Gift Guide 2016

In no particular order, stripped of images because I moved blogs.)

These great and little bear prints. (So freaking cute!)

For the lucky few who get to keep their butter on the counter.

A brass and glass lantern or terrarium to fill with candles or sparkly things.

This stunning coffee table book.

Vintage bookends. These water bottles keep your drinks cold for hours. Really.

Anyone with pets needs one of these.* I want. You want. Everyone wants. It’s the solution to half of my problems.

A swearing party game. I’m in. Oh wait, the goal is to not swear. Dammit.

I need this.  A plush Scully. Perfection. All babies need this (sans the necklace, because choking hazard.)

For the Lone Gunmen in your life: prayercandles.

Young or old, there is a person in your life who needs a bucket of shit. No really.

And this toy cactus. I bought one as a gift recently and it’s amazing.

White triangle-arrow necklace. A botanical dill necklace.

Any piece from this Etsy seller.  Zodiac Constellation charms for that friend sister who believes that stuff.

Black silhouette jewelry holders in the shape of birds, a ballerina, and more birds.

A unisex bag that’s been in my shopping cart for months. Lapel pins are back in. A dandelion.

How you doing? I know a few people for whom this applies.

Ribbons are popular too.

I am positive my mother needs this ironed onto a jean jacket.

I saw a gal walking across campus with this bag and I fell a little bit in love with her that day.

If you’d like your cat to look like a  16th century jester AND you’d like it to stop eating birds, try this.

A box of greeting card “pick your own” charts can only go awry if the gifted has no sense of humor.

We all need a box of theseLiterary metal bookmarks.

This Rocketbook smart notebook is pretty dang cool. Victorian Lady Sex. Sold!

The Night Voyage coloring book. A set of the best coloring pencils.

On My List For real though, I want this. I’m not being ironic. (Okay, maybe I’m being a little bit ironic, but I have been a doomsday prepper since the 3rd grade.)

Calendars and Planning for Rebels

Poster of Calendar

I pour over the calendar aisle in every store soaking in colors and bindings and smooth papers.

How does one choose something so important and personal?

When stressed, I obsess at planner porn and wonder how other people make them so pretty. How do they make their handwriting so neat? How do they know what pens and markers to use? How much flipping time do they spend writing out their schedules? Who has that much to write down? What do they do when they make a mistake? Why does anyone need a water log?

But alas, all this pretty is simply not useful or practical for me, because I’m a rebel.

One of the best things I learned from reading The Happiness Project was happiness begins by understanding our true nature, and not by pretending to be fantasy version of ourselves.

When I look at planner and journal porn, and the little voice in my head says, “maybe I do need a new planner,” what I’m really doing is imagining a fantasy Cherri, who is an upholder, and has a whole set of skills and habits that real-life rebel Cherri does not.

Gretchen Rubin’s first commandment of happiness is to “be Gretchen.” So for all personal organizational tasks, I must be Cherri.

Here is what I know about being Cherri when it comes to calendars and planners.


  • won’t write in a planner or journal if she paid too much for it. We could delve into the psychology of this, but this post is long enough.
  • doesn’t enjoy waste, nor does she like buying shit she doesn’t need, nor clearing out clutter fantasy Cherri purchased years ago. (She does, however, enjoy browsing, and often puts things in her cart while shopping and puts them back on the shelf again before leaving the store.)
  • prefers paper to digital systems. (Ideally I’d have a digital reminder system, but google calendar notifications stopped working on my account–and I’ve tried every trick to get them to work I can find–and so paper it is.)
  • prefers to use pencil in a calendar so it can be erased, but will use pen and whiteout tape when necessary.
  • likes to see a whole month at a time.
  • doesn’t write a to-do list in her calendar.
  • prefers low-contrast design with white paper and black/gray lettering.

I did not know these things about Cherri at ages 20, 25, 30. I mostly had them figured out by age 45, but still need to remind myself sometimes. I go into a panic every now and again about some aspect of my life, and for a brief moment, I think a new calendar or planner will fix it. Because, of course we should be able to organize the chaos of an uncertain universe with a few pieces of pretty paper. Of course.

