Using Blackout Poetry for Analysis (and Breaking Bad Habits)

One of the consistent issues that I have to combat throughout the year is that my students – in their close reading and analysis – keep tripping themselves up because they can’t “find any literary devices” in the passage or poem.  They seem to think, as much as I try to break them from this belief, that close reading is an act of scavenging for literary terms, and that by merely identifying a metaphor or a simile or personification will magically grant them access the elusive “author’s purpose.”  Over the course of the year, many of my students become particularly adept at identifying weighty text within a passage or poem; however, many of them become fixated upon the idea that it needs to be formally classified under one of the aforementioned devices, and if they’re not able to classify it under a larger term, many simply discard it or neglect to discuss its significance.  KEEP READING

Articles of the Month: March

Research can be done with creative and engaging lessons also. Footnotes Made Fun by Hattie McGuire is a fun exercise that can be used as a get-to-know you activity or a regular lesson and stresses the importance of paying attention to footnotes.

The playoffs officially start next week so it’s not too late for Poetry March Madness. There are so many ways to do this, but I’m partial to Brian Sztabnik’s  post here which has detailed directions and related links. Have fun with this and be sure to post pictures of your brackets!

The Envelope Game by Melissa Smith at #TeachLivingPoets is super simple and while used with poetry here can easily be adapted to prose texts. If you’re wanting some rich discussion, set aside a day to try this activity.

Use Digital Notebooks to Facilitate Book Clubs by Catlin Tucker links to a Google Slide deck designed to help teachers facilitate book clubs. This lesson can be adapted to different grade levels.

What is English? Who decides? by Lisa Scherff poses some interesting questions for English teachers to consider. When you have a half hour to yourself, grab a cup of coffee and think through the ideas and questions presented here.

And just for fun, these 50 one-star Amazon reviews of Wuthering Heights are pretty funny. Enjoy!

Teaching Sonnets Today

When I received my copy of Terrance Hayes’ book American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin I decided that I wanted to freshen up my sonnet unit to look beyond the traditional sonnets. I had about six 90-minute class periods to devote to sonnets before Spring Break. This was combined with other studies of poetry including reading a pair of poems per day for our March Madness unit and students were also working on compiling their personal poetry anthologies.

We started with traditional notes about the Italian/Petrarchan sonnet, the English/Shakespearean sonnet, and the Spenserian sonnet. It struck me that the sonnet form, which is traditional in many ways, was changed early on by English writers who wanted to adjust the form to include a rhyming couplet. The idea of the sonnet continuing to change and evolve is not such a foreign concept in this context. KEEP READING

Building Confidence for Q2 with Short Stories and Ambiguity

We are rapidly approaching the home stretch in AP Lit and Comp; May 8th no longer seems like a date off in the future. And while it seems like this is something to be celebrated, it also means we’ve hit the point of the year where students gets bogged down and class may start to seem a little lackluster or even redundant. We’ve read a lot; we’ve written a lot; we’ve revised and reread and analyzed and discussed a lot. Yet it’s also the time of year where I want students to push even harder and discover new ways to read more critically and analyze more deeply while recognizing how much their analysis skills have grown since August. It’s the time of year where I need something simple to capture students’ attention quickly but so complex that it forces thinking all day.

Inspired by Kylene Beers “Most Important Word” activity, I began to wonder what short texts could make the biggest impact on students while giving them new ways to break down challenging passages. KEEP READING

Pictures – February

Once again, love, love, love literally seeing what’s happening in everyone’s classes!

Denise Trach  (Facebook)- Presenting reading as the gift that it is! Hours of prep for likely seconds of unwrapping (like Christmas morning)! First lines to entice students. 

 Feb 20 Twitter – Last semester I did a “wall of readers” and took pictures of students when they finished an independent reading book. Looking to mix it up this semester. Any new ideas for a way to celebrate independent reading?

 Feb 14- Review of characters in lit circle groups…great conversations happened today. That is always the best part of a creative project.

 Feb 14 – Gatsby Gallery Walk about all the colors today. Putting a little expert learning into practice today.

