Character Databases

Recently on Twitter, Alice Keeler asked for activities that weren’t worksheets as part of her #worsheetlesswednesday post. I responded with the tweet below, which included some pictures of student work from my class.

Not only did Alice Keeler retweet it (insert fangirl squee here), but I received several requests for more information. This post is my attempt to explain and document what happened in my class.

First off, the character database is not my idea. I got it from Eric Curtis when he presented as part of the DitchSummit in December of 2017. He has a great explanation, including an example from the novel Wonder in his blog.

I used this idea in my literature circles. Students chose a novel from a short list and formed small groups. I gave them time in class to read and, in addition to the usual literature circle activities, each circle was responsible for creating a database of the characters in their novel. I shared the Wonder database with them and gave them some suggested categories but told them the database was theirs to build collectively.

Watching my students build the databases was fascinating, with their conversations proving to be quite rich in content. The “Holes” group came up with a category about whether or not the character was from the past or the present. At one point, one of the groups reading “The Hunger Games” got into a heated discussion about whether Effie Trinket was a primary or secondary character. They eventually decided that in this book, she was a secondary character but in later books she would take a larger role. My takeaway was that in almost 20 years of teaching, this was the most engaged I had ever seen my students in studying literature in my room.

The next step in the project was my extension to Eric Curtis’s database idea. As I also teach math to these two classes and we had just finished Data Management, having them graph the data seemed a natural next step. The Ontario Curriculum, in addition to wanting students to create databases from data they have collected, wants them to create graphs and tables from data. They are also expected to analyze graphs and draw conclusions. They had made the database from their novels, but I now wanted them to graph and analyze some of the data.

So I created “Novel by the Numbers”. I asked each student was to choose 3 categories from their data to graph. The form of the graph was up to them. Students were also asked to analyze the graphs, describing what they saw. I also asked them to theorize as to why the data looked the way it did. Finally, they had to share the graphs in some way (Google Sites, infographic, etc.). I showed the students how to make graphs using Google Sheets and stepped back.

Once again, there was rich discussion in the class, with the students asking each other’s opinions on some of the data. Some came to me to discuss their graph choices, which led to further discussion and feedback on which graph was a good choice given the data they had collected.

The final products are still coming in at this point, so I don’t have final thoughts. Overall, though, I am impressed with my students’ reaction to this project and will probably make it part of my literature circles from now on.

Zombie Math

Given that it is late in October, I wanted to do something Halloween-related in Math, but I didn’t want to do worksheets with ghosts and witches. Teaching grade 7 & 8 means that I have to deal with the cool factor. My students are quick to check out if they think the work is too “babyish”.

Luckily, I have been experimenting with Dan Meyer’s 3-Act Math once a week, so a real-world problem based on Zombies would work well. I know that the emergency preparedness people love the zombie scenario because it models the spread of the infectious diseases quite well. Also, because zombies are in the zeitgeist, their inclusion makes the exercise more fun and engaging.

I went to the web to try and find a zombie math activity that would be appropriate for a grade 7 and 8 math class. I found A LOT of zombie activities meant for the high school audience, centered around logarithms and exponential growth. But that is a little too advanced for what my muffins can do.

My Inspiration

Then I found this meme on the internet and found my great inspiration. I would set my scenario in our school. I was able to grab a few images from this video from Mash Up Math

I setup my Pear Deck and showed it to my students. When we do the 3-act math, I also have students incorporate a bit of the Thinking Classroom from Peter Liljedahl. There are randomly placed into groups of three, with one marker. One student takes on the role of thinker, one becomes the recorder and the final student is the calculator. All work is done on flip chart paper hung around the room. Every 10 minutes or so, student roles changes.

The results were more than I’d hoped for.

Table of Values solution

All students went immediately to the t-chart and started to power through the pattern. Our school, with 720 students, was done for between the 10th and 11th hour. Ottawa, our city went in the hour. Canada didn’t last much longer, falling to the zombie hordes by the hour. Some groups went as far as determine humanity had hours based on this pattern.

We are doomed

Many students started to try and figure out the pattern rule. Some students recognized there was an exponent involved, but couldn’t put their fingers on it. A few students recognized this was a variation on the penny problem we had done a few sessions before. One or two got (or remembered) the pattern rule of 2n-1.