Mostly, being Cherri means I know better.


Before you decide on a calendar/planner system—or before you revise the one that isn’t quite working–you might take an inventory of your actual habits when it comes to writing things down and keeping track of your must-dos. What you think is a gorgeous work of art and what works for your friend/spouse/parent might not be the right choice for getting your own shit done.

As far as my own calendar, as that is the theme for today’s challenge, I keep a simple monthly paper calendar where I write appointments, etc. If I have to be somewhere other than my normal work schedule, it goes on the calendar.

I don’t carry this calendar with me. I leave it at home on the desk. If I need to add something while out and about, I use my Penseive app to email myself then add it when I get home.

Originally published for #readwriteplan by Cherri Porter August 1, 2016.

Protip: Do not google “calendar porn” or “planner porn” without your safe search on. You can never unsee that!

Image Source: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, The New York Public Library. “August” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1887 – 1922.

Retrieval Effect and Testing for Learning

The retrieval effect is a powerful tool to enhance student learning.

retrieval effect

Why Not Testing?

As a student I loved taking tests, largely because I was good at them.

As a writing teacher, my attitudes about tests have been mostly negative. For one, grading handwritten essay exams sucks a whole lotta squirrel shit.

The fact that students freak out about exams, to the point where they don’t do their best writing and thinking on them, is another consideration. In their panic, they lose what little thread of sense we think they might have acquired in our classes, and they write wacktacular theories about how more guns and processed food will make preschoolers healthier.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want students to suffer like that anymore than I want to read that crap.

Testing, as done by most schools and most teachers, is a pedagogical nightmare I have avoided as much as possible.

That is the attitude and experience I brought to James M. Lang’s work earlier this year. The key thing his work has asked of me is to re-think the value of testing for students.

How Might Testing be Valuable for Students?

It’s no surprise to most of us that we’ve been doing testing wrong. Schools and teachers have been stuck in a rigid and unproductive box when it comes to testing, which does nothing to show students’ best work.

It’s time for a paradigm shift about testing; not only can we test outside the box…there is no box.

The fact is, there is no box when it comes to the kinds of tests we can design for the benefit of our students, there is only bad habits and longstanding patterns we must overthrow.

A test is not something that has to happen on paper or come at the end of the unit or be done exclusively as a solo activity. A test is not something that needs to count for a large percentage of a grade or even be graded by the teacher.


The question we need to ask is: how can we create tests for the benefit of our students?

Think about that for a minute.

What happens to the whole education system when we explore ways to help students shine through testing?

The Retrieval Effect can Help Students Shine

The work of James M. Lang provides the foundation for my understanding of the retrieval effect. In his book, Small Teaching he defines the principle that underlies a new way of testing:

Put as simply as possible the retrieval effect means that if you want to retrieve knowledge from your memory, you have to practice retrieving knowledge from your memory. The more times that you practice remembering something, the more capable you become of remembering that thing in the future. (20)

Teachers might assume this is what students are doing when they study, but that is only one form of retrieval, and most students haven’t been taught strategies to help them do it.

Another hitch in this process, is that many of us who go into secondary and post-secondary teaching were naturally good at and interested in our disciplines. This made studying and retrieval less arduous and didactic for us as learners.

Assuming students don’t need in-class opportunities to practice retrieval is dangerous.

As teachers we often reiterate material for students, emphasizing important points. We might provide a study guide for them to use outside of class. But re-reading and reviewing are not retrieval practices, and not testing the knowing in ways that enhance long term memory.

At a very basic level, our class structures and testing strategies are failing students, and not the other way around.

What this means for teachers is that to design a good test, we need to start way before the actual test, giving students opportunities to practice retrieving their knowledge. In addition, there are many ways to practice and demonstrate knowledge retrieval beyond what we think of as the typical formats of college exams: multiple-choice, short answer, or essay.


Retrieval Practice Ideas

  • At the end of each lecture teachers could ask two or three of the exam questions for students to answer on a note card anonymously or via a google forms link or some other social media survey if your students are media savvy. This way, teachers get an immediate sense of what material students know and don’t, which could be reviewed at the beginning of the next class.
  • Teachers might open each class with a question that would be on the exam pertaining to material from one of the last two classes, and ask students to answer the question either individually in their notebooks, on note cards to collect and look at immediately, or in small groups. This, of course, takes time, but it does get them practicing recall regularly. It also conditions them to review their notes before class, because they will be asked to recall what they learned in previous class sessions.
  • If you use an online course management system you can have regular quizzes that students can take as many times as they want (for no points or extra credit) but you can look at the results of those and can see which questions they’re missing and note patterns. Many textbooks have free quizzes on their websites you can encourage students to use as supplement, and the course management systems often have textbook tools that integrate without you having to do more than select and import. Since you’re not pointing these practice retrieval activities activities, you don’t have to go through them and monitor them the way you would if you were using them as part of your own exams, so the workload is minor.
  • Another option is two day testing. On the first day students took the exam by themselves, turned it into the professor for scoring, and then went home to study what they were unsure about. On day two they come back to take the exam again in small groups. Now, some teachers might think it is cheating that they get to work in groups, BUT, what we know about the neuroscience is the important part here: by retaking the same test they reinforced their own learning by testing their memory. It’s the retrieval effect in action that matters, and not that they got to work with peers. The result is that everyone, even the slackers, had the chance to learn the material a bit deeper and test their own knowledge twice. You could let students choose if they want the individual or group score, you could weight them both, or pick the highest score of the two.

Practice and Experiment

However you choose to do this, give it time. These are new strategies for teachers and students. Many students will find them completely foreign and stare at you like you’re crazy. They may even resist. I’ve had stubborn classes that refused to participate in my new ideas and other classes that jumped right into the crazy void with me.

If you have more ideas or thoughts to add, leave them in the comments.

Post script: there is an interesting rubric in this article for conceptualizing the kinds of questions we might design for exams I found really interesting.

I do want to specifically recommend Lang’s Small Teaching and his online columns. His work both synthesizes the current research and contains practical examples of what teachers are doing in their classrooms across the curriculum. If you’re a new teacher, his On Course book is worth your time.

Originally published by Cherri Porter August 20, 2016.

Image by Aaron Burden, Unsplash.

24 Stages of Grading

Grading Essays in 24 Easy Steps is a true crime story as old as teachers, writing, and procrastination.

24 Stages of Grading

  1. Collect digital copies of essays.
  2. Email all the students who submitted their essays incorrectly.
  3. Hope you’re a new person this semester who can start grading essays immediately upon submission, instead of procrastinating.
  4. Decide you’re too tired to start now. You’ll do better with a fresh brain.
  5. Lose sleep because you’re worried students are worried about the lack of feedback on their essay.
  6. Follow interior decorators on Instagram. 
  7. Like every Instagram photo you see with flowers arranged by folks in England. 
  8. Read 2-5 books unrelated to the discipline you teach.
  9. Prep lessons for next few classes, just to get it out of the way.
  10. Research new career paths because you can’t keep doing this.
  11. Lose more sleep. Have that dream again where you eat the table cloth at a swank restaurant with the wrong fork.
  12. Come up with excuses for why you’re not done yet.
  13. Nap.
  14. Grade one essay. It’s not that bad.
  15. Oops, the next one is terrible.
  16. Set a timer for how long you’re going to grade before you can check social media again.
  17. Hydrate.
  18. Pee.
  19. Reset the timer.
  20. Obsess about all the creative things you would be doing if you didn’t have this soul leeching task leeching your soul of all creative impulse.
  21. Stab self with grading pen you no longer use because you’ve gone digital.
  22. Get around to grading 143 essays somehow. You have no memory of how it happens, really, but they are done except for that one student you fully expect will never to return class again, but he shows up so you have to scramble to grade it really quick during class so he doesn’t wonder why you didn’t grade his and only his.
  23. Vow to become a new person who will never put herself through this again.
  24. Collect another set of essays.

Originally published October 4, 2016 by Cherri Porter

<©2018 Cherri Porter>