Binder Control

I thought I’d share with you some practical things I’m working on this year.

Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion recommends a technique called “Binder Control,” whereby you show your kids how you want them to organize their stuff.

My first year of teaching, I thought this was silly and too elementary for high school kids. Wouldn’t they think I was being a control freak? After this many years of school, didn’t they have their own organization methods?

By the end of my first month, I was cured of that delusion.

Yes, some students will have their own methods. But a majority of them will not. And if everyone keeps your class’ information, handouts, etc. the same way, you will save a lot of time and prevent a lot of “but I can’t find it” or “I left it in my folder back home,” etc.

1. First, I ALWAYS have my kids use binders with loose leaf paper because then you never have to worry about torn pages and scruffy edges.

2. They have 5 labeled dividers, called: Bell Work, Notes/Handouts, Vocabulary, Grammar, Passed Back.

3. This eliminates the question “Where should I put this?” because you always pre-empt it by saying: “Please open your binders to the ______ section.”

4. Make it clear that this binder, appropriately labeled and stocked with college-ruled paper, is a homework assignment due the first week of school. Assure them that if they think they may have any financial or logistical difficulties getting these supplies, that you will provide them. (So have some extra binders, divider labels, and paper on hand). I have offered this for several years and students have NEVER taken advantage of the offer without good reason. It shows them that you care and you are willing to go above and beyond to help them succeed.

5. Make it clear that you will conduct “binder checks” once in a while, and then give them notice ahead of time. “On Friday, while you are working on your quiz, I will be checking your binders for these elements… You can earn up to 5 points.”

People, don’t try to surprise the kids by saying “And now, put your binders on your desks. I am going to check them to make sure you’re all doing what I say.” Any kind of “gotcha” technique creates resentment, not respect.

Master teacher Tyler Hester of TFA even includes pictures in his syllabus:


source: Tyler Hester HW Binder assignment


source: Ibid

You’d be surprised at how many of my kids brought binders with no dividers, or binders with no paper, or binders with dividers that weren’t labelled, etc.


But I learned something new to add to my “Binder Control” technique this year!

My friend and fellow teacher told me about how she has her kids organize their Notes section by using a table of contents. On the first day you take notes, you explain with them how this process works and why it is helpful.

Here’s a slide of hers that I modified to show them how to correctly format their table of contents. I did this with my students today since we are learning about growth and fixed mindsets:



The “1.1” stands for Unit 1, Lesson 1. That way, when they are preparing for a quiz or test, you can tell them: “For this assessment you will need Notes 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3″

Make sure they do not write anything else on this table of contents page, front or back.

Then you have them open to a new, fresh page and label it before beginning to take notes:



Explain to them that this method will also help them if they are ever absent from school. They can ask a friend to for notes and look them up by date.

Fellow teachers: what ideas do you have to help keep your kids organized?


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First Day of School!

Tomorrow is my first day of school!

I’m thinking about class culture, setting the tone, and practicing procedures with my kids. I’m pretty nervous, but that’s okay. I’m excited too.

Here’s a video I’ve found helpful and maybe other teachers will as well!

Setting the Tone from Day One

This the kind of thing I would have been really uncertain about my first year – especially since I teach high school. The kids in this video are clearly in middle school. My line of thinking used to be – “I don’t have to be that strict with h.s. kids. They already know how to behave. This will seem silly to them.”

Biiiig mistake.

Whether or not it seems silly to them, having high school kids practice what you want them to do and HOW you want them to do it in the first weeks of school is crucial.

Yes, most high school kids will behave really well on the first day of school, because they don’t know you and they’re a bit nervous.

But fast forward three weeks and you will wonder why it takes you 5 minutes to settle your kids down every day. You’ll be frustrated. You’ll think: “They know better!”

When really, it’s your fault.

If you don’t show your kids from day 1 what your expectations are, you have no right to expect them to read your mind.

I try to tell my kids that I’m super strict in the beginning of the year, and super clear about expectations (especially no talking at the beginning of class) because I care about them and I want them to learn.

Keep it simple, people. Remind them that you care and then tell them what expect from them. Students rise to expectations.


By the way, the video above comes from, a website I have found very helpful. Yes, it’s super aligned to the Common Core (for good and for bad), but the teachers are great and share some wonderful ideas for all grade levels and subjects.

Check it out!


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Catholicism and Censorship Part 2

Click here for my post “Catholicism and Censorship Part 1″.

With the advent of the Common Core and it’s suggested texts (also see the official document here), the question of censorship in Catholic schools becomes particularly relevant.

And, I might add, with the increasing acceptance of secular sexual norms, political agendas, and (sadly) the decline of parental religious education and formation, we are confronted even more so by the question: As Catholic high schools, should we shy away from stories/poems/etc. that deal with same-sex attraction and marriage? environmental issues/ideologies/questions? pro-abortion texts? anti-tradition/anti-organized-religion texts?

Should we only have them read the things we believe are “safe”?


I don’t mean to oversimplify this question, or to imply my own answer (?) in the asking. It really is serious business.

From a Catholic school perspective, the first uncomfortable thing to remember is that, for better or for worse, parents are the primary educators of their children (cf. CCC 2222, 2223, Saint John Paul II’s “Letter to Families” 16).

As teachers, we groan. We sigh. We roll our eyes. We think about all the incompetent parents we have encountered over the years and we want, so desperately, to say that we know better than they do.

Perhaps, sometimes, this is true.

But the Church vehemently insists that parents are the primary educators and thus have a certain right / duty concerning their child’s education.


Concrete Application 1:

If I encounter a parent at my school who does not want his or her child to read excerpts from Homer’s The Iliad, I have to respect that choice. I need to offer that child an alternative.

