Listening Down the Hallway: Teaching Through Doubt

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

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

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

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

I listened.

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

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

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

These are good days with good people.


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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Example for Oedipus Rex:

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

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

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

New Year Classroom Resolutions

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It’s a new year in Room 310. And since I just got married a couple weeks ago, it also means a new name for me! One of my first challenges of the school year will be adjusting to my new moniker. It’s not going to be easy. In a profession where people have constantly addressed me by my last name for the past six years, it’s going to take some concentration to introduce myself correctly as Mrs. Casey. Some of my former students will be confused for a while, but it’s a happy confusion that I’ll enjoy celebrating with them. So, on to Year Seven! I have many goals in mind for the new year, but I’ll share my biggest 2015 classroom resolution here.


This year, I’d like to grow my classroom borrowing library into a more impressive and useful one. Here’s my September 2015 “Before” shot, which shows the full extent of my current collection. It’s laughably small:

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Last year, my department started making a major move to establish a reading culture at our school. And it worked. Students are, for the most part, increasingly willing–sometimes even eager!–to make independent reading a part of their weekly academic experience. One of the important aspects of encouraging students to read is making sure that books are visible and readily available. A fantastic way to do this is to host a classroom library. Several of my colleagues have already been taking this philosophy to heart for years, and have expansive, exciting, meticulously catalogued collections of books surrounding the full perimeter of their classrooms. It’s humbling and awesome. As you can see above, my library is downright paltry in comparison. If I really want to commit to helping my students grow as readers, this is something that I can do to get there.


I’m going to work on obtaining books primarily through free or almost-free means. I plan to get the word out to my own social networks, asking for hand-me-downs that people have enjoyed but no longer wish to hang on to. Many people are avid readers who enjoy passing on titles that they’ve finished. I’ll also encourage my students and their families to donate gently-loved books for a little bit of extra credit. I’m also going to spend a bit of my own money (but not a dollar more than the $250.00 that educators can deduct on their taxes for classroom expenses) at places like Goodwill or Half Price Books to get some high interest titles. If grants or other donations are available, I can pursue those as well.

For managing this collection, I’ve downloaded a simple app for my phone called “Lend it!”. It’s an easy-to-use resource for keeping track of texts that have been lent out to students. By putting in their school e-mail addresses when they borrow a book from me, students will get an automatic reminder when their agreed upon “due date” is coming up. I’ll get reminders, too, and access to an evolving, current list of which kid has what. I’ve also labeled each of my books with a neon sticker that has a “C” on it (for Casey!), so that my books are easily distinguishable from those that come from other classroom collections.

I’m looking forward to taking my classroom library from flab… to fab! Watch for the “After” photo next June!


Back to School 2015: Have a Karaoke Year!


One of my favorite teaching memories actually has nothing to do with curriculum. It was the very end of the school year three years ago, during the last period of the seniors’ last day of school. As it worked out, that final hour was a flexible resource period, usually used for remediation or enrichment in learning. But since it was the last day, I did something a little more unconventional–I offered a karaoke session (surprisingly easy to organize with the power of YouTube) for any of my seniors who were brave enough to sign up. It’s a memory that still makes me smile unfailingly. Just me and a bunch of students who I had worked with over the course of three years, taking turns belting out ballads in the spotlight and laughing with delight at the utter seriousness with which each performer approached the task, regardless of skill level. We brought it home with a team-sing of “Hey, There, Delilah” by the Plain White T’s, sitting in a circle of school desks, watching the words pop up on the projector screen, and feeling summer right around the corner. Magic.

As I stand veritably peaking around the stage curtains of the new school year, I am intensely reminded of that moment. And I think that the concept of karaoke might have something important to do with how teachers can approach this new year. Maybe it’s because I’m still a little nostalgic for that special class of 2012. Maybe it’s because I watched the MTV Video Music Awards last night and Kanye West said, “Listen to the kids.” I’m not sure. But this metaphor of karaoke is working for me right now. Hear me out.

Karaoke is like good teaching.

You know the song. It’s familiar. You’ve been listening to it for years. The words are right there to look at. You’re ready. You have a plan. You walk up to the front of the room and grab the mic.

The plan doesn’t always work, though. Maybe the track is in a different key than you expected. Maybe you accidentally stumbled over the different lyrics of the radio edit. Maybe someone decides to join you on stage and it was not intentional.

But you muddle through. You sing your heart out. You recover and you rock it. Because you Love. This. Song.

