Category: Literature

Holden’s Brain and Thoreau’s Campaign: Perspective-Taking in the Literature Classroom

Back when I was a newly-minted teacher, I wrote about the versatile, fail-safe nature of the character letter as an assessment strategy. It’s priceless to come upon a type of assignment that is easily adaptable to different teaching contexts and always engaging for students–a “perfect assignment” if you will. I remembered that post recently, and I realized that I’ve got two more additions to the perfect assignment list! I’ve used both of these assignments in my junior level communications class, but they could be used with many different texts, whether long or short, fictional or non-fictional. Both assignments approach the important task of perspective-taking: an essential thinking skill that is a prerequisite for rigorous writing tasks like analysis and synthesis. Please feel free to use and adapt these activities in your own classroom!

Assignment #1. Narrator’s Brain

What it is: This is an assignment that I typically use with J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. It’s an especially good exercise to use with the character of Holden Caulfield because he’s so unreliable; understanding this kid takes some serious inferring and knowledge of human behavior. Since Holden’s not always forthcoming about what’s really on his mind, I ask students to draw it. They are provided with a blank picture of a brain, and I ask them to fill it in with Holden’s thought territories. I ask them to use size, color, and placement within the brain to indicate the weight and awareness that accompanies each section.

What to pair it with: Psychoanalytic literary criticism focuses in part on identifying the psychological defenses and core issues that manifest within a text. Discussing a text through this lens helps students be on the lookout for the “real story” behind what’s mentioned in the narration. Example- For Holden, his obsession with wondering where the Central Park ducks go in winter mirrors his own fears of abandonment and adulthood. Students need to get to that level of insight before an assignment like this can be meaningful.

Mentor texts: Here are a couple great images to start from.

^Scientifically informed  illustration for Time Magazine by Leigh Wells

^Emotionally informed illustration by graphic artist The City Limit 


My assignment sheet: <<click here for download

Student examples: (Click on any image to enlarge)


Assignment #2. Author as Politician

What it is: While teaching difficult texts in AP Literature, a problem that I’ve noticed again and again is students’ difficulty to grasp the authorial intention that drives the narrative in fiction texts, or even the messages in non-fiction texts. In other words, students can tell me what happened in a chapter of A Tale of Two Cities, but they struggle to identify Dickens’ scathing social criticism and allegiances that are evident in his voice. One day (honestly, out of desperation), I made up an assignment on the fly that asked students to design a political campaign for Dickens. It worked well to get them focusing on using the text as evidence for what the author was thinking, and I had a big breakthrough. This year, I duplicated the idea with my juniors’ study of a segment from Emerson’s “Civil Disobedience”–we read the text, and then I asked students to decide what they thought Emerson stood for, politically, including designing a political sign for him.

What to pair it with: It was important to me that my students had an understanding that we’re not talking about today’s national politics in this assignment. I made sure that my students had an idea of the political context in Thoreau’s day, and that neither Republicans nor Democrats existed at that time, at least not as we know them today. We talked about how individual political beliefs can’t always be distilled along party lines, and set up our analysis of Thoreau as a build-your-own kind of political ideology. (All this to say: it was clear that I wasn’t asking students to classify Thoreau as a liberal or a conservative. In fact, he had elements of both and neither.) To get here, it is essential to meaningfully annotate the text. Whether students can do it with guidance or independently depends on the class and the content.

Mentor texts: Political ads and advertising slogans are everywhere. When one of my students was confused about the purpose for political catchphrase, I used the motto of an easily recognized national business chain as an example. She then understood: “Oh, so the main idea that the audience should think of when they think of this person?” Yep!

My assignment sheet<<click here for download

Student examples: (Click on any image to enlarge)


I hope these two assignments might find a use in your classroom… but it’s almost summer, so put them in your folder for 2017-2018. Happy Summer Break, all!

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.

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!

Mac-Backwards: A Film-First Approach to Shakespeare and Synthesis


Ah, Macbeth. It’s one of the darkest, evilest, most disturbing stories in classical literature. Not even the beauty of Shakespeare’s language can brighten the “deep and black desires” of the Scottish Play. It’s also a standard inclusion in our current Communications III curriculum. And it represents a bit of a Waterloo for me–it’s a Shakespearean text that I really struggle with teaching.

