They Remember Who We Are: The Immense Impact of the Individual Classroom Teacher

At the end of this summer, I proudly completed my Master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In the culminating weeks of my coursework, I wrote an in-depth literature review on the topic of character education. I was exploring several questions; most prominently, I was seeking a way to sort through the broad spectrum of existing programs, strategies, and beliefs about how schools teach our students to become good citizens in addition to becoming savvy scholars. What strategies are effective? How is that effectiveness measured? How does the complicated history of character education inform our present? Does developing character translate to academic achievement?

As you might imagine, the deeper I dug into those questions, the more complex and conflicting my findings became. On one particular afternoon, feeling overwhelmed at the process of synthesizing and interpreting the research I had read, I resorted to wandering around Golda Meir library. I had this strong sense that, if only I could find the perfect spot in the meandering depths of the stacks, inspiration would flood me and all my struggles would dissipate. Weirdly enough, it happened. It all started with this:


I moved to a desk below an unassuming plaque mounted to the brick. It’s you and me, Walter Hewitt Cheever, I thought, plunking my bag down on the chair. I started to read the information below the name, and there it was:

Inspirer of high ideals. Molder of character. Teacher and friend.

We loved him.

Walter Hewitt Cheever, whoever he was, taught at UWM from age 38 until his death nearly three decades later. He “served faithfully.” My grandfather wasn’t even born yet when Cheever died, but yet here was I, a teacher from 2016, finishing up my master’s degree in the company of his modest little memorial. What struck me was that nothing of Cheever’s academic discipline or scholarship was mentioned. I don’t know what his subject matter of expertise was, what he published, or what content his students learned. Tears, out of nowhere, started to push at my eyelids as I read the epitaph over again. Love. Ideals. Character. These are the words that Cheever’s students and colleagues decided to put on his plaque, way back at the beginning of the Roaring 20’s. And oddly enough, the story of this piece of metal in the odd corner of the university library mirrors what, to me, were the most fascinating aspects of my research on character education.

On that day and those that followed, I started to articulate, in writing, everything that I learned about the ways that schools attempt to teach students about things like kindness, leadership, and responsibility. Part of it breaks down to this: the individual classroom teacher has a bigger impact than nearly any other school-based factor–not just on learning, but on the people our students grow up to be.

Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:

*In 2003, Williams, interviewed students about their feelings regarding a newly implemented character education program at their schools. The responses that the researchers got, however, had little to do with the actual curriculum that the program used. Instead, individual teachers’ behavior and attitudes were consistently mentioned. The questions were about the program, but the answers were about the teachers as role models.

*Also in 2003, another researcher named Richard Weissbourd found that even when schools have been massively restructured in policy or curriculum, students remained largely oblivious to the changes; yet, when questioned about their feelings regarding new initiatives, they typically responded with observations about a specific teacher’s actions or lessons. Again, we see that students interpret individual teachers’ behavior and messages as the voice of their school’s character mission. This puts a lot of moral responsibility on teachers’ shoulders! Weissbourd acknowledged that a special support and training of teachers is needed in order to help character education work: “Schools can best support students’ moral development by helping teachers manage the stresses of their profession and by increasing teachers’ capacity for reflection and empathy” (p. 6).

*Especially for students who may not have a home life that provides safety and empathy, the environments of their classrooms can make a profound difference in academic success as well as social, emotional, and ethical development (Schaps, 2005).

*While mission statements and stated values may create a formal message about the school’s environment, students are keenly aware of the implicit messages about values that they receive via their daily interactions at school. The positive quality of students’ relationships with teachers dramatically affects their receptiveness to character education (Berkowitz and Bier, 2004).

In today’s educational environment, the collection and interpretation of academic proficiency data is highly prioritized. But there’s a huge part of teaching that isn’t addressed in that sphere. Parents, teachers, administrators, and community stakeholders also care deeply about helping to raise students who can connect with and care for one another. A teacher’s work goes beyond teaching content. In their own classrooms every day, teachers directly impact a student’s potential to flourish, empathize, collaborate, create, and lead. 


I’ve begun my school year reflecting on these things and thinking back to Walter Hewitt Cheever’s memorial plaque. It’s humbling to think that, especially as the years pass, students may remember relatively little of what we teach, and relatively much more about the kind of people we seem to be in the classroom. To help remind myself of this, I’ve framed my classroom expectations within four core values: bravery, compassion, dedication, and joy–these are ways of thinking and being that have helped me prosper as a person, as a student, and as a teacher. Throughout the year, when I can, I’m going to connect these values to what we do in class. (Bravery and public speaking, dedication and research writing…) It’s my way of purposefully honoring the seamless relationship between building young scholars and guiding young citizens. If they’re watching and listening that closely, I want to make sure that I share something of value when it comes to the things that we fall back on when mere knowledge won’t suffice.

The next time you feel like maybe what you do in the classroom doesn’t matter, think of Cheever. Inspirer of high ideals. Molder of character. Teacher and friend. We loved him.




Berkowitz, M. W., & Bier, M. C. (2004). Research-based character education. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 591, 72-85.

Schaps, E. (2005). The role of supportive school environments in promoting academic success. In T. Hansen, H. Knoff, C. Muller & E. Schaps (Eds.), Getting results: Developing safe and healthy kids, update 5 (p. 37). Sacramento: California Department of Education.

Weissbourd, R. (2003). Moral teachers, moral students. Educational Leadership, 60(6), 6.

Williams, D. D., Yanchar, S. C., Jensen, L. C., & Lewis, C. (2003). Character education in a public high school: A multi-year inquiry into Unified Studies. Journal of Moral Education, 32(1), 3-33.


Drawing Complex Text Comprehension by Hand


One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” (1836)


Ah, summer… a great time to be a Transcendentalist! If you are anything like me, you’ve spent as much time as possible during the warm months seeking solace in places of natural beauty. Soon, though, if you’re also an English teacher, you’ll be more likely to be teaching a Transcendentalist text than actually going out into the woods to live deliberately. And even if you don’t teach any texts by Emerson or Thoreau, you certainly teach something old, dense, and difficult. Some classical text that you love, and that students perpetually just don’t get. Something with gorgeous imagery and profound insight that today’s adolescents find puzzlingly void of meaning.

Want a strategy for that? It’s doodle time.

I am a passionate believer in the power of visual representation–particularly in the form of art created by hand–when it comes to learning. Even when the goal is improving students’ ability to process difficult text, images can come to the rescue when blended with other comprehension strategies.

Throughout the year, I like to remind my students about some key steps to follow when they encounter text that’s difficult (or “impossible”) to understand. Here they are, in order of procedure:

  1. Read the text, not worrying about understanding anything, just to get acquainted with it. Accept that you may have no idea what it means, and that it’s ok.
  2. Read the text again, noting words that you don’t understand. Circle them. Look them up. Write down the definitions. (If there are LOTS that you don’t know, just look up the ones that are repeated or seem most important.)
  3. Break the text up into sections. This may be easy when looking at punctuation or paragraphing, or you may have to make a guess. Visually separate the sections by drawing lines, drawing brackets, or numbering.
  4. Section by section, slowly re-read and process the text. Summarize each section to the best of your ability in plain English, or via doodle notes.
  5. Re-examine your summaries in order to gain a fuller understanding of the whole text.

These steps are tried and true. They work with Shakespeare, with Hawthorne, and here–in the example I’ll share–with Emerson. One great thing about this strategy is that it’s easy to model and scaffold for students whenever they need extra support. Especially if a text is particularly challenging or if I want to move things along a bit quicker, I may choose to do some of the earlier steps along with my students so that they can focus on the processing step. That’s where the meaning-making magic happens.

Here’s the excerpt from Emerson’s “Nature” that I used with my students last year, in our introduction to the famous Transcendentalist. We started our first encounter with the text together, reading aloud. We paused to identify and define tougher words, which you’ll see provided here in the text. I separated the sections ahead of time, indicated by numbers 1-9, and explained at each transition why I noticed a shift in topic or tone. (In a longer lesson, students could do these steps on their own in small groups.) Check it out: “Nature” steps 1-3

Now, on to the fun part! You’ll notice the numbered boxes on the last page–this is where I ask my students to doodle their summary of each section. Do understand, they are not always super thrilled about doing this. They whine, “I can’t draw!” Or: “I still have no idea what this says. Is this even English? I’m so lost–how can I draw something I don’t even get?!”  Just push through the whining. They can do it. This is where I tell them, “Don’t worry! I am not grading you on the quality of your art. Stick figures are fine. Do the best you can. Break it down sentence by sentence, and figure it out.” If they’re especially nervous, I let them pair up to share ideas about what to draw.

It’s so exciting to watch this part. I walk around the classroom and check out their drawing ideas, encouraging them to go with the good ones, and helping them refine “almost there” interpretations. The process of doodling helps them for several reasons. For one, they start focusing on the quality of their drawing more than the difficulty of the text. For another, they pick up on textual images much more keenly, and find unique ways to represent abstract thoughts in ink and lead. Finally, the text becomes much better embedded in their long-term memory. (“Remember Emerson?”  “Who?”  “The guy who wrote the essay that we read when you drew that picture of a man turning into a carrot?”  “OH YEAH!” )

Before you know it, you’ll be looking at artwork that pushes the stick figure into areas of insight you never thought possible. And your students will be processing–really processing–some of the toughest (and greatest) texts of all time. 🙂 Here’s a sample from last year’s group, for your enjoyment. Click any image to enlarge.


Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child.


I become a transparent eye­ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.



The waving of the boughs in the storm, is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.

Learning and Writing in the Flow State

The idea of the flow state is one of those hip psychology topics of recent years. In articles like this one from Time, or  this one from Psychology Today we hear about seemingly superhuman feats that can result from achieving a peak experience or flow state. Interesting stuff. I was thinking about this idea while watching a documentary on free climbing, when something hit me–good writing happens in the flow state, too. (Also, it’s much less dangerous than free climbing… physically, anyway.)

I realized that a quick lesson and discussion about flow states could be really useful to my student writers, who happened to be working on an intense, self-driven writing project of length at the end of the year. So, I showed them this short video, paired with the the request to think about how understanding the flow state concept can help us as writers:


Working together in discussion, we identified some helpful pointers we could apply to our writing…

Flow starts with struggle.

When we are trying but failing to think of a good idea, or we feel frustrated or stuck with our draft, that is actually a good sign! We have to move through the struggle to get to flow. Even if the process of struggling feels futile and impossible right now, it doesn’t mean we should give up. We are on our way to the flow state!


Letting go of the problem at peak struggle is crucial to enter the flow state.

Just as we reach frustration, we need to take a little time away from what we’re working on, doing something that will leave our mind free to think about our writing. We can play a sport, enjoy nature, cook, do a puzzle, practice art or music, or just stare at the wall for a little while to free up some space for new ideas to come.


Watching TV or browsing the internet will destroy flow.

While most of us use social media and entertainment to “take a break,” that’s actually the worst thing we can do to make progress with our flow… as tempting as it is, staring at the TV or our phones has to be avoided if we truly want to reach peak focus and productivity. We should try to take working breaks doing more of the things listed above.


Flow results in enhanced performance.

 Once we reach flow, it is awesome! Time just falls away, the words come to us easily, and we make massive progress. When we reach that “zone,” we are able to be productive and creative!


Processing the recovery phase is necessary to re-enter flow.

 Flow can’t last forever, so once we’ve achieved a good burst of inspiration and the surge of productivity is worn out, we shouldn’t assume that it’s gone forever–we just need to recharge.


Grit, resisting stress, and refusing to give in to negative emotions can help us struggle better and recover better.  We should try not to let self-doubt get to us. Once we understand that feeling stuck doesn’t mean we’re bad at this, it gives us the confidence that we’ll find our focus and inspiration along the way. When we view the feeling of challenge as an opportunity to grow, the flow state will be easier to find.


Even though the field of positive psychology wasn’t where I expected to find my next great writing warm-up, this exercise significantly changed the way my students were able to talk about their writing process. I guess it boils down to “Know thyself.” It was a reminder to me that talking about writing is also talking about thinking, which (at least according to Descartes) is kind of the same as talking about being. We need to touch on all three to help students find the magic that comes from flow.

Classroom Library Makeover: Before and After!

At the beginning of the school year, I promised to pursue the goal of building my classroom library. I also promised a set of before and after pictures to show the progress I accomplished over the year… so here we go!


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I am really proud of the progress I made, needless to say! Here’s a quick run-down of what worked, what didn’t, and what’s next.

What worked:

  • Asking for book donations gets results! I received donated books from students, parents, community members, and my own friends and family. It turns out that a lot of people have extra books around that they are happy to donate to the good cause of young readers. The key is to keep asking!
  • My classroom library promoted more reading in an immediate, engaging way. Kids really do read books when they are readily, freely available. Especially when I displayed the newest additions at the front of the room, they were often borrowed immediately. It’s also great to be able to say, “Oh, you finished your book? Here, grab one of these next.” Getting a book in a kid’s hand ASAP can often be the difference between progressing toward a reading goal and falling off track.
  • I am so proud of my student readers. They read like gangbusters and although I can’t take credit for most of it, I do know that they like reading things I recommend to them. That’s one of the most enjoyable things about the classroom library–it’s preloaded with recommendations! I have read many of the titles on my shelf, and I’m at least familiar in a cursory fashion with ALL of them. It makes it easy to quickly find the perfect title for a bookless student.
  • A book return station is important. This is an important practical detail. Even normally responsible students seriously cannot put books back correctly. No matter how many gentle reminders are administered, students will misclassify and abuse the books by shoving them any which way on the most convenient shelf. Don’t even try. Get a crate like this instead, and reshelve everything yourself on a daily basis. Some battles just aren’t meant to be won.


What didn’t work:

  • As I wrote in my original post, I had planned to use the app Lend It! to manage book checkouts. It turned out that using the app (and using several others of the same ilk that I beta tested) was just too clunky, unreliable, and time consuming. I ended up defaulting to keeping track of checkouts via old school paper signout method. That was still problematic, though, because sometimes students would take books without formally checking them out. I am still figuring out a balance between making sure that books are freely and easily available and keeping better track of my collection.
  • That leads me to my next problem, and in talking to my colleagues it seems that this is just the nature of the beast–books will go missing. Kids will inevitably lose them, lend them to unsanctioned friends or siblings, or accidentally destroy them. This is simply a reality of sending books into backpacks. It can be disappointing to see a portion of the library just disappear, but it’s still worth it to know that more kids are reading as a result of the fine-free borrowing system. But hey, books are meant to be read! I would rather have my kids read books into oblivion than have a pristine collection that lives only on the shelf and never gets checked out.

I’m looking forward to another building year for my classroom library. Our reading culture is alive, well, and growing. I love being a part of that. I’m progressing on my own goals as a reader–which include becoming the resident science-fiction expert–and my students are becoming more sophisticated, more excited readers with each year that passes. A serious commitment to reading results in sheer magic, and I’m fully convinced that the deeper we dig into it, the more often we celebrate the process of reading committedly along with our students, the greater the positive transformations we observe as teachers will be.


Inviting students to the table: “Circle up!”


Why are the most elegant solutions also the simplest? Call it Occam’s razor, call it what you will, but sometimes when I reflect on my practice, I realize that I’ve started to forget some of the best things I already knew about teaching!

One of these things is very, very simple. So why does it feel almost like a secret? Here it is: teaching can–and probably should–happen in a circle. One. Big. Circle. With everyone in it. Including you. It is my hope that many of the teachers reading this post say to themselves, “Yep, already do that in my classroom,” and move on. But the rest of you, hear me out.

There’s a huge priority on small group collaboration in today’s K-12 educational landscape, and more and more classroom sets of desks are consequently being replaced by collaborative tables where students sit in pods of two, three, or four. While I’ll be the first to say that students do benefit from working together, there’s more than one way to make that happen. Often, a classroom needs to work as a whole, unified community. So what does that look like? For many of us, we default to a stand and deliver format for whole class work–every student faces the front of the room, and the teacher instructs them while standing front and center. This can be problematic, though! Physically, such a classroom mode sends the message that the teacher is creating and dispersing knowledge while students absorb it. However, that approach doesn’t work so hot when you need to create knowledge together alongside your students.

I started (re-)understanding this last year, when I assembled a group of my AP students into a big, whole-class circle. It was a small, intellectually mature group, and I thought it would be “fun” to put our desks in a circle for discussion.

Four easy steps to put a classroom in a circle:

1. Tell students, “We’re going to put the desks/chairs in a big circle today. I’m going to ask you all to help me with that.”

2. Say, “Let’s go.” Start moving your own chair or desk, and they will follow suit.

3. (Optional step) Make fun of how terrible of an attempt at a circle the resulting shape is. This lays down the gauntlet for geometrical accuracy in the future.

4. (Most important step) Sit down in your own spot in the circle. Direct any members of the class who are not truly on the circumference line to adjust so that everyone can see them, and they can see everyone else.

Once in the circle, we all took a moment to say, “Whoa… this is different!” We were connected. We could all make eye contact with one another easily. I was sitting in a desk, on the same visual level as my students. Discussion was more dynamic, more considerate, and more organic than ever before. The kids loved it, and asked to do it more often. As they bounced out the door, I wondered, “Why don’t I do this all the time?”

This year, I made the circle a regular part of my AP classes. Every time we had a class discussion planned, I’d chime out, “Circle up!” and watch the room morph before my eyes. I love having a front row seat to my students’ faces as they think, process the ideas brought to the table by others, raise questions, and share their own interpretations. The circle brings my students physically to an equidistance with myself, sending the message that we’re all creating this moment of learning together. And, when I step in to guide or laugh or offer an idea, I feel less like an authoritarian and more like a mentor, because we’re all at the table together. This is how college workshops and workplace team meetings operate. Of course, it worked here, too. Obviously, it worked with these small, mature groups of AP students. I’m not saying I would try the circle with my most rowdy, crowded group of juniors.


I would, and I do. After the wild success of the circle in my AP classes, I’ve experimented a couple times with class circles even in classes where I thought, “The circle will be too big to fit in the room” or “These kids might not be able to handle this kind of thing.” Guess what? The circle did fit in the room, and they were totally able to handle it. It’s hard to misbehave when one is literally face to face with the teacher, no matter where in the room they may be. Again, these students also asked for the circle to happen more often, and I’ve set it as a professional goal for next year to develop more circle-friendly lessons, in all of my classes. Isn’t it interesting how these millennial kids, so often criticized as the generation who can’t hold an in-person conversation, are so keen on sitting in a circle and story-sharing? My inkling is that even our born-with-Google clientele craves a little more real life discussion, which can only happen if we create a classroom environment which invites it. Most of us start our learning lives in circles, whether around the family table or cross-legged during kindergarten story time. Let’s not let it die in high school.

Long live the circle.

Also, this Onion article always makes me chuckle. Just another reason to circle up! (Click on the image for the full text of the article.)

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Where the Teaching Life and Political Life Meet–What Does the Law Say?


I’m excited to share an article of mine that was published in this month’s issue of  Wisconsin Lawyer  magazine, entitled “Speaking Up: The First Amendment and Wisconsin’s Public Educators.” The article is the result of a special graduate project that I completed as part of my ongoing master’s coursework at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Special thanks are due to Dr. Pritchard from the Journalism and Media Studies program at UWM, for his mentorship and feedback during my research and writing process!

The article explores both historical and current law surrounding the intersection between public educators’ jobs and their political actions, with a focus on Wisconsin cases. I set out to answer the question, “How much protection does the First Amendment extend to the speech of public school teachers?” In other words, what can teachers legally say and do to participate robustly in political life… without getting in trouble for it? What does the law really say, and why?

To find out, check out the article by clicking here.

Thanks for reading!

Composition and Revision are Remixing: Creativity as a Growth Mindset

Does the phrase “growth mindset” ring a bell? It’s a term from the book MindSet: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck–a title that is quickly making the rounds among educators at all levels. Dweck’s argument is powerful; essentially, her research shows that people who approach their capacity to learn and achieve as built-in, or “fixed,” are eventually limited in their capacity to find success. In contrast, those who adopt a growth mindset see their learning capacity as an infinite pool, where effort applied equates to possible gain, and failure creates opportunity to evolve. People who adopt a growth mindset are more likely to find fulfillment and success. 

Like many of my colleagues, I’ve set a personal goal to incorporate the idea of the growth mindset into my teaching. One of the areas where I think this works especially well is in the learning of creativity. Often, I hear a student who is attempting a free form writing assignment say, “I don’t know what to do. I’m not creative.” That is a fixed mindset if I ever heard one! And it’s a particularly dangerous one. When students abandon the idea that they are capable of creating something new, something unique, or something innovative on their own, they are in essence asking to be told what to do. They’re saying I’m not good enough to stand on my own. Just give me a formula.  Let me be a robot.  I forsake my power as a thinker, writer, and person. If we want the next generation to be able to create their own success, this can’t happen.

That being said, creative work is hard. It’s really intimidating. Suddenly, instead of languishing in the comfort of meeting standardized requirements, students have to think about whether or not their work is “good.” They need a vision. And so many times that prospect can be paralyzing for those that never learned about the failure-ridden, growth-rich process of creativity. 

How does one help students adopt a growth mindset about creativity? I’m still figuring this out, but I have a start for you. And it involves Calvin and Hobbes.

Last year I wrote a post on the new Writer’s Sandbox unit that I teach in my junior Communications class. This year is Year Two of this versatile, dynamic writing unit that was designed to build confidence, creativity, and breadth in our students’ writing. To kick off the unit this year, I wanted to teach about the creativity-as-process early and up front. I started by drawing this on the board:


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I told my students that it’s crucial to see creativity as a process, not just something someone is magically endowed with. Instead, it’s about practicing doing the work of transforming raw material by adding, subtracting, rearranging, or changing it. The creative product is the result of that work. “We have to start with something,” I told them. “That’s the first step. Sometimes we generate that something; sometimes we find it. Today, I found it for you. We’ll start there.”

The raw material I provided my students were cut-apart photocopies of pages from Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comics. Anyone who has read them can recognize the creative masterwork that Watterson created, which means his raw material–the drawings and words–are pretty solid too. I put hundreds of panels in a pile, all mixed up: raw material, ready to go.

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“Follow the process,” I told my class. I had provided them with raw material. Now, they were expected to add, subtract, rearrange, or change that material. I asked for a “remix” of the strip–students could edit words, draw additional content, and re-contextualize each panel to fit their new vision. 

The fact that this was a crafty, cut-and-paste activity that let students play with comics really lessened the pressure of risk that many students put on themselves during creative tasks. It turned out to be the perfect entry point into the subsequent writing unit. For instance, when we moved on to writing flash memoir pieces, students understood that making memory lists was our way of generating raw material. It didn’t matter whether the original material was “good.” It was just material to be re-envisioned. Once we started drafting, students were also more willing to revise in significant ways, trusting that rearranging, adding, and cutting were again parts of the creative process.

There’s a huge value in designing small activities that a teacher can use as a case study for a new process or skill. I find myself reminding my class about the comic remix activity every time we approach a creative task. It works as an analogy to the larger process, and reminds me that sometimes our lessons need to be designed to help students learn more than just content. Sometimes our lessons need to help them learn a new way to think.

Just as Calvin sees so much more than just a stuffed tiger toy when he looks at Hobbes, our students have a whole world of creative possibility inside their brains. It’s our job to help them know how to find it!


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Real Writers Speak through Wisconsin Writes!

In our most recent set of digital department minutes, my department head included a link with the accompanying text, “This is cool!” The link took me to something called Wisconsin Writes. It didn’t take me very long to figure out that she was right: it is cool.

Wisconsin Writes is a web video series featuring interviews and process videos from successful writers throughout the state of Wisconsin. The writers come from a variety of genres and backgrounds. Some of those featured so far include Wisconsin Poet Laureate Kimberly Blaeser, young adult literature author Silvia Acevedo, and New York Times Bestseller author Patrick Rothfuss. I was gleeful to see a video from Rothfuss in particular, having been spellbound by his novella The Slow Regard of Silent Things last year. Did I want to hear more about his writing process? Absolutely! So I watched the Rothfuss videos. Then, I went down a bit of a rabbit hole and watched all the other videos available on Wisconsin Writes. They all have moments of brilliance that are really useful when thinking about the widely varying inspirations, processes, and ways of thinking that accompany writing. Knowing that the featured writers are Wisconsin natives whom I might pass in my own grocery store sometime made the videos even more keenly interesting. Wisconsin Writes is a great resource for ELA teachers in who want to gain insight about writing as they prepare to teach.

Here’s the trailer for the series, which releases a new video every other week or so. It’s exciting, relevant, and linked to our own communities–a very cool resource indeed. Check it out at .

I think that Wisconsin Writes has strong potential as a classroom resource, too, but with a little bit of preparation time applied. At a typical length of over four minutes (and some well over that), the videos are a bit long-winded to capture the enthralled attention of your average high school class. That being said, I think certain segments of the longer videos would be absolutely perfect to use as an intro to a mini-lesson or brief process lecture. That’s where TubeChop comes in! TubeChop is a ridiculously easy-to-use tool that allows you to select a clip from an existing YouTube video, and create a shareable video of the clip in isolation. I used it to segment a piece of the Patrick Rothfuss process video that I intend to use in my upcoming writing process unit with my juniors, to spur conversation about the individuality of one’s ideal writing environment and how it can influence the product. Take a look below!

My TubeChop highlighting Rothfuss’ writing environment and its link to process:

I’m very much looking forward to the next videos in the series. I can’t wait to see how it grows, and how it impacts teachers of writing in our state! DPI recommends continuing the conversation about Wisconsin Writes content via Twitter at #WiWrites or on the Wisconsin DPI English Language Arts Google+ community.

Listening Down the Hallway: Teaching Through Doubt

Teaching is unpredictable on many different levels. Sometimes it seems like our very existence in the classroom is governed by uncertainty. This uncertainty can pop up in many small ways. What will my students be like today? What will they do? What will they need? What unforeseen events or circumstances will I need to adapt to? Did I say the right things today? Did my students learn from me? 

Uncertainty can surge up in the form of much larger questions, too. Am I really making a difference? What will my future as an educator look like? Do people find any value in what I do? Am I even in the right careerEspecially in times of high stress or low staff morale, the sandpit of doubt manifests surreptitiously beneath our feet. And getting out of it can be… a special challenge.

Having one such day recently, I walked down the long Communications Department hallway to make some copies during my prep hour. I was treading carefully (because of the metaphorical quicksand and all), so I’ll admit that I was walking a bit more slowly than usual. As it turned out, slowing down physically also quieted my mind. The worried questions that had been scrolling in my head dropped off one by one, and by the time I was halfway down the hall, my head was clear. In that mind-quiet, I become suddenly aware of what I was hearing: a whole hallway worth of my colleagues teaching, a chorus of voices simultaneously audible through their respective classroom doors. Mr. B’s hip introspection. Mrs. L’s patient guidance. Mrs. G’s honest laughter. Mrs. H’s enthusiastic explanation. Mrs. F’s wry wit. And Mrs. U’s unbelievably clear and carrying Teacher Voice with a capital T. You have to understand, these people are really good teachers.

I stopped for a minute, and leaned against a locker.

I listened.

I let the sounds weave a poem in the air and my sense of uncertainty floated away like a tetherless buoy. These are good days, I thought. These are good days with good people. I was literally hearing learning happen. Over a hundred students just behind each door in the hallway were all learning at once in the same space. And beyond that, more hallways with more students were learning even more things all at once! As can happen when one deeply ponders otherwise obvious facts, it staggered me to think about it. Such a massive force for good was happening, and I was there, standing right in the middle of it.

I don’t have a catch all answer to doubt. But I know that there’s one thing I won’t ever doubt. I will never doubt that teachers everywhere are working really hard to be there for their students. And when I think about all the fantastic teaching that’s happening in my hallway (and the hallways beyond mine in all the school, all the city, all the state, and all the country!) all at once, the magnitude of sheer, recklessly dedicated courage that teachers bring to work with them each day comes into focus. To teach is to have the confidence to say, “I know some things about the world. I want to share them with you. I want to teach you how to walk in this way, to write and speak and read.” To teach requires a boldness that slices through doubt. On the days when I feel like I’m not the one who has it, all I need to do is listen down the hallway to be reminded that I’m in the most capable of company. My colleagues are my steady ground–a plank across the sand.

If you feel your steps start to sink, take a moment in the hallway to listen and admire the fellow teachers around you. There’s a lot of intellectual firepower there, and a lot of love.

These are good days with good people.


Teachable Insight: Helping Students get to the Big Ideas in AP Literature & Composition

I recently attended an AP Workshop in Milwaukee, where I had some space to reflect on the goals of my teaching in my AP Literature and Composition classes. I was happy to hear from the expert leader of my session that, when it comes to the written responses on the AP exam, meaning is everything. It doesn’t matter if AP Lit students can identify a gigantic laundry list of terms in a literary work. No matter how specialized their technical knowledge may be, students will generate worthless writing if they do not display the ability to practice insight. To score well on the writing portion of the exam, students need to be able to get seriously in touch with meaning. They need to answer: how does this text shift the world, comment upon humanity, and make new realizations move within us?

Students need to do more than summarize, more than dissect. They need to unveil the heart of a work. They need to be profound.

Once realizing this, the AP teacher can feel a bit in over her head.  How on earth do you teach a teenager to be profound? Most kids are not wise beyond their years, and are not well-equipped to tackle the questions of the ages without some sort of guidance. When I do a sample interpretation, students often say, “How the heck did you get THAT out of THIS?” Earlier in my career, I’d actually say, “I don’t know,” because I couldn’t verbalize it effectively. But after five years of teaching AP and wondering about where insight comes from, I think I’m starting to put it together. I’m now convinced that insight is somewhat teachable! In this post, I’m going to share a few methods that I’ve found helpful in this pursuit.


Some people call these “themes,” but I call them big ideas–abstract thematic concepts which are socially, universally important in some way. You know, things like “love,” “wartime ethics,” or “fragility.” I like starting the year by having my students make a giant list of these ideas, so that we can be on the lookout for them as they pop up in the literature. Here’s a list that one of my AP groups generated:


Students are good at this once they gain some momentum. Big ideas are a simple way of categorizing literature with the stem “This story is about…” Recognizing the presence of big ideas is the first step to becoming an insightful analyzer of text, and it bears constant revisiting throughout the year.


Students often start writing before they know what they’re talking about. While I am normally a big fan of writing as a method of exploration and brainstorming, the timed scenario of the AP essay is not the arena in which to apply this strategy. AP analysis writing must be focused, purposeful, and show the promise of insight. While the master writer can do this instinctively, beginning writers are overwhelmed by these lofty expectations. I lead my students through this by assuring them that a strong thesis will support a strong paper. I also supply them with a formula that I derived from analyzing skillful literary analysis writing. The formula is helpful, because it guarantees that the core argument of the paper will transcend summary. Here it is. (Click on the image to enlarge it!)


This formula works for the open response as well as the prose and poetry questions. I’ll expand a little here on each element.

AUTHOR and TITLE should be included, for context. Of course, if these are mentioned earlier in the introduction, they may be left off.

The FOCUS ELEMENT is perhaps the most variable element of the thesis. In the open response essay, it is a broad “something” that is notable in the chosen novel. It might be a character, a motif, a plot device, a stylistic choice, or many other things. In the prose or poetry essays, the focus elements will be specifically qualified literary devices/moves–maybe “elevated diction,” “natural imagery,” or “a haunted tone.” The focus element narrows and specializes the essay, allowing for a unique interpretation that avoids the obvious and overbroad.

AUTHOR ACTION VERBS describe precisely what the author is doing with the FOCUS ELEMENT. Examples: questions, criticizes, demonstrates, alludes to…

The THEMATIC STATEMENT is a statement that the author makes about one of those BIG IDEAS through the story, and specifically through the use of the FOCUS ELEMENT.

As students become more proficient, they can riff on this formula. In the examples you can see on the chalkboard above, students can already see that the order of the elements is not strict, but they should all be present. This method has been successful for me in helping my students have something to say. Selecting the big idea first is the way in. (Often, the big idea or focus element is already provided by the prompt, and students can build from there.) I work with them on making sure that the focus element and thematic statement work together in a logical way.


At my recent workshop, the presenter shared another big idea strategy that I can’t wait to use. He called it a “3×3.” This strategy asks students, after reading a piece, to generate three sentences of three words each that sum up the meaning of the work. Rules: No repetition, no character names, each sentence should contain subject + verb + object, and the sentences should feature big ideas as the subject or object as often as possible. It’s a simple activity that pushes big thinking.

Example for Oedipus Rex:

Healing requires action.
Truth destroys security.
Sacrifice accompanies fate.

It’s nifty how any of those could turn into the thematic statement element for a thesis statement!

The more strategies we can equip our students with when it comes to working with the great ideas of the world, the better and more confident writers they will become. Do you have another idea to recommend? Please mention it in the comments!