Category Archives: Art

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

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

Assignment #1. Narrator’s Brain

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

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

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

^Scientifically informed  illustration for Time Magazine by Leigh Wells

^Emotionally informed illustration by graphic artist The City Limit 


My assignment sheet: <<click here for download

Student examples: (Click on any image to enlarge)


Assignment #2. Author as Politician

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

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

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

My assignment sheet<<click here for download

Student examples: (Click on any image to enlarge)


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

Drawing Complex Text Comprehension by Hand


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

-Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” (1836)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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



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

Doodling our Way to Authentic Reflection



Being a reflective practitioner is an important part of being an educator–we are trained to think, talk, and write about how our teaching is changing, growing, and working. Sometimes, in order to get a real beat on what’s happening in our classrooms, we need to ask our students to reflect along with us. This is something that helps us know “how we’re doing” from the truest source. It also help imbue the importance of reflection with our students, letting them track their own realizations from the process of academic study.

In short, reflection is an extremely valuable practice for both students and teachers. But here’s the catch–it has to be genuine. And if you’ve ever asked your students to write a self-reflection, you know that genuine is not always what we get.

Some students are great at looking inward and contextualizing learning experiences in the context of what was struggled for and gained. But most students, at least that I’ve seen, write down a bunch of malarkey when they are asked to reflect. For some, this is because the genre of personal, introspective writing simply isn’t in their wheelhouse. For others, they are afraid to be honest. They waste time parroting what they believe the teacher wants to hear: Ex. “I really learned a lot from this very interesting unit and became a better writer.” Reading things like that (while the student might predict it to be pleasant) gets very frustrating very quickly. It doesn’t give me anything to build on in my next teaching experience. Call it a symptom of a culture obsessed with empty praise, call it laziness, call it an innocent desire to please… Whatever you call it, this kind of response actually sabotages the entire point of reflection.

So how do we bypass that cardboard cutout student response and get to the reflective truth? Last year, I found myself thinking about this idea and the concept of art therapy crossed my mind. I remembered how sometimes, especially for children, the truth of one’s inner state could be more truthfully accessed through drawing and painting. So, I decided to assign a reflection at the end of a research writing unit that was doodle-only. The directions were a simple few lines at the top of the page: “Make a drawing that shows your experience, feelings, and learning throughout the process of the research writing unit from beginning to end. You may create your picture in whatever way you choose–you will be graded on the completeness of your drawing, not your artistic skill!” As it turned out, the results were wonderfully varied, honest, and detailed. I could see instantly where students had felt comfortable, where they had struggled, what they had learned, where confusion persisted, and how they felt about their end product. Mystifyingly simple. As soon as doodle replaced formal prose, the honesty came out. Fireworks, angry eyebrows, scribbles, lightbulbs, prison cells, clocks, trophies, grids, sunshine, hearts. Success.

This year, I’ve returned to the strategy a couple times, including at the end of the first semester with my AP Literature and Composition class. I’ve attached some of their reflective responses here, so you can see the kind of variety that is possible with this kind of reflection assignment. Click here to see some real doodle reflections from my students: Doodle Reflections .

This is an idea that I plan to continue using, probably almost every time I ask my students to reflect. The very act of drawing is contemplative–our mind is free to process while our hands are occupied making shapes. It opens up a bigger space to feel and share.


Literature as a Window and a Mirror

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

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

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

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


Untitled artwork

Best Web-Based Teaching Discoveries of 2013


Something I’ve found during my time as an English teacher is this: English teachers know a lot of other English teachers. I know I do. And I have noticed that, among our ranks, there are surely some trends in the types of people that this career attracts. Two of those trends are embodied in this delightful image (see above) from a not-so-long-ago time when it was still a novelty to have internet access and edible treats in the same location. Fact 1: Most English teachers spend a lot of time in coffee shops. (Come on, where else are you going to grade/plan/work on your novel?)  Fact 2: Most English teachers love the internet. And I am no exception to either of those rules.

