Browse Category by Teaching
Commentary, Creative Writing Workshop, Teaching

Creative Writing Resources for Kids

Last month I taught my summer creative writing workshop, and let me tell you that this group of kids is THE MOST:

Each and every one of them was kind, caring, considerate, happy to listen and take feedback… I didn’t want the session to end.

After these workshops, I’m always asked by parents what resources I recommend for young creative writers. Here are a few I like, but keep in mind that there are only two resources I really, truly recommend. I’ll save those for the end of the post.

  • Lakeshore Learning makes these fantastic blank notebooks for creating books. I have found these to be incredible for young kids– they are the perfect size and durability, and allow for complete creativity. 
  • 826 Valencia is one of my favorite organizations in the country. If you don’t know them, get to know them and find your local version of it (The Mid Continent Oceanographic Institute is the Minnesota version). They have a whole slew of creative writing resources available for purchase on their website, and the one I love for my young writers workshop is 642 Things to Write About.

  • DK’s Write Your Own Book is a great tool for teachers. I really like the format of the book– it’s large, hardcover, full color, and easily laid out for lesson planning.  You can purchase it on Amazon, but I found mine at my local Barnes and Noble.
  • Your local writing organizations and libraries are a great places to take kids to meet authors, ask questions, and make real-world connections to a career in writing. Plan a family outing for when an author comes to speak, read their book together before you go, and make a list of questions you’d like to ask the author during the event. I STILL do this as an adult, and it’s always a learning experience for me.
  • I know there are apps kids can use. Edutopia came out with a list here, though I can’t speak to any of them. Call me old fashioned, but I really can’t stand the idea of having kids use an app for creative writing. They really, truly only need two things:
  1. Paper
  2. Pen or pencil

Young, old , novice or veteran, there is nothing more you need than a pen and paper. Give your child some space and time, let them write, make mistakes, and start again. It’s really the only way to get through any creative project, and the sooner they embrace the process, the sooner they can be ready for the writing journey.

Book Reviews, Teachable Books, Teaching

A Teachable Book: The Hate U Give

If you are anywhere close to the YA world recently, you’ve heard of The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas. “It’s about Black Lives Matter”, is the way that people usually talk about it in passing. I just finished listening to the audio recording of this, and let me tell you: it lives up to the hype. 

The premise is so important and relevant. A young black girl witnesses the shooting of her friend by a police officer. There is nothing in this story that is any more or less dramatic than what has been covered on the news several times over the last few years.

I think when authors fictionalize such a sensitive subject as police brutality and Black Lives Matter, they run the risk of being overly preachy or one-sided. Not with this book. The author very smartly creates a main character who is very involved in both “sides” of the issue, one who is going through the highs and lows (mostly lows) with the reader. She creates empathy in small and large moments, and plenty of places for debate and discussion. She also made it sweet and endearing in many parts, not the least of which being the throw-backs to old school hip hop music. That was a wonderful way to draw in an older audience (like me!).

I know kids across the country are reading this book in droves, but I don’t know that it’s being “taught” in the traditional sense of the word. If I were to bring this book into my classroom, I would love to have students create a culminating assignment that is solutions-based. How do we bridge cultural differences in our urban communities? How do we co-exist peacefully with law enforcement and anyone who doesn’t think/believe the way we do? What are some ways we can really “hear” each other’s experiences and build empathy from them?

I can’t think of a more important time for this book to come out. I hope it wins a ton of awards and makes it into the hands of young readers in every part of the country.

Commentary, Teaching

Teaching on the Other Side of Parenthood

When I was pregnant with Anna and still teaching, a colleague told me that after I became a mother I would become a different teacher. That I would be more empathetic; that I would understand more all the ways my job mattered (and didn’t matter). I never got a chance to fully understand if he was right, since my teaching jobs now are very different than every day in a public school. But now that I’m on the other side of the coin, with a child now almost finished with Kindergarten, I get what he was saying. Here are a few things I’ve learned about school, now that I’m a parent:

1. My words really, really matter

Anna loves school. Loves. Aaron loves school so much that he cries most Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings because he can’t go to school. I credit great schools and teachers for that, but I got to thinking the other day about how many times I dealt with kids who had huge chips on their shoulders about school. Teachers were always out to get them. The system was always ‘stupid’ or rigged. In my years teaching, I always blamed that way of thinking on being a jaded teenager. It never occurred to me that those were sentiments they were probably hearing at home, too. So even though I’m totally in support of asking questions about methodology and rationale, at home it’s really important that my kids hear that I think their teachers are worth listening to and learning from.

