Category: Pedagogy

Into the Woods! A Transcendentalist Day at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center

Sometimes the world is just so big that we forget it’s even there.

Teaching our junior unit on transcendentalism is always a highlight of the end of the year. Beyond just teaching about the American philosophical giants of the mid-1800s, we work on understanding the legacy of the transcendentals and their lasting ideals of self-reliance, solitude, and free thought. We try to transform our classroom walls into windows that turn within, as student consider their own personal philosophies. Last year while reflecting on this unit–so much about thinking and writing born of the natural world’s inspiration–it seemed to us that we shouldn’t just be turning walls into windows. We should be opening those windows, and streaming out into the place where Emerson found his spirit, and Thoreau found his soul–the woods. What good is reading about the connection between man and nature, if you can’t feel it?

Yep, you know what that means! Field. Trip. Time. With this goal in mind, we spent several months planning a day of workshops, inside and outside, where students could read, write, hike, observe plants and animals, and maybe even lose themselves (safely) in a place of solitude and reflection. We found a perfect partnership in Milwaukee’s Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, which prioritizes experiential, environmental education in its mission statement and boasts six miles of trails over 185 acres of beautiful natural ecosystems along Lake Michigan.

It’s hard to know what to expect when you announce to over one hundred teenagers that you’re taking them to the forest. They seemed excited, in an uncertain kind of way, about spending a day outside. For most of them, this would be an unfamiliar kind of experience. We primed them all week leading up to the trip by introducing them to transcendentalism, reading about the science behind effects that nature has on the brain, and practicing field notes in the classroom. Here’s my example from the classroom practice, written in the same little red field notebook that we provided to each of our students on field trip day:

Our full plan for the day was developed by our team of five teachers and three staff members at the center. We rotated five groups of around 20 students between five mini-workshops including geocaching (staffed by the nature center), and hands-on lessons in transcendentalist ideas, nature writing, reflective writing, and field notes, all written by our teaching team. (If you’d like access to our curriculum to adapt for your own nature field trip, find it here, shared with the permission of my colleagues.)

We took 107 high school juniors out to navigate, tread through mud, hop on rocks, watch sun-baked turtles, listen to birdsong, to write and read and eat bag lunches and laugh. It was curriculum brought to life. The students were really kids on this trip, laughing, shrieking, stretching, and having actual dynamic conversations.  They were excited and adventuresome. They dug in to what we were doing. They walked all day. This is teaching at its best and most pure–creating an experience, guiding pupils on how to explore it, and watching them feel a spark of curiosity drive a search for knowledge. 

“Wait, I want to write a little more!”

“I’m muddy, but I don’t even care.”

“Why don’t we do this all the time?”

“Do we really have to leave?”

“It’s so beautiful.”

“Thank you so much for putting this together.”

“Thank you for planning this.”

“Thank you for taking us here.”


I was so happy that my heart was breaking a little bit. I was thinking about all the time that the average high school student spends in a desk filling out bubbles, when he or she could be making or doing something that connects to his or her learning instead. I’m so grateful that we were able to have this golden day in nature to help new learning catch fire. We need so much more of this. The first step is cultivating partnerships between schools and outside organizations like the SANC–it’s fantastic when we can support one another’s missions and open the world to kids in the meantime.

I also got to hold a snake! (So did the students, at least those who had good feelings about snakes!) Touch is such an important sense–we touch to connect, to understand. Learning about the natural world is only so much trivia until you get to feel the squirm of a snake’s muscles contracting as he sneaks gently around your arm. It’s a different kind of bond, a deeper kind of understanding that takes you from interested to caring. Immersive education is crucial to natural preservation efforts… because in order to act, you have to care. Thanks to this experience, we got to reach out and touch our big, big world.

Pretty darn awesome. Thanks again to the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center for helping us make our transcendentalist teaching dreams come true!


