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The 2019 Back to School Power Playlist

I never grew out of the mixtape. It really is its own extremely special kind of literacy. I love making and sharing playlists for particular moments in time, particular tasks, or particular people. Today, my fellow teacher about to go back to school, I made one for you.

Since music is intensely personal, you might enjoy the songs I’ve selected, or you might not. In case of the latter, I’ve included an “answer key” of sorts at the end of the post that will help you build your own playlist, according to your own preferred musical selections. Same spirit, different tracks.

I’d like to talk a little about each song and why it’s a power song for me. If you want to skip straight to cranking it in your classroom, just click here. I’ll include all the titles and artists in the post so that you can also pick and choose on your own music platform as desired.

A Tour Through the Songs

1. 365 Days – ZZ Ward

“I told you back in June–you knew d–n well what I would do… the summer’s over.”

ZZ Ward emanates cool. I really enjoy her music and her unstoppable confidence. This song kicks off the playlist by stating the inevitable, the reason we’re all here: the summer’s over.

2. Move – Saint Motel

“Gotta get up, I gotta get up. MOVE!”

The pace of the school year is insane. We get up early. We stay late, sometimes for several more hours past the final bell. The trill of the A.M. alarm blurs us into the next morning before we even know what hit us. This track reminds us to keep grooving while we’re moving.

3. Church – Samm Henshaw (feat. Earthgang)

“Good morning. Wake up, wake! Wake up and get yourself to church, yeah!”

For me, teaching is ultimately servant leadership. It’s like going to church. You go to serve others, you bring the best of yourself, you offer it up, you go to be together and to be changed.

4. Complainer – Cold War Kids

“You say you want to change this world. Well, you must really believe in magic. ‘Cause you can only change yourself. Don’t sit around and complain about it.”

There are inevitably problems and frustrations that exists in education, both at the national level and in our own local environments. But, both as professionals and as citizens, we have the power to make changes in positive ways instead of giving up. I love the way this song just takes no excuses.

5. Something Good Can Work – Two Door Cinema Club

“Something good can work, and it can work for you. And you know that it will.”

Staying positive and hopeful is important for teachers. We believe so hard in our students, in their potential, in their fundamental goodness. This song is all about that, positivity and trust in the future.

6. Short Skirt / Long Jacket – Cake

“I want a girl with a mind like a diamond. I want a girl who knows what’s best… She’s fast, and thorough, and sharp as a tack. She’s touring the facility and picking up slack.”

We always tell our students that the most attractive features they can possess are intelligence, hard work, and confidence. That’s what this song is all about. (Plus it’s just a great jam.)

7. This is Why We Fight – The Decemberists

This is why. Why we fight. Why we lie awake. This is why. This is why we fight.”

I actually wrote a whole post inspired by this song back in 2015. The short answer is this: the kids. The kids are why.

8. You Ain’t the Problem – Michael Kiwanuka

“Don’t hesitate. Time heals the pain. You ain’t the problem.”

Besides having a fabulous groove, this track reminds us to not take everything too personally. Even when the job gets hard, you’re still there taking care of students and helping them learn. You can’t take on everything. In all likelihood… you ain’t the problem. Just keep going.

9. Say – John Mayer

“Walking like a one man army, fighting with the shadows in your head,
living out the same old moment, knowing you’d be better off instead,
if you could only say what you need to say.”

Words are power. More than ever, communication is access. Literacy is opportunity. Our job is to help kids say what they need to say.

10. Going Away to College – Blink 182

This is the kind of song you can only truly divine by factoring in the years during which you were in the highest throes of teenager-hood. For me, this song is the one. The punch-in-the-stomach track that takes me immediately back in time, standing outside my beige locker at Menomonee Falls High School, with all the hopes and cares and dreams that overwhelmed me as a skinny and scared sixteen-year-old. In our profession, it’s important to hold on to a part of that. Remember what it’s like. And treat the young ones with care.


Want to make your own Back to School Power Playlist? See below.

Playlist Answer Key:

  1. A song that kisses summer goodbye.
  2. A song about waking up nice and early in the morning.
  3. A song about mission.
  4. A song about action over nihilism.
  5. A song that projects positivity.
  6. A song that celebrates intelligence and drive.
  7. A song that reminds you why you’re here.
  8. A reminder that even in a flawed system, you can recover to keep doing good in the world.
  9. A song about the power of words.
  10. A song that reminds you how confusing and magical and painful and intense it is to be a kid.

