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How to Thrive During Student Teaching (for Teacher Interns AND Mentor Teachers)

student teacher, mentor teacher

Student Teaching…it’s an essential element of every college teaching program and an important experience for both the mentor teacher and the pre-service teacher! 

For student teachers, it provides the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in the classroom and gain knowledge of the realities of the life of a classroom teacher. For mentor teachers, it provides opportunities to reflect on your teaching practice, grow professionally, and get trained assistance in your classes. 

Have you been asked to mentor a student teacher?

Mentoring a student teacher is not always popular with experienced teachers. It involves some risk and the ability to relinquish control of your classroom. Despite those facts, I enjoy having student teachers and have mentored nine, including many who have gone on to become successful teachers.

I enjoy student teachers (also called teacher interns) because they bring enthusiasm, energy, and new ideas to my classroom and teaching. As students who have recently taken secondary ELA methods courses, they also are knowledgeable about new technologies, texts, and teaching strategies which help keep me current. Of course, being a cooperating teacher and student teacher isn’t always easy, so here are some tips from my experiences and training over the years.

For Cooperating Teachers (Mentors)

1. Remember, they are still students! 
These days many of my student teachers (earning their bachelor’s degrees for secondary English) are closer in age to my high school students than to me, so this is quickly apparent.

This means mentors should scaffold and use gradual release models- just like with their adolescent students. This includes providing guidance with co-teaching and planning, adding ever-increasing tasks and responsibility as the student teacher progresses in their student teaching experience. 

For instance, they will need to observe at first and may want to work with small groups of students before teaching a whole-class lesson. Then, they may want to do mini-lessons before doing a full lesson. Often, my interns watch me during the early classes in the day and gradually take on more of the teaching responsibilities as each day progresses.

2. Be sure to communicate often. 
This can be challenging during a busy school day, but it is essential to success for you and the intern. I usually set aside at least 15 minutes of each planning period to talk with my interns. We may also schedule discussion times before and after school as needed.

Recently, I found it helpful to reiterate and review our conversations through email to make sure we both remembered what we talked about. It also gave use both time to reflect on earlier discussions and ask follow-up questions. Furthermore, it helped make expectations clear since they were in writing. Mostly, it’s important to have routine conversations in a way that work for you both.

Three-Column Feedback Approach

Communication also includes providing feedback. Of course, student teachers need praise and positive reinforcement to build their confidence, but they also need honest feedback, including constructive criticism. I like using an “I See,” “I Hear,” and “Questions” approach. (My own supervisors used this technique with me.)

I divide a page into three columns and observe the intern teaching, noticing details such as which students in the class participate in discussion and what those students are saying and doing. I also note the intern’s words and actions- movement around the classroom (use of proximity). I’m much like a human video camera (although actually videotaping the intern teaching is also a great idea – and usually required.) However, by personally observing, I can bring attention to things that an intern might not be aware of when watching a video.

3. Expect professionalism.
Student teachers often look young, especially if they’re working in a middle school or high school classroom. They’re probably accustomed to wearing jeans and casual clothing for their college classes, but they should wear professional attire appropriate to the school culture where you teach. This may include being even more formal than the seasoned teacher at your school. At the university where my interns attend, they even sponsor a “fashion show” for their methods students. At the very least, it may be worth a discussion between the student teacher and mentor.

Furthermore, use of cell phones should also be discussed. Unfortunately, I’ve had several student teachers who were on their phones while they were supposed to be observing our classes. In my school, students aren’t supposed to have their cell phones out in class and the intern should model appropriate behavior. This may be a new concept for your intern, however, so it may need to be explicitly stated.

4. Collaborate with them.
Take time to plan engaging lessons together! Use both of

student-teaching, internships
your talents and skills to improve instruction in your classroom. This may involve taking turns for who leads lessons or works with small groups of students. I’ve gained wonderful ideas from my interns. One made an environmental connection to our Native American Myths with an excerpt from the book, No Impact Man, and I've expanded the lesson since then. Several have introduced me to new technologies including brainstorming tools. Another intern, dressed up with me when we hosted a Roaring 20's Party after teaching The Great Gatsby.

5. Say Goodbye & Celebrate Success!
Plan some goodbye activities for the last week with your student teacher. The students may want to write notes or cards to her or him. The intern may need to do a survey and request feedback from the students.

