Monday, December 12, 2016

Peer Feedback on Major Assignment

Peer feedback is controversial, but it's something in which I very much believe.

Today, I had students fill out a BINGO like card when viewing their peers' work. This is for an assignment for International Relations.

The students would spend 10 minutes looking at their peers' papers and for each square, they would award their peers either a green, yellow, or red sticker (green= good, yellow = needs work, red = isn't there).

I was very excited about this activity. However, many students were not at the point in the writing where they could adequately participate. Instead of forcing them to do so, I split the class in half and allowed the students who needed to keep writing to write, and the students who were ready for peer editing, to peer edit.

Normally, I would be more strict, but this is an elective class and it is the week before finals.

The students who did participate received great feedback and are continuing the editing process.

Lesson featured by Pulitzer Center

Very excited that the Pulitzer Center quoted my student and me in this article and published my lesson.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Improving Writing Essay by Essay

I am trying something new this year that I hope will improve my students' writing and help further develop my pedagogy.

 I conference with students after grading each essay. However, the time between essays can range from two weeks to a month. It really has been silly for me to assume all of these years that students retain the comments essay to essay.

So, I kept their essays and the rubrics after the conference and handed them back today, a few days before their next essay is due. In class, they had to reread their essay, the rubric (which is the same for every essay), and any comments that I made, and then write three items that they will improve upon on the next essay.

I had them photograph the three items and turn in the written copy to me.

After they write their next essay, we will meet, go over it, but also evaluate whether or not they were able to make the planned improvements.

We will see how it goes!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Paging Fareed Zakaria

Fareed Zakaria wrote an update to his book The Post-American World in 2011 called The Post-American World 2.0. He published an excerpt of his book on NPR and was interviewed on Fresh Air about it.

For our study of "diminishing state power," I had students write an update to his update. We then went on a social media campaign to try to get him to respond to the students' findings.

The students were motivated by the real-world application of this assignment and did a great job with the material.

Sadly, he has not responded yet, but I am not giving up.

@FareedZakaria High School IR class wrote suggested updates to your book "Post-American World 2.0" Thoughts?

Teaching Game Theory in IR

I find that teaching Game Theory, specifically the Prisoner's Dilemma, to be a bit dull. This year I spiced it up by writing a play. Next year I will spend more time working on the staging or consider "hiring" teacher actors to improve the delivery. Still, I think it was worthwhile and a better way to teach it. This lesson leads up to our study of strategy used during the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

What a Dilemma for a Prisoner
By Ms. Marcus

Prisoner B stays silent (cooperates)
Prisoner B betrays (defects
Prisoner A stays silent (cooperates)
Each serves 1 year
(-1, -1)
Prisoner A: 3 years
Prisoner B: goes free
(-3, 0)
Prisoner A betrays (defects)
Prisoner A: goes free
Prisoner B: 3 years
(0, -3)
Each serves 2 years
(-2, -2)

Police Officer A
Prisoner A
Lawyer A
Police Officer B
Prisoner B
Lawyer B

In Room Number 1
Police Officer A:  We have arrested you for stealing a vegan chocolate bar from the cafeteria.
Prisoner A: You have no proof!
Lawyer A: You have no proof!

In Room Number 2
Police Officer B: We have arresting you for stealing a vegan almond bar from the cafeteria!
Prisoner B: You have no proof!
Lawyer B: You have no proof.

In Common Area:
Police Officer A: We have no proof, but we know he/she did it.  
Police Officer B: We have no proof, but we know he/she did it.
Prosecutor: Wait a minute. They both allegedly stole the vegan bars from the cafeteria. They must be part working together.

In Room Number 1
Police Officer A  and Prisoner A: Listen, we know you stole the vegan bar from the cafeteria.
Lawyer A and Prisoner A: You have no proof!
Prosecutor: We believe that there is a larger Prisoner conspiracy to steal vegan bars from the cafeteria. We have another thief in custody on the same charge. If you give him up before he gives you up, you will be set free, and the other Prisoner will get 3 years in prison.
Prisoner A: And if I don’t?????
Prosecutor: Well, if the other Prisoner gives you up, he/she goes free while you serve 3 years in prison.
Lawyer A: And if they both give each other up?
Prosecutor 1: They both get 2 years in prison.
Lawyer A: And if they both stay silent?
Prosecutor: Because I never lose a case, they will each serve 1 year in prison.
Lawyer A: Is he/she getting offered the same deal?
Prosecutor: Yes.
Prisoner A: What a dilemma for a prisoner!
Lawyer A: I want to draw this out for you, so you understand