And after you’ve had your brief moment in the spotlight, time moves forward and people mill around, resettle. Some of them might have been distracted by their own thoughts and completely missed it. But most of them clap, because if nothing else, they know that you’ve given them this raw, sometimes hilarious, always unique gift of your experience with this song. And every once in a while, that girl sitting way in the back, she got something really meaningful out of that performance. Most of the time, she quietly leaves without even saying “hi.” But it meant something awesome to her.

One woman show. Five days a week.

This is what we do. 

Bring ’em on! Happy new school year to all.

Committing to Equity in Our Diverse Classrooms

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Summer gives educators important mental space. Few people understand the word “chaos” quite like a teacher who’s elbow-deep in the joyful mire of managing her classroom during the school year. When we’re simultaneously focusing on feedback, meetings, lesson planning, events, data, e-mail, conferences, and instruction, there’s not always time to ponder the larger issues that surround our profession. As I’ve been enjoying this summer space to delve into educational theory and continue my graduate work, the chaos has quieted enough for me to hear the echo of an important assertion that I need to recommit to as I start my seventh year of teaching this fall. Here it is:

There’s no such thing as a classroom where diversity doesn’t matter, and teaching with an intentional goal of equity needs to be a priority for all teachers.

As our nation’s famed achievement gaps fluctuate slightly from year to year, their staying power reveals the social crevasses deeper than the Marianas Trench that run through our school hallways. Simply put, our education system still unfairly marginalizes students of color and students in living in poverty. Disparities in achievement don’t end there, either—gender, sexual orientation, home language, and physical ability can also be weighty deciding factors in a student’s level of access to success. These disparities impact future career and earning potential, mental and physical health, as well as likeliness of incarceration. It’s an overwhelmingly massive problem, with historical roots in institutionalized discrimination that many, many hardworking policymakers, academics, administrators, educators, and parents continue to fight. And it’s not just in urban areas. It’s system-wide. No district is immune. We’re all symptomatic to some degree.

We do want justice for all. We want to see all kids get a fair chance to succeed. But when data set after data set shows American schools still failing to close achievement gaps, it’s hard. As teachers, sometimes we cope by blocking out worries about inequity in our schools. We relinquish ownership of the issue. We say things like, “Well, the fact that this student won’t turn in his work has nothing to do with me” or “I’m just here to teach English. I teach things and it’s up to students to learn them, that’s it. I didn’t create the problems in education.” Here’s my message to you—don’t give in to that. Responding to diversity matters. It matters in cities, in suburbs, and rural communities. It matters because we have the agency to create a salve of parity in the small environments where we can still claim power as individual educators. It’s our job to care about, grapple with, question, and claim the ways in which diversity is addressed within our own schools.

I’d like to share with you a short list of research-supported methods that I hope to use in the coming year to work toward this goal of creating a more equitable classroom. (Read more about the research in the resources linked to each name: Banks 1999; Steele 2010; Milner 2010; Schippers, Scheepers, and Peterson 2015.)

Recognizing my own privilege and resisting colorblindness means understanding that differences—in race, gender, culture, etc.—between my students and me are important and not to be ignored. Because of my race, language, social status, and other aspects of my identity, I’ve been afforded certain social privileges free of charge which position me in a place of power. I cannot be blind to this fact, nor can I pretend that all of my students have been handed an equal backpack of privilege. By seeing and acknowledging the different identities and experiences that my students bring to the classroom, I allow myself to respond to them as individuals with needs that may be different from what I assume them to be. By making my classroom a safe space to discuss variances in identity, I prevent myself from robbing my students of agency when their perceptions vary from my own.

Understanding stereotype threat requires me to recognize that the way in which I frame an assessment can alter my students’ performance. In situations where students are conscious of an aspect of themselves (ex. being female) that is negatively stereotyped in certain subject areas (ex. mathematics), they consistently underperform. This effect can be counteracted by helping students focus on different aspects of their identities (ex. membership in an academic community) before an assessment, where the identity is associated with positive performance.

Honoring multiple perspectives in curriculum is a requirement for transformative multicultural education. In preparing students of all colors—yes, even white–and backgrounds for our increasingly diverse society, it is crucial that the stories we tell in education reflect a spectrum of cultural perspectives. This means teaching texts that include female authors and authors of color in addition to the European, white, Christian male authors that dominate the canon. It means teaching history as it was experienced by the conquerors as well as the voiceless. It means fostering critical thinking and discussion rather than seeking predetermined, one-dimensional responses.

