2016 Summer’s Promise

2016 Summer Promise.jpgEach summer, I make a promise to myself: to read the stack of books I’ve been accumulating throughout the year (the ones I didn’t get to because I’m reading or grading for teaching, or writing, or doing mom stuff). I taught two new classes this year and I had a student teacher, so school took up a lot of my spare time. I did, however, manage to get a few read-for-pleasures in.

I long for summer. I long for the moments when I can read without feeling pulled in another direction. So, these are the books I’ve collected.

Mitch Albom because I have read every single one of his books & his The Five People You Meet in Heaven is on my top 10 list.

Anita Diamant because she also wrote a book on my top 10: The Red Tent (a MUST read for any woman). There are just those authors we form an allegiance to and she is one of them for me.

Ransom Riggs. Well, this book came recommended to me. It doesn’t seem like it’s in my wheelhouse; however, it seems like a book my students could love & I like to recommend books to them. It’s also being adapted which is always interesting for me because I am as much a film buff as I am a reader.

Tina Fey simply because she is funny, I admire her as a woman, and I like lighthearted as a change sometimes.

Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite authors. I simply love her writing style. Plus, it’s a classic that I haven’t yet read. I do try to read at least one new classic a year because I think they make one literate.

Peter Ackroyd because this was a gift given to my last year & I just never got around to reading it. I teach British literature and love all things London. I have also read this writer before. I anticipate learning some things.

Nina George: new author, I think ,or new to me, anyway. I chose this because it’s on the bestseller list, I enjoyed the synopsis and I’ll be traveling to Paris, so I thought it would be a fun read whilst there.

David Levithan– also an author I’d never read, but this book was recommended to me and the I liked the voice immediately when I read the first two pages.

Margaret Powell is a non-fiction and when I googled Downton Abbey booklist, I came up w/ this. I loved Downton Abbey and I’m missing it already!

Jojo Moyes — I’ve heard a lot about this author lately. This is my summer book club choice. Over 50 students signed up for the club. Because I teach literature and film, I always try to choose a book that is being made into a movie, so we could do a comparison when our club meets. I’m really looking forward to this one.

Elizabeth Gilbert. This novel has been on my TO READ list for some time. And I am a believer that as much as we choose books, they choose us too. Since I’m taking this journey to Europe this summer (16 days: Italy, France & the UK), I thought this would be a good parallel read. From what I know about this novel, the timing is perfect.

I look forward to this post every year. More so, I look forward to diving in & being transformed, as I have been each summer.

Happy reading.


NanoWrimo Revisited


This is my fourth endeavor with NanoWrimo.

For the first, I took on the personal challenge and met the goal– hell, I exceeded the goal, and I turned out some pretty good material to work with. During April of that same year, I took on the task of editing for NanoCamp month while my first set of reluctantly, excited, creative writing students wrote and wrote and wrote. Of course, to my dismay, some of my group cheated which left me appallingly sad. They inserted essays they’d written or copied entries from their journals, or, I even had one boy copy and paste the same 500 words over and over to meet his goal. Needless to say, we had a long discussion about cheating and who really gets cheated when we do. There were a few gems in the bunch who walked away having felt a sense of accomplishment, unmatched by any other high school assignment, for actually writing original material and meeting their goals. I also received a few anonymous notes from students in this class sharing how worthwhile this task was and encouraging me not to give up. For my own personal camp experience, I worked on the book I had begun in my first nano challenge and became increasingly satisfied with the revision process (though grueling as it was at times– this is my least favorite part of writing). I learned a lot about my students, the process, and my own revision evolution.

The next stab at Nano came the following fall when I, yet again, tackled the fiction frenzy month with my class of writers. This time, I amended the guidelines for my students not only to make them more specific but also more doable. They embraced the challenge and I had not one cheater in the bunch. For me, I did not come away feeling as successful as I had the first and second time; in fact, I decided to abandon what I had written, altogether, as it was pretty much crap, but I did meet my word count goal. Moreover, the experience reaffirmed that crap happens; we have to write through the crap to get to the good stuff sometimes.

MOST of my students come away from Nano feeling quite accomplished, some even continue writing the novels they started working on. Not only do students learn about themselves as writers, more importantly they take lessons away that teach them about themselves.

For me, Nano writing month is a time to focus, get re-generated, start pumping the creative juices in a very scheduled and focused way.

While I write quite a bit in my spare time, I can go periods without feeling moved to write or completely blocked even though I try. Being in the habit of writing is a reminder of how important habitual, planned writing is.

This time, I’m writing a series of short, memoir pieces which, ultimately, I hope to organize into a book. I’ve been considering this for some time. In fact, so many people who know me well have suggested I do; I suppose I have a lot of interesting personal stories to tell. I just hope I can tell them well. What I’m most ambivalent about is writing true AND personal, entirely exposed. To me, the combination is frightening. I’m not sure why, exactly, but I’m guessing that’s one of the things I’m about to learn.