But what was more interesting was the engagement I saw from my students. Several took it to the planet. (33 hours) One figured out to the exact second how long we had as a species. Several others started to ask about the effect people fighting back would have on the spread of zombies. But most amazing was when one young woman, who self-describes her relationship with math as “not good”, asked if her group could figure out how long the US would have under this pattern rule, for fun. For fun.

I teared up.

If you want to grab a copy of the Pear Deck, please feel free to do so here.


I was lucky enough to take Mathematics, Grades 7 and 8 from ETFO this summer. It was not the equivalent of my specialist, but it gave me a look at how to better teach math.

As part of the course, my instructor, Mark Chubb, had us watch this video from Rick Wormeli on Gradebooks. I thought it had a lot of good ideas. But it would require me to redo my mark book in a big way.

So I spent a week or so at the end of my course creating new markbooks for the school year. I am currently scheduled to teach English and Math to both a Grade ⅞  and a Grade 8 Immersion class, so I prepared a math and language version for both grade 7 and grade 8. That’s four new grade books in total.

The idea is that each student I teach will have their own individual copy of the gradebook for both Math and English rather than the usual one markbook per class. It makes sense though, because we are supposed to be doing standards-based assessment, so why do I need to have students in the same file?  I also hope using these new markbooks will help with my attempts to revitalize my assessment of tests.

Does this idea intrigue you? Please feel free to download your own copy of the markbooks below. Let me know how it went.


Grade 7 English

Grade 7 Math

Grade 8 English

Grade 8 Math

Hello World!


My name is Deanna Toxopeus and this is my professional blog. Here I talk about teaching and share resources. If you are looking for my class blog, please head here.

I have been teaching since 1999, so I am fast approaching my twentieth year in the business. I currently teach grade 7 & 8 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, but really, I have taught almost everything. I am a History specialist at the Intermediate level but have become a Math teacher. I enjoy teaching Math so much that I took a course from ETFO this summer to ensure I get to keep teaching this subject in the future. I also possess my Special Education Part 2 and my ESL Part 1. As part of my Special Education training, I took additional certification in Integration of Children with Exceptionalities in the Regular Classroom, Learning Disabilities, and Gifted Education.

So why the blog?

It’s hard to talk about yourself this way, but I have been encouraged by colleagues to share my ideas with the world. I have been repeatedly told that I am a creative and caring teacher and that others would benefit from my ideas. And I always thought I could do it later. “Later”, I would tell my friends, but something happened this year to show me that I had to stop saying “Later”. For many reasons, I needed to say “Now”.

So here we are.

Weird Name. What’s going on?

The name of this blog comes out of who I am as a teacher.

Shenanigans comes from my love of old-fashioned language. There are many words in the English language that have, sadly, fallen out of use. Shenanigans is one of these. I use it to describe the goofing-off I observe from students in class. They aren’t malicious about it, just silly and not thinking. I use the word with students, colleagues, and admin, so I am known for it.

Muffins comes from my tendency to use pet names with my students. “Sweetheart”, “Dear”, etc. are part of my vocabulary. I use them in place of students’ names all the time. I used to think that it was because I had a hard time with names at the beginning of the year, but then one year after I dismissed a class, a student hung back. He was a student who faced many challenges and was often alone. “Mrs. T,” he said, “The only other person who calls me sweetheart is my mom. Thanks.” And then he left my room.

It was a good thing I had a preparation period right after because I burst into tears. It was at this point that I realized that there are students in my class who need to hear that there are people at school who are happy to see them. My using those pet names may have started for selfish reasons, but I have continued it specifically for students like that young man who reached out to me. For a variety of reasons, “Muffins” has become my go-to name.

And it has become an interesting bit of culture in my class and school. Most students accept it as me being me. Some students object, claiming they are not a muffin but rather a cupcake or some other baked good. I tell them they can be whatever pastry they want after they graduate. Which leads to flights of fancy. “I am going to be baklava!” ”I want to be a donut!” “I am going to be a lemon pudding!” And the day after graduation, I refer to the grade 8s as the “students formerly known as muffins!”

So Muffins & Shenanigans seemed to be the perfect name of the for this blog.

I look forward to sharing ideas with you as this blog develops.

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter.