini-posters. Think of them as daily reminders of the kind of positive and productive space you want your classroom to be.

by The Classroom Sparrow
Encourage a dynamic learning environment by placing these mini-books around the room. If your students get stuck on a reading or writing task let them get up, reference the notes inside, and find the answer for themselves.

by the SuperHERO Teacher
Transform your classroom three ways with this all-inclusive triple bundle of bold and bright bulletin board decorations, posters, and organizers. You don’t need to choose between the Neon Decor, Novel Suggestions, or Student-Teacher Conference themes… because you get them all!  

by Room 213
Let’s be honest, the language of Shakespeare is not always the simplest to follow or understand. But these eye-catching posters break down all the ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and translate them in a fun and memorable way.

by Nouvelle ELA
Getting your students to design their very own posters is a clever way to help them understand and remember the literary terms, dramatic vocabulary, and poetic devices you’re covering. You might be surprised at how creative they can be, given the opportunity.

by The Daring English Teacher
This bulletin board ‘quilt’ will not only look as pretty as your students can possibly make it, but it’s also a powerful tool to help shift their perception of their own growth — and come to view their learning positively.

by Secondary Sara
Classroom decor needs to be meaningful. Secondary Sara totally gets that, and her resource for getting students involved in selecting quotes from literature, finding the meaning in them and creating beautiful classroom displays is simply stunning.


I just love having versatile, always relevant art on the walls to point to, whether I’m teaching literature, poetry, or writing skills. So if you want to brighten up your classroom walls with easily accessible reminders of figurative language techniques, why not download my FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE POSTERS: 17 colorful printables, specially designed for Middle/High School classrooms.

So, now that we have that sorted, let’s just all get back to our G&Ts and Kindles, shall we?

Enjoy your Summer!

School's Out for Summer Teacher Challenge

Teaching is a wonderful and rewarding career. Despite grading papers after dinner, planning lessons on the weekends, and thinking about our students almost around the clock, we love what we do, and we keep going back year after year for more. Sure, it’s stressful, and yes, it’s tiring, but teaching calls to us. It was meant to be. And, something else that’s meant to be is summer vacation. We love summer break (possibly more than our students do), and it’s just what we need to keep going with all we’ve got once the next school year starts.
For teachers, summer is a time to kick back, relax, and prepare for the next school year. To help teachers make the most of their summer break, the Secondary English Coffee Shop ladies are hosting a School’s Out Teacher Challenge.

Starting Sunday, June 11, we will post a new summer challenge each week for 11 weeks. These School’s Out Teacher Challenges will focus on decompressing from a hectic school year, relishing every moment of summer vacation, and preparing for the best school year yet.

We encourage and invite all teachers, even if they are still in school or if they’ve already started their next school year, to join in on the fun.

To participate in the challenge, make sure you are following the Secondary English Coffee Shop on Instagram (@secondaryenglishcoffeeshop) and Facebook. Once we post that week’s challenge, you’ll have the entire week to take a picture of yourself completing the challenge, use the provided School’s Out Teacher Challenge frame, and post it on Instagram using the hashtag #SchoolsOutTeacherChallenge.

Addie Williams is looking forward to the challenge. She said, "I work really hard to maintain a life / work balance and so I'm super excited to be part of this challenge. Teachers work so hard to help others; I think it's important to take time to help each other and help ourselves unwind and connect."

Presto Plans recognizes all the hard work teachers put in during the year. She said, "Teachers are often such selfless people. I think these challenges will be the perfect way for teachers to flip the switch and make a conscious effort to focus on their own mental and physical health."

The SuperHERO Teacher is looking forward to connecting with others during the challenge. She said, "Because teaching is such a collaborative profession, it's exciting to come together in other ways outside of the classroom-- like how we debrief and celebrate our much deserved time."

The Daring English Teacher can't wait to see all of the posts teachers come up with during the challenge. She said, "Teachers work so hard during the year, that is is important to take some time to ourselves during the summer. It is so exciting to connect with teachers from all around the world during this challenge; I am eager to see how we relax and spend our time out of the classroom."

Nouvelle ELA knows that teachers' summers can sometimes slip by. She is excited for the challenge because she said, "Sometimes, I 'waste' my summer and it's gone before I know it! I'm excited for this challenge to create intentional moments of relaxation and reflection."

Stacey Lloyd is looking forward to celebrating with other teachers. She said, "This challenge is a wonderful way to harness the joy of social media: to connect with fellow teachers; to celebrate each other's moments of relaxation and rest; and to garner enthusiasm for the upcoming year."

Secondary Sara is excited for the challenge to begin. She said, "Anytime teachers can share ideas, stories, and inspiration is a win-win for everyone, and this is such a unique way to get the best of all worlds this summer."

Room 213 is ready for the challenge. She said, "Summer is not just 'time off' for teachers; it's necessary recharging time so we can be the best we can be for our students in the fall. This challenge will be a fun way to focus on things for you, from time with friends, great books, and delicious foods. I can't wait to see all the ways that teachers will embrace summer."

The Classroom Sparrow is looking forward to connecting with other teachers. She said, "I think summer is the perfect time for a teacher challenge because we can actually focus on ourselves and our plans for next year, without having to worry about marking and prepping for our classes. I am exited about the challenge because I enjoy connecting with different teachers from all over. I know this challenge is doing to inspire me to do and try new things that have been on my 'to-do' list for quite some time."