As for my writing group, I have high hopes. This year, I seem to have a lot of interested writers in my group who have come to this class as writers eager to learn about form. style and process.

1 week to go! Getting the creative juices flowing.

The Signature of your Beliefs: Creating a Motto

TM Motto definition

The thing about being a teacher is that whatever I experience, whether it’s an activity, an article or book that I’m reading, or simply something observed, my mind thinks like a teacher. How could I use this in the classroom? What does this connect to? An overarching web extends deep and wide over all that I do, think, say and hear, such that I’m always in teacher mode searching for ways to make learning meaningful for my students.

Recently, I came across an article on Edutopia, a website for educators, written in a blog begging the question: Teachers: What is your Motto in the Classroom? In it, Elena Aguilar, traces how she developed her own teaching motto, which got me thinking about mine.

So often, practices are in place either instinctively or inherently based upon my own personal experience. When I actually put a name to them, they become part of my repertoire. Like teaching belletristic non-fiction. I knew what it was. I’d been teaching it as a form of creative and expository writing, but I didn’t know it was a thing until I came across Lynn Z. Bloom’s work that I could put a name to it in order to make it part of my knowing.

I know what a motto is. A motto is like a mission statement in the simplest of forms. “Just do it,” Nike: “I’m lovin’ it,” McDonalds: “It keeps going and going and going,” Energizer. I teach maxims and aphorisms as devices of literature and creative writing. The novel Wonder, R.J. Palacio, put the word “precept” in students’ vocabulary. Yet, I never associated the word motto with my own educational foundation. I’d always associated it with businesses or athletic teams.

Years ago, our school, as a collective effort, established a mission statement which we’ve been revising to remain relevant to the changing times. At first, “mission statement” equated to business, but quickly it’s evolved. When I read Aguilar’s article, it made sense to me to hone in on one statement, distinct to my classroom (not exclusive, but distinct), a premise all students can expect upon entering through my doors.

After 24 years of teaching, suffice it to say, I have a wealth of experience in goal setting. Over the course of this time, I’ve amended my own goals for my students based on a host of experience.

  • I’ve always been of the mind that teaching English (or any other subject) isn’t so much about the skills (yes, they are necessary to learn, but they are vehicles) as it is about finding oneself through many discourses, thinking critically about the world and our place in it, and, finally, developing the ability to communicate thoughts and ideas out to the world. In essence, it’s an exploration of self through various discourses: literature, non-fiction, visual media, the arts– in the world of teaching English.
  • One of the foundations of establishing this kind of exploration lies in creating a safe environment, a community of readers, writers and critical thinkers, who collaborate with and respect one another. I want my students to feel comfortable challenging themselves and each other in order to reach a deeper understanding of whatever it is that we are learning.

TM Blooms taxonomy

  • It is essential to learn to connect to people and to connect ideas to other ideas. In all of my classes, I teach students what Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy is in order to empower them to develop all of their thinking abilities. Moreover, I try to provide opportunities for each of them to refine their strengths and develop their weaknesses, inspired by Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. Every single person has something to offer this world, a worth unique, but the trouble is that too often the model of learning in the public school system is the equivalent of trying to put a uniquely shaped peg into a square whole.

TM multiple intelligences

  • For even the unconventional students, those who seem lost in public school, those who just can’t or won’t subscribe to the rules of the game, I try to help them develop their voices. Communication is paramount to learning. In whatever career anyone eventually pursues, the ability to communicate, through a variety of forms, is essential to moving forward. Everyone has a voice. I hope to give all of my students the platform to not only develop it but to feel confident about what they have to say and how to say it.

So, in thinking about these goals, and in thinking about what I do to assist students in achieving these goals, I’ve decided my motto is simply this:

TM Motto

I’m going to make a sign of it to display on the door of my classroom and on my website and syllabus. I encourage you to create a statement for yourself whether you teach English or Social Studies or even if you are in another career altogether. Just a simple, catchy phrase that embodies the signature of your beliefs.

Teaching Through Tragedy

Izzy cards copy

It was the most draining week in teaching I’ve ever experienced. For, it reaffirmed for me that teaching is so much more than a job; it’s life, all encompassing. As teachers, we not only bring our jobs home, we bring who were are and the experiences we’ve had into the classroom to share with our students.

This week (DEC 15-19) marked the deaths of two 2014 alumni: separate incidents, different days. The first, emotionally close to me. The second close in proximity.