Student Podcasts take Literary Thoughts to Audio

Image by Icons8 team on Unsplash

Universe as Text is broadcasting live to you from… summer! I hope all you teachers out there are taking the time to do the important regenerative work of doing non-school things for the most part. I don’t know about you, but it’s almost the end of July and I think I just now started to feel relaxed. And since I’m finally feeling relaxed, I thought it would be a good time to share a fun podcast project that I did with my students for the first time last year.

I’ve been intrigued by the idea of doing a podcast with my students for a while. This is not a new thing–in fact, my friend Mr. B. did a guest post a few years back talking about his version of a podcast project! But it seems like podcasts are getting bigger and bigger these days, that the habit of listening to podcasts is now completely mainstream. So when my colleague Mrs. G. did a technology inservice on using SoundTrap to create student podcasts, I felt it was time for me to get on this train before it leaves without me. What resulted was a fantastic final project for my AP Literature students that helped them learn some digital skills, but also discern what they had to say about the power of literature.

I will start out by telling you that I let my students know up-front that this project was probably going to have some snags, since it was my first time working with the digital tools and overall concept. I think that’s a really important message to share with students: “This may not go perfectly, but we’re going to try it! Failing and learning are interrelated! Even if your attempt is kind of bad, I won’t penalize you for taking your time to figure things out!” Frankly, I just wanted to see what would happen. And what did happen was really cool.

At the bottom of the post, I’ll share my assignment sheet/rubric, along with the example podcast that I made (with my very good sport of a husband), and a student example of the final product. Please send me any questions you have about specifics. Beyond that, let me just share my major takeaways in bulleted list form.


*Podcasts are fun to make and fun to grade.

*The skill of verbally articulating one’s insights is so valuable. Recording audio is a wonderful way for students to practice that skill (with unlimited re-do opportunities) without social pressure.

*SoundTrap is very easy to use with a little bit of fiddling. It’s similar to Garage Band, so if students have that tech literacy, they can build on it, but even if they don’t, they can figure it out with some experimentation time (and so can you)! Video tutorials also help.

*Listening to to podcast examples along with the students was also very helpful. I chose literary-oriented ones like Hey, YA! and Literary Disco. But make sure you preview the whole podcast of your choice before sharing with students; sometimes non-school appropriate words or concepts can crop up in an episode. Just like video content, it takes time to search, preview, and select the examples. Plan accordingly.

*I encouraged students to take doodle notes/sketch notes as we listened. Otherwise it’s awkward to sit and listen passively to something for 10-15 minutes. It also helped give them something to reference when we discussed the anatomy of the episodes and things we might apply in our own work.

*The biggest mistake I made this first year: not requiring students to do a FULL LISTEN of what they think is their finished file for submission. When we listened to the files on presentation day, several groups had big editing errors in their shows that they didn’t realize had happened at some point during their collaborative editing or exporting process. Leave an extra day between deadline and presenting day for this reason, so there’s time to fix the “oh no” moment that will probably inevitably happen to most groups. That’s just the reality of technology!

*You will be absolutely delighted at how funny and smart your students are. This platform gives every voice a chance to be heard, because it’s engineered that way. I will absolutely be doing this project again!


*Assignment sheet and rubric–please feel free to use/modify!

*My example–A podcast on our love of science fiction, made together with my husband, the fantastic and handsome Scott Casey.

*Student example--A podcast on relationships in literature, made with big thanks to the PageHuggers group of 2019. 🙂

Why Holden Still Matters: Rediscovering The Catcher in the Rye

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

There have been some voices around the internet in recent years singing the death knell of Catcher in the Rye as a relevant piece of assigned reading for high school students. And many of them present important arguments: Catcher, in this era of HBO, is no longer truly edgy and raw. Catcher has misogynistic and homophobic moments. Catcher is about a whiny, wealthy, straight(?), cis-gendered white male who doesn’t know true oppression. Catcher is not for cool kids anymore, but rather hipster teachers who think they are cool.

So, I do hear the value in all of that. I do. Certain flaws of the novel are crucial to address while studying it, particularly issues of privilege and representation. And hey, maybe I am just a hipster teacher who thinks she’s cool. But let me say this: teaching Catcher in the Rye is still important if the approach is a good one. I see my students’ eyes in our discussions, and I know this book still matters, because it’s a book about the human mind and heart, and how it works. It’s a book about fear and grief hurting so badly that a kid can become an insufferable jerk, even if he hates that about himself. It’s an opportunity for empathy, for mental health awareness, and especially for hope.