In my reflections on what I’ve accomplished during 2013, I’ve found the blend of teaching and technology to be a recurring theme. In my first year at a school where the student to laptop ratio is one-to-one, I’ve been pushing harder than ever before to incorporate online components into my teaching. The bulk of this work happens on Google Drive–nobody has revolutionized the collaborative capabilities of the classroom more than Google–and much of it also happens on my webpages run through Haiku, our school’s adopted LMS. Both of those things are pretty standard in most classrooms these days. But I wanted to share some more specialized web tools here on the blog, for those who, like me, thirst for more teachable internet! 🙂 Not all of my discoveries premiered this year, but they are all highly engaging teaching tools that are 100% new to me.

Without further ado, here’s my 2013 Best of the Teachable Web:

For live, in-class learning – Poll Everywhere and Padlet

Poll Everywhere has been around for a while, but after seeing the chuckle-worthy video below at an app share meeting, I was reminded of its capabilities.

As the website reminds us, Poll Everywhere allows you to create a live online poll that students can respond to. It takes 30 seconds. You don’t have to sign up. It is free. Amazing, right? I’ve used this gadgetry for opening questions that spark interest in the content to come, or for formative assessment as kids submit a rating for their own ability on a certain skill. Their answers pop up right on the screen as they are submitted. Pretty slick.

Padlet is another app that allows for collaborative content submission in real time. With Padlet, you create “walls,” which are accessible, sharable, and embed-able via a simple link. Every student can post… essentially ANYTHING on the wall. This might be written commentary, pictures, videos, full documents, etc. which are part of a response. These pop up on the wall as students share them. The wall can also be saved to return to later. Privacy permissions are also available, to protect student identity and work. It’s also a very visually appealing app.

For exploring the humanities – Google Cultural Institute

When I learned about this one, it completely blew my mind. Google Cultural Institute is, like Google Earth before it, a window to worlds that most of us may otherwise never have a chance to see. It’s essentially an internet portal to the most renowned collections of art and historical artifacts in the world, but packed with supplementary information and the freedom to zoom in down to the very paintstrokes of a Van Gogh. This is truly astounding–see the video below for a clearer idea of what GCI entails. I can imagine so many applications for integrated humanities learning here–as the teaching of English intersects with both art and history in major ways.

For online annotation – diigo

Many thanks go out to my colleague Mrs. U for introducing me to the many wonders of diigo, an online bookmarking and annotation tool. Have you ever had the wish that you could invent something that would let you highlight, post-it, and annotate the heck out of your online reading like you’ve always done on paper? And it would somehow be permanent and you’d be able to come back and find it again, just as you left it? GUESS WHAT–IT EXISTS ALREADY. And it’s diigo. Follow the link to learn how to get yourself and your students involved with this beautiful wizardry.

For YouTube learning – PBS Off Book

PBS Off Book is a YouTube channel and branch of the Public Broadcast System that has been really interesting to watch since it bounced onto the web-series scene in March of 2012. The series predominantly features topics surrounding cutting-edge art associated with pop culture, design, and technology. When it comes to teaching students about branding, creativity, and new forms of composition/publication, Off Book is the best source out there–this collection of videos is refreshing, colorful, up-to-the-moment, and intriguing. In particular, I’ve found the titles “Art in the Era of the Internet” and “How to Be Creative” useful in prompting class discussion. There’s a lot to be investigated here, if you’re interested in bringing new, visual, or multimedia forms of text into your teaching.

For flipping and presenting – MoveNote

How to put this simply? Well, MoveNote allows you (or your students) to make presentations, which turn into videos. The content is a combination of (1) Slides or a document, (2) Video/audio narration as the slides/document go by, and (3) The ability to also draw on the screen to highlight or point out certain elements. This is an amazing way to flip your classroom material–when students can see and hear you explaining the resource they’ve been given, it adds a human touch that results in more responsive learning. It’s also a tool with much potential for student presentations. This is another one I’m looking forward to experimenting with in new ways as we look to the new year.

What new tools have you discovered this year? As always, let me know in the comments or on Facebook! Now, about that coffee… 😉

Art Emergency! (Moving from Photo 9-1-1 to Photo 101)



Part of my new teaching position goes a little beyond the typical world of English Language Arts. While I’ll still be spending the majority of my time teaching junior level English and AP Literature, I will be spending one hour of the day teaching traditional darkroom photography under an emergency license.

