Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Today we read “Choose to Be Grateful. It will Make You Happier.” as a lead in to the students’ Thanksgiving break. We’ve been working on Reading Nonfiction stance questions and Signposts, and I wanted to get in another practice opportunity before break. But I mostly wanted to plan the seed of gratitude in the hearts and minds of my students.

The article indicates that behaviors can trick us into feeling positively. There’s an example in the piece referring to a 1993 experiment in which “human subjects smile[d] forcibly for 20 seconds while tensing facial muscles,” so my students and I decided to give it a try. I watch the clock while grimace/smiling, calling out time intervals. Some students did not participate. Many did. Some had to turn away from the rest of the room, so they could maintain their clenched faces without busting into laughter.

And when we released, we laughed together. The general consensus was that it worked, overall. We could not determine, though, if it was due to the silliness of having to stare across the room at someone smile/grimacing, the feeling of pent-up laughter, or the giggles that came with the release. While I’m not sure we were all convinced, it did feel good to just be silly together.

After reading the article, we added to a gratitude list, and then of course ran out of time before the narrowing and revision of writing part of the lesson, in which our gratitude snippets would be specific and original. I gave them time to write on the board anyway, and asked them to list their most “useless” or everyday item on their lists. In the spirit of sharing, here are some of the everyday elements of my work I take for granted: all the supplies/resources I need to teach well; reflective, professional colleagues; students who want to learn; a warm classroom; a perfect daily schedule; autonomy, autonomy, autonomy.

Here is a sample of the collective gratitude list from my ninth graders. Happy Thanksgiving, indeed.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Today I worked with our wonderful teacher librarian (and friend) on teaching students how to read nonfiction critically (using the language in this wonderful book).

We are working on a poster activity, where students annotate an article in groups.

It’s first hour, and kids are sleepy. The annotations are primarily surface-level at first, and it’s easy to see that this is still work for school: not for the pleasure of thinking deeply, not for life.

And then, we get to the last paragraph of the article. It’s about how social media addiction can lead to the same dangerous psychological issues as drinking, skipping school, and other high-risk behaviors for teens. I read this sentence, and the energy in the room shifts. Students who were a foot away from the article, waiting for the bell to ring, now step forward, lean in, put their pencils to the paper. They have something to say.

This was a small victory. There is still work to do. But we must continue putting students in positions where they have something to say.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


(After a three year hiatus, I’m back. No more than five minutes a day, just a quick sample of what’s going right in Room 9. I may do a longer reflective post about why I’m picking this back up later, but now, I’m just trying to redevelop the habit.)

Yesterday students submitted literary essays in my English 9 classes. It’s been an arduous process: four weeks of rereading, trying to think of something smart to say, supporting it with evidence, and THEN organizing it in a way that makes sense. And revising. And revising, And editing. I think it’s easy to forget how difficult all of this thinking work is--and that’s before we try to put words on the page in a cohesive manner.

Literary analysis feels like school writing (which I’m working on improving, by the way, but I’m not there yet). This is the kind of writing that students are not going to choose to read on their own. However, I wanted them to see the deep ideas they and their peers had come up with and celebrate the growth they made in their writing. So we did a symphony share. I asked each student to choose his/her favorite sentence from his/her essay (for craft or thinking or whatever they wanted), and we spent five minutes sharing them aloud in class before moving on to the next unit.

Here is a sampling of what I heard:

“We may try to hide it, but in the end we all have a little bit of Zaroff in us.” (From an essay about “The Most Dangerous Game”)
“Overcoming peer pressure can be difficult and people may give you a hard time about it, but would you rather feel the pride of helping someone out or feel the guilt of being responsible for a walking dead man?” (from an essay about “A Kind of Murder”)
“The beauty we find in others is blocked by what we want others to see in ourselves.” (From an essay about “The Scarlet Ibis”)

As we went around the room and students listened to one another, I was so impressed with the thinking their work showed. They were quiet, they saw their work had depth, and they drew out important reminders for us all to carry out into the world. Teenagers can be wise when we give them a chance.

Monday, August 20, 2012


Here's a short and simple reminder with the start of a new school year.

I have a student, we'll call him Craig, whose name has come up constantly since he was a seventh grader. I can tell only three days in that he's full of energy, mischievous, and that the writing in my English class is not going to be his favorite thing.

I try to make a point to greet students at the door, especially early in the year when I am trying to learn names. Today, I asked him about his weekend on the way in, and he began telling me about an injury he received from one of his dangerous activities. I asked him a couple questions about another somewhat dangerous activity I thought he might be involved in, and he stood there and talked with me until the bell rang.

Obviously this was good for our rapport, which will make everything about instruction easier in the days to come. But there's something else. Today students generated their own ideas for writing. Craig is a kid who might sit there, claiming he has nothing to write about. But he immediately started working with ideas about one of his dangerous activities, and he did an awesome job. 

It's important to remember that some kids have to talk before they can write. And in order to talk, they might need someone to listen.

