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Helping Students Get Ready for an Essay: Outline Peer Review

lolcat paperOne of the biggest problems with teaching students to write a paper is that students need to learn about a million skills – usage, style, grammar, syntax.

But if the essay argument is unclear or undeveloped, or the paper “through-line” – the flow of the argument – is unclear, the whole paper is shot.

How can you harness the power of peer review to get a paper’s “through-line” set before students take a swing at a first draft?

1. Give students an outline of the paper.

2. Ask students to write a thesis, supporting point 1, and supporting point 2 section, each with one piece of textual support.

3. Put them in groups of 3 or 4. I suggest Mr. Mater’s amazing Super Grouper for randomizing.

4. Give them 20 minutes to review the 3-4 outline(s). If the logic is unclear, they must clarify. If the supporting point is invalid, they must find a better one.

6. Before sending them off, explain that the group gets the grade of the weakest outline. Teach about the value of peer-mentoring, and the idea of win-win collaboration.

7. After class, grade each outline. If the paper will be worth 100, grade the outline as a separate 10 point assignment. This will not damage anyone’s grade, but will incentivize careful peer review.

8. The next day, you can give them a chance to fix any member of their group’s outline to lift the collective grade!

Better Outlines + Peer Review = Better Papers and Better Learning!

For more on the power of offering students an outline, click here!

Learning to Differentiate Part 2: Getting your feet in the Differentiation Kiddie Pool

You may want to read Part 1 on Differentiating in Baby steps, here.

loldumplingsThe main books on differentiation are by Carol Ann Tomlinson; she stresses that you must enter into differentiating your classroom slowly, trying one small thing at a time.

The problem with this very true statement is that, well, it’s sort of like the first time I went out for Dim Sum as a 17 year old. The adult friend of my parents said, “You can’t try everything, so just pick a few things and see what you like.”

But everything looked scary. I needed a place to start.

So too with that great, mysterious Dim Sum Dumpling of Differentiation in the Classroom: I’d like to offer you a great way to start.

Differentiate by Pace – Solve a Behavior Problems at the Same Time

masterlockHere’s the scenario: students have an assignment in class. It might be solo, it might be in groups. What do they do when they’re done?

Here’s what I used to do: tell the students that they must tell me when they’re done with their assignment. Then, while supervising their work, I’d try to drum up some extra work for them to do if they finished early. Invariably, however, a couple of students would finish their work way too fast, and initiate WWF-style wrestling matches in the back of the classroom.

Me-as-beginner-teacher: “I told you to tell me when you were done!”

Student: “But there were only 18 minutes to the end of class.”

Me-as-beginner-teacher: You can learn a lot in 18 minutes!

Student: You can’t learn anything in 18 minutes.

Me-as-a-beginner-teacher: Oh, you need to meet my friend TED. TED would totally disagree.

It was a lost battle. The student had unplugged. Net result: I disciplined the student. The student sulked for a week. Lose-lose.

More problematic than Sulky-Student-Syndrome is the fact that this student who finished early a) might have burned through the work early as an incentive to slack off for 18 minutes, and b) Might have gone on to learn (or produce) great stuff if I’d planned ahead.


cloudTomlinson speaks about “Anchor Activities” in her books: specified, ongoing activities that students can start class with or return to after completing work. It keeps them “anchored” in learning – preventing drift and preventing back-of-class-melee-combat.

As you can imagine, it needs to be interesting enough to draw idle students to it, but it must be educationally sound.

The IDEAL and the REAL

Ideally, the anchor activity would be deeply meaningful, build a skill-set, and engage the student in a long-range product. BUT…that’s sending a new teacher back to burn-out-territory. Let’s find a balance between Anchor Work that’s easy to create, fun to do, and that will not require you to design two units instead of one.

My suggestions:


  1. When you design each unit, comb Youtube for thoughtful videos thematically related to that topic. Assemble links to videos in a Googledoc or in a binder (you can use or to rename the links with helpful titles instead of URL http:gobbledygook). Students can pick and watch videos and can choose from the activities below (which you can set up, based on what you have the bandwidth to supervise / teach)
  2. Write a short editorial on what you saw. For example: what resonates with you? What do you object to?
  3. Use provided art supplies to create a poster, children’s book, or collage on the theme of the video.
  4. Use an online source like Pixton, Toondoo, Powtoon, or GoAnimate to share your thoughts or experiences on the theme.