The Catwalk! A Closer Look at Everyday Modeling in the Writing Classroom

At my school, we’re a big fan of modeling. No… not that kind of modeling. There are no chic poses or fine fabrics involved. I’m talking about the catwalk that writing teachers walk when they demonstrate the process of writing in front of their students. This is a strategy that seems so simple, yet takes a lot of practice and guts to do. When we teach manual skills, like changing a tire or swinging a bat, it feels so natural to demonstrate what the skill looks like. But a more intellectual skill, like writing, for some reason doesn’t always invoke that same instinct. We explain and explain, telling our students to do something, all the while overlooking the possibility that showing them how to do it might be better! In my experience, student feedback confirms that it is better–they often mention how helpful it is to see writing modeled.

Earlier this year, my department was fortunate enough to be part of a workshop with Kelly Gallagher at the Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English Convention. Here’s a great snap of us with Kelly, so happy to meet one of our teaching idols once again:

At the workshop, we were reminded keenly of the power of modeling when it comes to the reading, writing, and thinking skills we hope to see from students–Gallagher phrases it as “I go, you go.” First, the teacher demonstrates the writing skill, then the students try it out on their own. Ideally, this should be happening constantly in the writing classroom. But embracing modeling can mean getting a little bit vulnerable as a teacher… when you’re writing in front of students without having your words prepared beforehand, you’ll have lapses in ideas, moments of confusion, and probably some typos. Here’s the secret: that’s the best part about it all! When students see us struggle a little bit in the production of writing, it brings us down to earth for them. It helps them to understand that writing doesn’t just emerge fully formed from anyone’s hand, no matter how much experience is behind it. They start to see writing less as a mysterious, built-in talent and more as a problem solving process. If the quality of the writing doesn’t turn out too well on the first try, it just creates an ideal opportunity to model some on-the-spot revision!

When I do modeling in my classroom, I bring up a blank notebook page on my document camera and just start writing away. If you don’t have a document camera, you can use Google Docs or the good old-fashioned chalkboard. I instruct my students to also take out their own notebooks to write along with me as I model. (Yep, they create their own example by writing exactly what I write, word for word. This might sound odd, but I’ve actually read in many writing guides that copying down the work of better writers somehow helps us internalize new skills in phrasing and style. Author Hunter S. Thompson reportedly once copied the entirety of The Great Gatsby by hand.) In the teacher-writer role, I verbally get as meta-cognitive as possible, narrating not only what I’m writing, but why I’m making language choices along the way. Sometimes I’ll also define words or pose questions. Let me show you how it works!

In our current synthesis writing unit, our Communications III team is using This American Life as a way to introduce the concept of synthesis–like a synthesis essay, the show revolves around a central idea, presents the viewpoint of the author (host), and uses disparate sources to create a conversation about the central idea. To kick off our unit, we showed them an episode entitled “Reality Check.” After each segment, I paused the video to discuss and relate it back to synthesis. Since I’ll be asking my students to write a synthesis piece later in the unit, I’m modeling writing skills whenever I can, in order to get them trained up. In this case, I wanted them to get comfortable with the ideas of “giving context” and “connecting to the big idea” when introducing a source. In a complicated task like synthesis, building little skills like these are valuable tools to refer back to when we get into the real deal. It’s nothing fancy, but it doesn’t have to be. View and click below to see the examples I created with my students and listen to my think-aloud to get an idea for what modeling looks like on the average day in Room 310.

What I said (please pardon the pauses as I stop to write):

What we wrote:

For the third portion of the episode, students write their own context + connection to the big idea, so I can get an idea of how well they understood this skill. I don’t worry at this point if their words turn out being “mysteriously similar” to those in my models–we’re in the training wheels stage, and they may not be ready to experiment with words independently just yet in this context. They will get there when they feel strong! The idea is to give them exposure to as many writing skills as possible so they’re ready to apply them when drafting begins. On Monday, we’re working on commas, colons, and semicolons in complex sentences. One thing at a time. 🙂

I wouldn’t say I’m a supermodel like Kelly Gallagher quite yet. But I’m walking the walk as best I can. I hope you will consider doing the same, and see some great things result from your students’ work. Be the model you were born to be!

Feelings First: Acknowledging Emotion in the Secondary Classroom

Black Round Analog Wall Clock

Anyone might agree to the statement that high school students have their share of drama. These are the years when all kinds of hormones run amok and create a world of feeling so vivid that it’s practically exploding. Parents know all too well the unpredictable bursts of joy, rage, and irritation that teenagers have been famous for since forever.