Narrative interventions have powerful potential to increase achievement in students who are in danger of failure. This means I need to commit to helping my students express their academic goals in writing, asking them to envision the steps that they will take to achieve their goals and how the end result will impact their personal lives in a positive way. Students need the chance to think about and express what they truly want to accomplish academically and why. And I need to be involved in those goals as well–be aware of them and do what I can to support them.

Building community connections and positive relationships with students that I don’t initially have things in common with is something that takes work, and sometimes even a little bit of strategy. But I need to remember that the quickest way to boost a student’s achievement is to get him or her to invest in my classroom. That means investing in me as a person, and can only happen if the student feels that I genuinely connect with him or her. Whether it’s taking a moment to talk about some favorite music, showing up for a basketball game, calling home to check in with mom, or attending community events, the time teachers spend relating to students personally builds us a bridge across the staggering depth of the trench. When a relationship is created, the cultural tension of difference can fade.

Don’t look down. Look forward. Let’s do the work we need to do to create more opportunities for all of our students.

Sacred Stories: Transcendental Personal Narratives Using Cowbird

Eleventh graders can be more insightful than you might think. When I asked my second semester classes to list what makes a fulfilling life as a kickoff activity to our Transcendentalism unit, this is what they said:

I love ending the year in  Communications III with Transcendentalism for several reasons. For one, the bitter Wisconsin tundra starts to warm and bloom and the concept of nature being revelatory becomes a little easier of an idea to buy into. For another, it’s an ideal time in my students’ lives for them to try developing a little personal philosophy. They’re on the cusp of senior year, and about to start feeling the pressure to make huge decisions: Which career to head toward? Which relationships to prioritize? Which college to attend? Which beliefs to live by? Which kind of adult to be? For these students, huge questions suddenly need answers, as they always have. What a great time to kick it way back to the mid-1800’s.

Emerson, Thoreau, and the rest of their Transcendental Club sought to define their beliefs as different from the mainstream philosophies surrounding them. Their devotion to ideals of self-reliance, confidence, free thought, and non-conformity resonate with young people readily, even through the thick vocabulary of “Nature” and Walden. My students seek to define themselves as well, and for that reason my colleagues and I balance this unit with a mixture of historic Transcendental information/texts and more modern examples of personal philosophy, such as the YouTube video “How To Be Alone” and Charles Harper Webb’s poem “How To Live.”  Toward the end of the unit, we explore specifically the link between nature and the abstract ideals of these varied sources. Where does nature come in to our understanding of ourselves as people, according to Emerson? Thoreau? What about according to us?

As a culminating project for the unit this year, I was very interested in doing something that would allow students to identify how Transcendentalist ideas have functioned in their own lives through a narrative composition. As luck would have it, right around the time I was thinking about this assignment, I was introduced to the digital story-collecting site Cowbird. It turned out to be the perfect tool: students could use a mixture of image and audio to create a multimedia narrative.

We started by browsing the stories already on the site that were tagged under the topic “Nature.” Using our own reactions, we discussed the features of an engaging narrative, which gave me the chance to insert some additional instruction about narrative composition as well. We then took our stories through a writing workshop. I modeled the process for them, walking them through the website and audio recording app, sharing my own idea-generating web as I brainstormed, showing my drafts-in-progress as they changed each day, and finally posting my final product. I’m a big believer in demonstrating the writing process, as replete with frustration and reward as it can be.

What I loved about watching my students move through this process was how invested and honest they were as they worked. The new technology skills I asked of them were challenging enough to be interesting but not so difficult as to inhibit success. They worked hard on their written drafts and recordings, persevering through many takes in order to get it right. The final compositions were entertaining, moving, and some of the most real writing I saw from my students all year long. Experiencing the stories through an audio format really honored the life experiences and voices, quite literally, of each student author. I found myself smiling, chuckling,and holding my breath as I listened. These students processed the ideas of Transcendentalism to the point of owning them, and that was really cool to witness. Sometimes students don’t understand how powerful their own voices and stories can be. I hope that, after this project, that’s changing for some of them.