 Feb 14 – Shout out for the inspiration! Found poems & love songs. Fun, engaging day with .

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Jennifer Stuckey‏ @Mrs_StuckeySays Feb 14- Valentine poetry stations in #BeesAPLit today. Some Ss were enamored with sweetness while others preferred more unconventional metaphors. #aplitchat

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 Feb 12 – E Days are days with ..this morning they sketched what they understood from Act I so far of then put their thinking into a what/so what statement…love the variety and their willingness to engage aesthetic interpretations  

My AP Lit students conducted a Fishbowl Discussion based on the AP Lit 2017 Q2 Prose Passage.  Michael Hall – Twitter


Mrs. Tancredi
Feb 11 – Awesome hexagon activity from #teachlivingpoets using poems from @ClintSmithIII Counting Descent. Great conversations and student engagement. #cvslearn #aplitchat

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 Feb 6  – Spoiler Alert! helped me tell the story of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Here’s how the whole thing ends…

 Feb 4 – Shared w/Ss Permission, here’s an example of for a chapter of Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’. Fully appreciate seeing traditional annotation take on a different look as Ss make meaning–creatively–of complex lit.

Feb 9 – RHS AP Lit students inspired by and Jamaal May.


Nikki Stoltzfus‎AP Literature and Composition

Conversation Starter · February 21 ·

today I had my kids take a “walking quiz.”
There were 20 literary term examples and they had thirty seconds to answer with the proper term before having to move on. It was a fun way to practice the mental quickness they’ll need for the test.

Naderia W. Wade
January 27, 2018 · Lawrenceville
Sketch notes for Canterbury Tales….

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Don’t forget – tomorrow night is #TeachLivingPoets chat

Teaching Living Authors

I recently had the honor of including a short piece on that inspired me to share the paradigm shift I have implemented in my classroom. It is my hope that these changes will engage students with texts in ways they’ve never experienced before, turning them in to lifelong readers.

“How in the world can my students loathe The Catcher in the Rye? How can they not relate to Holden Caulfield for goodness sakes?!” I asked myself these two questions over and over as I reflected on a failed class discussion. It was simply unfathomable to me how 17 and 18 year olds couldn’t relate to the issues Holden faced. One student quipped, “Oh, it’s just SO terrible to live such a white, privileged, boarding school life.” Another complained, “Holden is completely whiney; nothing really happens. Why is it that everything we read in high school is so OLD? Everything we have to read has nothing to do with our lives.”  Ouch.

Simply put, I had failed.  It was 2014 and after years of teaching I reached the point where my students couldn’t relate to the characters or engage meaningfully with the texts we were reading. Sure, they understood that the “classics” have value, but they failed to connect with the characters or the plot. Not a single student I asked could tell me one novel that resonated with her. To make matters worse, students  blatantly admitted that they were not reading the books; why bother reading something that is available on Shmoop? I had a problem. I wasn’t reaching my students and was likely contributing to their disconnect with reading. I had to change.

I began to consider my “clientele”: over-committed, overworked students who are juggling four or five AP courses, athletics, clubs, families, and part-time jobs. Add to that the digital age and reluctancy associated with reading, and I realized it was no wonder my students found classic literature unrelatable. From this epiphany, “Teaching Living Authors” (as I like to call it) took root. Rethinking my year-long course, I decided I could keep three anchor texts that I considered “successful” and “accessible” classics: a Shakespearean tragedy, a British Beatnik novel, and a Southern gothic novel. Everything else, I purged and replaced with an author whose work has been published in the last 20 years. Why these parameters? I had two main goals: reaching a group of students who, predominantly, do not come from a culture of readers and planning to connect students with those authors through an interview or book chat. Realizing the need for rigor, literary merit, and a wide range of genres, I redesigned my course to incorporate works from various nationalities and ethnicities.