Not a single student in my classroom fits the social demographic that Holden comes from–opulent, elite wealth. But that’s an important part of understanding the story: even those who we assume are too rich or too [your word here] to ever have real problems definitely do still have problems. This idea is something that my students are able to identify along with a rudimentary introduction to some psychology terms. Holden’s negativity springs from a clear set of core issues and psychological defenses stemming from his anger and unprocessed grief. This, I think, is the difference between a dated teaching of this novel and a modern one. I don’t teach my kids to take this novel as a battle cry against phonies. I teach them to take it as a call for compassion.

Nobody likes Holden. Not even Holden likes Holden! But Holden needs help, needs someone to listen, needs protection. And, despite how irritating and clueless he can be, he still deserves love, as all of us do. The novel goes to some very dark places as Holden experiences self-destructive and even suicidal tendencies. Open conversations about mental health warning signs are an important result of these sections. My students are able to recognize Holden’s behavior and empathize with its source–not empty apathy, but a desperate need for help. Consider this moment from Chapter 25.

Anyway, I kept walking and walking up Fifth Avenue, without any tie on or anything. Then all of a sudden, something very spooky started happening. Every time I came to the end of a block and stepped off the goddam curb, I had this feeling that I’d never get to the other side of the street. I thought I’d just go down, down, down, and nobody’d ever see me again. […] Every time I’d get to the end of a block I’d make believe I was talking to my brother Allie. I’d say to him, “Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear. Please, Allie.” And then when I’d reach the other side of the street without disappearing, I’d thank him.

At this point in the novel, my students are able to recognize the shadow language of symbols that have been building all book long. The ducks, the undialed phone, the false identities, the red hunting hat, the broken record–so many of them part of Holden’s longing for reassurance, for the sense that adulthood will be ok and safe, that his fantastical vocation of being the catcher in the rye is actually unnecessary. As you probably already know, the ending does get us–and Holden–to that place at the carousel in Central Park.

Holden’s final realization is, I think, one that my modern high school students still crave for themselves, and that is this: Ultimately, even when the world seems so dark that it can swallow you up as you disappear, there is still innocence and joy on the other side. Growing up doesn’t mean we lose everything. We can always depart and return to our inner child. We will continue to experience both loss and restoration as long as we’re on the ride. In the words of Holden, it’s “just so damn nice.”

The Catcher in the Rye is not without flaw. But it hasn’t outlived its usefulness just yet. It helps my students think about how grief and trauma disrupt one’s ability to behave in healthy and socially appropriate ways. It helps them think about how relationships can be sabotaged by fear. And it helps remind them that help is there for the taking, and that especially those who seem not to care about anything might actually just need someone to stop and listen.

Assessing Creative Work in a Standards-Based World

“Creative work comes from your soul,” I tell the kids, channeling my best sage-like energy. “From deep inside there, from your feelings and your own life experiences and revelations. You own your writing. You, and your audience will decide on the merit of anything you create–a poem, a song, a story. I can’t grade that. I can’t grade your soul. And I won’t. So how will I decide upon your grade in this class? Let’s talk about that…”

This year, for the first time in a long time, I’ve had one of my greatest content area loves intersect with my assigned classes–Creative Writing! I am enjoying the work of building a course that is both rigorous and accessible for my many different levels of student writers.

One of the things I’ve considered carefully in creating the course is assessment. My school, like many others in our area, is moving to a standards-based (also called target-based) grading model. If you’re new to this idea, one of the main parts of this philosophy is that rather than being awarded a number of points per task–like writing a paper that is worth 20 points, for instance–students are directly assessed and re-assessed on specific learning targets throughout the semester, according to a proficiency scale. So the focus isn’t really on “How many points did I get on my paper?” but rather something more like “How am I doing on my grammar skills?” and “How am I doing on being able to organize my writing? Am I growing in this skill? Have I mastered it?”

At first I was a little bit leery about how this kind of grading would go in a class that focuses on creative work, but as I drafted the syllabus, I started to realize that the arts work perfectly in a standards-based setting. Think about it… all artists work tirelessly on their fundamentals. Whether it’s a musician running scales, a ballet dancer working on arm placement and turns, or a writer finessing the way they use punctuation, all goals with a level of craft to them depend on this idea of mastering the essential elements of one’s art.

As a writer myself, I always feel like I am returning to the basics to try to get better. When I write a poem, it’s not like I say, “Okay, I wrote a poem. That’s done. No need to ever do that again.” Rather, I look at myself evolving as a poet–how is my style shifting? What could I try next time? How do I push myself to get better?” That’s the same mentality I want my students to have. Learning in the arts, and everywhere, is not about checking off boxes and then forgetting about them. It’s about constantly pushing ourselves to be better, to truly master the fundamentals of our discipline.