We truly feel that this will be such a fun way to connect with other teachers during the summer months, and we hope you join us.

Secondary English Teachers CAN have a Life Outside the Classroom!

Strategies that reduce your work load and increase student learning.

How many times have you had to hold your tongue when someone comments that it must be nice to work from nine to three and get summers off?  It's a hard comment to take when you're spending hours and hours grading and planning, often ignoring time with family, friends and yourself.

It takes a lot of work to teach English well, but I don't think we should have to sacrifice our own well being and happiness for our students. I also don't think it's selfish to say so. Yes, we want what's best for all those kids in our class, but we can give them more and take care of ourselves - all it takes is a shift in mindset and in the way we run our classrooms. Stay with me as I give you some strategies that just might give you more free time, strategies that have made a real difference for me -- and my students. 

We are all painfully aware of how much of our time we give to assessment. It's such an important part of the learning process, and we want to tell our students what they need to do to improve. But does it all have to be done after hours?

Make your students responsible for the feedback you give them.
My answer is no, not only because it takes so much time, but because it's not the most effective way to move students forward. Kids don't always take the time to read your feedback, plus it comes after the assignment is done. If you shift things around and give them more feedback during the process, they are more likely to use it. And I'm not suggesting that you take in drafts and read them at home -- this post is about alleviating that! Instead, sit with your kids and give them feedback as they are working on assignments. This way they get direction exactly when they need it and can use it right away. You can make your students take responsibility for their role in this process by using these free feedback forms. Students will use them to come to the conference prepared, ready to discuss their work. And, as you conference with them, ask them to write down any feedback you give them. When they pass in a finished copy of their work, they will highlight places where they attempted to use the feedback. 

If you've been conferencing with students as they write, their final pieces should be more polished. Your job at this point is to assign a grade, not to give feedback, so there's no need to spend hours writing all over their papers. I have also successfully graded assignments with students as they sat in front of me -- rather than do it at home -- and every one of them agreed afterward that it was far more effective than getting graded assignments back a week or more later.

Strategies that reduce your work load and increase student learning.
Conferencing with your students does require a little shifting of the traditional lesson plan,  but I can tell you, based on my experience, that this is a real game changer, because you will take less home, and your students will learn more. Sound like a good idea?

Sure, you're thinking. But how do I make the time to do that? It's the exact same thought I used to have before I started doing these things successfully in my classroom. Since then, I've learned three very effective ways you can free yourself up to spend more time with individual students:

Strategies that reduce your work load and increase student learning.
One of the easiest ways to free up time for you to give one-on-one feedback is to use workshops and /or learning stations. With the workshop approach, teachers begin their classes with a short mini-lesson that introduces or reinforces a skill. Then, during workshop, students have time to work independently on that skill and apply it to whatever they are working on. Stations provide areas for them to complete tasks, work on certain skills, and conference with each other. While your students are working independently, you have time to work with small groups or individuals, giving them feedback and instruction where necessary. It's a very different approach for secondary classrooms, but it's one that works, mostly because it puts the responsibility right where it needs to be: in the students' hands. Try it by creating your own feedback stations using these task cards.

Even if you don't use a full workshop approach, you can still find ways to have more time during class. You've heard the saying before: teachers should not be the hardest working people in the room. Most of us have moved away from the stand-and-deliver lecture method of teaching, but often we're still the ones putting all the work into the prep before class and the action during it. If you turn this around, not only do you get more time, but your kids will think and learn more. So how do you do it?

Design lessons that put the responsibility for thinking and learning in the students' hands, not yours.
Most of my lesson plans when we do a full class text are very brief. Most contain a variation on the following questions: What's most important? Why do you think so? How can you prove it? What questions do you have? We begin with a quick-write reflection, then I move students into groups to discuss what they've written or the notes they've taken on the text.  Today, we did an activity that I blogged about last year, and while my students did the exercises, I got the rest of the week planned out. So, by planning activities that are student-directed, I can get more work done in class. Grab this freebie so you can try it too.

Now you can't just start this on the first day of class and expect success; you do have to do a bit of work upfront to get them trained. However, once they know what they are doing, you can stand back and watch them learn. To get there, you need to:

  • Teach students to close read/take notes
  • Model how you interpret & analyze text
  • Establish routines/expectations for small and large group discussion

You can learn more about how I do this on my blog posts: Getting kids to do their reading and Scaffolding literary analysis.

Strategies that reduce your work load and increase student learning.
We don't have to be the only one giving feedback. When we give students clear goals, instructions and exemplars, they are usually quite able to help their peers. In fact, they are usually better at revising others' work than their own. However, I know that teenagers can't always be relied upon to do a great job, so sometimes I give them a little more incentive, and have them to fill in one of these forms that require them to be explicit in their feedback. You can get more information about how I use them in my classroom on this blog post.

So as you enjoy your summer break this year, spend some time thinking about how you could make some changes in your classroom that will allow you to bring fewer piles of paper home. It means you may have to totally change the way you run things, but it might also mean that your students learn more and you have more time on your hands. It's worth thinking about, isn't it?

Do you have questions or comments that you'd like to share? I'd love to hear them, so leave them in the comments! 

Happy teaching.

You might also like these time-savers:
Student-Teacher Conferences by The SuperHERO Teacher

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