You may even want to throw a small party or get a cake for

teacher intern, mentor teacher
your student teacher. If possible, make the celebration fit with a current unit. I’ve ended with a To Kill a Mockingbird tea party and Great Gatsby celebration.  You may also want to purchase a gift for your student teacher. Depending on the intern, I’ve given gifts including a t-shirt from our school store, a journal for reflective writing, books, and gift cards. And of course, be sure to offer to write a recommendation.

For the Intern

1. Show humility and appreciation.
When I was a student teacher, I thought I knew a lot more than I actually did. I had worked as an educational assistant before pursing my M.Ed., and obviously, I was up-to-date on the latest research from my methods classes.

While I found some of the lessons and procedures used from my cooperating teacher to be boring, I didn’t understand that she had many years of experience that lead to her routines and teaching style. I also didn’t know that she had to meet mandates from her own supervisors. It’s best to be humble during your experience and consider yourself a “house guest.” The mentor teacher has invited you into his or her classroom, and you should be as gracious as you would with any other person who is hosting you.

2. Listen, reflect, and ask questions.
Take time to listen and reflect on your days. Often, as you’re

pre-service teacher, cooperating teacher
reflecting on your daily experiences, you’ll realize that you have more questions for your mentor teacher. Jot these down so you won’t forget to ask them, or email the questions so your cooperating teacher has time to give you thoughtful responses. You may also want to keep a diary in which you note your thoughts each night. Or, if you’re like me, and find yourself too busy to write in a journal, you can simply write notes in your teaching plan book.

3. Be professional.
As mentioned above, your mentor teacher should expect professionalism from you, but you can make that easier by simply acting in a professional manner. That means that you should dress appropriately and refrain from interacting with students outside of the classroom unless it’s for a sanctioned extracurricular activity.

Be sure to set boundaries since students won’t always know how to handle a young teacher and may see you as a friend, (or even a love interest). Make it clear that you are not able to be friends while you’re interning. That includes making sure not to connect with them on social media. Unfortunately, I had a student teacher who was asked to leave our school when she went to a party with students (even though she had graduated from our school and knew some of them for a while). It’s best to err on the side of being more conservative while you’re a student teacher.

4. Observe many different teachers.
Given the opportunity, ask to observe as many different teachers as possible. This may mean watching teachers in different grade levels and/or content areas. You will notice that in each classroom, teachers will have unique procedures and ways of managing their classroom. By watching a variety of teachers, you will get the best ideas for your own style of teaching and future job. It also helps to see how students behave at different grade levels and with different teachers' personalities.

5. Get involved and volunteer!
If you’re serious about getting a teaching job (maybe even at the schools where you intern), take time to assist out of the classroom. Administrators will truly be impressed with interns who attend sports or club functions. At our school, we’re always in need of adult chaperones for dances and nighttime activities during Homecoming or Prom spirit weeks. Not only will you have opportunities to network with staff members, but you’ll build better rapport with students and parents!

Although student teaching is challenging at times, it can be a wonderful experience that will lead to a fulfilling career. Hopefully, some of these tips will make the experience beneficial for both mentor teachers and their teacher interns.

What tips would you add? What experiences have you had with student teaching? Please add your thoughts below!

Roundtable Discussion - Turning Book Discussions Over to Students

How do teachers get students to talk about their reading in a meaningful way?
As a high school English teacher, I have often been reluctant to let students lead their own book discussions. When I have tried book discussions in the past, students focused on the literal meanings of their books, usually recalling plot events; however, I wanted them to use critical thinking and to make inferences and relevant connections with their reading.

secondary elaOver the years, I’ve experimented with strategies that have made me more comfortable turning the discussion over to my students (and that make them more at ease with taking ownership of the discussions). These trials have turned into my “Roundtable Discussion.” Both students and administrators have praised the use of this discussion format, which I’ve used both in my American Literature and AP Literature classes.

Here are some reasons why my class discussions became more meaningful:

1. Students prepare for their discussions. They use handouts to summarize, to identify quotes and vocabulary, to write questions, and to research topics related to their reading. These handouts are assigned with specific chapters and discussion dates in mind. Students bring them to class and their completed work is stamped at the beginning of discussion.
high school English

2.  They write to get started.  Students respond to a quick write on their response sheets before discussion.  The prompt varies- sometimes asking a general question about literature and sometimes asking a specific question about their current reading.  For a recent quick write in AP Literature, students wrote about the structure of Snow Falling on Cedars.  This lead to a good discussion of nonlinear plotline.

