Start the New Year with a Mid-Year Evaluation


Take a deep breath. This may be the last time you have to do this until May because we all know that once school starts back after break, the pace only accelerates until graduation. The new year is the perfect time for personal reflection and goal setting and the new year offers teachers a late Christmas gift – a chance to make mid-year classroom adjustments. This only happens with intentionality and reflection.KEEP READING

Begin the Year with Poetry


For most of my career, I’ve saved poetry for the end of the year in my English classes. I did this for a couple of reasons. First of all, I LOVE poetry, and I tend to motivate myself by saving the best for last. Also, a poetry unit can be expanded or contracted to fit that awkward few weeks I often get left with in May – not enough time to start a novel, but way too long to just sit around watching movies. But, if I’m being honest with myself, my biggest reason for holding off on poetry was avoidance of the reactions of many of my students. When first confronted with poetry, the general consensus of my classes – at least the most vocal of them – is not an exclamation of joy. Introvert that I am, it is enough of a challenge getting to know a whole new crop of fresh young faces without additionally embarking on a journey as personal as poetry. However, I realized last year that the personal nature of poetry is exactly what makes it perfectly suited for the beginning of the year. … KEEP READING

Fishbowl Discussion – Taking Class Discussions to the Next Level



Let’s face it; many students do not come into the classroom proficient in having a productive conversation. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which are media that often value the loudest, most quotable sound bite over the thoughtful listener, but because good discussion is so crucial to what I seek to accomplish in my classroom as well as what I hope for my students to accomplish in life, I had to devise a way to scaffold these skills. The fishbowl technique was the perfect solution. It gave my reticent students a forum to share their ideas, my garrulous students practice in the fine art of listening, and everybody a language to discuss how to be a better communicator.  Give it a try – it’s had a huge impact on my classroom. Here’s how I do it:KEEP READING

On Teaching AP Writing


Maturing as a writer can be a lonely journey. Students must wrestle with themselves to find their own voice, style, and process of writing. The means of organizing thoughts is highly individualized often leaving writing teachers feeling inept to address the needs of each student in a class. While whole class instruction has its place in writing instruction, one-on-one student conferences are an effective yet underused method to offer productive feedback to growing writers. Student conferences offer a chance for the teacher to have insight into a student’s thought process and give individual feedback and instruction. Here’s my process: … KEEP READING

Balance is Key


Classroom instruction, like almost everything in life, is about balance, and while some educators like to argue for one particular theory or method over another, the reality is students need a variety of best practices. Here are some areas where I feel tension and am continually striving to seek balance in AP literature:

Big Picture vs. Small Details

I often compare looking at a passage or text to looking through a telescope. (I suppose a microscope would work also, but staring at the stars seems far more poetic than looking at cells). A telescope offers the ability to view constellations from afar with clarity and zoom in to observe the smallest nuances of a planet or star. The same is true when teaching a text. AP teachers should be providing students with opportunities to think about the text as a whole and in small chunks. For example, my students just finished reading Frankenstein and participated in a gallery walk exploring themes such as monstrosity, the quest for knowledge, and revenge allowing for overall reflection on the novel as a whole. My students would be missing out, however, if I did not also provide opportunities for them to zoom in and focus on smaller portions of the text. Comparing diction and syntax in Walton’s, Frankenstein’s, and the creature’s narration provides this opportunity. Zooming in and zooming out is something teachers and our students should continually be doing. Balance is key.KEEP READING

Shaking up Shakespeare


Portrait of Shakespeare © Copyright Deirdre O’Neill and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License

Studying a Shakespearean play can either be a month of dragging your students up Dunsinane Hill or it can be an opportunity to share mirth and laughter. These texts rouse feelings of frustration and anxiety for students before they are even opened. Many students believe we only read them as a form of torture. I try to shake up my instruction to students with the universality of his language and ideas.

Pop Sonnets

The number one thing students complain about is the language. To introduce my students to the language and help them to see that it isn’t really foreign, I put them into groups to work together to “translate” pop sonnets. These are verses from current pop songs written to look and sound like Shakespearean sonnets. Groups of three or four are given a “sonnet” to translate into “real English”. I don’t give them the title or artist of the song, but may walk around giving them a line hint here or there. I let them use dictionaries and encourage paraphrase if they are having trouble with a line-by-line translation. When groups are done with their translations, they must try to guess the song and artist. Then, they read their translation to the class to see if they can guess. Check out Pop Sonnet for more resources and ideas. … KEEP READING

How to Be a Human: Exploring Theme in the Classroom



Crickets . . .

English teachers everywhere can identify with the blank stares and silence that result from bringing up a skill or term that you KNOW students have encountered before in their vast experience with English class. Sure, some teachers are more successful at making concepts stick, but I’m pretty sure that when I talk about adverbs or symbolism, for example, this is definitely not the first time my students have heard the terms.

Over the years, I’ve learned that a little review with examples and practice are usually enough to refresh my students’ memories on most literary devices, but there is an exception to this rule: the idea of theme. Theme is not only one of the most difficult concepts to internalize, but also one of the most crucial – because, when you get right down to it, analyzing literature is really about finding meaning and that leads ultimately to the exploration of theme. So, how do we guide our students through the messy, wonderful task of deciding what a text means? … KEEP READING

Free Range Poetry

free range

Rigor. Higher order thinking. Analysis. These are the words that drive us in education and rightly so: teachers should be giving students the skills and opportunities to expand their intellect and push themselves academically. However, our desire to teach students how to decode and decipher poetry often robs them of the original intent of the poem – to be an emotional experience.  I have been guilty of killing a poem for my students and not allowing them to fully savor the beauty of poetry. Poetic devices, scansion, and structural analysis overshadow the magical and mystical elements of poetry leaving students and teachers often frustrated and discouraged. Teachers can alleviate some of the frustration and tension students feel about poetry if we offer them opportunities to experience poetry in a free-range environment.

What does free range poetry look like in the classroom?


The Poisonwood Bible


For the past few years, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver has been my summer reading, and I suspect it will remain that way for a while. This book, along with Frankenstein, are the two books that will probably never move off my reading list. TPB chronicles a story of an evangelical missionary family moving from Bethlehem, GA to the Belgian Congo in 1959. The story of the mother and daughters striving to gain independence and freedom from the tyrannical father parallel the struggle within Africa. Having over 500 pages, I assign this book for summer work along with How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Foster. Here are some of the reasons I love teaching The Poisonwood Bible:


Without a Mission, a Teacher Perishes



Any corporation that is serious about its long-term success has a mission statement. Companies need a guiding vision to keep focused during challenging times, as well as the good times. Most schools also have mission statements. Administrators and teachers spend long hours honing each word for appropriateness and precision. Schools set lofty goals guaranteeing results beyond even the most wild-eyed optimist’s dreams. Schools and school districts are committed to creating clear visions that will lead to all students’ success. Educators understand the power associated with a well-crafted mission statement.  As Solomon claims “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” But all too often these well-meaning mission statements are lost or buried on the school’s website, or better yet, abandoned to a notebook locked in a supply closet.  And while the process of writing a mission statement is beneficial; a mission statement is ultimately only as effective as those who read it and buy into its vision.  If teachers really want to take advantage of the power of a clear mission/vision, I suggest teachers write and act upon their personal mission statements daily.KEEP READING

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