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Archive for the category “Tips for New Teachers of Middle School Aliens”

Idioms, Not Idiots!

So, the English language is made up of sooooo many idioms and can make learning it as a second language (or even as native speakers) tricky and confusing. What is an idiom, exactly? Merriam-Webster defines it as the following:

  • an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own

  • a form of a language that is spoken in a particular area and that uses some of its own words, grammar, and pronunciations

In other words, idioms are figures of speech. They are groups of words that, collectively,  mean something other than the literal meanings of each word in the group. The most common example I use in my middle school classroom is, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” Does it literally mean you’re going to get smacked in the head when you go outside because cats and dogs are falling from the sky? Nope. It just means it’s raining really hard.

Image result for royalty free images it's raining cats and dogs


Idioms are so embedded in the language that native speakers don’t realize how difficult and confusing it can be for those who are learning English as a second language. For instance, let’s say a second language learner hears someone say, “Man, that guy is over the hill!” at a birthday party. They might know the dictionary definitions of guy, over, and hill; however, they will likely be thinking of this:

Image result for free stock pictures over the hill old person


Instead of this:


Image result for royalty free images old person


I will be creating a course just for idioms, especially constructed to assist second language learners in the coming months. For now, here are some other helpful sites for learning idioms. And here.

Enjoy and stay tuned!! (That’s an idiom, by the way.)

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List of Items on My Prediction Board

Later, I plan to create printable PDFs that you can quickly produce and attach to foam board or poster board. I’ll let ya know! In the meantime, here’s a quick bullet list of items and supplies that you can use to create your own prediction board. I found most of the items at Dollar Tree.


  • Foam board–I used black, but color is optional.
  • A pack of green plastic toy soldiers
  • America decoration–Easy to find around July 4th
  • School bus–Found in the teacher section at Dollar Tree.
  • Foam letter stickers–These don’t have to be foam, but I like the texture.
  • Dog leash
  • Empty honey bear bottle–washed, of course
  • 1 green envelope
  • Low-heat hot glue gun
  • One or two sheets of scrap booking paper for background behind words–optional
  • Washington D.C. sticker or photo
  • Firecracker sticker

I tried looking for a toy tire and a small blue bunny, but couldn’t find what I wanted in the time I had. Not necessary, but they would be a nice addition.


  • loyal
  • blame
  • fear
  • love
  • friend
  • PTSD
  • family
  • honor
  • foster care
  • sorrow

I like the dimension of my board because tangible items make it more interesting and pleasing to the eye. If you want extra dimension under your words, buy two foam boards. Attach your letters to one foam board, then cut out each word. Glue the cut out word to the second foam board that will be your prediction board. I cut out blame, loyal, friend, honor, family, sorrow, and fear from my old board, then glued them on my new board. See the picture below:


If you’re on a time crunch, I will soon have PDFs for you to print and glue. 🙂


Successful Prediction Discussion


Last week, I got my students pumped up about the book with my prediction board! I had the board turned against the wall, propped up on a desk so they couldn’t see it until I turned it around. I gave them the run-down of what we were going to do. Then, I teased them a little, like, “Are you ready to see it? Are you sure?”

So, here’s how it went:

  • Students were instructed to stay quiet for a minute, or until I made my way around the entire room with the board.
  • They were to look closely, at all of the objects and pictures and read all of the words carefully.
  • After I made it slowly around the room, I asked if there were any words that they weren’t familiar with or didn’t know how to pronounce. I first let other students give the meanings if they knew them. If not, I explained what the words meant.
    • Usually, they need me to clarify the words “sorrow” and “loyal.”
    • Since I added “PTSD” to my new board, I had to give a brief explanation of what it stands for and what it is.
    • I was able to include a personal story about my grandpa who is a 92 year-old WWII veteran and still suffers from nightmares and other symptoms of PTSD.
  • After clarifying a few words, I gave them 3 or 4 minutes to have a discussion with their partners (or in a triad) about what they thought would happen in the story, based upon the information on the prediction board.
    • I gave them a sentence starter stem, like, “According to  _______ on the prediction board, I predict the story will be about . . .
    • Or, “Based upon the ______ on the prediction board, I predict …
  • I perused the room and listened in on the predictions. At that point, when they asked me questions about the book, my go-to response was, “I don’t know, but that’s a great question.”
  • When time was up, we stood and delivered our predictions, making sure to use the sentence starters. I took volunteers first, then I cold called (drew popsicle sticks.)
  • An exit ticket was a quick way to wrap up. The next day, we wrote a draft of a prediction paragraph, did some peer editing, and rewrote the final copy to be turned in.

I went ahead and asked my principal to come in and observe for my evaluation on prediction day because I knew the kids would be engaged more than usual. She loved it! She said it was fun and it made her want to read the book, too.

One of our more challenging students went up to her at lunch and told her how much he “loves this book!” That was something that she never thought she’d hear coming from this particular student. Me neither, but it happens every year. That’s one of the reasons I get excited about reading a novel with my students, especially this one.

The Mailbox by Audrey Shafer

Previous posts about using this novel in my class.

What I use to Engage Students Before Reading a Novel

The Mailbox Prep

Writing Prompt Day 6: Something You Were Proud of in the Last Few Days

What I use to Engage Students Before Reading a Novel

How does a reading or English teacher get students excited about reading a novel? Perhaps you’ve used the following strategies:

  • Fill out and discuss anticipation guides.
  • Preview text features.
  • Examine the picture on the book cover.
  • Read the summary on the back of the book.

I’ve used all of the above pre-reading activities during my twelve years of teaching. Not a huge fan of any of them. I mean, they’re fine if that’s what you want to use. Maybe you’re much better at using those methods to get kids geared up to read a story than I am. However, I’ve used something for 4 years now that sucks them in more effectively and is tons more fun for me!

About five years ago, I watched a teacher on Teaching Channel who created a bulletin board full of objects, pictures, and words that related to The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. If I remember correctly, she used it to give the kids a heads-up on some unfamiliar vocabulary and to provide some background knowledge to help them understand what they would be reading before each chapter. I loved the idea of using tangible items, not just pictures.

Since I do not have time or motivation to be changing my bulletin boards with any kind of frequency, I modified this idea. Also, I wanted something I didn’t have to tear down. I wanted to create something that I could use year after year. Something easy to store. So I did.

I created a prediction board for The Mailbox by Audrey Shafer. (I’ve blogged about it before.) I used words and objects that related to the story, but did not give any details away. See photo below of the original:


This is the first one that lasted me 3 years.


This is the new and improved version. I added two more words and two more images.

This one board creates more questions, more curiosity, more class discussion, and more fodder for writing a prediction paper than any other strategy I’ve used.

More details later . . .

Rampant Apathy and Learned Helplessness

Twelve years ago in central Oklahoma, I began my teaching career in middle school in an area infested with gangs. I’ve probably learned boatloads more than I’ve taught. I’ve had roughly 1200 students pass through my classroom door. (Would’ve been more, but I looped with a group of kids through their middle school years.) I’ve witnessed and experienced a lot of sadness, joy, apathy, excitement, fear, fury, bat-shit craziness, “you can’t fix stupid,” and straight-up “I can’t make this shit up!” Any educator should know exactly what I’m talking about.

Which brings me to today. This school year with sixth graders. I have many hard-working, creative, and well-mannered kiddos for whom I’m grateful. It’s the “others” that are a problem. A problem not just for me because they’re in my class and make me question why the hell I did this to myself, but a problem for you and everyone else in society who will have to deal with their “idiosyncrasies.”

All kids are self-centered and think the world revolves around them and think the world owes them something and think that every adult in their presence is a complete idiot. It’s the age. It’s normal. Irritating as hell, but normal. We all did it to some extent.

Here comes the “but” …

BUT, THIS GROUP! Holy freakin’ cow! The apathy, the learned helplessness, the unwillingness to participate in any way in their own learning is ABSOLUTELY ASTOUNDING! I’m truly frightened for anyone who has to deal with them as adults. I can only pray and hope that somewhere along the line, someone will be able to connect with them and motivate them toward excellence, or some semblance of it, at least.


The Mailbox Prep

So, I’m about to embark on the 5th time teaching The Mailbox by Audrey Shafer to my 6th graders. I’ve refreshed my prediction board because it was starting to look a little sad. I’ve added a couple of words (foster care and PTSD). It looks great, even if I say so myself. What do you think?


I’ve also loaded links into Google Classroom that will be used as extended activities or added background information that connect to the story. I haven’t specifically nailed down the order in which I’ll share these with my kids, though. This is the first year all my kids have had their own iPads and have quick and easy access to internet searches. So, I’ll try to keep detailed notes and plans on how and when I’ve used them. I don’t want to spoil anything. Also, I’m thinking that some of these might be used when we must be “flexible” because circumstances outside of our control will change my class times, or will take some of my kids out of my class. (ELL testing, assemblies, snow days, etc.) See those links below:

In addition, I have loaded vocabulary words from the first chapter into Quizlet.com. One word, however, is not in the chapter. It’s dialect. Most of my kiddos don’t yet know what this is. Every time Uncle Vernon speaks, he is using his dialect, which tends to throw them off. You could have a mini-lesson on dialect, using examples from other books. I will probably only have time to brush over it, which is why I added it to the vocabulary list.