3. Students rehearse. After setting goals for discussion, students meet with partners, sharing their quick writes, handouts, and goals. Next, they move the desks into a circle and participate in a “whip around.” During this activity, each student shares one thought about their reading. They cannot respond to each other at this point; they just listen. Finally, this leads into spontaneous discussion.
reading discussion

4.  They listen to one another and take notes. During the discussion, I ask my students to note at least three - four interesting comments they heard their classmates contribute to the discussion.  I encourage them to use these notes to help them build their comments off of one another's ideas.  If I have a large class, I split them into two groups, and the "outside" circle listens and jots notes.  (Sometimes we add a “hot seat” and students from the outside can move into the inner circle to respond to a discussion comment.) This helps keep them focused.

5. After the discussion, students reflect on the day’s conversation. Often, they write about whether they achieved their goals, but on other occasions I give them specific prompts related to rubric criteria. When students observe one another in outside circles, they can also use their peers’ feedback for their reflections.

With practice, students have thoughtful discussions, and I am rewarded with time to listen and observe. This helps me develop other lessons based on my informal assessment of their discussions.

Best of all? It’s wonderfully relaxing to be a listener and not the lead participant in the discussion.  Students take ownership for their learning!

A few more things to note about effective discussions:

  • It takes practice! The first discussion is challenging for many students because in my school, they’ve rarely been required to take ownership in this way. They are also nervous to talk in front of their peers, but eventually almost all of them get comfortable and leaders emerge naturally. It’s great for hearing students who otherwise would not participate, too!
  • I have 90-minute class periods so this process can take from 45 – 60 minutes. Using a timer helps keep the process moving along. Again, with repeated discussions, it goes more smoothly.
  • It often helps to use a short story for a model discussion before tackling a larger text such as a novel. 
Would you be interested in learning more Roundtable Discussion? You can get handouts, a rubric, and a lesson plan here.

Why Students Aren't Writing (And What Teachers Can Do About It)

ncte, nwp, national day on writing

Every year the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) sponsors a National Day on Writing. NCTE celebrates writing with a social media campaign which asks people to share why they write using the hashtag #WhyIWrite.  This year it will occur on Sunday, October 20th.

Starting with a Bulletin Board

In the past, even though there were many interesting ways to incorporate the day into my classroom, I didn’t have much time to add a new activity to my curriculum lessons. 
writing-instruction, high-school-English
Nevertheless, I still wanted to acknowledge the day.  So at the last minute, I looked at my empty bulletin board and decided my students would write tweets explaining why they write (thanks Glitter Meets Glue and Presto Plans for the clip art and exit slips). Most students were excited to complete this activity, but of course, there are students who don’t enjoy writing, so I gave them permission to be honest.  This resulted in a handful of tweets that said they write “because I’m forced to” or “because I want to pass English.” 

The Purposes of Writing Instruction

As a person who loves to write, these responses made me sad, so I pondered the following questions:  Why do teachers make students write?  What do we require students to write?  How do we ask students to write? 

The obvious answers are that we ask students to write to pass standardized tests, to meet course requirements, and to prepare them for college and work.  We identify purposes such as “writing to inform,” “writing to explain,” and “writing to persuade,” or we assign argumentative, narrative (enjoy this free narrative writing activity for Halloween), and literary analysis essays.

The National Writing Project

Thinking about how to implement best practices for writing instruction is not a new idea for me as I have worked with the Eastern Shore Writing Project, an affiliate of the National Writing Project, for many years.  In fact, in past summers I interned as a facilitator at our Invitational Summer Institute (ISI) where teachers from around the region in diverse grade levels and contents developed teaching strategy toolboxes for writing instruction to use in their classrooms.

Writing for Human Connection

What I was reminded of during the institute, though, is that a primary purpose for writing is to connect with others. Writing for human connection reminds us that we are not alone in this world.  Our stories connect us through our fundamental human experience.  We are in this thing called life together – whether the people we write for are our family, friends, community members, or seemingly strangers from around the world.  Most importantly, writing for human connection helps us understand one another, build empathy, and hopefully, create a more peaceful world.

writingRegrettably, with testing mandates and curriculum requirements in mind, teachers may neglect to incorporate writing for human connection.  But it’s important, especially if we want to encourage our reluctant writers to feel positive about writing.  It's often hard to fit these lessons into our instruction, but sometimes we have to do what’s best for our students, no matter what pressures we experience from outside of the classroom.  Students want to write to express their feelings and to have their voices heard by others.   