Normally, my approach to Shakespeare is as gung-ho as it gets. I love the language. I love the stories. I love everything about the experience of reading Shakespeare. This passion usually translates into teaching success. But last year, as I began Macbeth with my junior students, I found myself fighting to keep my students engaged in the text. By the end, only a few stragglers came away with something intelligent to say about the play, and many even lacked a basic comprehension of the story, despite the fact that we read almost all of it together in class. So what the heck went wrong?

Here’s the thing. Macbeth is really, really hard to teach to high school students. For one, almost every character is a male in the military, and many of their names sound the same. This sets us up for trouble understanding right from the get-go. But it’s more than that. The most effective way of teaching Shakespeare to young people in my experience is helping the students to make connections between their own lives and the realities of the characters. In other plays by the Bard like Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, those connections are easily accessible–have you ever been in love? Been jealous? Been grieving? Been convinced that you needed to change your identity? Been out past curfew to meet someone you weren’t supposed to meet? All these adolescent realities are reflected in many of Shakespeare’s works. But who on Earth can connect with Macbeth? At first, sure–the lure of a prize, of leadership, and respect–those are things that students understand. But they can’t accept the depth to with Macbeth is willing to step into blood as the play escalates into increasing violence. The moment MacB arranges to off his own friend Banquo and Banquo’s young son, the kids tune out. Struggling through the language isn’t worth it for a jerk like Macbeth. They don’t understand his  endless military lust, and they don’t really care what happens to him. When you really think about it, can you blame them?

This year, I knew that having students see Shakespeare in themselves wasn’t going to work with Macbeth. But I still had to teach it. So why not alter the purpose for reading the text? Rather than using it to understand human experience, why not use it as a pathway for analyzing ideas? Why not use it as a tool rather than a tale? This was the concept that guided the new approach, which was to create a synthesis writing unit where Macbeth was a key, shared text. My teaching team and I saw a greater amount of success with this new approach, which reminded me that the purposes for reading classical texts do not always have to be classicist in nature. Key components of the revamped unit are detailed below.



1. Let students know the intended purpose and methodology for reading the text up front. At the beginning of the unit, I explained the difference between the Shakespeare reading experience of Romeo and Juliet, which our students read during freshman year, and this Macbeth unit. I explained that we were looking for the big ideas and themes within the work, rather than reading to decode the nuances of Shakespearean language. (These are two good, but very different purposes.)

2. Read it backwards–film  first. It’s okay to provide the story ahead of time, when students are being expected to work with Shakespeare in a concept-based way. I provided my students with basic information and character profiles, the Sparknotes video summary and my own narration of the story. We then viewed the 2010 (Patrick Stewart) film version of Macbeth, with subtitles. I also provided a film guide  that broke each scene down into modern, accessible language. [Here’s my day three, for your reference.] In a sense, they read the whole thing in the process of experiencing the performance, as the work was originally intended by its author.

3. Define and introduce the big ideas. While viewing the film, students were encouraged to note and discuss times when five key ideas appeared in the play: Honor, Masculinity, Control, Fate, and Ambition. These ideas were consistently returned to and reinforced, whenever possible via brief discussions about current events where these concepts are in play.

4. Help students revisit the “not to be missed!” segments of the original text, and skip the rest. I know. It feels like cheating, but hear me out. In this scenario, the purpose for reading the text is not to decode Shakespeare’s every word. The purpose is to examine what statements the story makes about big ideas. So, we focused on reading just a selection of key scenes: the witches’ prophecies, “The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step on which I must fall down, or else o’erleap,” Lady Macbeth’s coercion of her husband, the dagger scene, “Full of scorpions is my mind,” the banquet scene, “Out, damned spot!”, and “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” During this process, I provided reading strategies for difficult, unfamiliar text, a skill that certainly translates beyond Shakespeare. This way, they got to experience the authentic language in a limited way that still left time for the rest of our unit!