It was a Saturday morning in December when my son (also a graduate of the same high school) asked, “Mom, do you know Isabella G.?” Yes, I nodded. My kids ask me all the time if I know people because I seem to know so many after teaching in the town I also live in for thirteen years, now. “She died in a car accident last night.” Initially, shock sets in, as it takes some time to fully comprehend. He fills in the details, from what he knows — the beginning of the abundance of fact blurred with rumor from social media.

I recall, two years ago, finding out in fractured details from the internet, students relaying what was being reported on Twitter and other new sources about the Sandy Hook massacre, for it was the first tragedy of this proportion that I’d experienced hearing about via smart phones. At first, I dismissed it, until later I came home and the details began piecing themselves together. Teaching through the aftermath of Sandy Hook was also difficult. The next morning, there was a faculty meeting, before school, to talk about how we should handle it with the students, what resources are available and such.

SH 1

And before that, I was teaching on 9/11, as the unbelievable events unfolded until finally school was cancelled. The next day we’d exercise a day of mourning. There was no social media then, or if there was people didn’t access it so readily from their phones; news came from news stations, not Twitter. No morning faculty meeting to discuss how to deal with the event in the face of our students. Nothing like this had happened before. There was no protocol to follow.

But like the faculty meeting following Sandy Hook when protocol had been established, the same early morning meeting would be held for Isabella (Izzy). For neither, could I hold it together, as I would have liked to. While Sandy Hook was a horrific tragedy, I knew Izzy. My daughter knew her; she  looked up to her as a fellow athlete and friend. This one hit home.

I remembered an email Izzy sent me during her junior year, the year I had her and her friends in American literature. It touched me. It spoke to who she was beneath her tough,  teenage exterior. While in the email, Izzy asked for me to keep it anonymous, I wanted to put it out there ( I put it up on Facebook, my daughter shared it to Twitter) because I thought Izzy’s message was so poignant that I wanted others to be affected by it, as I had been. In fact, I was so moved by it, and other sentiments from students over the span of years, that I referred to it in a blog post I’d earlier written about teaching NOT being just about imparting wisdom, producing intelligent, skilled children, but rather about teaching the whole child, recognizing them as people and giving them the skills to be better people.

TTG status


I went to school on this Monday with a lump in my throat. Trying to address something like this, while navigating through my own emotions does not come easy to me. My students have seen me cry. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. However, I never want my own emotions to impede the messages I try to deliver to them. This, like the day after Sandy Hook, would be one of those days.

The morning started off not so bad. It seemed the kids welcomed the distraction school had to offer as much as I did. Mid-morning, when advisory came, however, a shift occurred. We were directed to give our students the opportunity to make condolence cards for the family; we were provided with the materials to do so. It was an important thing to do. And in the midst of the mayhem of selecting the perfect colors, and shapes, and supplies, I recalled two years before. It wasn’t a directive on that day; in fact, one of the students suggested we make cards for the families of the Sandy Hook tragedy. It may have even been Izzy; it certainly was her class. I took out my art supplies and we did. It was a cathartic way to deal with our grief and sadness, for we wanted to do something and this felt purposeful. A memory, so vivid, that I could see Izzy sitting at her desk with her supplies, laid neatly in front of her, frantically searching on her phone for the most appropriate inspirational quote. She kept reading them aloud. “How does this one sound?” she’d ask.

TTG status 1

That is when I lost it. My students looked frightened almost, not knowing what to do. Their teacher stood before them and just sobbed. I couldn’t articulate what I was thinking or feeling, but I muttered that I was okay. Later, I composed myself and shared the poem, “Remember” by Christina Rosetti, I’d written on the petals of the flower I had cut out because Izzy was referred to as a “Flower Child.” I also wrote a letter to the family, sharing my experience.

TTG poem

In the next two classes, there were students who had been close friends with Izzy. We reminisced together, cried and hugged too. More students made cards. And, at the end of the day, I felt good. We’d made it through the day.

The next day was better, while pangs of sadness came and went, productivity occurred.

Then, in the afternoon, at home, I heard a bevy of police sirens close by. Minutes later, her phone in hand, my daughter called out, “Someone’s been shot on Cornwall” (the street around the corner from mine). A few minutes later, “Two people have been shot.” It was evident that another neighbor knew who it was from his cryptic messages on Twitter. In less than thirty minutes, my daughter revealed a name, a troubled boy from a troubled family, He’d had a history of drugs, and he, too, graduated from the same class as Izzy. Various reports from news media were revealed in addition to speculation on Twitter and other forms of social media. It wasn’t until midnight did we get the facts, and more would pour in the next day. A email came out from both the superintendent of schools and the principal, also cryptic, for they were not at liberty to identify the victims or reveal the facts, but another faculty meeting would be held first thing in the morning.

I didn’t know this boy, even though his family lived in my neighborhood; I know others who know him and his siblings. His name is Chris, and he was shot and killed by his father, who turned the gun on himself and committed suicide. Chris’s sister is a sophomore at the high school. I don’t know her either, but I teach students who do, and I am her class’s adviser.