Saturday, February 25, 2012


I know, I've been gone a while. And I'm about to go on maternity leave, so it's doubtful there will be many teaching stories until next August. But this one kid has been on my mind, and I've been wanting to write about him, so I am giving in and just writing one post (that will make 2 this year?). Hopefully I'll be better next school year about logging these moments.

Anyway, let's talk about Charlie. Charlie has major work completion problems. He fails classes without thinking about it. He draws these amazing pictures during class, and I know that even though the game of school doesn't work for him, he could do great things someday if he could just figure out that some deadlines are important. I've been reading his fiction and poetry and talking about books with him for two years. But he's still failing my class.

We are writing character analyses about Romeo and Juliet right now. (Well, most of us are finished. Not Charlie.) I know that literary analysis is not the type of writing that moves and inspires people, but I can justify its worth for the thought process kids must undergo and the way it prepares them for so much of the "school writing" they will have to do. It is also a formula that once students learn, they continue to grow in confidence that they can put cohesive, supportive ideas on the page. So I acknowledge that kids should write MORE than literary analysis, but I think it has its place in the ninth grade English classroom.

Charlie sees no value in this type of school writing. But he has to pass my class. I keep him after school only to discover that he has not even started coming up with evidence to support any idea. I curse myself for not seeing this at any point during our three days of in-class work time (God forbid I was helping kids with their hands in the air), but then I lay into him about his work habits and how scared I am for his future.

"You can't keep doing this, Charlie. You can't just sit and do nothing for three days and keep expecting people to help you pick up the pieces after the fact. It is not okay. And I know that this type of writing is not ever going to to excite you the way that fiction does, but part of growing up is just doing things you don't want to do." There was probably more, but that was the gist of it. My frustration is palpable. (I am usually pretty good about giving kids infinite chances--for better or for worse--so when I am seriously irritated, I think kids notice.)

Charlie asked to work in the other ninth grade teacher's room. And I was actually grateful, even though I knew it was probably because I had hurt his feelings.

He came in to see me before he left, and we went over his outline and plan for the weekend. I pretended to believe him when he said he would get it done. I reiterated the points of my earlier soapbox speech, but I adjusted it to value him. "You are such a perfectionist. And you have writing in your life that you DO value, so much, that this type of school writing might always be a bore. You might not be able to sit around and get inspired. You might just have to pick a topic that you don't care about that much, but you can finish the assignment about, and just do the work. As your writing teacher, I hate to tell you to just settle for a topic, but it may be the only way that you can even get started."

He smiled. "I know that you think that's like the worst thing to say as a writing teacher. But you know me so well as a writer. And a person."

And just like that, Charlie can have a million more chances. And I will keep thinking about how I can make literary analysis a bit more applicable to his life.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


I'm back in the classroom after a six-week stint of primarily mentoring a student teacher, and it feels great.  Kids are wonderful.

Today, we kicked off our poetry unit by discussing Bob Hicok's "In the Loop," a haunting piece about the Virginia Tech shootings.  The first time discussing a poem in my class is important to me because I want to emphasize that we talk about poems because it's a good thing to do: it helps us understand ourselves and each other better.  We don't just do it because we're trying to understand a rhyme scheme.  Approaching poetry this way makes it less intimidating, too.  In fact, I introduced the poem by saying that it was one I read this summer and couldn't stop thinking about.  I brought it to class because I wanted to see what they thought and see if they could help me answer some of my questions.

(If you haven't read the linked poem, go do it now.  It's worth a minute of your time, and you need it to participate in the next section.)

The simile that makes everyone think is the scarf on the train.  I got my wish that I would have more clarity after discussing this with my students because they had so many great ideas.

"Maybe the scarf is the shooter, and it's like, how no one really sees a scarf left behind even though the train is going.  Like life is moving all around him and no one sees him."

"I think the train is like how life just has to keep moving forward, like a train going to its stops.  But when you leave a scarf on a train, you're really sad at first, but then you just get over it.  Like most people in the country were really sad at first about the shootings, but then they just got over it and moved on."

After our discussion, we walked to the library to renew books.  Two (not particularly studious) boys in one of my classes whispered all the way down the hall about lines they were thinking about in the poem, lines they thought they had "figured out."  To see them so excited, thinking so hard about words: that is why I teach.  Kids make poetry fresh.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


In my writing elective class, we are beginning a poetry workshop.  I'm also trying to help the kids build a writing community and play together, so they'll feel comfortable sharing their work with one another.  Take a few minutes here and there to play now can make a huge difference in our productivity later on in a class like this.

The students are in four teams, writing examples of poetry terms on small white boards.  One team, which named themselves "Dumbledore's Army," has instantly bonded over Harry Potter, and every example they write down has something to do with Harry Potter. The current term: metaphor.  (If your figurative language terms are rusty, it's a comparison without using "like" or "as.")  The white board reads as follows:
Dumbledore is a pillar.
Umbridge is a toad.
Snape is a greasy frying pan.
Voldemort is a snake.
Nagini is actually a snake.

They could hardly get through the last one without busting up laughing.  While I agreed that it was a very clever addition to their board, they did not earn a point for metaphor.