Browse Category by Common Core
Commentary, Common Core, Teaching

Five Ways to Support Your Local Public Schools

The recent confirmation hearings for the new president’s pick for Education Secretary has a whole lot of people concerned, and for good reason(s). One of the things I find myself going back to over and over again lately is the importance of supporting our local community. Facebook memes are fun, and rants to your friends about what could/should be done in education and otherwise are fine, but these do absolutely nothing to make the positive change in public schools I think the majority of us would like to see.

Photo via Pixabay by Fudowakira0
Photo via Pixabay by Fudowakira0

Here are a few ways you can help support your local school, especially during times of crisis and uncertainty:

  • Donate.  This means different things for different people. Donate your time, donate your money, donate your expertise. Donate what you have to give, and trust me, you have something to give.  If you don’t know how to donate whatever gifts you have to give, call the principal and see what they suggest. No one is going to send you a personal email asking you to donate that class set of Julius Caesar found in your grandma’s basement. Seek out the opportunity and make it happen.
  • Stop vilifying your teachers, administrators, and board members. I have to rant a little bit here. I find it maddening when people assume the worst about their public schools. The vast– and I mean VAST– majority of the people in your child’s school building are working for less money than they could probably be making somewhere else, are under inordinate amounts of stress, and are working 10+ hour days, managing families of their own. If you have a problem, question, concern, request– just talk to the person directly and see what can be done to fix it. It really is that simple. (Not terrible advice for real life.)
  • Suggest solutions. Public education is fraught with issues, and no one will pretend otherwise. I’ve worked and lived in an array of districts, all of which had their own, unique problems. If you identify those problems and think there is some sort of obvious solution, then find the right person and let them know. If it doesn’t get fixed, move it up the chain. As a taxpaying citizen, it is your right and obligation to do so. Again, a rant on Facebook about great it would be to have (insert cool program here) does nothing. Figuring out how to make it happen and getting that information to the right person does.
  • Accept what cannot be changed. Testing is a part of school, for better, for worse. In my opinion, the testing model of the IB Programme is the gold standard in education, and it would be lovely if someone up the chain in government would look into it and make that happen across the board here. As it is, testing in public schools leaves much to be desired, and a whole lot of people will agree with that. But in education, just as in any large entity, change is difficult and takes a lot of time. Since testing is probably not going anywhere anytime soon (especially now), use the opportunity to teach your kids about the importance of doing their best, even when the grade “doesn’t matter” or if the test is “stupid”. Such is life– sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do.
  • Advocate. This is so important, and I can’t stress it enough. Advocate for your child, if they need it. Advocate for your teachers, if they need it. Your relationship with your public schools is not a boss/subordinate one. You are working together. Your teachers can’t succeed without your help at home, just like you can’t succeed without the support of your teachers.

We’re in this together.

Commentary, Common Core, Teaching

How to Teach Two Books at the Same Time

Awhile back, I was told I had to teach a book to my seniors, a book which will remain nameless.  Being a gigantic book snob, I was not thrilled about the book choice.  The book itself was alright, but lacked the substance I felt my kids could handle.  I also felt like it didn’t give me much in terms of “teachability”.  (Looking back, maybe this was the impetus to “TeachableLit“!) Regardless, I was disappointed, and it nagged at me for awhile.

Ultimately, I decided that even though I was “forced” to teach this book as part of my curriculum, I also had every right to present to my department an alternative text, one that kids could choose in addition to or as opposed to the first.  After much back and forth, my department came to the conclusion that I was out of my mind.  Differentiation was one thing, but teaching two books at once was quite another.

I did it and LOVED it.  Yes, it was a lot of work, but planning any unit is a lot of work. Here are some tips to make it happen:

1.  Choose complimentary texts

This is so important.  Your two (or three) books should compliment each other in theme(s). That way your lessons can be broad and students can use their own texts to support arguments.  Both of my books were fiction, but a non-fiction and fiction pairing would also work really well.

2.  Create a very cool culminating project

My culminating project was an essay, which isn’t “cool”, necessarily, but the prompts I gave allowed kids to develop their own opinions and use their own personal experiences, more so than I would normally allow.  It made for very interesting essays, with plenty of evidence to draw upon.

