Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Slow Death of Finding Main Ideas in Fiction

“What’s the main idea of this story?”

It’s a question you rarely hear nowadays.

I’m not going to argue whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but instead, I’d like to clarify why finding the main idea of fiction texts is waning from our curriculum. Four main trends are causing this:

  • The expansion of “theme” – When I went to high school, themes were loaded words like “respect,” “family,” or “hard work.” When asked for the theme of literature, one or two words was sufficient to name it. This is no longer the case. Today, themes resemble the morals of a story you can find at the end of Aesop’s fables. The Lion and the Mouse once had a theme of “caring,” but now it’s theme would be described as, “Don’t underestimate someone because they might be able to help you.” There’s no doubt this change has been fueled by the way theme questions are now asked on standardized tests.
  • A rise in the modes of writing – Distinguishing between narrative, expository, and persuasive writing has never been more important. We cycle between these types of texts both in our reading and our writing workshops. This has caused us to match certain skills and strategies with certain modes. Again, I’m not arguing whether this is good or bad, but textbook curriculums, standardized tests, and some professional readings tend to pair certain reading skills with a mode. Main idea gets paired with expository text.


  • An emphasis on text evidence – Common core demands text evidence. Main idea demands text evidence (aka “supporting details”) as well. We now teach kids to find the specific sentences that support the main idea they have identified. This lends itself toward nonfiction texts. Finding sentences that support the main idea of a nonfiction text is also easier for test companies to develop into questions, especially the multi-answer questions we are seeing more often.
  • Less time for fiction – This connects with #2 and #3, but I wanted to clearly state this as its own point. As we spend more time with nonfiction, there is less time for fiction, and teachers must choose what lessons to keep and what to trim away. You can’t teach as many fiction lessons as you used to. So, if you are teaching theme and summarizing extensively, main idea in fiction hits the cutting room floor.

So what do you think? It the decline of teaching the main idea in fiction really happening or am I delusional? (Maybe both…) If it is happening, is it okay with you or not? Let me know what you think!


How To Teach Students to “Put It In Your Own Words”

“This needs to be in your own words.”

“Rewrite this in your own words”

“You just copied this out of the book. It’s not your own words.”

If you teach any grade level doing research, you’re probably guilty of saying one, two, or in my case, all three of these statements. We tell kids they cannot copy out of the book, and that if they do, they are plagiarizing which is breaking the law. Their eyes open wide. We say you can get kicked out of college for plagiarizing, and their eyes get even wider. They truly and completely understand they cannot copy out of the book. But just a few days later (or maybe the same day), their writing looks mysteriously like the source they were reading.

Why does this keep happening?

Unfortunately, we fail to teach students any alternative to copying out of the book. We tell them not to, but we do not show them HOW not to. As a result, they fall back on the only thing they can think of…copy straight out of the book.

As a recent professional development session with Smekens Education, I finally heard a presenter actually address this problem. Thinking back to the many hours of professional development, I wonder how this went unsaid for so long, but I was certainly thrilled to have some suggestions for teaching students how to paraphrase a nonfiction text. I tried it the following week, and the results were amazing.

Step 1 – Read the text. – An obvious one, but a necessary start. We read a passage out of our Social Studies book describing a Native American tribe.


Step 2 – Put away the text. – Make the students close their books. I had done this one in the past as well. Unfortunately, without the upcoming Step 3, this would just turn into a memory contest. The students would try to memorize what they would write when I said to close books. However, this problem was solved with the new Step 3…

Step 3 – Explain what you read to a partner. – Hallelujah! This was the missing piece! This turned the complex text into student language because they were no longer trying to memorize the book. Their explanations were inherently in their own words. As they talked, I prompted them with, “I don’t want to hear the book talk; I want to hear you talk.” It worked!


Step 4 – Write down what you said. – If they can say it, they can write it. Our bulleted list about the Native American tribe looked like this (all student words)

  • The Miami tribe used to live in Indiana.
  • They had two chiefs.
  • The men would hunt for animals to eat.
  • The women would take care of the kids and grow the plants.

Now, is this really a simplistic view of the text? Absolutely. Do we need to work on developing more precise vocabulary? Sure. However, this list was truly their OWN words. It’s what we’ve always wanted.

I hope you give this a try. Smekens adds a fifth step on their website about confirming you can use if needed. I hope this works for you!

The Reason There Is a New Teacher Shortage

I know a new teacher who just started teaching this year, and after just a few weeks in the classroom, she has decided she is done. Off to try something else.