TTG status 2

On this morning, the lump in my throat was bigger than two days before, for I had difficulty making sense of not only the incident but still hardly adjusting to the news of Izzy’s death. I went to school with a reserve that it would be another one of those days, and it was. A somber mood blanketed the school, evident from the moment I walked in the door to the moment I left.

From the first class to the last, I tried to ease my students’ minds by sharing my own confusion about the week’s events to let them know they were not alone. We discussed the different ways people grieve and being responsible for one’s words and actions out of respect for how others might be feeling. We also talked about the misinformation that was delivered over social media and in the news– a very real fact of their generation, something they could now learn from, firsthand.

Therapy dogs were brought in. They visited classrooms and legitimately brought a smile to anyone’s face who saw them or petted them. The first time I’d seen therapy dogs was in the aftermath of Sandy Hook.

Good things do come from tragedies. Lessons learned. New ways to cope. The importance of communication as well our responsibility to be sensitive to it. Coming together as a community. Discovering the processes of grief and healing.  Lessons that, sometimes, take us a while to realize. Mine is this. After 9/11, after Sandy Hook, after this week, too, I’ve recognized the ability to teach my students lessons that can’t be taught from books. I’ve learned that I am a model for them of what it means to be human, and even those not close to the events of this week, can learn something very valuable from our collective experience.

SH hope12

The WRITING Project: Publishing Student Writing

WW Blog cover collage copy

Students BECOMING writers: this is my focus each year in creative writing. Publishing is necessary in taking writing-for-self to the next level. When students leave my writing class, they will have published in at least two ways and possibly more!

WW Blog Reading

The first is in simply reading their work aloud to their classmates, seeking warm feedback as well as constructive critiques. It’s important to provide students with an opportunity to hear their own voices reading their work to a welcoming audience who will cheer them on, clap, even snap their fingers. Confidence fuels creativity.

WW Blog Critique workshop

Once their confidence is built, so many say they thought their writing was crap until others liked it– they really liked it– they are ready for a little constructive critiquing. I am careful not to use the word criticism because it’s ugly and no one likes to be criticized. Criticize my work: criticize me. That, in no way will help writers seek to take chances. The critique on the other hand focuses on what IS and what is not working in a piece.

The method is simple. I collect a piece of writing from each student (a one page limit). I copy each of the works into one class packet. Students spend about two days reading and critiquing the work. They are required to write SPECIFIC and GLOBAL COMMENTS on each work.

SPECIFIC – speaking to diction, syntax, line breaks or structure, an example of a poetic/literary device, voice, style

GLOBAL – speaking to the overall essence or message of the piece, the take-away from the reader’s perspective

WW Blog feedbac k

On workshop day, we sit in a circle with our packets in front of us and take turns reading. Each writer reads his/her own work. Then classmates have a chance to discuss the work for five minutes, uninterrupted by the writer, for the writer’s job is to listen (and take notes). At the conclusion of the five minutes, the writer always has the last word: to answer a question, ask one or simply make a statement.

WW Blog revision

Once the workshop is complete (a couple to few days), students receive the written critiques of his/her work by the rest of the class. Writers are at liberty to consider the critiques that resonate with them and discard the ones that don’t as they set about the task of revising their work. Real writing is in the revising process, I tell them. Writing something down is the easy part: the tough part is noodling (playing with it– thanks, Dr. Vivian Shipley for the term!) it to a state of real satisfaction.

WW Blog publication

At the onset of class, we create a class blog, a place to showcase work students are proud of. Their favorite part is coming up with a title and a theme, for each group wants to make it uniquely their own and reflective of their chemistry as a whole.

Once students feel “finished” (a relative term for any writer) with their work, it’s uploaded to the blog.

Here are a few of my students’ class writing blogs…

WW Blog All thats left


WW Blog Pen to paper


WW Blog Where the writing


WW Blog other publishing

I encourage students to publish in our school literary magazine, Spilled Ink, and most do. They also seek opportunities to publish in other student publications and many have.

Most recently, a student who took this course because she was curious about creative writing discovered that she not only likes writing creatively but she’s good at it too, submitted to Scholastic for a poetry writing contest. When she received a letter stating that her poem was accepted and that it would be published in a student poetry anthology, she sought me out immediately to make sure her acceptance wasn’t a scam. Completely elated to have me look at the acceptance letter and confirm that it was, in fact, legit, she was elated to consider herself a published poet.

I’ve had many students come back years after they’ve taken my class to tell me that they’ve pursued a career using the skills they’ve learned in this class. Some editors. Some writers. One who is even working as a screen writer. It fills me with such pride to pass on the love of writing and the hope that, one day, my students can become established, published writers too.