Tips for Supporting Writing Instruction

So how can teachers incorporate more writing for human connection?  Here are some possibilities:
1.  Journaling
Regularly let students write about their feelings, opinions, and reflections on a host of topics.  This writing should be informal and can take various formats such as diary entries, letters, lists, webs, etc.  This can be intimidating for a teacher who then asks, how will I grade these? And maybe the answer is that it’s best not to grade many of these journals. I just collect student journals occasionally, and I ask students to choose which journal they want me to grade.  This way I can give them credit for participation but also respond to at least one of the journals they've written in class.

2.  Choice
Give students choices and creative opportunities in their writing whenever possible.  One way I accomplish this is to provide a “menu” of writing activities that students select from.  For instance, when my students complete their reading of an excerpt from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond, they can choose from nine activities.  Some of these include reflecting on and writing about nature, researching and writing about the Tiny House Movement, or writing an imaginary diary entry with Thoreau’s perspective on life in current society. 

3.  Sharing
To help students connect with others, let students share their writing.  This does not have to be done with every assignment and it doesn't always have to be in whole-class discussion, but there should be frequent times for students to share in partners or small groups.  Teachers can also display student writing on classroom bulletin boards, school showcases, or encourage students to publish their writing in school newspapers, local publications, or online forums. I like to offer students "enrichment" points for entering writing contests like the ones sponsored by The New York Times Learning Network.

4. Inspiration
A participant from our ISI gave each of us a plastic egg with a paper that said, “Your idea can change the world.”  Teachers should encourage students to change the world with the ideas that they express through their writing.  Call students “authors” and reward them for sharing their writing.  In addition to entering writing contests, sometimes I also offer enrichment points to students who will read their writing aloud in front of the class.

The most rewarding outcome of the ISI was the opportunity to write for myself.  In years past, I had written eighty pages of a memoir but had stopped because of writer’s block. By responding and writing to daily journal prompts at ISI, I moved past my writer’s block and began to once again work on my memoir. For this reason, I often write with my students. Hopefully, just as the ISI motivated me, I can encourage students to share their voices!

How do you help students write for human connection?  I would love to try out some of your ideas.  Please share in the comments below!

Make More Awesome Connections to American Literature with These TED Talks

high school English, speaking and listening skills
Students need teachers to make learning relevant and engaging, and one excellent tool for this is the use of TED Talks. I've been teaching American Literature for over 10 years and have found numerous TED Talks that connect to the texts my students read. In fact, I wrote about eight of them in an earlier blog post and have recently found more to add to my previous list.

For each talk below, I’ve included recommended literature connections, but I'm certain there are innumerable texts that may apply to each talk. Also, keep in mind that you can print transcripts of the talks to prepare for technology glitches or if you want students to take a closer look at the texts of these speeches. TEDTalks also allow you to use subtitles so you can meet the needs of all of your students.

TED Talks for American Literature

1. America's Native Prisoners of War by Aaron Huey
Date Given: 2010
Length: 15:13
Summary: In this sobering, yet informative talk, Huey reveals the shocking treatment of Native Americans (specifically the Lakota) in our country. He shares a historical timeline of numerous injustices against the tribe and the meaning of the Lakota word, "Wasichu." Perhaps with a better understanding of the events Huey recalls, our students will not only have more empathy for indigenous peoples but may choose to fight for solutions that help Native Americans with the many problems they face in the United States today.
Relevant Connections: "I Will Fight No More Forever" by Chief Joseph, Native American Myths, Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann, ThereThere by Tommy Orange

2. How to Talk to Veterans About War by Wes Moore
Date Given: 2014
Length: 14:16
Summary:  Moore's mom sent her son to military school when he continually got into trouble as a young boy, and in this talk, Moore shares how that decision lead to his time in the army and eventual deployment to Afghanistan. After returning from war, he realized he had a much truer understanding of the saying, "thank you for your service." Now he encourages people to ask veterans to share their stories and experiences as a way to honor them.
Relevant Connections: The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore, The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane,

3. The Sibling Bond by Jeffrey Kluger
Date Given: 2011
Length: 20:48
Summary:  Many works of literature include sibling relationships, and this talk explains the important role siblings play in people's (and characters) lives. Kluger shares examples of the impact siblings have had on his own life, the lives of famous historical figures, and those of people he interviewed for his book, The Sibling Effect. He also provides key findings from the scientific research on siblings. This is certainly a talk that will be meaningful for your students!
Relevant Connections: Brighton Beach Memoirs by Neil Simon, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker

4.  On Being a Woman and a Diplomat by Madeleine Albright 
Date Given: 2010
Length: 12:44
Summary:  Empower and educate your girls (and boys) with this conversational talk between former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Pat Mitchell.  The talk begins with Albright's explanation of her pin collection, including the pin "Breaking the Glass Ceiling," that she wears during the talk.  She also shares information from her diplomatic experience and explains that women's issues are world issues and should be central to foreign policy. Not only does her talk provide interesting information, but she acts as a role model to our female students.
Relevant Connections:  "Ain't I a Woman?" by Sojourner Truth, "On Women's Rights" by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, "Phenomenal Woman" by Maya Angelou, The Awakening by Kate Chopin, and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

5. Immigrant Voices Make Democracy Stronger
Date Given: 2016
Length: 12:33
Summary: In this talk, Sayu Bhojwani shares her personal experience of immigrating to the United States from India through Belize.  She discusses the importance of getting immigrants to vote and make their voices heard in America.  Ultimately, she advocates for three things -- immigrants' votes, voices and vantage points -- that she thinks can help make our democracy stronger. By sharing her personal experience and struggles, she also helps connect to our immigrant students.
Relevant Connections: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sanchez, "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus, “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros,  and Refugee by Alan Grantz

Date Given: 2016
Length: 14:35
Summary:  This fascinating talk brings to light an issue that may be particularly relevant and interesting to teens.  Lindsay Malloy, a forensic development psychologist, explains why some people would confess to crimes they were later exonerated for with D.N.A. evidence.  As part of the discussion, she highlights the case of Brendan Dassey, a 16-year-old student with an IQ of 70. She advocates for change in the legal system for young suspects and educating law enforcement.
Free TpT, high school EnglishRelevant Connections: The Crucible by Arthur Miller, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater, "Half Hanged Mary" by Margaret Atwood (Canadian but I include North American authors in my class sometimes), "Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau

And of course, please share your recommended talks in the comments below! Additionally, these handouts can help your students practice their listening and analysis skills as they watch. 

If you're new to American Literature or just looking for innovative ideas for teaching the class, you may also be interested in my free pacing guide.  

Pique Student Interest with Banned Books


It’s true that many teens are notoriously rebellious and can be difficult to teach at times. However, a strategic teacher can tap into their desire to question authority and pique their interest in reading by using challenged books. These books capitalize on their desire to learn about controversial topics. This is especially true when motivating students to read classics and books from the cannon.

For instance, when I use literature circles in my classroom, I often tease students to read the novel, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I tell them that it has often been banned in schools for vulgar language and mature topics. I also tell them that the protagonist, Holden Caufield, has a defiant attitude and immediately gets expelled from school at the start of the novel. This usually grabs their attention, and they often choose Salinger’s book for their group's reading.

Banned Books Week, from September 22 - 28, is an

readingexcellent time to introduce some commonly challenged books.  There are myriad resources to help you excite teens in their reading of these books.  There are also tools to help you if a book that you are teaching is challenged, such as when I have taught To Kill a Mockingbird.

Do you want to get your students engaged in Banned Book Week? Here are some activities that you may be interested in:

Virtual Read-Out Videos
In one promotion from the ALA, readers create YouTube videos and read excerpts from challenged books to declare their support for freedom of speech.

I modeled for my students in previous years.
teach banned books, high school English

Make a Display

Have your students create displays that educate their classmates about banned books.  This year the librarians at my high school displayed books from our media center which have been challenged.  In the display, they included reasons for the challenges with each displayed book. It was easy for them to decorate with caution tape and construction paper.

Collaborate with Your Media Center

I also asked my media center specialist to introduce my students to banned books.  She created an engaging activity in which students walked around the room looking at books that had been challenged over the years.  First, they counted how many of these books they had read, and next they chose two to research.  They searched for information on why the selected books had been challenged.  Finally, they shared their results and were amazed.  All of them were shocked that the Harry Potter series was on the list!

banned books

Should This Book Be Banned?

banned-books, intellectual-freedom, high-school-english
Here is a quick and easy free activity your students can do to connect argument writing to their reading of a challenged book. The argument writing prompt asks students to brainstorm evidence, counterarguments, and refutation for a claim about a banned book. 

You can extend their learning with this book rationale activity, too.  First, students research why their banned books have
been challenged, and then they search for text examples showing the books' educational value.  For fun, they can make bookmarks after they write their rationales.

Want more information for teaching about censorship? You may want to check out the resources below:

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

Freedom to Read Foundation
NCTE Intellectual Freedom Center

Gather more ideas from these other teacher bloggers here:

Ways to Incorporate Lessons on Banned Books

Teachers can also request rationales and report a censorship incident for classroom texts if they face a challenge.  What do you do with banned books in your classroom? Please share in the comments below.

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