And on top of that, there’s something new. More and more young people are falling into our gaping, growing mental health crisis of anxiety disorders. Flying on the wings of ever-present disturbing media images and fueled by the pressure cooker of social media’s unforgiving threats and expectations, debilitating mental health issues have become increasingly prominent in our nation’s youth. If we’re being honest, we have to recognize that quite a few of our students feel a little bit scared most of the time.

But, oddly enough, despite the maelstrom of emotions swirling about us, I would argue that many high school teachers stay well away from talking about “Feelings.” (Make sure you give it a capital F and say it in a hushed tone.) I have had conversations with teachers who firmly state that they are “not much of a talk-about-your-Feelings kind of person.” As if it’s silly. As if it’s elementary. As if it’s weak. Or just because we get so focused on content that we forget the people that are staring us in the face while we’re trying to teach it. I will argue, though, that putting feelings front and center in the teaching of high school kids can make a more effective teacher. It strengthens our student’s trust in us, of one another, and helps them get stronger. 

So what am I talking about here? Am I describing a classroom world where every special snowflake is coddled and allowed to avoid anything that makes said snowflake uncomfortable? Absolutely not. I tend to share the sentiment that psychiatrist Rob Haskell espouses in his recent article on child anxiety for Vogue:

 Laypeople and professionals alike have pointed to something else at play in the anxiety epidemic, or rather a pair of paradoxical factors: We are both putting stress on our children and trying to protect them from the uncomfortable feelings that can be an appropriate response to stress. This sends a confusing message–that the world is dangerous and that kids don’t have the tools to manage those dangers.

Bearing this in mind, I try to empathize with my students’ sincere emotional struggles–whether fleeting or chronic. However, I also make it my mission to equip them with the tools they need to flow through those feelings and find strength on the other side. Of course, I am not a clinical psychologist, nor should I ever be confused with one. But I am a person who cares for children, and who feels a heavy responsibility toward helping them become successful adults. I’d like to share some of the ways that I put feelings first in my high school classroom.

1. When there’s something going on that is impacting the emotional climate in my classroom, I acknowledge it and advise students about how to manage their reactions while in my room. Teachers know what kinds of situations will create powder kegs of emotion. For example, this month, I taught the day after the presidential election. I had already heard a variety of comments shouted in the hallway before first hour to confirm my assumption that students would be keyed up about it. Before I started teaching, I addressed my class with this message: “Hi, everyone! Now, I need to be honest with you–I think today is going to be kind of difficult here at school because of the election results last night. Many of us were up very late, for one, and might not be at our best. But also, some of you are feeling very excited and happy about the results. Others of you are feeling very sad and nervous about the results. That creates a tough situation for me as a teacher, because we all need to work together today. So, I’m asking you to press pause on whatever you’re feeling while you’re in class so that we can avoid getting derailed by conflict or being distracted by our feelings. It’s very important to have political opinions and conversations, but we’re going to put those away in a box for now, so we can focus on other things. (Sidenote: I did have one student start to taunt another for his political affiliation, but I just reminded the taunter, “Hey, hey–away in the box, remember?” and he promptly apologized.) 

2.  When asking students to do something potentially anxiety-producing, I provide coping strategies, opportunities to practice in low-pressure environments, and include success stories of others who have faced their fears and won. My junior classes are currently in their public speaking unit. The final assessment for this unit is a solo speech of the student’s own design. Throughout the four-week unit, I teach them how to use their physical posture to feel and appear more confident. I give them early practice opportunities without evaluation other than copious praise. I counsel students one-on-one about what to do to manage nervousness beforehand. And I share awesome examples of people who have overcome their speaking fear, such as this incredibly moving talk by Megan Washington:

3. I model the appropriate sharing of positive and negative emotions. I never overshare, but I will be honest about how I’m feeling with my students. When they ask me how I’m doing, I might say, “I’m doing great! Even though I’m tired, I’m in a really good mood.” Or, I might say, “Pretty good, but feeling a little nervous about my big training run this weekend. I’ve never gone 20 miles in a row.” I will also be up front with students about my physical well-being. Sometimes I’ll start class with, “Hello, class! Just to let you know, I’m losing my voice today, so if I seem kind of tired, it’s because I’m a bit sick. Nothing to worry about, though; we’ll get through it!” On the horrifying occasion of a student’s death, I cried with my class, and told them I didn’t think I could be very productive that day and I didn’t mind if they took some time to process as well.