Social History, the 1920s & Gatsby: Making it all relevant

1920 gatsby_1925_jacket

Before teaching The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, I try to put my class in the mindset of the 1920s. I want them to understand it for the rebellious, “riotous,” risqué time that it was. In that vein, I assign them, in small groups, social topics to research.

1920s topics

Once they’ve researched both of their topics, students are to choose the five most interesting facts they’ve found for each.

1920s Model T

1920s Charleston dance






The next step is to identify what these look like now. What modern-day equivalent/like fact could they find to help students understand what life was like in the 1920s?



Here are some of their responses:

1920s chart

These examples only scratch the surface of what they found. One student was so ambivalent about even asking me if “twerking” would be an appropriate modern-day connection to the Charleston. I pointed out that her reluctance to ask me about it and write it down should give her an indication of what a risqué time it was.

1920s the-great-gatsby-party

I think they’re ready to grasp and appreciate this novel, now.

This is a two-day lesson. For the first, students are researching their topics & coming up with modern-day equivalents. The next, they are putting their information down on paper in a chart like the one above. Some choose to embellish their charts with photos in order to provide a visual for their audience, the rest of the class, when they share information.

Then & Now serves as a quick, grounding lesson for any time period.



Gatsby: http://holditnow.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/the-greatness-of-gatsby/

Flappers: http://www.charlestonchallengedownunder.com.au/history/

Model “T”: http://www.boldride.com/ride/1912/ford-model-t-touring


Devil’s Teardrop Box: A Lesson from Before Women Had Wings

MM BWHW Book jacket

MM BWHW Bird Quote


Before Women Had Wings (1997),a novel written by Connie May Fowler, is one I end the year of American Literature with. Avocet, a.k.a. Bird, Jackson’s narrative grips the reader before the end of page one. She’s an innocent girl trying to understand life– what’s fair/ what isn’t. She endures pain, often issued from her parents, sometimes her sister, too, but she loves them and searches for understanding. A spiritual journey provides her with hope, an unlikely friend, and finally salvation. Although her family defines dysfunctional, it begs the reader to understand the flaws in human nature and the power of forgiveness.

MM BWHW Olds Quote



MM BWHW Clifton Quote

I find this unit, more so than others, is connectable for students. I’m not sure if it’s the arc of the unit. We begin with women’s poetry (Maya Angelou, Marge Piercy, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath, Anne Bradstreet, and even Ann Sexton) because I want to create an image of what it means to be a women– HER whole story: the good, the bad, the ugly.  When we read the novel, which I approach more like a book club than instruction, I allow the conversation to become fluid and completely directed by the students in the class. Next, I ask students to interview a  prominent female figure in their lives to reach an understanding of what being a woman has meant to her.

MM BWHW Piercy Quote


MM BWHW Angelou Quote


The students borrow from a part of the book in creating a “Devil’s Teardrop Box,” a keepsake Bird’s father made for her which holds all that she cherishes, for each chosen woman. In it should be 5 objects (or more), authentic or recreated, that help the student tell her story.




Finally, a reflection is written on the whole process. What I find most endearing is what students say about learning her (often a mom, older sister or aunt) story, something each student appreciates in unanticipated ways. For the girls, it’s often a sense of pride that emerges. Suddenly, this woman who has been more concerned the mundane, because after all she’s often just mom, emerges as a woman, a being that existed before the birth of the interviewer. For the boys, empathy comes through the most; they are the ones most surprised by the outcome. But, overall, all students regardless of gender come away with a newfound knowledge, and, I believe, real understanding. It’s such a positive way to end the year.


MM BWHW Plath Quote


[WHY] Is the LITERARY CANON Important?

lit canon

The elusive canon that all of us literary types know exist but is difficult to define. Sure, there are lists of canonical literature while the contents vary dependent upon the source. Some classics, more than others, may find themselves on most lists. In truth, I believe the canon is and should be evolving. If the canon represents the exemplars of literature from a given time, timeless in their nature, it should indeed be a fluid body of work depicting culture and humanity.

Students should have in their back pockets a representative array of canonical literature which they acquire over the spans of their educational careers. I am asked by my students, more so than any other single question, “Why am I reading this?” “It’s old and out-dated,” they often quip. “It’s irrelevant,” some will say.

LC books 3

My job isn’t to take the easy way out and comply by giving them what they’re interested in as a way of pacifying them, bribing them, as such, to engage. My job is to get them to understand the relevance of these great works, why they are considered great, what makes them relatable, still today, thus, why we are still teaching this “old stuff” anyway.