So, what does this actually look like for me? I took some time to reflect on the aspects of writing that all authors, whether beginners or professionals, always need to work on. These are standards that I set for myself as well as for my students. In a semester-long course, I decided to go with ten of them. Not all of them appear in every assignment, but all of them reappear over the semester in different ways as the students try their hands at different types of open-ended assignments.

So, on any given assessment, I might assess one to four of these standards. My instruction is all built around strengthening these skills in a wide variety of contexts. The beauty of this is that it allows me to be very open-ended in my assignment choices–as long as the standards that we’ve been working on are evident, student writers can follow their own creative instincts. What I’m ultimately looking for is a consistent mastery of these skills–if I can say that a student has mastered these ten things by the end of the class, I’m confident in their ability as a writer. What they do with that ability, ultimately, remains up to them.

For example, here’s the assignment description for my first assessment of the semester. (The instruction prior to this assignment focuses on building creative community, requesting and giving effective peer feedback, responding to feedback, revision practices, figurative language, metaphorical thinking, mining life experience and memory for creative purposes, and recognizing/avoiding cliche.)

“I can’t grade a poem, “ I tell them. “Poems don’t get grades and all poems deserve to be in the world. But I can tell you if you are using structure well. I can tell you if your revision is aggressive enough. I can tell you if you’re using a symbol or not. That’s how we’ll do this–everything I teach you is meant to make you a better writer, so that you can make the best version of what you want to make.”

I’m happy to chat more about grading practices in a creative writing context with any readers about there who may be experimenting with similar things–leave a comment below!

Teaching Narrative Threads in Nonlinear Texts: An AP Literature Mini-Project

Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony is one of my favorite texts to teach in my AP English Literature and Composition class, but it’s also one of the more difficult ones. Like many other masterful contemporary texts that make their way into the literature classroom, like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried or Toni Morrison’s Beloved, this text is not told in a straightforward chronological order. Rather, it’s a complex weaving of many different times in the characters’ lives, stories within stories, and even native legends that all work together to create the sense of the story. Especially for students who are very linear thinkers, this kind of structure can throw them off, so I try to help them along by teaching them terms like nonlinear narrative and narrative thread. 

For the purposes of my class, I define a narrative thread as a storyline that orients the reader through a certain recurring character set, setting, and place in time. I tell them that, unlike linear stories, where the plot gradually unfolds and we get a sense of meaning from what happens and how, a nonlinear narrative enforces thematic ideas across these different narrative threads. Even if we don’t grasp the exact order of events as threads are switching around, what’s more important in this kind of reading is recognizing how certain ideas are emphasized, repeated, and mirrored across the threads. That’s how we make sense of it all. It’s a different kind of story, where you feel your way through in a layering process almost like painting.

They don’t always “get it” right away, though, which is why I have them wrestle with it a bit. When we’re about three quarters through the novel, I have them complete a small group project where I ask them to select a thematic idea and then create a visual product that demonstrates how different narrative threads work together to explore the idea. This year, I got some really stellar ones, and thought I’d share them in case anyone else would like to try this project! Also, please know that the students made these things up entirely on their own. I take no credit for their amazing approaches to the task!

Digital Thread Map

This approach was digital, linking drops of rain to five different narrative threads where the idea of rain and drought correlate with the characters’ feelings of guilt and longing for restoration. Like raindrops pattering down on the earth, the threads don’t need a set pattern to be felt and seen.

Pop-up/Slide-out Symbol Poster

This one was way bigger and more complicated than just this photo shows, packed with important symbols from the novel. Each symbol slides out to show an explanation and moment in the text where the idea of healing is present in different threads, and then back in to create the effect of the overall symbol-spotted poster.

Icon Illustration

This gorgeous illustration took a snake symbol–which correlates with a specific moment in the text–and used it to explore moments that talk about the human relationship with the earth, including accompanying important imagery from the novel. The two snakes represent Tayo (you can even see the little scar from his scalp ceremony) and the Mother Earth Spirit.

Fortune Teller Origami

This one completely blew my mind–such a perfect idea to illustrate the oneness of theme across many enfolded elements of a novel. This group chose the thematic idea of belonging, and identified four prominent narrative threads that featured the idea. Once choosing the thread, there are two examples, each one correlating to an important quote from the book. Amazing!

Solving the Problem of the Binary: Moving Students from Formula to Free Thought in Thinking and Writing

Below, you’ll find the resources for the session facilitated by me and my superstar colleague Lisa Floading at the 2014 WCTE Convention in Oshkosh, WI. This collection of resources and strategies addresses the question “What can we do to elevate the level of academic sophistication in our students’ thinking and writing?” Please feel free to contact us with additional ideas and questions regarding the presentation!