2. Teachers don’t get paid enough

I mean, who doesn’t know that? But I know it so much more now, now that I’m part of supporting a family and trying to figure out budgets and college and savings plans. So many teachers are parents, too. We can’t possibly think it’s okay to keep them juuuuust above the poverty line, when their jobs are so important. We can’t possibly put the demands we do on teachers and not compensate them for it. And yet we do.

3. It’s a little, teeny tiny bit okay to miss school sometimes

I was a strict teacher in several ways, and one of those ways was with attendance. If school is in session, you go. Unless you’re sick, someone is dead, or some other major calamity is going on, you get to school. I had very little patience for kids who were constantly off to long weekends to hunt or play a sport, and I had ZERO patience for the parents who sent me emails from the car telling me their kid was missing the next couple days to hang with grandma so could I please send some work.

I’m getting angry just thinking about it.

But now, on the other side, I am more understanding of this. Don’t get me wrong- Disney is not an excuse to miss a week of school. And no, your family trip up north isn’t equal to the learning you get in your classroom environment.  But family time is so scarce for some families (mine included), and sometimes there are some things that can be carefully calculated to be an okay-ish reason to skip school.

As long as you tell the teacher FAR in advance.

And don’t email from the car.

And don’t act surprised when your kid comes back to school and is behind- that is what happens when you miss school.

4. Why didn’t I ask for help??

I often tell the story of the time I was photocopying the play Antigone for my sophomores because I didn’t have enough copies for my class. Not only is that illegal, but it went against everything I stood for as a writer and reader. But what was I supposed to do? I needed the books and didn’t have them.

It never occurred to me to send out an SOS call. I could have asked the PTO, I could have emailed the parents in my class, I could have put out a desperate plea on Facebook. I don’t think it was pride that kept me from those things– it was this weird sense that I was on my own island and that no one was supporting me.

But now, on the other side, I would welcome an email like that from my child’s teacher. In fact, I just sent an email asking her if there’s anything I can re-stock for her room for next year as an end-of-year gift. The parent community is there to help, and I should have asked for it when I needed it.

5. And speaking of community…

We are in this together. Principals often say things like that, how ‘we are a community’ and ‘we are a team’, but I can’t say I ever truly felt that when I was teaching. I often felt like I was just trying to keep my head above water as the waves of work and expectation crashed over me. But we are a community, and those aren’t just words to appease parents and board members. We are all working toward the same objective of lifelong learners. It would be awesome and transformative if we acted like it.

Commentary, Teaching

Four Reasons Why Teachers Love Teaching

This guest post was thoughtfully written by Erica Francis at Readyjob, who collected thoughts from teachers about why they love to teach. It was great to be included in her roundup!


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(Photo by Wokandapix)

By and large, today’s educators are underpaid and under appreciated. It’s no wonder, then, that the number of young people choosing teaching for their career is the lowest it has been in decades.


At ReadyJob, we know that few jobs are as life-changing, demanding, or important as teaching. We also know that now more than ever we need great educators teaching in our schools each day. That’s why we wanted to hear from educators themselves about why and how they accept the challenges that come with their jobs day in and day out. In a recent survey, we asked a group of educators what they find most rewarding about their profession. The full roundup post can be found here and below are a few highlights showing why teachers love what they do:


Teachers help their students tap into their potential. Teachers play a vital role in shaping how their students see themselves. Teachers show students they can succeed even when they think they can’t. Think back to your own childhood, chances are you can name a few moments when you were struggling with a concept and a teacher encouraged you, helped you, and eventually led you down the path to understanding.