As things progress for our department, the film photography class will eventually morph into a visual literacy course that works in multimedia, using both word and image to teach, write, and learn. Helping to write this new course is something I’m very excited about. But this year, Photo One gets its swan song with me, a woman who had never set foot inside a darkroom before… until she found out that one was attached to her new classroom. Becoming acquainted with the darkroom was… intimidating. As I considered what seemed like a dark and mysterious dungeon filled with uncertain contraptions from the 1960’s, sinks filled with various apparatus, and jugs of uncertain chemicals, I felt some panic start to set in. How am I supposed to teach kids to navigate this strange, old technology? I wondered. I don’t even know what any of this stuff is!

So, I set out to answer a question that many teachers have asked themselves when faced with a “surprise” assignment: How do I get ready to teach my students to become experts in something that I don’t, myself, know? After the brief day of panic was over, I knew I needed to answer this question and fast. Fellow emergency teachers of all subjects, I hope you may find my method useful.

How to Confidently Prepare to Teach a Subject You’re Unfamiliar With

STEP 1. Identify your strong points (prior knowledge you bring to the table) and plan how to best make use of them.

In my case, I have a solid background in art and design. I reminded myself that I know the basics of a strong visual composition, and that I know how to talk about art from theoretical and practical standpoints. In fact, my professional development plan and several special projects I’ve done center around linking visual art with language arts. I saw a potential for strong meaning-making and unit design in my class. Even with zero technical film photography expertise, I wasn’t starting from zero. That helped give me courage for the next step.

STEP 2. Read up. (And video up.)

Thankfully, many people who had some experience in the photographic arts had books to lend me, and YouTube videos to point me to. I started to devour these materials, attempting to expand my knowledge base as rapidly as possible. In this, I also was able to note what is easy to pick up and what is confusing–by doing this, I’m better able to envision where my students will need additional support. I started learning the names of some of the aforementioned contraptions I was dealing with. Honestly, YouTube is a gold mine of people with niche knowledge to share with the world–utilize it.

STEP 3. Find experts and set up times for in-person, hands-on lessons in your area of weakness.

You may be a teacher, but right now you NEED a teacher…. hopefully, several teachers. Do not be ashamed about your lack of knowledge–ask everyone you know what expertise they may have in your new discipline. Get connected: friends, friends of friends, or even That Guy You Talked To At That Thing Once. Most people are very generous with their willingness to share knowledge, especially if it’s about something they have a passion for. Get out there and ask for help! I was blessed to have three wonderful teachers show me around the basics of a film camera as well as my own darkroom space. They were able to offer everything from “What is that thing?” explanations to teaching process practicalities to hands-on supervision of my chemical measurements.

People I can’t thank enough for their voluntary assistance in assuaging my inexperience include: accomplished photographer and teaching colleague Ms. J (follow _msjohnson on Instagram), professional photographer and dear friend Ms. B (find her at, and photography teacher and all-around photo guru Mr. M (find him at These teachers allowed me to envision and practice my new discipline. The more real-life instruction you can get, the better you will be able to instruct others. I put in many hours of practice time with these folks. Now that I am growing in proficiency, I’m continuing to practice on my own.

STEP 4. Celebrate yourself as a learner–and apply your new joy of discovery as the cornerstone to your teaching, however inexperienced it may be.

Behold, the first two photographs that I made on my own! I took the images with a beautiful loaner Minolta X-700 35mm SLR from the 1980’s. I loaded the film onto a reel in complete blackness and developed the negatives. I selected my exposure times from a test strip I made with an enlarger. I exposed, developed, and fixed the prints under safelights and watched them emerge into the world! (This is extremely basic photo stuff. But to me, it is AMAZING.)

20130807_121904While expert photographers may look at these images and see their many flaws, I see absolute magic.  The thrill of going from 9-1-1 emergency panic to a Photo 101 beginner’s swagger has made me so excited to teach students to experience the same feeling. My first prints are far from perfect, as will theirs be. But discovery is the point. Getting past frustration and cluelessness to a point where confidence promises the growth of new skill ahead is where the love of learning is solidified. Just two prints in and I’m hungry for more. That’s where I need to get my students. And, while I still have much, much, learning to do, I’m more than ready for Week One!

Composition–it’s the same word for both images and words. I can’t wait for a year of teaching kids how to write with lenses and light.