5. Encourage personal discussion/reactions to the big ideas of the text. I came up with a set of starter questions to help students with this–questions like “Do the ends justify the means?” We had discussions about these questions and then compared our own perspectives with the perspective that Shakespeare presents via Macbeth. This is the perfect set-up to working with synthesis.

*Question List     *Perspective Comparison Chart

6. Demonstrate the creation of a thematic statement surrounding one of the five big ideas. I coached my students to use the question list as  a starting point to generate an idea-based statement which they could choose to defend, attack, or qualify. They claimed their statements and stances via postcards that we displayed on the wall. (Pictured at the top of this post. Click to make it big!)

7. Students start researching and moving on to other sources, including but no longer limited to this single text. This moves into the planning and composition of a synthesis essay. Here’s where we went from there…

*Source Gathering Chart      *Synthesis Assignment Sheet


My biggest takeaway after a second, much more successful try at teaching Macbeth this year is this: any kid can read any text and talk about it intelligently. They just need the proper support. Supporting students so that they can understand and think about a difficult text isn’t “cheating.” It’s teaching. As long as the challenge is coming from somewhere, it’s all good. This isn’t to say that there’s no value to struggling through a full Shakespearean play. In fact, that’s one of my FAVORITE things to do with students… but it’s not the only way, and perhaps it’s best to leave the classical, all-in, every-word method of studying Shakespeare to plays where the main character isn’t utterly, consistently despicable.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll just be sitting here awaiting the inevitable retribution for writing this post from the Macbeth curse. Wish me luck! 🙂

My Funny Valentine: Raising Awareness about Domestic Violence in the Language Arts Classroom

valentineThere are few traditions as sweet as the handmade valentine, but the process of making them is usually reserved for the elementary classroom. The teenagers that share the halls with me every day usually take their approach to love far more seriously–for many of them, their love relationship is a cornerstone of their young lives. But, for many of them, their vision of what love is, should be, or could be is still as simple and naive as that kindergarten valentine card. For all their rehearsed cynicism, young people are believers in love. But that doesn’t always mean they know how to handle it once it enters their lives.

They have much in common, then, with the protagonist from one of the texts I teach in my AP Literature and Composition class, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. In the book, young Janie forms an idea of love that, to me, is one of the purest and most beautiful in American literature:

“She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom […] So this was a marriage!”

As the story moves forward, Janie soon learns that not all unions are as lovely as the example from nature that she seeks. She is forced into a loveless, arranged marriage with an elderly landowner as her grandmother hopes to protect her from poverty. In her compulsive need to escape this first marriage, Janie later runs away with the ambitious Joe Starks, who marries her in an attempt to make her into his “bell cow”–a beautiful business asset to accentuate the authority that he holds over the town of Eatonville during his many years as mayor. While the relationship begins sweetly, Joe’s need for control and his rage at any deviation from Janie bring their relationship to a dangerous, damaging place–he controls what she wears, who she may talk to, what she may say, what she does, and when she does it. She is beaten and verbally abused, and cannot pursue her desires freely until his death.

The moments of domestic violence and simmering, sustained power struggle described above are only one component of this complex and rewarding literary work. They would be very easy elements to address briefly and then gloss over while teaching. But knowing what I do about my own students’ lives and the blind faith they often place in love spurs me to talk quite a bit about domestic violence as we discuss the novel, and to call it by name.  We watch a TEDx talk from Leslie Morgan Steiner that identifies the warning signs and progressively dangerous cycle of domestic abuse in love relationships. We talk about Janie’s reasons for complying with Joe’s wishes, even though it is clearly not what she wants. And, right around February 14th, we also make what I call “honest valentines,” as you can see in the picture above. My simple directions are found below.


1. Spend some time talking with a small group about the various discoveries that Janie has made about love in her journey so far. Make a list. They can be positive, negative, broad, or specific.

2. Select one of the discoveries off of the list to work with. Find and mark two direct quotations that support this discovery.

3. Draw a valentine. Decide if Janie will give it to Logan, to Jody, to Tea Cake, or to herself.

4. Put a statement on the valentine that sums up the truth about love that she has discovered. Incorporate the quotations you’ve marked into your design as well.