It’s a rewarding experience for students, but as Roseanne Cheng of notes it pays off for teachers as well. “Getting to know young people and helping them see the potential within themselves,” says Cheng. “There is no price tag for that feeling!”


Teachers influence their students’ futures. These days we often hear that teachers must teach to an end-of-year test. And while that is sometimes the case, it doesn’t eliminate a teacher’s ability to shape their students’ futures in a more long-term way. After all, you never know when a lesson might inspire a student to take a certain career path, pursue college, or concentrate on a certain area of study. For Doc Meek of, the big impact teachers have on students’ lives is very rewarding. He notes that “the potential of helping students thrive long-term” is one his favorite aspects of teaching.


Teachers learn from their students. Students go to school to learn, but they’re not the only ones getting an education. Many teachers feel they learn just as much from their students as their students learn from them.


“If you feel passionate about teaching, this profession will bring you many rewards,” says Luis Porras Wadley of “Teaching is one of the professions in which the human aspect becomes most important. You get to know many interesting people, whether it be kids, teenagers or adults, and each of them will provide you with memories and experiences which you will never forget.”


Teachers help their students build character. Teachers are responsible for making sure their students are proficient in a given subject or subjects. But while teaching everything from why volcanoes erupt to what symbolism Mark Twain uses in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, teachers show their students what it means to be a good person, to be someone with strong character, to care about others and have heart. These are, of course, invaluable lessons that no child ever forgets. Mike Stutman of notes that it’s a big reason why he loves teaching. He teaches because he loves “making an impact on a child as a whole person – on their character – in addition to the impact on them as a student.”
Teaching is tough. There’s no doubt about it. But there are also many rewarding aspects of teaching. If you’re considering education as a profession, the factors listed above are great reasons to take up the calling.

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.

Book Reviews, Commentary, Digital Citizenship, Teachable Books, Teaching

A Teachable Book: Green Card Youth Voices

Teachers are constantly– CONSTANTLY– on the lookout for how to teach inclusion, empathy, and tolerance in the classroom. THIS BOOK IS IT!




Green Card Youth Voices is just one of the books put out by Green Card Voices, a seriously incredible non-profit out of the Twin Cities. The work they do is beyond important, and this book is the youth version of a serious of stories chronicling the people who immigrate here. I cannot recommend it highly enough!

The stories stand on their own, but in case a teacher is looking for activities to go along with the book, there is a teachers guide available on their website. Amazing.

And if that isn’t enough, they have a moveable display that is making its way around Minnesota to help start conversations about inclusion and celebrating diversity.

Forget a box of chocolates for Christmas: Buy a copy for your school here!

Commentary, Teaching

On Potential

It’s September, and if school hasn’t started already, it is starting this week. In seven years teaching, I have loved this time of year best. I’m ready to be back in the classroom, I have a clean slate to make my unit plans better, and I have no expectations for my students. The blog posts are rolling in lately about how to engage your students from day one, how to make sure you see their possibilities and potential, how to capitalize on it and cultivate superstars.

All of this is powerful and good and right. The positivity of this type of year should be celebrated.

And yet.

This week I learned that a former student of mine had pled guilty to a heinous crime. And I mean really heinous. His victims’ impact statements have made headlines, and I forced myself to read them with a stone in my throat. I cannot believe he would be capable of something so horrendous, I found myself thinking. And every time I did, I forced myself to read the victims’ statements again.

As cliche and horrible as it sounds, this kid really was a golden child. In my high school classroom, in every classroom. He was thoughtful and kind and incredibly smart and hardworking. I have such pleasant memories of him that he would be one of those kids I would love to reconnect with, have coffee with, and be a part of their success in adulthood.

And yet.

I keep in contact with many of my former students (I hadn’t kept in contact with him), and the vast majority have gone on to do wonderful things. I had coffee with a student last year who is headed to the priesthood. I get messages often from former students who are now in dental school, art school, getting married, having babies, going into social work. So many of the kids I have had the honor of teaching are living wonderful, fulfilled lives.

But not this one. I think I speak for all of his teachers when I say we saw his potential for great things. But we didn’t see his potential for evil. It did not cross our minds.

That is a major problem.

I don’t pretend that I, as his English teacher, could have changed him through a novel, through an assignment, through a conference. I’m not so naive to think that I am in any way responsible for his behavior.

But what if I hadn’t looked at him and assumed he was destined for greatness? What if any of us had seen that with his intellect and popularity that he might slip through some sort of moral crack? What if just one of us had reminded him that with his great blessings came great responsibility?

My heart is broken for his victims, for their families. For everyone who elevated him beyond human status. I can’t get beyond the feeling that I failed him somehow, even in the smallest way, by subconsciously assuming he was set in life, and didn’t really need me.

Teachers: our jobs are so important. Don’t be afraid to take a few minutes from your unit plans to talk about humanity, about potential, about purpose. Understand that no one in your room is beyond reproach. See potential, the good and the bad, in each and every face you see every day.

Teachable Books, Teaching

A Few Teachable Podcasts

I have just recently gotten into the whole Podcast thing, and now I am HOOKED. Here are my three favorites, all of which would be wonderful in a high school classroom:

  1. Presidential

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This podcast hosted by a journalist for the Washington Post is fascinating, accessible, and gripping. It details each US President, starting with George Washington, and talks for 45 minutes about their contributions, their life-struggles, and what the world was like under their presidency. Perfect for a history class, and even more perfect for a history class combined with English Lit. (My favorite episode was the one about Andrew Jackson. What a complicated man, and it really made me think deeply about what “legacy” actually means.)


2. Revisionist History

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I admit to reading everything Malcolm Gladwell has written, and have loved it all. (Especially David and Goliath- life changing).  This podcast takes moments in history that may have been forgotten, overlooked, or misunderstood, and is evaluated as only Malcolm Gladwell can. Each episode is unique, but the first one, “The Lady Vanishes”, is breathtaking in its study of misogyny, racism, and power. I can’t recommend it highly enough, as it’s a springboard for many important conversations.


3. Magic Lessons


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I love Elizabeth Gilbert, and I’m not afraid to say it. I would love to hang out with her for an afternoon feed off her positive energy. But not only that, if you haven’t read The Signature of All Things, DO! Everything you might have thought about her after Eat, Pray, Love is out the window with that phenomenal historical fiction novel.

Magic Lessons would be wonderful in a philosophy or TOK class, as it takes issues about creativity and delves deeply into them. I loved the episode with the poet Mark Nepo, who gave a frustrated poet the assignment to read “Song of Myself” and reflect on each chapter as a way of understanding her life’s purpose and calling (what a great idea!). But I have to admit the episode with Ann Patchett and Brene Brown was the best for me– those two have such different life experiences, and yet they both (Gilbert, too), come to the same conclusion: we are all creative beings, and to not create and express is to stifle our purpose. Good stuff, especially for writers and students pursuing the arts.

Now that I’m hooked on this medium… more podcast recommendations are welcome!

Commentary, Teaching

Empowering Students

I recently heard someone say that the opposite of happiness isn’t unhappiness, but apathy. Those words ring so true to me personally, as well as in terms of education. What is the point of filling students’ heads with equations when they don’t feel any sort of responsibility to use them for good in the larger world?

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More than anything measurable on a test, a teacher’s goal should be to teach students to feel empowered. In their education, in their family lives, in their larger community. Here are a few ways to model that in your classroom.


I have found that the more choice I give students in a unit plan, the better and more memorable it is. I have always structured my unit plans around the culminating assignment, but that culminating assignment almost always involves a choice. The trick is to make sure that each choice meets the standards you are trying to teach. In English, a simple choice between two different essay prompts can create a sense of responsibility within the student to choose wisely.

(It is also possible to give students the choice of a book to read, the power to create their own rubric, the ability to peer-edit their friends’ work.)


I obviously feel pretty passionately about this one. Books that encourage larger discussions about the world, books that can be related to the current state of affairs, are always more successful.I don’t necessarily mean that all books need to be modern (every student should be required to study Hamlet before graduation, in my opinion). I mean that books should be springboards for students to make larger, wider connections, both personally and within the classroom.

(A few I love at the high school level: Into the Wild, Bel Canto, When Breath Becomes Air, Merchant of Venice, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, To Kill a Mockingbird)


Classroom management is tough– any teacher will tell you that. But you are not teaching kids anything by having them re-write and re-write late essays just so they can get a passing grade. Every student and every situation is different, but I have often found that for the apathetic kid (or parent) who comes to me asking “how they can bring up their grade”, it is best to ask them what THEY think they should do to improve their situation. Sometimes this ends up with a student throwing their hands up in the air and saying oh well, they tried, but their teacher wouldn’t do anything for them. But more often is ends up with students taking a close look at what they’re missing, and coming up with a reasonable solution to the problem. This is an important life skill to have!

(Important note: at the high school level, I get to be very honest with students. I tell them that no, I will not be coming up with a new assignment or using my weekend time to grade an essay that they should have turned in two months ago. That is not fair to me. But I’ll be willing to brainstorm ideas with them to improve their situation, if they would like.)



You have to model the behavior you want to see from your students, of course. But no matter how incredible you are as a teacher, you are but one person. Reach out into your community for guest speakers relevant to your subject. Have them come in and talk about their career paths, their ups and downs, their experience with history. Guest speakers are a wonderful way for students to understand REAL life experience; that success is not something that magically falls into a person’s lap. In a world where we are constantly complaining about entitlement, I can’t think of a more important lesson for educators to teach.

(Podcasts can also serve this purpose! Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History comes to mind)

Guest Post, Teaching

Guest Post: Summer Jobs for Teachers that Will Transition Into the School Year

Today’s post comes from a retired school teacher who is using her decades of experience to give back to the profession. Follow her website,, for more inspiration. Thank you, Joyce!


Photo via Pixabay by Fudowakira0
Photo via Pixabay by Fudowakira0

Upon hearing someone is a teacher, many people immediately say, “You’re so lucky! Summers off!” And while that’s true to an extent, finding a part-time or temporary job during summer break is necessary for many teachers, and it can be stressful. For some, the perfect job is one that they can continue to work at even after school starts back, but those can be hard to find.

There are lots of great options, however; you just have to know where to find them. Here are a few of the best.


Be a content creator for teachers through or

As an educator, you have plenty of experience with children and insight that not many others have, so make it work for you by creating a blog with earning potential from ads, or contributing to an established blogger’s site. You can write articles or create printables for other educators with sites like Teachers Pay Teachers or Teacher’s Notebook.


Try tutoring

Obviously, you’re well qualified to tutor people of just about any age, and you can set your own hours and possibly even do it from your own home. Contact parents before the school year ends and let them know you’re available, or set up a site or Facebook page that lists your fees and specialties. This is a side job you could continue throughout the school year if you wanted to earn some extra income.


Be a dog walker or dog sitter using

Sites like allow you to meet up with pet owners and decide if you’re a good match for their needs. If you are, you can keep a pretty flexible schedule and possibly even take on more than one job at once for maximum earning potential. Here, you’ll be able to get in exercise and maybe even work close to home.

Dog boarding is the perfect job for an animal lover, and the best part is you can do it from home. There could be dozens of pet owners nearby who need someone to take in their animal while they go away on business or vacation, and they are likely willing to pay well in order to have peace of mind about their beloved pet while they’re apart.


Share your love for learning as a program director

Museums, children’s museums, zoos, resorts, and national parks are all in need of educated, resourceful people to direct children’s programs and other events during the summer. Some places may require a certain degree, but if you have experience in teaching, you may be able to get hired based on that strength alone.

Finding a summer job doesn’t have to be a stressful event; check online for companies that hire teachers and find something that’s right for you.


Joyce Wilson is a retired teacher with decades of experience. Today, she is a proud grandmom and mentor to teachers in her local public school system. She and a fellow retired teacher created to share creative ideas and practical resources for the classroom.

Commentary, Creative Writing Workshop, Teaching

Five Things I Learned Teaching Without Technology

This week I had the privilege of teaching the first session of my Young Writers Workshop at the Edina Community Center. This is my third year and third location for this program, and it gets better every time I teach it. No homework, no grades, just kids writing and expressing themselves creatively. The BEST!

This year I found myself, as I usually am, stressed about technology. Let me state for the record: I LOVE TECHNOLOGY. Especially in the classroom. But when you’re teaching in a new place, a new curriculum and new students, it’s stressful knowing what technology is available to you and wondering whether or not it will work.

So I made a choice a couple months ago when I started planning. I was going to teach technology-free, the old fashioned way. No PowerPoints, no YouTube clips. Just pencils, paper, and our imaginations.

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Here’s what I learned:

1. It was MUCH easier to plan.

Assuming I wouldn’t have access to a computer (or even a white board) made my life so much easier. It’s like when you go to a restaurant with a small menu versus a restaurant with a huge menu.  The huge menu is great if you have time and patience to wade through all the options. But when you have asmall menu, you pick one thing and make it work the best you can.

2. Classroom management was much easier.

Yes, these were very bright, motivated, and eager students. Of course I didn’t have the same challenges as a classroom teacher has day to day. However, what I discovered this week was that because I wasn’t distracted by technology, I was forced to move around the room more and interact with the students more. Hence, managing the classroom– keeping things moving and organized– was much easier.

3. There was no wasted time.

Teaching without technology forced me to reflect on how much time I waste on my computer. There was no downtime while an overhead heated up, no buzzing around mumbling to myself trying to get my audio working. Once time started, we were ready to go and stayed on task the whole class period.

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4. I had my eyes open to more teaching opportunities.

No technology means searching for hands-on activities, and as far as creative writing goes, those opportunities are everywhere. I was scouring the newspaper for articles to use to inspire stories, I looked through magazines for images and quotes. Some of my best activities came from just having my eyesopen to them in my day-to-day life, instead of digging through Pinterest for a Powerpoint.

5. No one missed technology in the least.

Not a single student asked if they could pull out their phone to do research (well, one did– she wanted to draw a wild dog for her book cover, and wasn’t sure what a wild dog looked like). No one asked if I could talk about the Hero’s Journey with a Powerpoint. No one asked if they could do their story on a blog instead of on paper. In teaching, especially in the arts, it can be so tempting to fall into “needing” technology to illustrate your point. That simply isn’t true.

It wasn’t all perfect. We had some cramped hands and some illegible handwriting. I also had to write a long activity on the whiteboard (which I did end up having at my disposal)…Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 1.05.08 PM

which would have been better displayed on an overhead. But those minor things paled in comparison to the freedom I felt every day walking into my classroom and knowing that creativity was going to flow– and I didn’t need technology to make it happen.

Book Reviews, Teachable Books, Teaching

A Teachable Book: The Road to Character, by David Brooks

When I was teaching seniors, I always struggled to find books that would teach some “life lessons” before they went off into the real world.  I would often turn to short stories or compilations of stories to either fill in the gaps or add to a lesson for a book I was already teaching.

The Road to Character, by David Brooks, would be a perfect addition to that list.

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This book counteracts some of the “advice” our kids have been getting in recent generations: that the answers to all of life’s problems can be found within.  Brooks argues that we are missing something deeply profound when we see ourselves this way.  He introduces the book by saying there are two virtues we pursue in life: resume virtues and eulogy virtues.  Resume virtues (money, power, success) are not the virtues he focuses on in The Road to Character.  Rather, he focuses on the importance of cultivating “eulogy virtues”, or the things people will say about us and our legacy when we die.

Brooks highlights several historical figures, from Dwight Eisenhower to Dorothy Day (my favorite chapter- fascinating) to several Civil Rights figures.  He links them all by connecting their inner struggles: to serve, to find deeper meaning in life, to humble themselves and sacrifice of themselves to contribute meaningfully to the world.

As the book is so easily broken down by chapters, I love the idea of taking the book in pieces into a classroom.  Students could read just one chapter and present it to each other for a small group project, or as a large-class (TOK) project.  The book could also be used as a springboard for debate on many levels– are the values Brooks highlights relevant today?  (I would argue yes, more than ever!)

A fascinating read and highly recommended!

Commentary, Digital Citizenship, Teachable Books, Teaching

Three (Well, Four) Titles for Teaching Digital Citizenship

How great is it that schools are beginning to implement curriculum around digital citizenship?  Even the term implies the importance of it– we live in an age where we are expected to be digitally savvy, and yet comes with that the need to be a “citizen” of that space.  The same way we are citizens of our homes, our schools, our state, our country.  This work is so very important.

My new book, Edge the Bare Garden, is the story of a girl who sees the opportunity to get revenge online against the people who tormented her in grade school.  My hope is that it opens up conversations about what our responsibilities are to ourselves and each other online.  Here are three titles that I have been using to create a presentation to give to schools on this topic.

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Extreme Mean, by Paula Todd, is similar to So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed in that it is filled with anecdotes about how the online world can easily spin out of control.  What’s great about this book is that it’s filled with examples that are relevant to young people, including horrible instances of cyberbullying.  I will be referring to this book a lot when I talk to kids this year, particularly Chapter 19 (The Maddening Crowd: How Online Bystanders Fuel Cyberabuse).  YES.

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LOL… OMG, by Matt Ivesteris a great resource for teachers and parents.   It is short, precise, and organized in such a way that it lends itself to an excellent weeklong unit.  (Each chapter even has key takeaways!)  This book had me rethinking my own online presence, and how I need to practice what I preach about being careful online.

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Screen-Smart Parenting, by Jodi Gold, is a really interesting book about finding balance with technology in the home.  I know I find this difficult.  What I liked was that this was not a “technology is terrible” book (I strongly believe it’s not!) but more about seeing apps and devices as something that need to be monitored closely and used respectfully.

What other great reads on digital citizenship am I missing?

Book Reviews, Commentary, Teachable Books, Teaching

Go Set a Watchman, or How to Break a Bookworm’s Heart

I have written here about my skepticism about Go Set a Watchman, but now that I’m a couple weeks out from finishing it and have thoroughly wiped away my tears, I’m ready to write about the experience.  Full disclosure:  I know To Kill a Mockingbird better than most any other book in the world. It is the only book I’ve taught every single year in the classroom.  I have a whole lesson devoted to theories about why Harper Lee wouldn’t have published another book, and another devoted to the full analysis of the movie, beginning with why Gregory Peck is the ONE and ONLY Atticus. This is the bias I’m writing from, and I own it fully.

Okay.  Here goes.

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Go Set a Watchman was clearly a first draft of the masterpiece that is To Kill a Mockingbird.  The characters, the dialogue, the “plot”, the EVERYTHING. It read like a first(ish) time writer, trying to figure out her voice.  I didn’t mind that about it.  In fact, it was wonderful in some ways to read more from Harper Lee’s distinctive style.  I had heard rumblings about Atticus, that’s he’s a racist in the book (habba WHA???), that the Scout we know from Mockingbird was unrecognizable.  All of that was true.

THAT is not what broke my heart.

The only thing I could think of, page after page, was Harper Lee herself.  I obviously don’t know her, but as a writer now I feel much more in tune with the ups and downs of the writing process.  How each and every book on the shelf at the library is someone’s heart and soul.  I kept thinking about the drafts of stories on my computer, angsty tomes about unrequited love and other silly nonsense.  My writing at twenty is nothing like my writing at thirty-seven, and those pieces will never see the light of day.  That is okay.  I think Harper Lee identified with this on a much larger scale, considering her super-stardom in the literary world and her shyness from the spotlight and unwillingness to publish another novel in all this time.

And yet, this work was “found” and still published.  The timing is far too convenient for HarperCollins, the publishers raking in millions and millions with this book.

So my heart didn’t break for Mockingbird, which is untouchable in my eyes.  Rather, it broke for Harper Lee, for her legacy, and for the sad reality of publishing today.

Money is what matters.  Not content.

I would never recommend this book to be taught in a classroom, but if for some reason it were, I would have my students read it in conjunction with Mockingbird.  And then I would have them write an essay exploring the following topics:

1.  What is our responsibility in preserving the legacy of great works of art?

2.  What is our responsibility toward the elderly?  

And finally, probably most importantly:

3.  In what ways does the publication of Go Set a Watchman confirm the sad state of the money-hungry world we live in?

Okay, fine.  That last one would just be for me.

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.

Book Reviews, Teachable Books, Teaching

A Teachable Book: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

This week I finished a truly captivating book called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson.

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If you use the Internet or know someone who does, read this book.  But reader be warned: this is a tough read.  I’m not talking about the prose, I’m talking about the subject matter.  Ronson tells the cautionary tales of people whose lives were ruined based on bad decisions on social media, and after every single chapter I was left with a feeling of dread.  For the person shamed, the future of online shaming, and the possibility of ever being on the receiving end of it.

I knew most of the anecdotes Ronson referred to (the AIDS joke girl on Twitter, the Facebook photo at a war memorial), but I had certainly been part of the “masses” that saw the story, rolled their eyes, and shrugged off the online crucification of these girls for their poor decisions.  What I didn’t know what the whole story behind Jonah Leher’s public shaming or the fact that– for the uber rich– there are ways of paying people to “fix” the internet so your public shaming doesn’t haunt you the rest of your life.

I read this book thinking it must— in part– be taught to high school seniors.  Before they depart into the vast “real world” they need to see what their online presence really, truly means to them, and how their actions (and inactions) online define them as a person.  My only struggle was that many of these “shamings” are so brutal and disgusting that it would be nearly impossible to assign it in the classroom. That conundrum is fascinating to me, and is something to talk about in and of itself.

I didn’t love all of this book.  There was a section where Ronson explores pornography and the “shaming” that goes on there, and I felt like it was unnecessary and didn’t serve much purpose.  There was also a section on “Radical Honesty” which, while really interesting, didn’t seem to fit.  But maybe I was reading this with the lens of a teacher, and wanted the whole book to be about how and why we are who we are on the internet, and how we can fix this public-shaming world we live in, especially online.

If you are a teacher, here are some pointers for getting this book into the classroom:

  • Consider photocopying (with permission) the first couple sections of the book.  Take a sharpie to the super-inappropriate parts, but leave the big black marks there so the kids can see just how much was “censored” due to content.
  • Integrate portions of this book into a philosophy unit- so many options here.
  • Do a PBL project about social media– have kids determine their hypothesis/thesis.  This would be an awesome book to do a social media “experiment”.
  • Watch Jon Ronson’s extended interview with Jon Stewart here.
Commentary, Teachable Books, Teaching

New Harper Lee! New Harper Lee?

A couple weeks ago, the book-nerd world went crazy when news surfaced that Harper Lee was going to publish a second novel, a “sequel” to To Kill A Mockingbird.  Believe me, I was one of  those book nerds.  I have pre-ordered lots of books before, but none with such excitement as this one.

But once all the excitement wore down I got to thinking…To_Kill_a_Mockingbird

Harper Lee’s notorious seclusion has been as much a part of teaching To Kill A Mockingbird as the story itself.  I can’t tell you how many students have said, “Wait.  Is SHE Boo Radley?”  I have always loved the debates struck up in class about why she wouldn’t have written another book, why she would deny interviews all these years, why she lives such a private life.  So…. why now?

I’ve been reading some great reflections over the last couple weeks.  This one on author idolatry is fantastic, and this one, about my beloved Atticus and the Civil Rights Movement got me thinking, too.  What all this speculation about the publishing motivations behind Go Set a Watchman has done is made me extremely skeptical.  Sure, I will devour this book as soon as I can, but I won’t be reading it as though it’s the second coming of To Kill a Mockingbird.  In all likelihood, I’ll be reading it like I would a treasured poem written by my own mother, and be extremely protective of its content and legacy.

I would love to hear how classroom teachers are talking about the new Harper Lee novel, particularly ones teaching Mockingbird right now.  If you’re looking for some great resources for the classroom, here are a few articles to get conversation going:

Teenage Opinion: Why I’m Excited About the New Harper Lee Book (via The Guardian)

Does Harper Lee Really Want Her Book Published, and Do Her Wishes Matter?  (via the LA Times)

Harper Lee Backs New Novel (via the NY Times)