Fortunately, I stumbled upon an “up and coming” author whose first novel was going to be published before school started in August. Nadia Hashimi, author of The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, also regularly posts on Twitter; I reached out to her and received an almost immediate response. She was delighted to plan a book chat with my students, and she graciously organized a Skype conference. From the moment I introduced the novel, promising students they would get a chance to talk with the author, they were hooked. It also helped that the storyline and characters, despite being Afghani, were not as foreign to them as those of “classic” literature. Knowing I would need to present Middle Eastern culture as relevant to their lives, I drew in news reports, poetry, and discussions about world events and current US involvement pertinent to the issues presented in the novel.  In approaching the novel as a whole class text, I opted for activities with each reading assignment [Activities]. I quickly found myself mired in grading, which lead to altering the exorbitant amount of activities for more meaningful discussions both in class and through online discussion boards in subsequent years.

Students began the novel eagerly, quickly realizing the issues broached in the novel are ones that are “real”–the atrocities facing women, the turmoil and violence in Kabul, the unsettled landscape–and they are injustices that their generation will be responsible for improving. When we began planning to chat with the author, students were invested in impressing her–she is younger than most authors they’ve read and they knew they couldn’t skate by with looking up a synopsis online because it wasn’t there. Their questions were insightful, and to their surprise, Dr. Hashimi sent all 120 of them an autographed bookplate.  The engagement I saw with my students and their receptiveness to pressing, current issues completely transformed my teaching.




















As wonderful as this experience was, the success of one novel would not transfer to another work unless I made the literature relevant to my students. I am fortunate to live in a state rich with authors, several of whom have published novels rife with complexity and thematic connections to the three anchor texts I had chosen. The places, characters, and dialogue were all familiar to students–they “knew” these types of people and settings. Once again, I turned to social media as a means of contacting the authors, audaciously asking them if they would be willing to speak with my students; the response was astounding. Every author I contacted offered to participate, some offering to travel, free of charge, to visit my classroom to meet my students. These personal connections with authors presented the opportunity to change students’ mindsets about reading; they just might take pleasure in reading and become lifelong readers.

My course layout was determined: I would be teaching novels with living authors whose texts touch on relevant, current issues. Each year, I have worked to rotate authors and novels alongside my anchor texts, ensuring that voices of various ethnicities and locations are incorporated. We read two modern novels as a whole class texts, but students also have the opportunity to choose a novel in their independent reading assignments during second and third quarters.

For the first independent reading assignment, I allow students to choose between two novels, both of which include young male characters who are propelled into adulthood after a traumatic event in their families. Based on their interests, students could select either The Round House (Louise Erdrich) or A Land More Kind Than Home (Wiley Cash). Upon reading the novel, they were to complete a student-selected assignment [LAND More Kind Assignment]. In structuring the assignment this way, I saw students relating to the characters; where they couldn’t relate to Holden Caulfield because of the time period and his perceived wealth, they found both Jess (A Land…) and Joe (The Round House) understandable because they could connect with the family issues and violence perpetrated by those within the community. Students not only read the novels, they felt passionately about the characters, which lead several students to connecting with the authors on Twitter and Facebook. When they received the authors’ responses, students were eager to share with each other and me. Their only complaint about the assignment was the lack of structure–they wanted a reading schedule since many of them procrastinated and were unable to enjoy their novel as much as they wished.

In redesigning the independent project for third quarter, I wanted students to have more autonomy in novel selection. I decided I would provide a list on my website of texts with a short summary; then, because I needed it in a format I found manageable, I would have students vote for their top two choices. Using a Google Form, students voted, and I narrowed the list down to 6 novels from which they could choose. In compiling their votes, the list included six very different titles: The Line that Held Us (David Joy), 11/22/63 (Stephen King), Beneath a Scarlet Sky (Mark Sullivan), All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doer), A House Without Windows (Nadia Hashimi), The Road (Cormac McCarthy). However, I did have one student email me; he felt passionately about reading Middlesex (Jeffery Eugenides) because he desperately wanted to read about gender change since it was relevant to his life. How could I say “no?”