4. I teach about self-care. When exam time comes around and my students look visibly stressed, I remind them that grades are merely a measurement of their academic knowledge at one moment in time, and have nothing to do with their goodness as a person. I talk frankly with my students about the benefits of exercise, experiencing nature, eating and drinking nutritious things, hugging pillows, and learning to say “no” to obligations that overload them. These are real skills that adults need to negotiate the world, stay balanced, and avoid burnout. Whenever I can, I share the idea that we can’t control everything, that we don’t have to be perfect, and that we can be nice to ourselves even when we fail. I wish more of my teachers had told me such things. Even, (especially) in high school.

Nobody knew more about helping children understand emotions than the late master educator Fred Rogers. I’ll leave you with two of his quotes to ponder as you step back into your classroom this week:

“There’s no ‘should’ or ‘should not’ when it comes to having feelings. They’re part of who we are and their origins are beyond our control. When we can believe that, we may find it easier to make constructive choices about what to do with those feelings.”

“There is no normal life that is free of pain. It’s the very wrestling with our problems that can be the impetus for our growth.”

From The World According to Mister Rogers


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! 🙂

The Writer’s Sandbox


Sometimes the simplest things are the most beautiful. 

When seeking to create a new unit for our junior Communications students, my teaching team and I kept bumping up against one very important thing: we didn’t feel like we were teaching enough writing. The variety of writing types wasn’t enough. The amount of writing wasn’t enough. The frequency of writing instruction wasn’t enough. And we wanted to do something about it. This is how the Writer’s Sandbox unit was born–an experimental writing unit that focused on flexibility, authorship, craft study, and play.

We didn’t know what we were doing. And that was the greatest part of it. We could invent along the way, as long as we had a “how” before the what. So we gathered our knowledge about good writing instruction. We knew that we’d have to help students understand the different conventions that accompany different genres. We knew we could find and use good mentor texts as models, and we knew we could write alongside our kids and share our own processes. We hoped that our students could come away with a greater sens of independence, adaptability, and joy in writing: this was the biggest goal.

This particular group of students is much more familiar with the “just follow the formula” types of written assignments that are all too easy for teachers to assign. I am guilty of this at times–sometimes students’ skills or motivation can be so desperately low that it is vastly easier to provide them with an all-inclusive, paint-by-number assignment structure that will minimize panic and guarantee them a feeling of success, if only they follow the steps. And maybe there’s a place for that somewhere. But that’s not the path to any kind of good writing or thinking in the real world.

Unsure of how our students would react, we used the presentation below to introduce the concept of The Writer’s Sandbox to our perked-up (but perhaps slightly wary) group of students…

The beauty of a unit like this is that it’s process-oriented, which means it can be customized to fit any length of time and any types of writing that one can dream up. The process we used can be seen on my classroom notepad in the picture at the beginning of this post. Each day had a slightly different vibe as we tackled different genres or phases of the writing process. But, to keep a sense of routine and structure, every day had the same elements: progress charted, writing shared aloud, a creativity or skills-building warm-up, information about conventions and purpose, a mentor text, and time to write. It was a path that students were quick to adapt to. Having the visual reminder was reassuring to them.

The types of writing that we worked on included poetry, flash fiction, application essays, infographic, satire, and thank-you letters. The end of the unit moved into lessons on revision, and student-led writing conferences were a big part of the final grade, whereas initial drafts were non-threatening “check off” compliance grades. Teaching was fun, because it became more about trying things, about “what did you come up with?”, laughing together at the failures, puzzling together at the challenges, and cheering on the moments when, as one student put it, “Once the words start flowing, they just don’t stop until they run out.”

The culminating project was a formalized portfolio of three polished pieces. We required the application essay, since we want every junior to have a starting point for their real college essays next year. The choice and direction of the other two pieces were completely up to the student. In many cases, a type of theme emerged organically among the three pieces, as students crafted verse and image that reflected what / where / who they care about most. Precious things. Things that, to them, have shaped the foundation of their lives, identify, and vision of the future.