3.  Create your own in-class book club

Two different books means two different “groups” in class.  Sometimes this is great for small group work, but it’s also entirely possible to mix the groups up and have the kids “sell” their book to each other or debate.

4.  Wait until the end of the year

Because I did this “experiment” at the end of the year, I knew my kids well enough to know which book they would probably get the most out of.   This was really helpful for the kids who just shrugged their shoulders when I asked them to make a choice, and also helpful for the many kids in my class who could read both books with no problem– all they needed was a little teacher encouragement.

Commentary, Common Core, Poetry, Teaching

Teachers Pay Teachers and Poetry

I have to be honest and say that I have mixed feelings about Teachers Pay Teachers.  On one hand, the concept is brilliant.  Teachers have so much to share, and why shouldn’t they make a little money sharing it?  I am totally behind that.  On the other hand, I’ve been skeptical about how useful any of the information is out there.  I’ve had plenty of teachers come to me and say, “Here’s my handout”, but that has never been all that helpful for me.  If a lesson wasn’t authentically mine, it NEVER worked out the way I wanted it to.  The kids saw right through it, and I felt like I’d taken a shortcut (in a bad way).

That was why, when I made the study guide at the back of The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High, I created prompts and suggestions, rather than handouts.  It was what I would have wanted, if I were teaching that book to a group of students.

All this being said, I was approached last week by Created for Learning, and offered a free lesson plan from their Teachers Pay Teachers archive.  (Even if you are not a teacher, please look at their website and gawk at their adorable family. They could not be cuter.)  I scoured their resources and decided I’d love to see their poetry unit, because if there’s one unit I always dreaded teaching… it was POETRY.

Screen shot 2015-02-03 at 2.29.06 PM

Holy smokes.

Packets.  Samples.  Puns.  Symbols. One of the most detailed Powerpoint presentations on poetry that I have ever seen.  I was seriously overwhelmed, and realized I still have a lot to learn about Poetry!

Screen shot 2015-02-03 at 2.25.55 PM

I’ve never taught “Litote” before!

If you are an English teacher, check out their Teachers Pay Teachers site.   I’m sure if you use this resource often, you will be happy to know that Created for Learning is a trusted seller with really amazing things to share!


* I was given this Poetry unit as a gift. (Thank you!!) Opinions are my own.

Commentary, Common Core, Teaching

How to Prepare for Virtual (not Snow) Days

I am thrilled by this report by WCCO saying that a high school in Saint Cloud is swapping “snow days” for “virtual days”.  After last year’s crazy amount of snow days in this state, I sincerely hope that all schools (and subject teachers!) are preparing for virtual days.

I think a lot of teachers are intimidated by the idea of a virtual day.  How can you plan for a virtual day when you’re barely afloat planning for “actual” days??  I get it.  However, planning for virtual days can be fairly simple.  It takes some planning, but think if it as an opportunity to do something new in your classroom, not to mention keeping kids engaged when Mother Nature keeps them away from school.  Here are a few tips:

1.  Keep a Classroom Blog

This is not hard.  Blogger and WordPress make building a blog easy.  You don’t have to blog every day or every week or EVER, really.  But you can use that as a place to create “pages” for each of your classes and as an easy way of compiling resources.  Kids and parents can also comment with questions that you can answer– this is great for keeping your own inbox manageable.

2.  Create an email list of parent contact information

On a snow day, you need to have this list ready to go.  All you need to do is send off a note saying, “Yes, we have a snow day, but no, your child does not have a ‘day off’ from school.  Assignments can be found on my blog.” (or attach them in an email, or provide a link)

3.  Pay your media specialist a visit

Not all students have access to technology at home, and I think that’s what turns some educators off from the idea of a virtual day.  If that is the case for you, go visit your librarian and see how many class sets of books/resources they have just collecting dust somewhere.  I was SHOCKED when I did this– so many wonderful books up for grabs!  Grab some class sets or photocopy some great short stories (A World of Short Stories is a fabulous resource, and each story includes essay prompts and activity suggestions.)  Send those home with students and have them put it in a place for safekeeping– they will need it on a “virtual day”.

4.  PBS is your friend!

How wonderful is PBS?!  There are so many wonderful Frontline documentaries that I simply don’t have time to share in my classroom.  If it’s a snow day, check out PBS and see what documentaries might be a good fit for your current unit plan.  Have kids create an activity based on what they’ve seen, and you can do the activities when you get back to the classroom.

5. Project Based Learning

If your students are going to learning remotely, why not put them in charge of what they’re learning in the first place?  Some ideas for literature: Investigate the author or setting or time period of the work you’re reading, and leave it up to the student to present their findings in a way that works for them.  Prezi?  Powerpoint?  Youtube video?  Endless possibilities.

6.  Set the Expectation NOW

Here in Minnesota, winter has arrived.  However, for some (lucky) people, snow days might not arrive for awhile.  Now is a perfect time to let students AND parents know that snow days are no longer an option in your classroom.  That way, when your first virtual day presents itself, there are no questions about whether or not your kids are expected to work!

Common Core, Teaching, The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High

NaNoWriMo 2014!

Last week I was asked to kick off National Novel Writing Month at Rosemount Middle School.  I had been looking forward to my visit for more than a month, and even though laryngitis was looming, I made it through the whole day!  I have such a soft spot in my heart for this school and the wonderful teachers and students there.


My focus last Friday was getting these guys pumped up for a month of the ups and downs of writing a finished product.  How to start, how to continue, and how to finish.

I had not had the chance to use Prezi before, and was so excited to use it for my NaNoWriMo presentation.  The link to my prezi is here: (Let me know if this link doesn’t work.  If you are a teacher and often present with Powerpoint, you’ll LOVE Prezi!)

As teachers often do, I segmented my presentation with an acronym:  MVP

M:  Map  (It really doesn’t matter how you map your story, it just matters that you do!  These kids loved to hear about all my false starts in writing because I failed to map properly or thoroughly.)

V:  Voice (Get to know your narrator as intimately as you would a friend or family member.  You should know their likes, dislikes, and reactions to the world around them.  This work must be done with EVERY main character!  If not, all your characters will wind up sounding the same.  Snooze.)

P:  Purpose (Create a purpose statement for your work, and let that guide you through the ups and downs.  Each class I visited wanted to know my purpose statement with The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High.  It was, “I want readers to feel empowered to make positive changes in their schools and in their lives.”

I would love to hear your NaNoWriMo stories here or via Twitter!

Book Reviews, Commentary, Common Core, Teachable Books

A Teachable Book: The Book of Unknown Americans

I just finished The Book Of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henriquez. I was blown away.  Here is a wonderful review by Chicago Reader.

Screen shot 2014-10-26 at 7.15.03 PM

It is impossible to have taught House on Mango Street and not draw comparisons between the two books.  I LOVE Mango Street, don’t get me wrong, but my biggest challenge with it is that it has always been a fairly “easy” read for 9-10th grade, and I’ve always focused on it as a more creative piece than as literary fiction.  But The Book of Unknown Americans is both a fascinating series of stories AND is appropriately challenging for high school.

Here are just a few essential questions The Book of Unknown Americans raises:

  • How important is it for Americans to understand stories of immigration?
  • What is our responsibility to those people coming to our country, legally or illegally?
  • To what extent does community shape who we are?
  • What is more important:  a strong family unit or a strong school community?

Disclaimer:  Before you give this to your child to read, read it yourself.  It is not sex/violence-free, but I think these issues are dealt with beautifully and tastefully.

Book Reviews, Commentary, Common Core, Teachable Books, Teaching

A Teachable Book: I Am Malala

Last night I finished I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai.  I absolutely loved it and highly recommend it to anyone out there looking for an incredible read.


As I was reading, I couldn’t help but relate it to the classroom.  This book must– MUST– be considered as part of curriculum for American kids.  Everything from its current relevance, fascinating history, and Malala’s sweet voice make it a perfect addition to an English or History classroom (and even more perfect for a curriculum that blends the two).

I think the common mistake in teaching a book like this is to ignore some of the larger themes and instead focus on the events themselves.  Doing so is fine I suppose, but I have found that the danger is that the assignments can be more “book report” than thoughtful analysis.

If I were to be teaching this book, I would offer the following essay prompts as choices for a culminating assignment:

  • Should education be considered a basic human right?  (Or for a more advanced class, What is the role of the United States in ensuring that education is a basic human right around the world?)
  • To what extent is social media a catalyst for good? Evil?  (I would give kids the option to write about good OR evil… but suggest that to write about both would be the “challenging” choice.)
  • Is Malala’s father a good parent? (This would definitely be the “easier” choice, but still could be argued with lots of support from the text or outside sources.)
  • To what extent are political activists doomed to a life of isolation?  (The epilogue to Malala’s book is heartbreaking.)

I would love to debate in class the idea of Malala’s celebrity. (She debates it herself in the book!)  I also think there are endless discussions to be had about “mob mentality” and the danger of extremism in all forms.  A fantastic PBL project would be to have kids identity “Malalas” from all around the world and display the faces of youth activism around the school.  SO much to do with the fantastic book!

Here are some fantastic resources I found, as well:

Malala’s interview with Jon Stewart

New York Times article about Malala

“Class Dismissed” 

Discussion Questions from Little Brown

Malala’s interview on CNN (50+ minutes)

Malala’s address to the UN Youth Assembly

Commentary, Common Core, Teachable Books, Teaching

Four Cures for the End-of-the-Year Blues

All good teachers know that you never– NEVER– give students their “final” on the last day of school, if you can help it. There are two reasons for this.  One, teachers who do that are left with a stack of 200+ papers to grade, all while administration clicks their tongues waiting for their marks and the rest of the school is packing up for the summer.  And two, students have already “checked out” by that point. Anything you receive on the last day of class is likely to be haphazard and rushed.

So, assuming teachers have taken care of their final assessments several weeks before the school closes up for the summer, they are left with a significant issue:  school is still in session, the kids have the wiggles, and you still have some learning to do.  Here are a few tricks I’ve learned to keep everyone focused and engaged in the last weeks of school:

1.  Plan a Philosophy mini-unit

This works well with seniors, especially.  Take a few days at the end of the year to contrast Locke, Confucius, and Plato.  Or Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel.  Students could even choose their own “thinkers”. Depending on how you’re doing with the Standards, these readings could be applied many different ways, but my favorite is a “Personal Philosophy Book” which gives students a chance to reflect on their personal beliefs and share them briefly with their peers.

2.  Plan a Cultural Literacy unit

This is probably the most valuable thing I got from my own senior year of high school.  Take a few days to explain what an albatross around one’s neck means, or what M.O. stands for.  I used this book, which is the handbook for all things Cultural Literacy.

3.  Show a fantastic movie, and integrate it well

My favorite for upperclassmen is “Contact”, with Jodie Foster (this works really well with a philosophy unit).  I also love “Food, Inc” (check to make sure the science department hasn’t already shown it).

4.  Project Based Learning

I absolutely love PBLs, but have found that they can be challenging in practice.  At the end of the year, students could do a quick PBL on “anything” relating to your subject matter, and present their findings in teams or solo, again depending on how well you’ve hit your standards for the year.

Commentary, Common Core, Teaching

Teaching Magical Realism

With the recent passing of the great Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I thought I’d share some resources I have for teaching his work in the classroom, and magical realism in general.  I should add two disclaimers to this post: I’m horribly intimidated by this genre, and have only taught Marquez in an IB Language A (standard level, but still advanced) level.  But as with many things in teaching, I found that the more scared I was to teach a certain book or subject, the more prepared I was.

1.  Choose your text wisely.

South Americans are the masters of magical realism, and Like Water for Chocolate and Chronicle of a Death Foretold are the most accessible to the classroom, in my opinion (though I’m happy to hear more ideas!).  Believe me, I would love to spend a whole year dissecting 100 Years of Solitude, but I just don’t think the average high school student could handle it.


2.  Let the text guide discussions, quizzes, and essays.

This made life so much easier with the planning process for me.  When in doubt, look for a fantastic passage, like this one from Chronicle:

“She only took the time necessary to say his name.  She looked for it in the shadows, she found it at first sight among the many, many easily confused names from this world and the other, and she nailed it to the all with her well-aimed dart, like a butterfly who no will whose sentence has already been written.
‘Santiago Nasar,’ she said.”

The beauty of the prose is all you need.  Analyze the metaphors, comment on sentence structure, create a character chart based on these words alone.  The possibilities are endless and wonderful for your more artistic students.

3.  Focus on non-linear story telling when incorporating outside resources.

This is what I loved about teaching magical realism.  So much of what our kids read is linear and follows a predictable structure.  This is the beauty of world literature, in my opinion, and South American literature in particular.  With the Common Core focused on incorporating alternate, non-fiction texts, this is a perfect opportunity to bring in critical analysis and discuss “how” arguments are made, as well as how the presentation of an argument can influence the reader.  A TED talk?  A famous speech?  A children’s story?  A million non-fiction options!

Common Core, Contest!, The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High

Hooray! Hooray! Another Giveaway!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High by Roseanne Cheng

The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High

by Roseanne Cheng

Giveaway ends April 16, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Book Reviews, Commentary, Common Core, The Indie Journey, The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High

Books That Do More

One of the many lessons I’ve learned from independently publishing The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High is that technology has changed the game in the book world.  I’m not just talking about e-books– I’m talking about the books themselves.  We live in an age where anyone can publish a book.  Heck, anyone with a blog is technically “self-publishing”. So in order to do have an “edge” (read: sell books), your book must offer “more”.  There must be something extra.

For me, that meant including a study guide built around the Common Core Standards.

And what I’ve noticed is that a lot of authors– traditionally published authors– are doing the same thing.  Here are some of the books that have been on my radar for some time, ones that have upped the ante so to speak when it comes to novels.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick


This is such a beautiful book.  The illustrations are breathtaking and the story is timeless.  This was a favorite in the middle grade book club I hosted a couple years ago.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer



This is hands-down one of the best books I’ve ever read.  The book is just as much a visual experience as it is an emotional one.  Though I loved the movie version, there is just no way of capturing the book’s depth on film.

 S by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst



Have you heard of this book?  If not, let me show you what you’ll find on the inside:



I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my bookshelf waiting now.  The reviews look pretty good, and I can’t wait to see what the reading experience is like.

What other novels have you read that offer “more”?

Book Reviews, Common Core, Teachable Books, Teaching

A Teachable Book: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

The term “World Lit” is thrown around often in teaching circles, and in my years in the classroom has meant different things to different people.  Does “World Lit” mean that the author is from another country?  Should the work be in translation?  What about an immigrant to the US– are they considered a “world” author?  What about works that expose a group living in diaspora in the class’s native country?  Or does “world lit” just mean that the author is not a white European?

I don’t have a definitive answer, but I do have an opinion:  World Literature means that the book is exposing students to a world outside their own, both geographically and linguistically.  Wonderful writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Khaled Hosseini, and Amy Tan certainly have their place in the classroom, but I would argue that their novels don’t give the same experience to the reader as a non-American, non-English speaker would.

It also correlates perfectly with pretty much every substandard of Common Core ELA Literacy Standards, including these.

I have lots of favorite World Lit authors (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chinua Achebe, Eli Weisel, Albert Camus, Yann Martel, to name a few… and yes, I realize I’m missing some wonderful women on that list!), but my favorite world lit book to teach is Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Si Jie.


If you are looking for a world lit book with amazing potential for class discussion and modern-day relevance, this is my pick.  Here’s why:

  • It’s historical fiction about the Cultural Revolution.  Why should this matter to our kids?  Because the effects of the Cultural Revolution still dominate modern-day China, and in an increasingly global society (with a particular emphasis on China’s massive growth and potential), understanding the history of this matters.
  • The author’s story is fascinating, and kids love that.  (Particularly his film adaptation.  Here’s a great NYT article about it.)
  • The writing is stunning.  Though I think that a well-written book would go without saying, the prose in this novel is particularly beautiful.  Is it the French to English translation that does it?  Je ne sais pas.
  • It’s edgy and provocative… but not gratuitous.  If you have read my “about” page, you know I feel passionately about this.  I do not think our literature needs to be watered down, nor do I think our classroom discussions need to be censored, but I do think that there are some books that are much more “appropriate” way for a young, mixed audience. This book has a sex scene (muted), deals with abortion (tastefully), and will hopefully not cause parents or kids discomfort.

And here are a few of my favorite activities with the book, along with their Common Core relevance:

1.  Golden Lines
Particularly poetic books like this lend themselves well to this activity.  In small group discussions, (which I did every day after a short reading quiz), I would put this prompt on the board:

Choose one sentence you would describe as a “golden line”, or a line that is particularly poetic.  Then explain why you chose it.

This was the springboard to many excellent discussions.

2.  Chinese Fairy Tales

This was a great activity when I lived and taught in China.  Find several fairy tales, then have students compare the stories the story in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.  Then have them role-play as Luo and Ma and re-tell the story to the class however they like.  Presentation and Knowledge of Ideas

3.  Persuasive Essay

Gotta love the persuasive essay… and some of my favorites have come from these prompts (I usually let students choose whichever they like best.)

  1. In what ways is Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress a fairy tale?  In what ways is it not?
  2. What does the novel suggest about attempting to change others according to one’s own beliefs or desires?
  3. In what ways does the novel offer a more intimate portrait of what life was like under Chairman Mao than a strictly historical account could?
  4. In what ways is this novel an argument for the importance of storytelling?

4.  Museum Field Trip

Living and working in China gave me the awesome ability to take my classes to the 798 Art District in Beijing and have the students look at the artwork and compare it to the works of art lost in the Revolution.  However, how about a Virtual Field Trip? Here are some resources:

798 Space


National Geographic Walking Tour

Book Reviews, Commentary, Common Core, Teachable Books, Teaching

A Teachable Book: To Kill a Mockingbird

With the news coming out today of the final three Scottsboro boys receiving posthumous pardons from Alabama, I figured it would be a good time to talk about one of my all time favorite novels to teach:  To Kill a Mockingbird.




This is arguably one of the most important books in modern American history, and (I believe) should be required reading for all high school students.  (I have heard about this being taught in middle school, but I think the themes are more suited to older students). Here are a few reasons to embrace Mockingbird, even if you are a teacher burned out on Boo Radley or a reader burned out on the “must read” lists this book tends to top year after year.

1.  Atticus Finch

Source: wikispaces
Source: wikispaces

Recently I met a little boy at the library named Atticus, and I just about keeled over.  Atticus Finch represents all that is good and right with the world, and contrary to the “role models” our kids see in sports and entertainment, is a true hero.  Introduce Atticus to your students, and keep him as a presence in your classroom.

2.  Social Justice

A favorite “unit” plan teachers gravitate toward is Social Justice, which incorporates so many elements.  This book, as it is inspired by real events, is the perfect accompaniment and opens the doors to discussions on racism, sexism, ageism, fear, bullying, stereotyping… the list is endless.

3.  Harper Lee and other surrounding curiousness

Every book has a story, but Mockingbird has some pretty interesting ones that go along with it:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird is Harper Lee’s only published book.  She almost never makes speeches or grants interviews, even when given awards and honorary degrees.  Lots of lively classroom discussion about why this might be.
  • Mockingbird was originally written as a book of short stories, which is obvious when you are reading it and fun to point out with students.  It also makes it easy to take each chapter on its own and discuss it in detail.  (My favorite chapter is Chapter 11– Mrs. Dubose.)
  • Mockingbird makes for a great play, and was adapted into one. Here is the script.  I have acted out the trial scene many times with my students.
  • The film is wonderful in many ways, but missing so much from the book.  I could spend a week analyzing the film alone!
Source:  Telegraph
Source: Telegraph

And here are some fantastic resources to go along with the book, along with their Common Core associations:

The Eye of the Storm:  I love showing this outdated but still relevant documentary to my students to get them talking about racial equality and how it manifests.

Monroe County Museum:  I would LOVE to make a pilgrimage to this place along with some students, but so far that hasn’t happened.  In the meantime, the website is full of images and ideas for in-class activities.  (How about a virtual field trip?)

Scottsboro: An American Tragedy:  I show this PBS film in parts before starting the book, so students understand the context.  Lots of fantastic resources on the website to go along with the film, including selections for further reading.

Book Reviews, Common Core, Teachable Books, Teaching

A Teachable Book: David and Goliath

With all the changes in ELA curriculum thanks to the Common Core, I can’t think of a more relevant writer to include in the classroom than Malcolm Gladwell.  I just finished David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, and spent most of my time reading it wishing I were still in the classroom so I could share the book with my students.


Here are a few key points that I think are worth mentioning, along with their Common Core associations:

Successful people have (often) overcome great adversity.  Gladwell’s basic thesis is that people who have great hardship in their lives often have to come up with ways to cope with those hardships.  Those coping mechanisms can help them stand out in the workplace.  He draws examples from dyslexics and doctors to prove his point.  Though this has lead to some criticism, I think that in the classroom this could be the springboard for an awesome discussion.

    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.5 Analyze and evaluate the effectiveness of the structure an author uses in his or her exposition or argument, including whether the structure makes points clear, convincing, and engaging.
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness or beauty of the text.


Question text.  I love the opening sequence about the biblical story of David and Goliath.  If you don’t have the text, Gladwell explains it in this TED talk.  This story links perfectly with the Common Core’s reading standard to read “a diverse array of classic and contemporary literature as well as challenging informational texts in a range of subjects, students are expected to build knowledge, gain insights, explore possibilities, and broaden their perspective” .

    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.5 Analyze and evaluate the effectiveness of the structure an author uses in his or her exposition or argument, including whether the structure makes points clear, convincing, and engaging.


Short term versus long term solutions.  Kids are short-sighted by nature.  (Have you looked at your students’ Facebook pages?  Maybe you should.)  Gladwell has a fascinating section about California’s Three Strikes Law and how what came from a place of good intentions ended up costing the state billions of dollars and did very little to discourage crime.  A great springboard for integrating this standard:

    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.8 Delineate and evaluate the reasoning in seminal U.S. texts, including the application of constitutional principles and use of legal reasoning (e.g., in U.S. Supreme Court majority opinions and dissents) and the premises, purposes, and arguments in works of public advocacy (e.g., The Federalist, presidential addresses).


And for teachers….

Small class sizes are not always the answer.  I loved his analysis of small classes and their impact on learning.  His point made me do my own soul searching: it is easy to blame a non-productive class on factors you don’t have control over (class size, lack of resources, etc.) but there are lots of things the teacher DOES have power to control.  Focus on those things, and you are bound to have a more productive learning environment.

Commentary, Common Core, Teachable Books, Teaching

A Teachable Book: The Stranger

I absolutely love teaching The Stranger, by Albert Camus.  I think it’s perfect for a senior class, and easily adaptable to many reading levels.  It’s also totally relevant, thought-provoking literature, in a time when violence, particularly gun violence, leads the news stories on a daily basis.

Oh, and don’t forget that it fits perfectly into the Common Core standards for 11-12 literature, and lends itself well the myriad writing standards as well.


Instead of linking to online resources, I’ll share some of my favorite activities to incorporate with The Stranger, and will link them to their Common Core purpose:

Reading:  Literature

The Stranger is originally written in French, so it is a work in translation from a part of the world (Algeria) which is often neglected in world lit.  Its translation is fascinating, starting with the title itself which, in the original French, means “The Outsider”.  I will start my unit discussing this very subtle translation, and how semantics impact meaning.  I re-address this question at the end, when the title comes increasingly ambiguous.

Listening and Speaking:

Every activity with this book can revolve around the following essential questions:

  • What is our responsibility toward one another?
  • What is our responsibility in the larger world?

The possibilities are endless when it comes to addressing this standard, but I like to start with a debate. (We have no responsibility toward one another, and we do, on opposing sides.) Integrated in this are fantastic resources on existentialism, nihilism, and human psychology.

Additionally, this book is so short and “easy” to read, it lends itself well to being read aloud in the classroom.  Excellent for your students who find reading at home a challenge for whatever reason.


The Common Core emphasizes research related writing, (the dreaded research paper!), but I am a huge supporter of this.  As English teachers, this is the one skills ALL of our students need, no matter what field they go into, and a major skill that is lacking in our college freshmen.

Some excellent research project topics could be:

  • A presentation of a “personal philosophy”
  • An analysis of gun violence as it relates to apathy in today’s youth
  • An essay the power of persuasion (religious or otherwise)
  • A report on the importance (or lack of importance) of teaching empathy to children