Using feedback from the first independent assignment, I created an interactive, progressive reading project [Independent project] that blends students’ daily habits with their choice novel. The implementation of Snapchat, Bitmojis, and a reading “check in” altered attitudes towards the assignment–students perceived it as a challenge, a way to make the book “theirs.” For me, it increased rigor with an assignment I wasn’t controlling inside my classroom; it helps that the results are outstanding and students are overly eager to share what they’re reading with each other. [Sample Check in 1]

Exposing students to the classics and helping them tackle dense texts is important in the AP classroom while it also prepares them for the university. Yet, we must accept the reality that our students are finding it harder and harder to relate solely to traditional texts, furthering their tendency to become reluctant readers. My shift towards teaching living authors has changed my classroom and my students. Much like the Twitter-inspired #teachlivingpoets mindset, shifting our curricula to include newer, more student-minded novels makes texts accessible and will, hopefully, create a culture of lifelong readers. Ultimately, isn’t that our goal as literature teachers?

Farrah Hilton is a twenty-one year veteran teacher at East Forsyth High School in Kernersville, NC. She teaches AP Literature, Composition of Creative Writing, Journalism, and North Carolina Literature. When she’s not in the classroom, she teaches part time for a LSUA and spends time with her husband and two daughters.



Photo by Morgan Harper Nichols on Unsplash

Editor’s note: Last week I saw a post in the AP Literature and Composition Facebook group  from someone asking about newer works to incorporate in the curriculum. That got my mind thinking about a post featuring modern texts that students love which also have enough literary merit to work on the exam. I would love to feature a few novels each quarter with reflections of how teachers use the books in their classrooms. If you have a book that would work well for this and are interested in sharing, please contact me for more information. Thanks to all of this week’s contributors and have a great week making a difference in the next generation! SB

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (2017)

“Rumors had begun to circulate of doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this death trap of a country. Some people claimed to know people who knew people who had been through such doors. A normal door, they said, could become a special door, and it could happen without warning, to any door at all.

Mohsin Hamid, Exit WestKEEP READING

Articles of the Month: February

Editor’s Note: So this was supposed to be pushed out yesterday, but that didn’t happen because it was Friday and well that should be enough. So here’s the On The Fives articles on the 16th instead of the 15th. I cannot believe February is half way over. Hope all is going well in your classrooms! SB

Ten Search Strategies Students Should Try – Has Google become synonymous with resesarch in your class or just mine? These tips refine searching and worth sharing with students or having them posted in the room. Thanks Free Tech for Teachers!

Meet the Guardian of Grammar Who Wants to Help You Be a Better Writer  from The New York Times is a review of the new book Dryer’s English and also an interesting article on Benjamin Dryer. I have not read this book yet, but it’s definitely on my TBR list (I love boks like this).

15 Assessment Activities that are Fast, Fun, and Formative – Stuck in a rut this time of year? These assessment activities from Lee Crockett will assess learning, offer variety, and are more engaging than the regular pencil and paper quiz.

Encouraging Talk in Writing Workshop by Rebekah O’Dell promotes peer talk as opposed to peer editing. I never had much success with peer editing in my classes but did not want to give up on the idea of students help each other in the process. Rebekah articulates a lot of what I’ve been thinking.

10 Dos and Don’ts for Teaching Vocabulary in Any Content Area posted at Teach Thought provides a great infographic with good ideas for vocabulary instruction.

And this month’s bonus – just in case you’re not familiar with Ted Ed’s “There’s a Poem for That” series, here you go:


Essay Writing: The Nitty Gritty

At the beginning of the year, I tell my students that we will live in the dichotomy (might as well introduce them to new vocabulary from the beginning) of This class is all about the exam and this class is not at all about the exam. We have done a lot of reading (even though my transition to a new school with an A/B schedule I feel like we’ve hardly done any reading), and we’ve done a lot of writing. I’ve provided so many mini-lesson instructions in both reading and writing that I’ve lost track of the number. Students have read choice novels, explored poetry, and had productive small and large group discussions. This week, however, was a week to talk about the exam and the specifics of writing a timed essay; it was a long, slow week of work. We needed a couple of class periods to pull everything from the year together, and while this process is not exciting or creative, my students writing benefited from it. Here’s what I did:KEEP READING

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