Want to try this project, or a version of it, in your own classroom? See my assignment sheet, rubric, and example story below: 

Sacred Spaces: A Transcendentalist Storytelling Experience

Simple Rubric – Cowbird Project

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! 🙂

Fighting the Good Fight


When I teach metaphor in my literature classes, I encourage my students to push beyond decoding simply for meaning, toward interpretation in a connotative, cultural sense. In other words, I not only want them to be able to say what the metaphor means, but also to show why that particular metaphor was chosen in the first place. For instance, take Gascoigne’s poem “For That He Looked Not upon Her,” in which he uses animal metaphors to reflect on his past relationship with a woman who turned out to be nothing but trouble:

The mouse which once hath broken out of trap
Is seldom ’ticèd with the trustless bait,
But lies aloof for fear of more mishap,
And feedeth still in doubt of deep deceit.
And so we start with meaning. The speaker uses the analogy of the once-caught mouse avoiding the trap to mean that he, once caught in this woman’s manipulation, will not be ensnared again. But there’s more. “Why is it a mouse in a trap?” I ask my students, “Why not a bear, or a robber, or a beaver?” So much more then comes to light. By putting himself in the role of the mouse, the speaker shows his comparative weakness and low status in juxtaposition with the former lover. She’s made him feel like a tiny, brainless, scurrying animal. She has “fed” him deceit–betrayed him so completely that he literally feels that he’s ingested the shame that her affections lured him into. She, cast as the trap, is cold, metallic, and brutal; a mere snap of deadly machinery to his soft, innocent (and now wary) mouse.
Metaphors carry the weight of old instincts with them. That’s what makes them one of the most powerful literary devices, along with allusion, of them all. Metaphors are worth considering for a moment. It’s this belief which led me, today, to think more deeply about my favorite metaphor to use when encouraging fellow teachers, and sometimes even myself: Keep fighting the good fight.
“Why this metaphor?” I asked myself. It’s downright combative, suggestive of violent struggle. Where does it even come from? Do I even know what I’m saying?! (You can see how quickly being a literary thinker can lead one to crisis.) So, I decided to do some research.
I found that the origin of this particular idiom is actually a Biblical quote from Timothy 6.12–“Fight the Good Fight of Faith.” It was a popular phrase in several English hymns of the 1800’s. Over time, the phrase has adopted a more general meaning, which The Oxford English Dictionary (aka the unquestionable word nerd guidebook) describes as,  “To campaign or struggle valiantly for a just cause; to defend what one believes to be right.” After reading it phrased as such, the instinct that makes this phrase pop off of my tongue so often is clearer to me.
Especially at this time of the year, teaching can feel like a good fight. The attention of students who have been engaged all semester long can start to wane with warmer weather. Seniors begin checking or stressing out as the life beyond high school looms. Students who have been difficult since day one can become downright maddening in their habitual apathy or resistance. It can be tempting, as a teacher, to feel helpless and resigned. This is where the fight comes in. It’s the time to appeal to the noble warrior spirit that lurks within every teacher who cares too much to quit fighting for kids.
Late April and May are the time to dig deep. Something that feels almost blasphemous to say–but which is absolutely true–is that caring, really caring, about over a hundred kids each day on a personal level is exhausting. Sometimes they don’t listen. Sometimes they don’t perform. Sometimes they don’t understand your explanation the first, second, or third time. Sometimes they don’t follow through. Sometimes they’re rude. But good teachers don’t lie down. Good teachers fight the good fight. We fight to care harder. We fight to crank out lessons so exciting that the students can’t help but look up. We fight to keep challenging our learners of all levels, refusing to let them give up. Because we sure as heck ain’t giving up. It is a good fight. It’s the best cause I can think of. But we can only win if we’re willing to go into battle.
If teachers are warriors, we also have our spoils of victory. Some of mine recently have included…
*A previously combative student who completed almost none of my assignments during Quarter 3 is now interacting positively with me and is working AHEAD on a major project.
*I found a reminder letter from a student organization left behind in my room with spontaneous poetry scribbled on it–extra non-assigned practice in a style that we taught to our juniors over a month ago.
*My AP students are discussing ideas of race and privilege in Native Son with such astute intellect that it puts many groups of upper level college students I’ve seen to shame.
*My Comm III students are asking cool, conceptual, thought-provoking questions in their synthesis essays… and actually care about pursuing those questions on a philosophical level.
*Seeing the names of a few kids on next year’s AP roster–students who I encouraged to take the course even though it will present them a significant academic challenge.
*Every smile. Every “good morning.” Every “have a good weekend.” Every kid, honestly.
If you feel like the end of every school day has you emerging from battle these days, well, you’re not alone. Just remember, we’re all fighting together toward the same end. I’ll leave you with a snippet of lyrics from the fantastic, super-literate modern folk band The Decemberists.
This is why
why we fight
why we lie awake
this is why
this is why we fight.

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.