It wasn’t until college that I understood, as a student, why such works were important. Somehow, it all fell into place with these words stated by a college professor who shared that her summer reading list included canonical works she hadn’t yet read.: “Reading literature from the canon makes one literate.” Further, it struck me that my literature professor, who I would still argue is one of the most brilliant people I know, had yet to finish all the works in the canon. For me, this awakened the realization that we are all lifelong learners and will never get to a place of “all knowing,” but that’s the point, isn’t it, appreciating the journey of learning as we go, knowing a little more every day, every year?

LC books 1

Reading literature from the canon makes one literate. I have pondered this statement a great deal. For I had been one of those students in high school who questioned why I was reading The Awakening or Macbeth or The Canterbury Tales or The Catcher in the Rye. After all, people don’t even say the word “phony” anymore, I thought then.

Her statement resonated with me; it surfaced on many occasions. Through hindsight, I’d recalled the messages, characters, motifs, symbolism, allusions of such literature I’d read in the past and her words began to fall in place. As I moved through college, I became enlightened by the connections to life and literature and the whole world around me I was making. Classic literature makes us literate. It provides us with a common history, understanding and language.


I once had a discussion with my son about a SouthPark episode. We watched the same show together, yet laughed at different lines. I questioned him, afterwards, on why he laughed when he did and why he didn’t when I did. I realized some of the jokes were above his head, in that he hadn’t lived through some of the allusions made or hadn’t read widely enough to understand them. While I’d  previously dismissed SouthPark, as a crude show doing no more than poking fun at society, I gained a new-found appreciation for its sophistication.

This is the same sophistication, though often subconsciously so, people experience when they are well-read. Life becomes richer when we’re privy to the experiences that come before us; we see things with widened eyes. We make connections innately from our prior knowledge.

That’s what my professor meant about the classics making us literate. Not in a literal sense of the word. Sure, I can read. I’m a strong reader, in fact, but armed with host of classical literature, I can read into life more effectively, efficiently and insightfully. I can reach an understanding that I couldn’t have without experiences which have lead to my own literacy.

LC books 2So, what do I tell my students who ask me that question? I tell them about the canon: what it is, why it is. I promise them that works like Harry Potter will end up in the canon which I firmly believe. Moreover, it’s important for them to know that their culture will be represented in the canon one day. But more importantly than telling my students anything, I find ways to show them how the classic literature we read in class is relevant. I model for them and provide them with opportunities to see the connections from one work to another or from same piece to a contemporary novel they might have read, or a movie they’ve seen or a personal experience. I don’t expect them to fully “get it” in high school, in much the same way I didn’t. In time, they will understand the importance of reading this “old stuff” and I hope to make their engagement with the classics, now, as dynamic as possible so they do.

Life is about making connections, thinking critically about our world, finding our place in it. I believe literary classics are a vehicle to learning such lessons. So, yes, the literary canon matters.


Graphic Images :





Messy Learning Inherent to Great Teaching

GT Wordle final

Teaching is a challenging profession, no matter what the political pundits would have you believe. It takes a great deal of time (education, preparation, planning, assessing, reflecting, adjusting…), energy and experience to embody all of the characteristics of a great teacher. And, lets face it, there are a lot of great teachers out there.

Two sources have encapsulated for me the definition of great teaching.

A TVO Parents Presents video: What Makes a Great Teacher?

GT Edutopia

And an Edutopia article: “Embracing Messy Learning” 

In watching the video, a few quotes stood out to me as part of my definition.

GT quote 1

Great teachers are not born. While, true, I do believe teaching does and should come naturally. There needs to be an innate sense of loving working with others, compassion and kindness, in addition to having a passion about the discipline one is teaching; moreover, good teachers continue to hone their craft over time. This comes with the desire to motivate others, a strong work ethic to do one’s best, always, whether the task is building curriculum or finding ways to implement it that is meaningful and relevant for the students. It’s not only about doing the work, it’s also about reflecting on what worked and didn’t and why. It’s about being open and flexible to change which means looking within, observing, collaborating and never giving up the desire to learn and grow as a professional.

GT quote 3

Audience is important. In fact, it may be at the top-of-the-list important. Essential to good teaching is knowing one’s audience. Taking the time to get to know students as individuals, both as people and as learners, is the key to successful teaching. If students don’t buy in to what a teacher implements, learning is not possible. Gauging the audience as a whole is also important. No two classes are alike, each has a pulse all their own; picking up on that and responding to that are among some of the fine attributes of good teaching. Also, of paramount importance, allowing students a voice — being confident enough to hand over the reigns to them, to listen and respond, helps them build confidence and adds dimension to lessons.