Ideally, I will load words from each chapter onto Quizlet, or maybe later into the book, I will use some other vocabulary lesson. I know there are better ways to teach vocabulary, but my kiddos need something that will help them learn a boat load of words in a short amount of time. Most of them are English as second language learners.

Now, notice I said ideally. Once we get going, I’m going to be pressed for time.  I’ll be spending weekend time, like right now, on prepping for this. At some point, being with my family and taking care of my personal life will take precedence. I’m planning on starting the book after next week. Or, at least, creating and building anticipation and excitement in my students for the book. It makes a difference. It captures the attention of more kiddos, even those who haven’t paid attention or given a flip about school since day one. That should be something else I keep track of, come to think of it–the individual kids who haven’t participated in their own learning during the first semester.

Sidebar: I’ve missed a few days of my 500-words-a-day challenge. So, I’m going to do a couple more posts today to try and catch up.

Let Yourself Off the Hook

Newbie teachers or teachers-to-be who have observed in my classroom will always get this advice from me: You have to learn when and how to let yourself off the hook.

We teachers go into this crazy, effed-up world of education with a mother load of idealistic goals and values, as I believe we should. Why would anyone do it otherwise? However, balancing those ideals with in-your-face reality is a constant battle.

It took me a few years to determine where to draw the line. I frequently have to reflect on what’s using up my energy and how effective it is. So I remind myself about the following:

  • I can’t be everything to everybody.

At first, I thought I was expected to be super-teacher and that I could make a huge difference in every student (inflated ego?); now, I’m a big believer that if I can’t seem to connect with a student, even after great effort, I have to trust that there is someone else out there who will make an impact on that child: Another teacher, a mentor, a relative, a celebrity, someone.

  • If I burn myself out, I’m no good to anyone.

With a minimum of 120 kids per year, I can either spin my wheels and exhaust myself trying to make mountainous strides with each student, or I can try to follow the motto, “Quality, not quantity, is golden.” (I don’t know if I made this up, or if I’m ripping it off, nevertheless, I’m using it.)

How do I decide who gets most of my attention and energy? Just constant reflection, awareness, and prayer. There’s no magic formula because students are people, not numbers.

If you have a teacher motto that you’ve found works for you, please share. Or, if you are about to embark on the treacherous journey of being an educator, feel free to ask questions. I might not know the answer, but maybe we can find it together. 🙂

Don’t Wear Your Feelings on Your Ugly Teacher Sweater!

Have I offended you already? If so, you’ll need to toughen up if you’re going to survive middle school the second time around, and you should probably ditch the sweater.

Let me give you some personal examples of opportunities that await you.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked by a student, “Miss, are you PREGNANT?” Not with a gentle whisper in a private conversation, because most middle schoolers do NOT know how to whisper or the meaning of “private”. This question has been blurted loudly in an auditorium full of students and teachers, or in front of the entire class, or in the crowded hallways.

The first time, my friend and school librarian swooped in and set the young man straight, just as loudly or louder than he had yelled the question.

“NEVER, EVER ask a woman if she’s pregnant! I don’t care if she’s sticking out to here and she’s wearing a shirt that says “baby” with an arrow pointing to her belly!”

(Thank you, my friend. You know who you are.)

Did it bother me? The first couple of times, yes. But, I had to get over it and move on. There are a thousand demands on you as a teacher, and if you waste time getting your feelings hurt, you’ll never accomplish anything positive.

For the record, I’m not, never have been and probably never will be housing another human inside of my body. I’m simply not shaped like a model; I’m shaped like a teacher who frequently stress eats chocolate, pasta and bread.


Another, more serious aspect of teaching middle school aliens that will require you to toughen up is when you invest time, energy, and patience into a student who desperately needs someone like you to believe in him or her.

Occasionally, a student will recognize the effort that you have extended to help him or her be successful, but be ready for the times that students seem to show no gratitude whatsoever. Right when you think you’re gaining ground with them, building rapport, seeing small successes, BAM! They screw up or turn on you. Human nature at work.

I don’t mean this to be pessimistic or to discourage you from putting your neck out to invest in a kid. I’m just reminding you that you’re dealing with the simple nature of the beast (middle school age) and with some who do not come equipped with a skill set to receive and trust your attempts to support them. These kiddos will often disappoint you and fall short of your high expectations for them.

Do you need to have these idealistic expectations? Of course. Some will rise to the occasion. Others might let you know years later that you really make an impression upon them. For the majority of them, in my experience, you may never know what affect, if any, you had in shaping them.

Only you can determine how thick your skin can be or needs to be, depending on where you work. But, if you teach middle schoolers, I can guarantee you’ll need to find some kind of “tough” before you walk into your classroom. So, work hard for your kids, have high expectations, and acquire some alligator skin!

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