I may attempt to talk to the parent, to show the parent the value of Homer, the historical context, the attestation of various saints, etc. But, at the end of the day, if Achilles’ and Patroklos’  friendship remains problematic for the parent (don’t show my child ANYTHING that could possibly have homoerotic overtones), I must bite my tongue and respect that parent’s choice.

Is it ridiculous? Yes.

But there’s a certain maddening humility that the Church is always asking of its members, and it is asking it no less from its teachers.

In my few years of teaching, I have determined that no matter how “knowledgeable” I am about literature, or how much more I believe I know than certain parents do, I nevertheless must respect their wishes. For better or for worse, God has given them the charge of being their child’s primary educators — and all secondary educators must accept and respect this mystery.

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The “Dignity and Vocation of Women” in the Life of Saint Edith Stein, Part Three


In honor of her feast day, here are some thoughts on one of my very favorite people.

Originally posted on Mysteries and Manners:

This is the third and final post in a series on how John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem illuminates Saint Edith Stein’s spirituality. Her devotion to the Cross and her unique perception of the privileged role of women in Christ’s passion is so beautiful.

You can read the earlier posts here:

Part One

Part Two

saint-teresa-benedicta-01Saint Edith Stein’s exploration of the feminine vocation in her writings is inseparable from her exploration of the human being as such, as both male and female. That is, she emphasizes the differences between the souls of men and women, as suggested above, and at the same time she offers an important insight into a common aspect of all human beings that is grounded in scripture. For her, the key to developing the human soul is to discover one’s unique gifts: “The parable of the talents refers to the unique gift given to each individual; the Apostle’s…

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The School Year Cometh

So apparently tomorrow is the first day of school at my old school.

It’s really strange because now there are a couple of ACE teachers there whom I have never met. And they are having their first day tomorrow.

I remember how scared I was on my first day… week… month… of teaching.

Year of teaching.

So, for any current or past ACE teachers – any teachers at all – who are reading this: I am thinking of you, and praying for you! You got this. Love on those kids and make some mistakes.

Here’s some inspiration from one of my favorite teachers of all time, Tyler Hester:



The school year cometh for me, too.

I spent four or five hours in my new classroom today, rearranging desks, making signs, revising my syllabus, sitting in different student desks so I could see what they will be seeing on August 25th…

…putting up Calvin and Hobbes cartoons in appropriate places…

I am so. excited. and. so. nervous.

I feel like it’s hard to explain to  a lot of people. “Didn’t last year go well? Why do you have to reinvent everything? Use the stuff that worked before.”

Because I know I can do it better.

I’m designing a new late work policy, a new homework policy, a tighter consequences system… Yes, everything worked okay last year, but I didn’t like it that some kids just didn’t do their homework ever but managed to pass my class anyway. I didn’t like using “participation points” for behavior management, even though it worked well. There must be something else, something better. I didn’t like it that the Honors class did not read twice as much as the regular class, that I did not push them like I could have.

There were things I did like: proposing Carol Dweck’s “Growth Mindset” at the beginning of the year, picking grammar concepts to focus on based on the Summer Reading essays and their following revisions, the quote board in the back of my room, the passing-in papers competition between the classes.

How could one ever get bored with teaching?

If I ever do, I hope I quit. Because if I’m bored or I think it’s easy, that means I’ve lost the love of it and I’m not serving my kids anymore.


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Getting to the Core



The Cardinal Newman Society has a really helpful pamphlet on their concerns about the Common Core:

I like particularly point #2: “The Common Core is not intended for Catholic Education.”

This is not only true, but also something to think about. The Common Core was not designed for Catholic schools – as is evident from their statement of purpose: “The standards… are designed to ensure students are prepared for today’s entry-level careers, freshman-level college courses, and workforce training programs” (as quoted by CNS in the above link).

Well, yay. I certainly hope so.

Catholic Education, if it is to be true to itself, goes far beyond this.

But, as I think the Cardinal Newman Society would agree, Catholic schools do accomplish these rather modest and utilitarian goals on the side of their much greater mission toward building the Kingdom of God.

Here’s the catch though: we don’t really have “standards” of comparable rigor to offer as an alternative to the secular ones.

Common Core has it’s problems, but Catholic schools have long been adopting state standards because we do not have any of our own.

The Archdiocese of Denver now has their own educational standards, couched in terms of Catholic-ness… which you can see here… but if you compare them to the Common Core…

Common Core Reading standards for 9-10th grades (since that is what I am familiar with):

Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.
Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.
Archdiocese of Denver Reading standards for 9-10th grades:
1. Cite evidence in the text that most strongly supports a specific analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
2. Analyze in detail the development and refinement of a theme or central idea in a text, including how it emerges and it shaped and refined by specific details.
4. Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.
Um, did you notice some similarities?
They’re almost word-for-word the same. (Why don’t they cite one another?)
Here’s the thing. The Common Core definitely “violates the principle of subsidiarity,” as the CNS claims, but what are we really doing instead? If we’re just borrowing the language from secular standards (whether Common Core standards or other, older state standards), why are we getting all hot under the collar when Common Core is sweeping the nation? What are we really offering instead?
We are checking our Catholic “curriculum” against what secular education does. There may be good reasons for this. (Like, maybe some of the standards are good standards.) But why are we complaining so much when we have not bothered to really create standards of our own that reflect our own goals and visions of education?
The Common Core, at least, is inspiring a conversation about standards – what they are, what they really mean, how do they affect instruction, etc.
Catholic schools cannot simply continue to rely on “tried and true methods” or vague generalities about “forming the whole person” without examining what we’re really doing and why.
Further reading:

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For New Teachers

I like this:

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