GT quote 2

“Embracing Messy Learning” gives project based, authentic learning an interesting name. Learning is messy work. When students learn a new concept, they are so focused on what’s in front of them, that other skills previously learned fall by the wayside, but that’s a good thing. It means they are focusing on new learning and how it should interact with their prior knowledge. Flexibility is the key to this kind of teaching/learning. Teachers giving up the rights and the wrongs in order to instill creativity, critical thinking, exploration and discovery. I’m of the “Less is More” school of thought. The less instruction I give them, the greater their struggle, the more learning happens. True teaching, in this kind of learning, is to be their guide through the process. To probe and prod them to find their own solutions. Some of my best teaching has come out of such projects which allows them choice and personalization, in allowing students to make meaning through their own methods and process. Inevitably, the feedback is “Wow, that was the hardest project I’ve done, but I’ve learned so much!” The challenge for teachers with project-based learning is to raise the bar enough so that it is doable with enough parameters to guide students but not too much to prevent their own original thought. Teachers need to ‘buy into’ implicit teaching/learning approach for this to work. Teachers also need to get students to ‘buy into’ failure being an inherent part of the process. Success doesn’t happen without some degree of failure.

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There is no greater challenge than building a student’s confidence. Often, teachers have no idea what their previous experiences with education have been or what their personal situations are. Yet, the job of a teacher is to develop growth within each student and the icing on the cake is that each leave a classroom with a ‘CAN DO’ attitude. Confidence is the single most empowering motivator. This circles back to teachers knowing students. Working individually with students is the best way this can be achieved. Moreover, asking students to journal about the process of learning, so they can read back and actually see their growth unfold before them is powerful. It’s something they’ll take beyond this class into the future. And as teachers, isn’t that what we want? For students to grow, feel good about their growth which will empower them to seek growth in the future.

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GT Messy quote

GT Leo Bas

My ‘sort of’ mission statement for my teaching is something that has not changed since I’ve begun teaching nor is it something I foresee changing, in that I believe it with my whole heart.

Teaching English, for me, isn’t as much about reading and writing as it as about discovering oneself through the process. Do I want students to walk away from my course with an appreciation of the subject matter I’m teaching? Absolutely, it’s what teachers hope for. Do I want them to walk away more skilled than when they first entered my classroom? Of course, and I believe each and every one of them will. But more importantly, I want them to know themselves a little better than they did when first walking through my classroom door. I want them to learn to think critically about their world and their place in it, to decipher meaning from discourse (written, visual, media, humanity…) and to communicate what they think and feel effectively in a variety of ways. I want them to see themselves as doers, thinkers, collaborators, community contributors, entrepreneurs.



Student X and Why We CANNOT #evaluatethat

In response to an email I received from a student just two days ago and a conversation I had with a former student in the Spring of last year, I am compelled to add my two cents worth to an invitation from BATs (Badass Teacher Association) to flood Twitter with reasons teachers should not and CANNOT be evaluated by the standards set by SEED or Common Core. #evaluatethat 

StudX twitter 2I’ll begin with the conversation last Spring. I’ll call it The Nevin R Factor.

This young man, who had graduated from high school five years earlier, came back to visit some of his old teachers. He approached me by name. While he looked familiar, I couldn’t place him (as one could well imagine after years of teaching thousands of kids).

He fumbled, “You probably don’t remember me.” After saying his name, I did remember him– a funny, nudgy  type who didn’t want to do much and was capable of so much more. Nevin continued, “I really just wanted to say thank you. I was in your creative writing class. You failed me. I deserved it. Writing is my thing and I should have passed that class easily. In fact, my job is as a writer today. I wanted to say thank you because you being hard on me and failing me was the best thing that could have happened to motivate me to do well in college. Not only did you motivate me, but that class inspired me to become a writer.”

Next story of a similar nature. One I pass on to seniors every year. They are awestruck when they hear the audacity and result of it and I’m hopeful I reach some, if not all.

The Nick S Factor:

Nick was a student I’d had as a student in three English classes: American Literature, Reading Literature/Film, and British Literature. A student who liked English, was good at it, respectful, eager to please and had a mature, dry sense of humor, I was fond of him; so when he asked me to write his college letter of recommendation, I agreed without reservation.

Fast forward to almost Spring of that year when most students had decided upon their colleges. A colleague who had Nick in a Speech class approached me out of concern; Nick had just delivered a speech entitled “How to lie to get into college.” At first, I told her I thought it was a joke, something he’d contrived to get a laugh and win some street cred from his peers. When I spoke to Nick about it, he seemed very coy in admitting it wasn’t a lie. He had, in fact, lied on his resume and to the admissions officer in an interview to get into college. Guidance got involved and his parents; it was decided that we would do nothing, although I had revealed I was considering rescinding my letter of recommendation. Nick was able to loosely verify a minimal involvement in said activities he’d bolstered his participation in. I was uncomfortable about the decision and let Nick, his parents and guidance know.

Not two weeks later, he completely– I mean completely– plagiarized an essay for my class. As I read it, I recognized that it was not written in his voice and there were ideas in it that we’d never touched upon in class. This lead me to the computer where I found he’d lifted the whole thing.

