Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Writing College Recommendations: Helpful Hints and Points to Ponder

Writing college recommendations
Although October ushers in the dreaded Flu season, it also heralds the Frazzled Fall Syndrome (FFS). Although any secondary teachers can be affected with this virus, it mostly infects high school instructors-specifically those who lead juniors and seniors.

For teachers of seniors  FFS can hit especially hard since students look to their educators for letters of recommendation that will separate them from the mass of applicants and move their application packets to the acceptance stack. On top of planning, grading, teaching and all of the other professional duties that cause teachers stress, the addition of writing recommendation letters can be daunting. Whether a student has demonstrated superior, above average or average capabilities in the various aspects of their adolescent life, writing a concise and precise letter that addresses the senior’s academic, athletic, extracurricular and community strengths in a way that allows that person to stand out from other equally capable applicants is really stressful. 

When college admission deans are down to the last few finalist folders they must make a crucial decision: Which applications are slipped into the Accept pile and which ones aren't. Even if they have read these letters before, once again the deans turn to the recommendation written by those who know each applicant's academic abilities best- their high school teachers.

To ease this stress I have compiled a packet that will benefit teachers, from veterans who desire another
Recommendation for a superior student
option in their repertoire, to new hires who have never written a recommendation letter.  Topics address: What to Include, Points to Consider, What to Avoid, Letter Format, a Useful List of Adjectives, Nouns and Verb Phrases, and three Sample Letters.These letters show how all of the necessary points can be meshed into a cohesive letter: one each for Superior, Above Average and one for Average students.

My goal is to share my fifteen years of experience writing recommendation letters with you, and, hopefully, ease your qualms when one of your charges pleads, “Could you please, please write me a recommendation letter?” 

Although 99% of the products I include in my blogs are Free, this one costs $3.50. Is it worth the money? Of course I think it is,but so do teachers who have bought this product and rated it 4.0. As you peruse it, consider your valuable time and then check it out in my Teachers pay teachers store:

Happy Letter Writing,

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Cliches cause mental rashes

No Cliches
For the love of Pete, make no bones about it, but the use of clichés is making me mad as a hatter. I mean, seriously, we all need to bite the bullet and put our brains in gear before we put our mouths in gear and our fingers to the keyboards. The writing is on the wall: Vapor-lock of the brain occurs when clichés collide with original thought.

I am not going to beat around the bush.  We must vow to put a sock in annoying expressions that are not worth a plug nickel. Now is the time for people to jumpstart unique oral and written expressions by declaring zero tolerance for words, words, words that are beyond the pale. The buck stops with these:

· Hot Mess: The Urban Dictionary’s first definition of this phrase says that it as a situation where, “ones thoughts or appearance are in a state of disarray but they maintain an undeniable attractiveness or beauty.” Most people seem to follow their third definition, “a derogatory term describing a situation, behavior, appearance, etc. that is disastrously bad,” (  Examples: “His haircut, her outfit, or, their chilled avocado soup is a hot mess.” Umm, how can a cold soup be a hot mess?  It has become the go-to descriptive phrase, and takes the cake for triteness.

· Forever home: Every human and animal deserves a place of safety filled with love and comfort. I will not demean this serious and heartfelt hope with any worn-out words.  Why, then does every real estate-oriented television show and every piece of mail that I get from animal rescue organizations dilute this most basic necessity with overuse?

· Make it my own. I am at my wits end with this idiotic idiom.  Let’s say that Jack’s job has panned out and he has found a place to call home. Since he is footing the bill, of course he’s going to remodel, redecorate, and renovate it in a way that reflects his tastes- not his bosses, his brother’s or his best bud’s.

·  That’s how I roll. As far as I know, Guy Fieri of Diners, Drive Ins and Dives coined this phrase. People should not try to, “Make it their own,” but should coin their own phrase that shows how they live. The phrase has fallen into the Mundane Zone because too many people use it instead of mining their minds for a fresh phrase.

· Be there for me/Has been there for me. I saved this one for last because just typing it makes my hands shake and my head hurt. Besides starting the phrase with it or there and a to be verb which is just weak writing, the people using this expression never tell where there is. Instead, they need to choose a verb that shows not only the action- support- but also the emotion behind the action. Any of these synonyms would be a far, far better choice: encourage, back, assist, sponsor, defend, boost, promote, confirm, verify, validate, substantiate or endorse.

Now is the time to face the music, or this mental rash will coat our brains with banality.

Now is the time to quit wool gathering and to pull out all of the stops to end this epidemic.