In Room Number 2
Police Officer B and Prosecutor: Listen, we know you stole the vegan bar from the cafeteria.
Lawyer B and Prisoner B: You have no proof!
Prosecutor: We believe that there is a larger Prisoner conspiracy to steal vegan bars from the cafeteria. We have another thief in custody on the same charge. If you give him up before he gives you up, you will be set free, and the other Prisoner will get 3 years in prison.
Prisoner B: And if I don’t?????
Prosecutor: Well, if the other Prisoner gives you up, he/she goes free while you serve 3 years in prison.
Lawyer B: And if they both give each other up?
Prosecutor: They both get 2 years in prison.
Lawyer B: And if they both stay silent?
Prosecutor: Because I never lose a case, they will each serve 1 year in prison.
Lawyer B: Is he/she getting offered the same deal?
Prosecutor: Yes.
Prisoner B: What a dilemma for a prisoner!
Lawyer B: Let me draw it for you so you understand

In Room Number 1
(Prosecutor, Police Officer A, Prisoner A, Lawyer A)
Prosecutor: So, what will it be?
Lawyer A: Go ahead.
Prisoner A: My friend, Prisoner B, has masterminded a plan to steal vegan bars from the cafeteria. I just stole one on his behalf.
Prosecutor: I’ll be right back with you.

In Room Number 2
(Prosecutor, Police Officer B, Prisoner B, Lawyer B)
Prosecutor: So, what will it be?
Lawyer B: Go ahead.
Prisoner B: My friend, Prisoner A, has masterminded a plan to steal vegan bars from the cafeteria. I just stole one on his behalf.
Prosecutor to Police B: Bring the prisoner outside.

Prosecutor goes to Room Number 2
Prosecutor to Police B: Bring the prisoner outside.

In Common Area with Entire Cast Present

Prosecutor to both prisoners: You have both confessed and implicated the other. You are sentenced to 2 years in jail. And just so you know, you can’t be a vegan in prison.  

Why didn’t they just choose to stay silent? Because, according to the International Relations’ theory of Realism, every actor thinks every other actor is out for his own best interest. So according to the theory, you would assume betrayal.  

Less is More - Middle East History

When teaching Islam in Middle East History, I used to have the students complete a huge comparative religions chart. Inevitably, much of the chart was copied from the internet with the students not making much meaning of the comparisons.

This year I changed the assignment and it was much more successful and the students' understanding more authentic.  (See below)

The lesson still accomplished the goal of the learning target: I can compare Islamic values to other religions' values.

The PDF referenced below was produced by an amazing organization called Interfaith Youth Core.

Using primary sources, find text to show shared (or not shared) values in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Also, plot twist, find text from one secular source. 
Use the format that is included in the attached PDF and save it in your Google Drive. You will be presenting it on Friday. 
You don't need to do a full works cited, but include on the second page of the document where you found the information. 
Another plot twist, if you find the information on a secondary site (Wikipedia, etc), confirm the information in one of the web sites below. (remember, to differentiate between Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Although Christians often quote and believe in the Hebrew Bible, in their theology there is an emphasis on the New Testament)
Also, you can find good primary sources here:

Writing Differentation

I'm trying something out. On my 10th Grade Writing Essay Expectations, I am grading students out of the skills that they have and working towards the ones that they don't. They are not aware of the differences in grading, and allows the process to be fair. For example, if I have a student who can only include (and I don't mean correctly, just use) 20 of the writing expectations, then I will grade them out of those 20. If another student can use 25, their percentage will be out of 25. In addition, I am adding specific expectations for the next test for each students. This test I did not grade you on varying your word choice, but next time I will and we will work on that skill before the next class. This allows me to individualize the feedback (and instruction) and retain the integrity and fairness of the assignment.

Friday, August 26, 2016


One of the biggest challenges faced by teachers in the new world of teaching is modeling assignments for their students. I'm not referring to using prior students' papers, rather using our own work to help clarify our expectations. I think there are a few reasons for this:

1. Are we providing too many answers and too much support? (Coddling)

2. Is showing our work demonstrating an unfair expectation given that we are at a different stage in our lives and education? 