Was every portfolio of student writing life-changingly good? No. But lives were changed in the process of making them. I know I’ve said this before, but every time I give my students a new measure of freedom and control over their own learning, I am astounded at what they create, and at how much they actually teach themselves and each other. One thing I can say with honesty is that every student was truly proud of his or her final product. They cared about that writing, and that is an excellent place to start. I think it’s fair to say that the unit worked.

Like any fledgling unit, this one has given me things to think about, to alter, to keep and replace. But it’s a dang good idea. Maybe you can use it!

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.

Less About “What?” More About “How?”

How many times have you heard a student say “I don’t know what we’re doing!” even after you’ve explained your instructions several times, with directions as clear and pristine as a crisp fall lake on a windless day? How many times has that led to frustration? If you’re a teacher, I’m guessing your answer to both of these questions is “many.” But guess what? This year, I’ve discovered a way of thinking that will (a) prevent this from happening in the first place and (b) make you a better teacher in the process. It’s as simple as changing the word “what” to the word “how.”

I’d like to start this post by including two real life artifacts from my own classroom that I used this week. Below, you’ll see the self-selecting, self-reflecting, formative assessment on essay progress that I passed around for my juniors to sign, regarding their character analysis essay for The Crucible.  I used their responses to prioritize the order of writing conferences that I conducted with students, starting with the students on the right side of the spectrum.


This second shot is from my chalkboard in the front of class, where I was teaching my AP Literature and Composition students how to determine the quality of the textual evidence they chose to use in their essay drafts on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. (Click on the image to see it in a larger size.)
20141027_084922Both of these simple, day to day tools represent what has been the biggest gem of learning that I’ve uncovered this year as a teacher. That gem is this: learning is all about the process. Focusing on what we want students to do is not enough. Telling them what to do will not help students grow. But when we show them how to do what we ask, learners will grow in their ways of knowing how to approach nearly any task.

For example, with my junior writers, I could tell them, “Take a second to think about where you’re at with your essay right now. If you are feeling unsure or lost, make sure you come talk to me and I will give you feedback.” If I say that, I’ve told them exactly what they need to do during our writing workshop. The problem is, though, that some of them literally do not know how to evaluate their level of comfort with their writing. So instead, I show them how, by explaining example writing scenarios and pointing out where that writer might rate him or herself on the series of smiley faces that you see above. Giving students the emoticon spectrum to help identify their drafting status shows them that elevated jargon isn’t necessary when communicating with an advisor, but that honesty informed by the emotion associated with the task is the appropriate way to enter a writing conference. I’ve had many students in the past who have declared that things are “going fine”, but leave me mystified when they have nothing to turn in on the due date. By providing students with the thinking process for evaluating whether they need help or not, I catch more kids who would otherwise get lost and I’m able to provide assistance in a much more sensitive, authentic way.

With the AP students, I found that I kept repeating comments on their writing regarding their textual evidence. Too much of the time, quotations were used simply to summarize or they were inadequate in terms of proving the thesis statement in a nuanced, insightful fashion. “Why do they keep doing this?” I thought to myself, “I’ve told them a million times to not use textual evidence for the purpose of summary!” But, again, I just kept hammering what I wanted them to do, assuming that they already knew how it could be done. So, one day, I stood in front of the chalkboard and explained the thinking process I would use to check my textual evidence to make sure that it was effective. The resulting flowchart is now something copied in their notebooks to help them self-check. My experienced thought process has now been shared with my students… and as a result, their writing sounds much more experienced, too.

This has been the theme of my year so far: less “what?”, more “how?” Each time I make a process transparent (a way of approaching a prompt, the method I use to decide what to read next, the choices I make when I’m struggling with a text to break it down, anything!), my students imitate, improvise, and succeed. It’s so simple.

I’m learning now–most of the time when my students don’t seem to know what to do, even when my instructions are crystal clear, I’m completely misdiagnosing the problem.

They DO know what to do. They just don’t know how. Show them how. And watch everything fall into place. 🙂 


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!