Now is the time to put a sock in this week’s post.

Until next week,

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

VanquishStudent Writing Idea Vacuums

Writing Warm-ups: Mental Stretches
Patrick Henry pleaded for liberty in his Liberty or Death speech, John Proctor demanded, “Leave me my name,” in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and contemporary headlines stipulate, “No Negotiation.” Obviously, the voices behind these ultimatums did not suffer from writers’ laryngitis. Unfortunately, in today’s schools and homes, too many students endure this malady because they perceive writing as a chore, a bore, and a punishment.

Watch young children at play. They are imagining, concocting, fantasizing and inventing drama after drama, adventure after adventure, and dialogue after dialogue. Their mental voices as well as their actual ones carry them through their days and their dreams loudly, clearly and without restraint.

Around third grade, teachers and writing standards implement what to write, when to write and how to write, while parents review what and how their offspring have written.  Under siege from all sides of life, children’s writing voices, afflicted with laryngitis, crawl into the beds in their brains. Standardization has bullied their imaginations into submission, allowing this world of possibilities to appear only on demand.

For students, showing writing proficiency on Standards of Learning tests has become the demarcation between loving writing and hating writing. Children who spent their pre-high school years immersed in meeting writing standards now reveal much trepidation about how to write, and even more confusion about what to write.  When I was in the classroom, in each class on the first September school day I would say, “Okay, let’s write for twenty minutes.”

I’d settle into my desk chair, pick up my writing journal and start to fill the page with my thoughts. After about a minute, my skin puckering with that, “I am being watched” sensation, I’d glance up and see about 95% of my students staring at me. When I asked, “Why aren’t you writing?” some brave soul would respond, “Well, what do we write?” as their peers nodded their agreement.  I would smile and chirp, “Whatever you want.” My happiness vanished like a jar of Costco’s Chocolate Caramel Macadamia Nut clusters in my kitchen when my charges met my words with blank stares.

Sadly, I would nod and stand up. I knew that I was facing another group of writers with their imaginations in foreclosure, their writing voices stilled, and their confidence in expressing their thoughts on paper trashed. They had no idea how to choose an idea to explore because they had always been told what to write. This affliction had to be stopped before their brains turned to microchips and their writing voices all sounded like the Garmin lady, “Turn right at the next intersection.”

Over the years, I devised a few antidotes for the I Hate Writing epidemic.  At the beginning of every school year, I presented them to my students.  On Back to School nights, during Touching Base mini-meetings, and in e-mails I shared them with parents.
1. Just Write! Every day, students should spend a minimum of twenty minutes freeing the ideas,
dreams, and passions clamoring at the walls of their hearts by writing. They should not stop to punctuate a sentence, to check spelling or to mine their brains for that perfect word.  Here the only writing rule that they should follow is the one that Sean Connery’s character, William Forrester, avowed in the movie, Finding Forrester, “First write from the heart, and then from the head.”  In later drafts, they will have chance after chance to write from the head as they find that perfect word, convey an idea more clearly, and develop that generality.  At this point, though, they should not stop the flow of ideas, but just write.
2. Own the Writing! When children are permitted to choose their topics and ideas, they are building ownership because they are learning that their ideas have merit. In high school, I suffered from Idea Insignificance when my teachers owned the topic that I had to respond to instead of me.  What if I had no thoughts about or interest in their topic? Maybe I wanted to write about how Mercutio was so alluring that Shakespeare had to kill him off so he wouldn’t overshadow Romeo. Instead, the teacher demanded my response to why Romeo and Juliet were star-crossed lovers. Talk about a chore, a bore and a punishment!
Every writing session shouldn’t be turned into a lesson, either. When a young person asks, “What do I write about for ___(Insert subject)?” the adult that they are speaking to should respond, “What do you want to write about? When the writing calls for a more analytic topic, such as addressing an idea in literature, instead of dictating the choices, teachers and parents can lead a brainstorming session to show the young writers how to formulate their ideas into viable topics. Writing to prescribed prompts alone stifles ownership.

3. Prowess Leads to Proficiency. As students gain courage in choosing their topics, they will develop writing prowess in what they are saying. This confidence leads to stronger writing skills in how they are expressing themselves.  Now is the time for them to, “Write from the head.” At this point, teachers and parents may to use the response to build skills in basic writing format, grammar and mechanics.  When their hearts and heads join forces on the paper, young authors will achieve writing proficiency.
During conferencing, teachers can deal with issues evident in a student’s writing. When the same issue occurs in a number of papers, they can review and teach or reteach the concept, followed by time for the students to revise their writing in their words. At home, parents can review their young person’s writing by circling any spelling, grammatical or writing issues and discussing them together- but never making the revisions.  By the high school years, teens might not want to share their writing. Parents should make it clear that they respect this autonomy, but that they are available if their young person needs some help or clarification.

4. Read, Read, Read. What does this have to do with writing? Reading forms the building blocks on which writing will flourish. Simply, the more people read, the better they will write because while they are reading, they are deciding what styles they would like to emulate, formulating responses to ideas that they encounter, and opening their minds to thoughts that they want to articulate.

5. Express Yourself! Just like people develop individual fashion sense, they also form their own writing styles. Word choice, sentence structures, and the length of the piece are how they express their writing personalities. This is what is meant by Voice. For example, I have always admired minimalist writers. It amazes me how they can clearly and succinctly paint word pictures in so few sentences.  No one will ever describe my style as minimalist.

Think of this like a verbal “Say It” game that mirrors the “Name That Tune” concept. Some writers can Say it in three paragraphs… others in 33. Some writers create extended metaphors; others choose a specific but terse style. You say, “Tomato,” and I say, “A juicy, crimson orb.” As teachers and parents, we will come across writing voices that might grate on our nerves.  So what? Maybe ours cause the gnashing of teeth. These emotional responses are a reflection of the writer’s Voice.

Will young people turn their writing animosity into a love fest when the adults in their lives utilize these antidotes? Maybe…maybe not.

Will these antidotes cure writing laryngitis? Maybe…maybe not.

Will these antidotes keep students from thinking of writing as a chore, a bore and a punishment?  Quite possibly.

They’re worth a shot,though… aren’t they?

Download this product that will put a stop to Idea Vacuums and that will spark students' desire to write
What do you do to keep students loving writing? Please share your ideas here.

Happy Teaching,

Monday, October 7, 2013

Introducing: The Novice Tutor E-Book

The Novice Tutor e-book cover
Now that I'm a curriculum developer and not in the classroom, teachers' blogs, sites that offer lesson ideas, and educational insight keep me current about my colleagues' inspirations and needs. Through my continual quest to stay informed about any resource that helps to create lifelong learners, I landed on a website,, run by Adrianne Meldrum that grabbed my attention.

Ms. Meldrum, a certified teacher, owns a tutoring business along with this site. Her passion is assisting tutors to succeed in this educational endeavor. She has gathered her wealth of ideas in an E-Book, The Novice Tutor, a cornucopia of material for teachers, tutors and stay-at-home curriculum developers.

When my now adult children were still toddling around the house, I wanted to earn some money to help alleviate my husband’s and my expenses. Not ready to return to the classroom-full or part time- I thought, “Well this is a no-brainer.  I have my Secondary English teaching degree, so I’ll tutor.” Since this was pre-Internet, pre-every-tech-thing, and pre-The Novice Tutor, Ms. Adrianne Meldrum’s very informational e-book, my tutoring scheme crashed and burned.

Knowledgeable about teaching but clueless about business, I created some flyers on my Underwood-Olivetti typewriter and pinned them up in local businesses and schools. Then I made a few phone calls to principals, colleagues and friends. Nothing happened, so I deferred that dream.

Today, if I did that, Ms. Meldrum would quote from page 7 of her book that details the five qualities that successful tutors possess. Her first suggestion comes under her sub-topic Patience. After speaking of the need for this attribute when dealing with children and adults, she refers to the necessity of it in the business world when she says, “Running a business takes patience, too. Remember the tortoise and the hare? Slow and steady wins the race!”
Is Tutoring For Me?

Patience is essential to absolutely any aspect of life, but is crucial when starting and building a business.  The author adds a quartet of virtues, Kind but Firm, Knowledgeable, Being a Life-Long Learner and Self-Starter to her Patience Foundation that together will turn any entrepreneur into a savvy and successful business person.

Meldrum advises fledgling tutors to start with what they know.  Since she has an elementary school degree, when she first began her venture, she chose her strong point-math. She did not stop with that subject, though. Here, and throughout this detailed book, she urges her readers to challenge themselves, like she did- by studying other academic areas to add to their tutoring repertoires. On page 11, she offers an extensive tutoring list by subject area and charges readers to, “Be willing to go out of your comfort zone. You might just surprise yourself and discover a new passion!”