My concern mounted on several levels:

#1 How/why was this seemingly nice kid doing everything in his power to reel out of control at the end of his senior year?

#2 How could I not rescind his letter of recommendation, something I’d never before or since been forced to do? Wasn’t it in his best interest to nip his arrogance in the bud to teach him that taking the easy way out is not okay?

#3 I write many recommendations every year to this college. My testimonial to a student’s character carries weight for all the future students I will write letters of recommendation to this college for.

I decided to rescind my letter. When the Dean of Admissions, with whom he’d had his interview, called me, I told him what I believe to be true. This is a good kid making some bad decisions whether out of fear for the future, laziness (seniorities, which is something most seniors feel a sense of entitlement about, today), or sheer arrogance that he’d get away with it.

I explained to Nick that I was acting in his best interest. The failing grade for the essay turned into a failing grade for the quarter, but not for the course. The letter I rescinded resulted in Nick having to go before a panel at the college, not to lose his admittance into the school, but to learn he’d begin college on probation. It was the hardest decision I’d made as a teacher. It effected me emotionally and personally, but in not taking the path of least resistance, I did what I wholly believed was in Nick’s best interest. The remainder of the year was uncomfortable; I don’t think he made eye contact with me once.

The following summer, I received a manila envelope in the mail, a letter from Nick, apologizing for his arrogance and his mistake. He said that he, now, respected my decision, stating that something I said would forever remain with him “It’s not about making mistakes. It’s a teenagers job to make mistakes. What defines your character is the what you do as a result of making mistakes. It’s all about what you learn from the experience.”

In addition, Nick wrote the essay he’d earlier plagiarized– his own words and original thought–  because he “respected” me “a lot” and he didn’t want my last memory of him to be of the “student who took the easy way out.”

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While these stories have measurable indicators attached to them, they speak more to the far greater lesson these students learned which can’t be measured: lessons about motivation, hard/authentic work and character. In both situations, if the only the numbers were considered, I would have failed. 

These next three stories can’t be measured by numbers or grades; they simply speak to a teacher affecting human beings. StudX twitter 1

Using The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, as an anchor text, I teach a unit I call Words Matter (written about in an earlier blog). The essence of the unit centers around how we use language. In reading Huck Finn and other selections of non-fiction centered around the use of the “N” word, we talk about censorship, hurtful words/terms, racism, oppression, bullying, cultural diversity, audience. Finally, we deconstruct the use of the “N” word as a model for students deconstructing words/terms of a personal nature that have had an effect on their own lives.

Words Matter: A Lesson from Mark Twain


Consequently, the timing of this unit inevitably falls around the time of our B-1 day (also blogged about earlier) where our students come together to celebrate diversity within our school. It is a day when we abandon our classes and routines to attend events completely organized and implemented by the students for the students (an annual event that takes place founded upon reaction to the events of Columbine High School Massacre some 15 years ago).

Be One World


Student 1:

Steve B is a student I had in class two years in a row. First, sophomore year, he was a bit of a scooch who liked to seek attention whether it be positive or negative. I’d learned, as a young boy, he lost his mom which explained so much of his behavior. After the Words Matter unit, the second year he was in my class, and at the B-1 day open mic event, Steve approached the microphone to declare to the whole student body that he’d learned a lot about words recently and how they affect people. He said while he never meant to hurt anyone’s feelings, and he singled out a boy who he was sure he had, Steve apologized. Later, in class, when I commended him on this act, he shared with the class why he used sarcasm and humor as a defense mechanism and attributed this realization to what he’d learned in my class.

Student 2:

Izzy G, post Words Matter, a tough-around-the-edges kind of girl who tried not to show others her weaknesses, sent me an email apologizing for not being in class. She went onto explain how a close friend had just committed suicide and she couldn’t help but think that if she’d been part of our Words Matter classes that she might not have. Izzy went on to say that she learned that what we say to others could have a deep impact and life altering results. She asked that I read her email aloud to the class and begged them to go out of their way to say something nice to someone on that day.

Student 3:

This year, I’ve just begun the unit a week ago and received this email from a student who already feels impacted enough to make this connection to the Ellen Page video she found on Tumblr.

Stud X email final

The truth is teachers impact students like this every day. Some, we are lucky enough to know the impact we’ve had on them and some we never will. THIS is why I teach. Because I affect peoples’ lives. This CANNOT nor will it ever have the ability to be measured, attributed a standard, or aptly documented. What we teach is far greater than the sum of any indicators or any amount of data. And as I said to Student 3, “While we cannot change the world, if we can alter the thinking of some, we are moving the world to a better place.” I challenge those behind SEED and COMMON CORE and data-driven instruction to #EVALUATETHAT.