This means she’ll have to be replaced in a state with a shortage of new teachers. Knowing what was happening in the economy 6-7 years ago, this seems almost unthinkable, but it seems to be our current reality. How can a profession that has gone through waves of “riffing and pink slips” possibly have a shortage of qualified candidates to staff schools? That’s an easy answer. It’s one word: respect.


Respect is a difficult word to define. If you have never tried to explain it, try right now. I’m sure you can think of lots of “Don’t” examples (Don’t talk back… Don’t hit your sister…), but determining the exact meaning of respect is much more challenging. When trying to explain respect to my students, I tell them showing respect to someone or something shows that you value it. Showing respect gives importance to the subject in question.

Teachers face a lack of respect, and when young people interested in teaching see this, they decide to go elsewhere. This missing respect presents itself it two very clear ways. These two problems show potential new teachers that others do not value the job in the way teachers deserve.

  1. Pay – I did some extremely rough, mathematical (I hesitate to even call them that…) calculations to try to determine a beginning teachers hourly wage. I came up with an absolutely minimum of 1,700 working hours during the school year. Most teachers, especially new teachers, push well beyond this number. Divide a beginning salary around $35,000 by the hours worked, and you get about $20 an hour. In New York, fast food workers will likely soon receive $15 per hour. With all due respect to fast food workers, it’s easy to see why college students might not be looking at entering the field of education.
  2. Bad Publicity – I don’t blame the press here, though they love printing “test scores went down” stories. Those stories, however, wouldn’t exist if elected officials weren’t constantly hammering at the teaching profession. Elected officials make speeches vilifying teachers and schools, manipulating numbers to fit whatever vote-getting strategy they are currently employing. The general public sees this constantly. No wonder people aren’t lining up to work in schools.

Yes, teaching is a calling. And yes, you don’t enter this profession to get rich. But I find it hilarious when a state like mine creates a commission to explore why there is a shortage of new teachers. It isn’t that hard. The question is: Does anyone have the courage to do anything about it? I hope so. If not, this problem has the potential to become much worse.

How I Won the Pencil War

Pencils. They can stop a lesson in its tracks.

“I can’t find my pencil.”

“My pencil broke.”

“Can I sharpen my pencil?”

Crash. Bang. Boom. The entire flow of your lesson slams to a halt.

Well, I figured out how to win the pencil war with a series of easy-to-implement steps. I hope you find them useful.


1. Collect all the yellow pencils at the beginning of the year. – This is your best chance to make sure pencils are used for schoolwork and not building pencil towers or for karate practice. If students bring pencils with fancy designs, they keep those at their desk. I also add many pencils to this pile, both from back-to-school sales and another place I will name later, because I have some students who arrive at school with nothing due to economic reasons.

2. Put “Personal Pencil Sharpener” on the supply list. – Yes, you will have to deal with the occasional spill, but it’s worth it. About half the students will bring them, and they no longer have to get up to sharpen pencils. Also, I usually find these at back-to-schools sales for insane prices. One store ran a promo selling them for a penny. There’s a limit, but I visit multiple times. This way, I can give them out as prizes for something once school starts, increasing my number of students who have one.

3. Allow mechanical pencils. – Teachers worry students will take them apart and they will be broken. Some do. One week later, they are back to yellow pencils. More responsible students will make one pencil last for weeks, eliminating the need for more pencils.

4. Allow pens…sometimes. – Soon, I will allow my students to start using pens in their Writer’s Notebook. This helps the pencil problem and motivates students to write more.

5. Use technology. – Be careful here – if you’re constantly just substituting a keyboard for a pencil, it’s not worth it. However, if you are able to use technology to transform the assignment, go for it.

6. Remove the classroom pencil sharpener. – Yes, yank it off the wall. Some students see the classroom pencil sharpener as a great place to socialize and avoid schoolwork. Instead, get a few small, manual pencil sharpeners from your local art store (pictured below). They cost about a dollar each. I put eight of them in tiny boxes and placed them on a shelf in my classroom. A student needing to sharpen a pencil takes one back to his/her seat to sharpen, dumps the shavings in the trash, and keeps working. (Thanks to my school’s art teacher for this great suggestion.)


7. Make sure students’ bell work needs a pencil. – My students fill out their assignment notebook in the morning. In order to do this, they must procure a pencil. Then, when the reading mini-lesson starts ten minutes later, everyone has what they need.

8. Finally, uncover the pencil hoarders. – Some students get a new pencil every day. By the end of the year, they have 20-30 (or many, many more) pencils in their supply bag. Collect some of these back and use them to start your pencil basket next year.

Wow! That’s a lot of writing about pencils! Does it always work? No. However, you will certainly notice much fewer pencil problems breaking the flow of your lessons.