1. Comb blogs related to popular-science magazines for articles thematically-related to the unit; bonus points if the article is a little controversial. I teach literature, so I look for Pyschology Today articles, making for interesting reading – especially when the articles are about teenagers, and students may vehemently disagree with the premises! Here are some ideas:

  1. Student reads the article and writes a response to the author: do you agree or disagree with certain claims the author makes? Thank the author for helpful ideas, and suggest alternate ways of understanding teens’ experiences in areas where you disagree.
  2. Each student keeps a blog in which s/he writes editorials on the articles s/he reads.
  3. Student keeps a journal – written or comic strip form – and writes about his/her own experiences in regards to the topic.


Finally, if I don’t have time to arrange anchorwork or I choose not to, students can move on to homework when they finish their classwork.

On the one hand, this was always my preference (certainly over WWF wrestling), but here’s the catch. I used to just say (over and over, in fact), that when students were done, they should do homework.


A Template For Lesson Planning: Includes Anchorwork and Homework

But before, I didn’t use a lesson-plan template like this: I post this template each day on the class calendar, and if there is no anchorwork, I write, “See homework.” (For more on how I use templates, read my post here,)

Now, students see it. It’s real.

Finish your work early, and you’re are accountable for the next step. Even if it’s just homework.

No more WWF Wrestling.


Differentiation in Baby Steps, Part 1: Don’t Differentiate Yourself Into Insanity

differentiate cartoonHave you ever seen this cartoon before?

I have — about two dozen times, and it frustrates me; it’s often the first slide in a presentation on differentiated instruction in the classroom , and while yes, it makes a point, it raises some serious concerns.

If I understand the logic: the goldfish should not be asked to climb a tree. Let her, um… do a modern interpretive swim.

The idea behind differentiated instruction is simple: different students have different abilities and limitations, and rather than expect all students to learn and to work in the same way, we should tailor our teaching, assignments, projects, and assessments to be as inclusive as possible. (For in depth reading on differentiated instruction, check out some books by the guru, Carol Ann Tomlinson. She’s written a book on about every angle you can imagine – from problem based learning to focusing on the humanities.)

Sounds good, right?

I’d like to complain about this cartoon, however, and in doing so, make a couple of points to help new educators step, in a balanced way, down the path of differentiating in their classrooms.

burnoutThe First Caveat to the Cartoon: A burned-out teacher who differentiates is worse than a healthy teacher who doesn’t… yet.

The cartoon suggests something which, in the ears of a well-intentioned, eager, beginner educator, can result in disaster: if you don’t differentiate, you might as well be asking a fish to ride a bicycle. Or climb a tree.

This is a problem; while the premise of differentiation is simple, the execution is beyond complex. A teacher can tweak any element of the students’ class experience in numerous ways – from daily work to the final project.

This creates great opportunity! Hooray!

This also can create mental and physical collapse for the beginner educator.

kittenMy first two years of teaching, I never knew when enough was enough: staying up late enough. Familiarizing myself with enough texts. Including enough activites. Designing enough adventures. Two o’clock in the morning, in the blue glow of my computer, still dissatisfied with the unit plan, I would shake my fists at the ceiling and yell, “How is a mere mortal to teach?!”

That is not a sustainable model for a career of teaching.

And that was before differentiation came to town.

The Second Caveat to the Comic: Students are cats

3catsThe second caveat to the comic is that a room full of students is generally not a monkey sitting next to a horse sitting next to a goldfish. It’s more like… three different kinds of cats. One is the jumpy cat which zings under a bed when you walk into the room, the second is the cat that won’t get up off your lap even when you stand up, and the third enjoys raking his claws across every cloth surface he can find, including your shins.

Yes, students are unique. Yes, you should take steps, when the time is right, to learn differentiation. Yes, eventually, you will include many forms of differentiation for many types of cat.

Learning to reach the next plateau of any life stage involves discovering that it’s much more complex than you ever would have expected. No worthy growth goal can be tackled in a single, frenzied dash.

karatekidAs my most significant teacher mentor once said, “Daniel-san. First learn walk. Then learn fly.”

Then, learn climb tree.

To continue to Part 2 on this series, click here.