3. What if the students don't think it's good? Will I lose credibility in the classroom? 

I think all three reasons are credible excuses, but usually the benefits of modeling outweigh the negatives. Perhaps the only time I wouldn't provide a model is for a creative assignment, as creativity is more subjective, and I actually think students can exceed their teachers creative abilities if given the opportunity. Maybe I will change my mind about that. We will see. 

Here is an assignment that I recently modeled for my students. 

Read the following article and included excerpt.

Assignment: Fareed Zakaria wants to publish an update to his book “The Post American World” He makes many claims in the first chapter of his book and in the NPR article. Choose one claim and recommend to the author what changes or additions should be made to provide an accurate depiction in 2016. This is an independent assignment and should be completed individually. If you need help, please seek out the instructor (me!).

Paragraph 1: State the original claim in your own words.

Paragraph 2: Update Mr. Zakaria on whether his claim has stayed the same or is different. Use and reference (talk about) three sources that support your update.

Paragraph 3: Conclude with your recommendation on what the text should say.

Here is my model! I hope I get a good grade....

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Modeling the Annotation of Literature

Every year I tell my students that they can use their novels on tests and every year several students come with novels that are not annotated. Their reasons range from the fact that they didn't read much of the novel to they don't believe in taking notes to they don't know how to annotate.

I can't completely control the first two, but I can help with the last issue. Even though I know students have been taught how to annotate in prior classes, I review with them on the first day of the novel.

I posted part of the first chapter on the board and demonstrated how and what I would annotate. Then I asked them to do the same thing on their own with a paragraph. We put on the board what and how they annotated.

I hope that this modeling provided them with some guidance and explicit expectations. We will see how it goes.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Fate of Chronicle of A Death Foretold

I am trying to decide whether or not to continue to teach Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez during the next school year (2017-18). The novel is on the proverbial chopping block because I find that very few kids like or love it. What I can't decide is whether or not they need to like or love it. That's for another conversation. Even though I'm considering inserting a different book into the curriculum, I still want to try to perhaps teach the novel differently or better or with more guidance to help them to see the value.

This year I a starting off reading the first 10 pages as a class to help them scaffold the characters and model annotation.

In addition, I am previewing the novel for the first time with this scenario:

Preview of the Novel

Scenario: When you were in high school, one of your best friends was murdered downtown in broad daylight. You learn that most people at the school knew that the murder was going to occur, but did nothing to prevent it. Twenty-seven years later (How old will you be in 27 years? you return to the school where it occurred to find out what happened. Many of the staff and teachers are still there, although they are very old. Many of your old classmates are still there too, working at the school either as teachers, administrators, or staff. What 10 questions would you have for them?

We will then list the questions and examine whether or not they are answered in this novel.

LOTOL: Reading Levels

The 10th Grade at my school is not leveled in English or History. This can pose challenges when assigning reading. Also, I don't receive great data on each student's reading level when they enter the course.

For one of the first in-class activities, I ask them to indicate on a sticky note if they are a slow, slow medium, medium, fast, or fast reader.  Based on that self identification I hand out a four page article, a six page article, or both articles. (These articles were about Gabriel Garcia Marquez.)

After they finish the articles, I ask them if they found them to be hard, medium, or easy. This provides me with a tremendous amount of data. Although I know reading speed doesn't equal reading level, it still helps me plan my classes and homework assignments. (If everyone answered slow, I would have to adjust how much reading I assign per night and help them develop strategies to read faster.)  If they say the articles were easy to medium, I know I am assigning the right kinds of materials for in-class non-fiction reading (vs. novels or short stories).

After the students have finished their readings, they work in groups to create an identity chart based on their readings and an 8-minute video from class. This democratizes the group process and facilitates universal participation.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Welcome Back To School

It's been a while since I've written. Last year my contract was 60 percent English and 20 percent designing the school's web site. This year, I have a 100 percent contract, 90 percent teaching. It is a whole new ball game with two small children, one of which is attending the school this year. However, I wanted to write about what I want to write about so that I don't forget. This is my tenure year, and this blog will serve as my portfolio. I need to make time for this along with everything else. It's also nice to reflect and such.

Summer Conference

This summer I attended the "WLU Literacies for All" Institute in St. Louis. The sessions were great. My three biggest takeaways from the conference were 1. Different methods to give student feedback
2. Using creative responses vs. writing standard essays and 3. A huge list of books that I want to read!

I was also impressed by the teacher activism going on in urban areas, specifically Ferguson, Missouri. It gave me a lot of food for thought on what is the role of the teacher in the classroom.

Connecting with Kids on the First Day

On the first day of school with my 10th Grade English class I am very strict and explain the policies and guidelines. However, I don't want to create a total authoritarian atmosphere. The next class I ask them to email me answers to questions about themselves and questions or concerns that they might have about the class. (I also do this in my Social Studies courses). I've added a number 6: "Ask me (almost) any question about myself. The students usually ask, "Why did you become a teacher?" but there are other questions about favorite t.v. shows, what do you like to do for fun, what do you like about being a mom, and others. I think it humanizes me for the students, but in a safe way, one to one on email.

Another thing I tried for the first time is showing the students feedback I received from last year's class at the end of the year. The category that I shared was "advice for next year's class." I kept is as they wrote it with grammar mistakes and all so that they would know it was really from their peers.


A weakness of mine is decorating the classroom (and my home for that matter). This year, inspired by another colleague, I put up a poster with my favorite quotes. It's already been a hit with the kids.  I prefer posting student work, but they really seemed to get a lot out of it.  A challenge is that I teach three subjects, share a room with two other teachers, and there are only a few bulletin board. However, I think I will find a way to add more without ruining the walls!

Seizing the Day: Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart

The weekend before school began, I read an amazing article called Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart by Scott Anderson. Although it will add to my work load, I can't not include it in my Middle East History course. However, it is a very long article and not linear, so it requires a lot of scaffolding. There are great lesson plans on the site, and I will use some of them, but I need to weave the article into the curriculum in a meaningful and authentic way.

What's exciting is that I contact the lesson plan designer who wrote me back write away. Fareed Mosoufi wrote the lessons and Mark Schulte is the head of the Pulitzer Center. While of course I'm familiar with the Pulitzer Prize, I didn't know of that they had an educational wing.  We have already corresponded eleven times. They want to know how I'm using the article and would like feedback. We also are going to try to schedule the author to speak to my class and my colleague's class.

One of the first suggestions that I made is that they have the author record an audio version of the article to make it more accessible to students with learning disabilities. We will see what they say!

This is not my first time using long form journalism in a class. At my last school I used The Girl whose Mother Lives in the Sky by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Tom French to teach about immigration.  He then spoke to the class and they loved it!

I hope my students will share my enthusiasm. We will see!

Monday, February 1, 2016

Absent Students and Publishing Course Notes

Every teacher has absent students as well as present ones. Although in my head I know that I should prioritize the present ones, and I do, I can't care less about a student's learning because he/she is not there. In fact, with some students, I am more concerned and worried about their physical and emotional well being if they are not making it to school. 

What I have decided to do this year is to have a Google Doc per unit with the notes from each lesson and the learning targets. By the end of the unit, the document will be obnoxiously long, but I think it's preferable to posting multiple links on Moodle. Also, sometimes, when preparing for an exam, the students do not remember when they missed and for sure do not know the topics.  This document is a "one stop shop." 

It's a constant struggle in terms of my own time management. But I think that this is the best way to ensure that students missing for good reasons are able to catch up.

Four Corners of Pardoxes

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is filled with many wonderful paradoxes that are fruitful for discussion. However, some of them are dated, don't fit our modern value system, or the teens just do not relate to them.

This year, I tried the four corners activity to teach the concept of paradoxes with my 10th graders. I posted paradoxes on the board (that I found actually from and they had to go to a corner to indicate if they Agreed, Disagreed, Somewhat Agreed, and Somewhat Disagreed.

Once they were in their corners, a student or two "defined" or "translated" the paradox. At that point, some students moved to different corners because they had misunderstood the meaning. Then volunteers in each corner explained why they had chosen their stances. Again, some students were so convincing that this caused movement.

It was a very successful activity. One modification I made in a section with several students with learning challenges is that I had them first sit at their desks and read and absorb the paradoxes before moving around the room.

Here are the paradoxes:

“We live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities.”
“Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”
“Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.”
“Once you learn to quit, it becomes a habit”
“All generalizations are false, including this one.”
“Give me an honest con man any day.”
“The trouble is, if you don't risk anything, you risk even more.”
“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”
“One of the great constants in life is change.”