This successful tutor and business owner’s passion for this field is apparent on every one of the 44 pages in this book.  Even when she is discussing dry business topics such as How Much Do I Charge with the subtopics: Experience, Location, Don’t Undervalue and Raising Rates (pages 12-14), and Where Do I Advertise (pages 14-15) her energetic, optimistic tone engages readers.

She allays new tutors’ fears concerning: The Phone is Ringing! What do I ask Parents?, and  I Have a Student, Now What? with details regarding listening, asking, and diplomacy. In these sections she addresses dealing with parents who share their children’s needs as well as their complaints about teachers and developing lessons. Under the last topic, What About the Next Session?, she urges instructors to think outside of the box because students who need extra instruction have probably turned off their learning channels, which now need jump-started into action.

How Do I Grow My Business?
The segment  How Do I Grow My Business? introduces what she calls, The Force, or Social Media. She offers worthwhile suggestions for using Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest to build name and business recognition. Posting business-related cartoons, funny and inspirational quotes, and showcasing any services in the top row of Pinterest boards are noteworthy and crucial to any business. Most importantly, she details the value of creating a website. “Whether you like it or not, business is done online these days,” she states on page 22. Her links on how to create, build and maintain a site are vital to a novice tutor, or any neophyte business person.

Another section that shows Ms. Meldrum’s respect and understanding for those starting a business is Tutor Resources. What a fount of advice! After speaking about how beginning tutors are probably, “…strapped for cash” on page 23, she offers nine invaluable resources : Public Libraries, Garage Sales, Dollar Stores, Tutor Libraries, Amazon, Teachers pay Teachers, Educents,  Pinterest Boards and My Shop.  This last one explains what goodies tutors can find on Meldrum's site,, and in her Teachers pay Teachers store,

Would You Rather task cardsThe last 16 pages before one with directions on accessing a private, Just for Tutors Facebook Group and About Me page-both with even  more important links for tutors-are where Ms. Meldrum shares some engaging  games sure to break the ice with nervous, and often defensive, students.  The Would You Rather… task cards are a sure winner with topics like, “Would you rather be a giant hamster or a tiny rhino,” and “Would you rather get first dibs or the last laugh?”.

Adrianne Meldrum titles her e-book, The Novice Tutor because she feels that every day is a chance to learn something new. With such a priceless and positive attitude, every reader can rest assured that she is absolutely no novice at tutoring and building a tutoring business.  

If you have always dreamed about starting your own tutoring business but don’t know the first steps to success, download The Novice Tutor: Answers to Your Questions About Running a Successful Tutor Business from Before you open this book, be sure to sharpen your pencils. After reading Ms. Meldrum’s advice, you will be able to count on the fact that your students will gain academic confidence, their parents will be satisfied customers and you will be on your way to a successful venture.

Happy Teaching,

Thursday, October 3, 2013

ELA Activities and Assessments :Novel Necessities

Novel Necessities Cover
With all of the demands on you these days, sometimes a few warm-ups for a novel, or a generic list of projects that will fit any text will spark a, “Phew!  I needed that!” respite during a stressful day.  Many school districts ask you to re-test any student who earned less than a on an assessment for comprehension mastery. In these cases, an extra, ready-to-print test will serve the purpose. You may use the three tests in this packet as the main assessment or an alternative one. Let them fit your needs.

The material in these activities offers you a variety of uses. Although the various Warm-Up topics are endemic to the unit specified on the top of each one’s page, you can use them as: warm-ups, for a quick short answer quiz or for a full-length essay. The Individual Novel Projects may be applied to any book-fiction or narrative non-fiction. A few can be adjusted to become group projects, too. At first glance, the Othello projects seem to fit only that play. A closer look, though, reveals that by deleting the names of the characters developed in this play and inserting those of the protagonist, antagonist or any other person from another book, you have ten more project ideas to add to your repertoire.

All you have to do to adapt the Dialogue Writing Project is to once again change the names of the
Individual Novel Projects
characters that students are to use, and adjust Point 3 to fit your book’s philosophical stance.

The FREE material in this packet fits: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Into the Wild, Night, Othello, and The Stranger.

All of the activities enable students to develop their understanding of the elements of literature and to see how these modules intertwine to help them build solid comprehension homes.

Give yourselves some well-deserved Rest and Relaxation time. Download this packet from my Teachers pay Teachers Store:

Note:  All of this material is included in my complete unit plan for each book. I created the Night Warm-Ups from the quizzes in the unit.Here, the Individual Novel Projects are for any book, but many of them are included in the unit plan for each book.  There, they are novel-specific. Look in my Novel Ideas custom category in my TpT Store for the complete units.

Happy Teaching,