This activity is always an interesting one for my students. For as much as they talk about love in their daily conversations, they are rarely encouraged to step back and think about love: What is it? When is it real? What happens when it is broken or dangerous? As I look over their creations, it reminds me that studying literature really is important. One of the main reasons it is important is this: it allows students to live other lives, to confront difficult ideas without having the often-painful life experiences that are otherwise required to do so. Literature gives students the freedom to talk about the hard parts of life though the experiences of characters, where it’s not personal, but rather a conceptual process of coming to understanding.  Reading literature gives students (dare I say?) wisdom. As an educator who cares deeply about their futures, I suppose I also put faith in the hope that some of these stories might provide them with a protective sense of déjà vu from the “lives” they’ve lived within the pages, leading them to a future where they have a better shot at feeling confident, safe, and whole.

Literature isn’t the only pathway to addressing the important topic of domestic violence in the language arts classroom, though. In fact, one of my longtime friends and colleagues, Mr. Jamie Spagnolo, has been getting some great press for a community PSA project that he created with his students from Prentice, Wisconsin. Here are his own words about the origins and outcomes of the project, which he agreed to share here:

[The coordinator of a local domestic abuse shelter and I] talked about the possibility of her coming into the classroom to speak with the kids about domestic abuse. Blending [her] desire to perform outreach in the classroom with her connections to local media and my desire to create a unit that involves research about issues that impact American teens, we got the ball rolling. A local radio station asked us if we’d create short PSAs for Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month (February), and I felt that it would really be a great project that I could get behind academically and ethically.

Creating short persuasive/informative PSAs on the topic of teen dating violence was a great way to introduce the students to rhetoric and, in particular, audience. While the overarching target audience is teens, there were sub-audiences that required different approaches (victims, abusers, or bystanders). This kept the project from becoming an anything goes free-for-all, while at the same time allowing for a variety of approaches. We did a fair amount of research, analyzed the credibility of sources, talked about how to cite sources in a verbal medium, discussed how best to present statistics (Do you use “one in three” or do you go with “33%” or “9.3 million”? Which will be most effective for this particular situation?), and studied what approaches would appeal to or alienate particular sub-audiences.

The project opened some eyes with the kids. Ms. Steinbach and I have talked about how this project isn’t necessarily to reach teens who might be listening to the radio. Sure, if it connects to any of them, great; but the real target audience and the audience that it’ll have the most impact with is the kids who are making the PSAs. Every junior in our community walked away from this project more aware of a very serious issue, and they all now know how they can safely get help for themselves or for a friend. Additionally, some of the students who may have been exhibiting abusive behaviors in their relationships might now be aware of their own actions. They walk away with some pretty serious empowerment.

[You can listen to sample PSA’s from Mr. Spagnolo’s classroom here.]

When the teaching of skills and content intersects with helping our communities, it’s a reminder about why we teach in the first place. Teachers have power to impact students’ ideas about their own lives. Regardless of the methodology we choose to do so, let’s keep using that power for good.


Helping Students Answer the Question “What is the author doing?”

One of the most difficult things for my AP Literature students to do is to write specifically about author language use and how it contributes to meaning. Sure, they can identify terms with the best of ’em, recount the happenings of a story in detail, and offer insightful connections to the themes of the reading… but they have a very hard time getting out of their own heads and into the author’s head. This poses a problem when students are required to write an analysis of merit, since term-dropping and opinion-posing will only get them so far. This year, I took notice of the same comments popping up yet again in my feedback to students: “Yes, but what is the author doing here?” “Why might the author have made this choice that you refer to?” “What message does the author reinforce here?”

I started noticing that when I pushed these questions into my students’ hands in conferences or discussions, I’d be met mainly with quizzical expressions, even from very bright kids. They’d scramble weakly with questioning voices: “Uh… giving details? Imagery! Um… definitely foreshadowing, you know… like we know maybe something bad might happen later?” I’d then try to push a little bit to get them to think in a more nuanced way, but this process always ends the same way–with me finally giving up and saying something like, “Ok, well, this is what I see here” and explaining the passage away, examining all these little language nuances I’m picking up on and watching the students scribble down exactly what I’ve said in their notebooks.

This is not awesome teaching. I know this. But what can you do when your students can’t find the answer independently? Especially with my AP students, it is absolutely imperative that they learn to speak and write in a sophisticated way  about language use without my hand-holding. By May at the very latest, they need to work independently of my guidance. So I started pondering, and I kept coming back to those same (bad) answers I always get to my “What’s the author doing?” question: Foreshadowing! Building suspense! Painting a picture in the reader’s head! Setting the scene! The more I thought about it, the more clearly I realized that these phrases probably all showed up in a middle school language arts workbook word bank at some point, and my students were still hanging on to them because their writer’s craft vocabulary had never evolved past that point. I thought to myself,You know what? They just don’t have the vocabulary. They don’t know what the author is doing because they literally don’t know what to call it. They don’t have the tools to build what I’m asking them to build.”

Then I thought: Internet to the rescue! I need a list of things that authors “do” in literature… moves that authors make which add up to meaning! It was my vision to use this list to help train my students with new, more writerly vocabulary so they could analyze with a much more informed dexterity. Alas, Google did not provide, so GUESS WHAT? I made my own. And I’m sharing it with you that you might find a use for it, or adaptation of it, with your own students.

WHAT IS THE AUTHOR DOING? Here are some ways to answer that question…

  • Drawing comparisons
  • Establishing or developing character
  • Revealing the nature of a relationship
  • Creating atmosphere
  • Providing social commentary
  • Being metaphorical
  • Using irony
  • Working with a symbol
  • Complicating the plot situation
  • Building emotional tension or conflict
  • Genre-blurring
  • Exploring the workings of the mind
  • Writing in dream time/sense
  • Playing on nostalgia
  • Philosophizing
  • Making an allusion
  • Moralizing
  • Presenting a paradox
  • Romanticizing
  • Breaking the fourth wall
  • Shifting perspective
  • Presenting a cosmic view of man/universe
  • Reflecting religious or spiritual beliefs
  • Echoing a previously established motif or theme
  • Employing humor for effect
  • Satirizing
  • Highlighting injustice
  • Using an unreliable narrator
  • Paying homage to someone or something
  • Downplaying/Understating
  • Making a political statement
  • Building on archetypes and mythology
  • Shifting perspectives
  • Incorporating dialect or other cultural elements
  • Using evocative/visceral description
  • Questioning cultural norms
  • Witholding detail/using opaque narration
  • Creating contrast
  • Justifying
  • Using and/or breaking conventions intentionally
  • Utilizing structure to reinforce meaning
  • Overemphasizing/Hyperbolizing


Here’s the link to my first assignment using the list: WhatisDickensDoing. We’ll see how it goes! I’m excited to observe how using the list helps my students grow in their literary analysis skills. Every day, I ask them to traverse new intellectual territory. It makes sense to give them a phrasebook as they start with translation and move toward fluency.

Establishing a Reading Culture, Penny Kittle Style

readercollage (1)

Here are some questions:

How do you get teenagers to read… I mean actually read? If students in high school don’t read at all, is it already too late for them to engage in a lifetime of learning? And if these students continually, halfheartedly fake their way through classroom texts, how will they have even a prayer of being ready for the demanding reading requirements of college?

These are the questions that bothered New Hampshire teacher and professional development expert Penny Kittle. Not so coincidentally–for they are the concerns of teachers everywhere–these questions have also been bothering the teachers in my own department. We’ve come up against so much student resistance to reading tasks, even simple ones, that it’s hard not to feel frustrated and confused. For this reason, we’ve decided to make this year about establishing a serious reading culture at our school. Thankfully, we’ve had much wisdom and strategy support in the form of Kittle’s resource-rich title Book Love: Developing depth, stamina, and passion in adolescent readers

I can’t stress enough that teachers should read and consider Book Love in its entirety. There’s too much great stuff in there for me to recap here, but I’d like to share a couple key components that my own school has incorporated in hopes of overhauling our reading culture. Kittle’s methods don’t just sound great on paper–they are clearly and actually working. Even in the short several weeks of school we’ve had so far, the change is perceptible and positive.

6 Steps to Take to Establish a Reading Culture

1. Get the right book into the right kid’s hands. Kittle is a staunch believer in the idea that all students want to read, if they only can find the right book. In my own adoption of this attitude, I’ve experienced a shift in my interactions with students. I’m more persistent and more diligent when it comes to making reading recommendations to reluctant readers. And it is paying off–when students understand that you care enough to work hard to get a book in their hands, the likelihood of them reading it goes up. Our whole department has begun giving book talks at least once a week in every communications class–taking time to preview great titles gives students more chances to find the book that will make all the difference. We each have classroom libraries (mine is pretty tiny, but it’s there!) of titles just waiting to be picked up by a student. I’ve also been very direct with students in selling the idea that “hating reading” is a virtual impossibility. It’s just that they hate what they are reading. Below, you’ll see a presentation I used in class that mirrors this idea–our message to all students is “You are all readers… you may just not know it yet.” That message resonates. Kids respond when teachers demonstrate aggressive faith in them.

2. Make reading about relationships. The quality of teaching, according to Kittle, is only as good as our relationships with our students (35). I have often embraced this mindset with my teaching of writing, but consciously making reading about relationships is something that I haven’t actively tried to do as a teacher for quite a while. Our department is taking a cue from Book Love as we bring in reading conferences as a way of not only keeping students accountable, but also becoming active mentors in their reading lives. In conferences, we question, recommend, and provide challenge for student readers. Kittle outlines an entire process and rationale for a couple different types of conferencing (77-90). My own variation on the reading conference, or “interview” as I call it, is structured for a once-a-quarter conversation with students. Click here to view and use it!

3. Celebrate and privilege reading as an important activity. We are making our reading more visible, through images and actions. This year, each classroom has some type of visual display that grows as students finish more titles. Some classes are even competing with each other. Seeing the row of paper book spines slowly extend down the hallway is a way for us to visually assert the importance of reading in our wing of the school. We’ve also created display cases with personal book recommendations. (The images included at the top of this post are seen in those display cases.) We’re making an effort to be vocal and visible with our reading lives, reading alongside with our students during class time that we set aside for reading. Some teachers start with ten minutes of reading each and every day, others set aside 20-30 minutes once or twice a week. If we truly value reading, we have to be able to reserve some class time to simply stop the world and read.

4. It’s about volume. A large part of Kittle’s argument for reading is that quantity does, in a sense, trump quality… at least at first. We all understand the idea that students naturally gain skill in reading the more that they do it, yet we often get trapped in this idea that students “should” be reading “great” books. Rather, Kittle says, we should be focusing on building stamina by helping students read more than ever before. This is especially important when we consider the 100-600 pages per week of the typical U.S. college reading requirement (20). With this in mind, we are challenging our students to see how much they can read, without being too worried about whether what they select is “worthy.” We’re trying to foster a reading addiction–why not allow students some titles that they can eat up voraciously before prompting them to tackle something tougher?

5. Help students track progress, make goals and set reading plans. Kittle says, “I once heard that a key difference between readers and nonreaders is readers have plans” (63). In order to help our students grow in their sophistication as readers, we have them track their titles and reading time, and also keep a running “next list” for books that they want to read in the future. We’ve helped students measure their reading rates, so that they can watch their speed increase over time. Reading needs to be purposeful, and getting a sense of how we are growing, and what we are growing towards, increases motivation. Our student readers are asked to look ahead to what’s next, fostering the expectation that tomorrow, or next week, or next year, we will still be reading.

6. Reading needs to be “what we do.” As a department, we’ve been vocal about encouraging teachers in disciplines other than communications to require students to read during downtime, to establish classroom libraries, to ask students about what they’re reading, and to recommend titles to students. The more our buy-in grows with staff, the more it does with students, and the closer we come to a true cultural shift, towards becoming a community of strong, constant readers.

This is just the starting phase of morphing into a reading-strong school. But I have to say… it’s a darn fine start. 🙂

How are you building a reading culture in your school? Share in the comments below!

Literature as a Window and a Mirror

Way back in 2007, I wrote my first post on this blog, with a type of mission statement that has grounded my career as an English educator from the start–I talked about the idea that Universe as Text embodies: the idea that we need to read and interpret the world around us in order to understand our lives. This idea still lies at the very heart of why I believe in my work so intensely. Teaching English is a way of encouraging new realizations about the human experience in the next generation through stories that are consumed and created.

I’ve been working alongside my teaching partners Mrs. L, Mrs. J, and Mr. B all year to refine the curriculum for our junior level communications class, which we’ve been trying to make more and more about seeing the relationship between rhetoric and society, exploring how authors use narrative as a vehicle for social commentary. We’ve also taken a more individualistic look at literary works, through a psychoanalytic lens, to show what fiction can reveal about a character, about an author, and–in turn–about us.

Somewhere during these professional conversations, I suddenly remembered something that one of my mentor professors, Dr. Tom Scott, used to say in lecture at UWM. He used to reference the idea that literature works both as a window and a mirror. We look out, and see things we wouldn’t otherwise see. We look in, and see ourselves. It’s a simple, but very effective metaphor. As I prepared to transition my class from two units that focused heavily on author purpose and social commentary to a more personal exploration and study of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, I created a stick-figure comic to share with my students to demonstrate the difference in the ways of thinking that we’d be applying. It turned out to be a highly effective way to explain the different ways that we can use to study stories, and the disparate yields (both of great value) that we can gain from that study.

I formalized my comic a bit on the iPad and decided to share it here. [P.s. Procreate is an amazing drawing and painting app, despite its unfortunate name.] It is my hope that this image will also be of use in your class, especially in framing the varied approaches that you and your students take when exploring texts of all kinds.


Untitled artwork

Exploring Literature by creating Twitter-ature


This post makes a case for composing tweets (yes, you know–Twitter updates) as a method for comprehending, reacting to, and analyzing literature. To some, it may seem like a sacrilege to ask students to convert their understanding of classical lit into informal, often ranting blurbs of 140 characters or less. But trust me: when done right, Tweets will allow students to put literature into context and bring it to a whole new kind of life. I came across this idea a few years ago, and it has worked a fantastic magic in my classroom ever since. I used it to great success with Romeo and Juliet, and this year converted it to use with The Crucible, again, with awesome results. Please feel free to use, enjoy, and employ this strategy!

 Why Tweets?

In the second chapter of literacy expert Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This, he actually recommends the composing of tweets as a “light” way to get students started with writing. Writing a micro-piece in the length and format of a Twitter update is a non-threatening, familiar, short form that helps kids get their feet wet and ready to approach more complex writing. In my own experience, I’ve found that this lighter writing fare removes the inhibitions or anxieties that come along with more involved writing tasks and lets even struggling students cut more quickly and sharply to the heart of the literature they are reading. Also, the often emotionally charged nature of the genre (let’s face it, people use Twitter to say whatever is on their minds as it is happening) creates an empathy with characters that requires a deep level of comprehension.

 How do I get my kids to write some Twitter-ature?

1. Select an important section of a literary work that students are reading where several major events occur which effect multiple characters. This will be the time span over which students will “tweet.”

2. Inform students that they should pick a character to “tweet” as… they will create an apt username for this character and be the voice of him or her as the section progresses.

3. Teach students the conventions of Twitter, in case they are unfamiliar. (140 characters or less, @ to tweet “at” another user, # to include a tag/category with the tweet)

4. Since the students are embodying characters, not themselves, these faux tweets have to exist outside the world of actual Twitter itself. Decide if you’d like to have your students write tweets on paper or enter them live on the closed-room Twitter-like platform Today’s Meet. Today’s Meet is live and interactive, which you can display on the screen during in-class reading. Writing on paper, while less sparkly, usually yields slightly more thoughtful results. Both have benefits. Either way, I ask for ten tweets total. As students read, they tweet as their characters would. I also ask them to include the page number that inspired each tweet for a richer intellectual exercise and simply for accountability.

5. Share, laugh, ponder, and discuss.

Need a more specific example? Click here to see the activity that I designed for my juniors to complete during and after their reading of Act III of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

 What kinds of things do students write? Does this really work?

The best way I can show you the quality of student writing is by showing you some examples, which I’ll post below. Students are very playful with this kind of activity, but I am also shocked at the details that they notice… In the act that was tweeted below, John Proctor tries to defend his family’s honor in the face of the bloodthirsty courts of Salem and his former lover, Abigail, who is hell-bent on getting his wife accused of witchcraft. The usernames and (#)hashtags are ingenious; referencing even small-but-telling lines like,  “You sweated like a stallion whenever I come near,”  “He plow on Sunday, sir,” and “There might also be a dragon with five legs in my house, but no one has ever seen it!”

Because of this activity, my students know exactly who these characters are and what drives them. Unexpectedly rich, and witty beyond all expectations, character tweets is a perfect classroom activity. Enjoy the examples below from my classroom.

Students tweeting as John Proctor

The Proc: @TheTown This court is senseless and runs on opinion and judgement. There is #NoJustice in these trials! #CourtFail

SweatinStallion: I KNOW I’M NOT A LAWYER JUST READ THE DEPOSITION. #JudgesBeTrippin #annoyed #WifeIsInnocent

Abigail is no child! #demon #laughterduringprayer

Hey guys, who wants to see my pet dragon?! #sarcasm #WifeIsInnocent #PoppetsAreForChildren

JohnDeereProc42: @WhollyMary You’re with God now?!? You traitor!!! I’ll send the Devil upon you all right. #evil #liar #JailParty #NoPlowSunday

FarmerMan26: I confess. I am a #lecher. I am living with a problem. #FinallyFree #ashamed  @ElizabethProctor please tell the truth. #ItsOk

@BigParris thinks he’s all high and mighty. If he wasn’t the minister, nobody would listen to that nerd. #RealMenDon’tGoToHarvard

TheBigProctor: I say God is dead! I hear Lucifer’s boots! #JudgeMe #FreeElizabeth #YouKnowNothing

Student tweeting as Giles Corey

WeirdOldMan80: @MrJudgeD the girls are ACTING again. Someone should put a stop to it before more innocent people are accused. #ThisEndsNow

Student tweeting as Danforth

DanforthJudginU: I didn’t think @OldManGiles had so much rage in him. #ThatEscalatedQuickly #WeWillSeeJustice

Student tweeting as Reverend Hale

W8tedKnowledge: @DanforthTheGreat These girls are clearly lying and you will regret these hangings. What do poppets have to do with the devil anyway? #CareToExplain #WhyCan’tYouSeeTheTruth

A Collaboration with TED-Ed

If you haven’t heard of TED, you probably haven’t spent much time around the internet. This non-profit organization’s online community, recorded lectures (known as “TED Talks”), and events are hands-down one of the most amazing resources available, not only for teachers, but for all intelligent people who want to partake of the “Ideas Worth Spreading” gathered from some of the best minds in all types of fields.

Throughout second semester, I’ve been (secretly!) collaborating with TED-Ed, a branch of TED that focuses on making great lessons from real teachers available online in the form of short, animated videos. The site also allows teachers to easily flip the video as a full lesson, with links to supplementary materials as well as the ability to add objectives, ask questions, and monitor online discussion. For anyone into teaching and learning, it’s seriously awesome.

So you can imagine my excitement when, this winter, I was contacted by TED-Ed to talk about a lesson that I had submitted: tips on how to find the “deeper meaning” of a text when writing about works of literature. After my lesson was chosen for development, I went through a phone interview, revised several written drafts of my script, and eventually got approved to record. Using a special portable soundbooth that was sent to me in the mail, I was able to upload several takes of the narration, and eventually moved to online collaboration with an animator that I was matched with. The final result is the video below, which went live today!  I am so proud to be a contributing member of the TED community–creating this video was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had as an educator. 🙂