Let Them Write!

It occurs to me that one way for students to better understand poetry is to write it. I had this epiphany this morning as I scribbled “Irrelevant.” As I was scribbling, I noticed a rhyme scheme and a pattern emerging, and they changed my thought process.

Yes, I know; it shocked me too.

I wondered to myself, post-scribbling, if what I experienced was like what “real poets” experience as they are writing a poem. What did I learn about the writing process by writing? What can my students learn about literature by writing?

In AP Literature and Composition, we spend so much time reading and analyzing literature in search of nuggets of wisdom regarding the human condition. I’ve been missing an important piece of that exploration, however: Creation. Therefore, next year, we will spend more time exploring the creation of literature and creating some ourselves. Perhaps creating texts will help the students (and me) better analyze and tease from the texts those important messages that can help us live our best lives.

How Might This Be Implemented?

Good question! These are my nascent thoughts.

Take a Basic Project Management Approach

In my previous life, I was a team lead for an internal training team. I tried a basic project management approach to initiatives, following an acronym I came up with after taking a college class in project management.

  • Plan
  • Execute
  • Analyze
  • React

The Project

For literature study, we could implement the project with these steps (I think).

  • Prepare: Read several texts and about their historical context, their authors, and their authors’ writing process; students choose an author to focus on, one who speaks most to them.
    • Review key questions after each text, and write paragraphs to answer those questions.
    • Create one-pagers about the historical context.
    • Create charts about the author and author’s writing process for each text.
    • Choose an author to focus on.
  • Evaluate the author’s process: subject choice; themes; drafting, revision, and editing; response to the world.
    • Create a one-pager about the author’s process.
  • Author: Students create a text after choosing a subject and theme; students draft, revise, and edit their text; students respond to constructive feedback from peers.
  • React: Students evaluate their writing process and whether knowing something about the writing process for literary writers helped them as they created their text; students re-evaluate the texts we read during the “Prepare” phase for greater understanding.
    • Sentence stems for the first part could include:
      • As I was writing, I noticed I stopped when…, and this is like / different from what I read of _____’s experience.
      • As I was creating ____, I noticed…, and this is like / different from…
      • My [setting/character/language/structure/theme] reminds me of…
      • I read about ____’s writing process. While I was writing, I noticed [similarity/difference] in my writing process.
      • ______ used [his/her] experiences with ______ to create _____. Similarly, I used my experience with ______ to create _____.
    • Return to the texts and write about how the interpretation or understanding has changed in light of the personal writing process.

This project is best served by reading texts like short stories and poetry. It would be difficult, for example, to consume several novels and then dive in. Additionally, texts from authors who have either written or spoken about their writing process are better choices. Writers from The Lost Generation and Harlem Renaissance immediately come to mind.

In AP Lit, standards and key questions exist for short stories, poetry, and longer fiction; these standards and key questions should be aligned to a creation project like this. The twist occurs when the students synthesize their experience with what they know of the author they studied. Did they notice anything while they were creating that was similar to the author or diverged from the author’s experience?

Culminating Activity

I think the most important piece of this is to write about whether creation helped interpret other texts, if the act of entering a writing community provided a key to unlocking the mysteries of great literature.

Another question, one that is central to the course: “How did this exercise help you better determine how a text speaks about the human condition?”

Reimagining the Study of Literature

I am sure that there are literature teachers out there who already do this type of project. In other words, this idea is probably not new. However, I like to share instances in which I stumble upon ideas because it is important to be part of the conversation. In this post, I am starting to reimagine the study of literature for myself. My goal: to make learning as meaningful and useful as possible.

In a previous post, I wrote about “Writing to Learn.” My goal then was the same as it is now. If you look back at posts I’ve written over the years, you will notice that I strive to answer the question, “Why do I have to learn this?” The best way, I think, to answer that question is to bring the students closer to the concept, skill, text, or whatever it is. Bring them into the community. Welcome them. Assure them. Let them write.

Thank you for reading this post.


If you are interested in learning more about a poet’s writing process, this interview with Billy Collins is helpful.


It needs to become irrelevant that "I'm Still Standing," Elton John.
Perhaps it is true that I've been put upon
this Earth for more than that,
that I'm destined for more than that.

Irrelevant.  It.  Perhaps.  I'm still standing.
I'm not an It.  I'm not irrelevant.  I'm landing
on a different runway this time.
No more deja vu for me this time.

This time.  Why so many years spent!
Why let them live rent-
free inside my head?
Why live filled with dread?

Break free!  Be me! Stop being
who you think they want you to be.  How freeing
to think it can be different.
It will be so very different...

I'm not there...yet.

With apologies to Sir Elton John

Writing to Learn

In my research on writing-to-learn, I found the following explanation from Colorado State University. 

Generally, writing-to-learn activities are short, impromptu, or otherwise informal, and low-stakes writing tasks that help students think through key concepts or ideas presented in a course. Often, these writing tasks are limited to less than five minutes of class time or are assigned as brief, out-of-class assignments.

That’s not what I’m talking about here.

Instead, consider writing-to-learn, for the purposes of this article, as a longer, sustained process by which a writer probes the mind in the dark and musty places to gain insight about the human condition and the self.

Philosophical Ramblings

Elsewhere, I have written, “Writers are drawn to writing to explore their lives and their world view, but accessing the part of the mind that makes it possible to explore to the depths of one’s soul is often just too much.” That is true, and that is why so much writing falls flat.

Writing is hard. Writing-to-learn is harder. It requires the writer to acknowledge something: cognitive dissonance, conflict, mistakes made, pain – and committed writers are often depressed as a result. From those acknowledgements, themes emerge, as does greater understanding, but sometimes at a considerable cost. Going deep to discover what you believe and think can be brutal.

Look, we are not born with a tabula rasa – a mind that is a clean slate. That’s my opinion. Instead, the generations of evolution that have taken place are present within us. We cannot articulate them at first, but it’s my opinion that we are born with understanding. Then nurture takes over and tramples certain aspects of understanding, while leaving others intact. Nurture – tradition, culture, history – teaches us to view the world in ways that might be counterintuitive to nature.

There comes a point in one’s life during which we question how we were raised, and our nature begs us to reconsider certain truths. That’s when we experience depression or angst.

So, if we are all born with this understanding, probably more evolved than what nurture offers us, why aren’t the nurturers of the same mind as us? I figure it’s because traditions are long-standing and humans are loath to change.

Think about “movements” in our collective history. They are called movements because they are instigating change, overcoming cultural inertia. They get push-back because humans hate change. Meanwhile, evolution – by definition change – marches on.

It is within that space between stasis and definitive change that we as individuals often find ourselves as we confront nurture with nature for the first time. It’s exhausting, especially after years of conditioning, to assert thoughts and opinions that diverge from common knowledge.

And yet, this is what we must do. We must confront common knowledge and either accept it or reject it. Sometimes, rejection is received by the community without question, and the community marches on, declaring the individual different, but not a “problem.” Sometimes, the individual is declared unworthy of inclusion. Sometimes, the individual is declared outright dangerous.

In all cases, people need to question the status quo. It’s in our biology, even if society wants to maintain stasis. I question why that is.

  • Why can’t we question without push-back?
  • Why can’t we be Socratic? Why did Socrates have to drink the hemlock?
  • Why don’t we learn from history?
  • Why are philosophers and writers considered dangerous, and teachers not treated professionally?
  • Why do some submit to the collective will, even when they know the collective is wrong?
  • Why do some persist, even when it endangers them?
  • Why does it take so long to bring about change?

Writing-to-Learn Activity: Exploring Banned Books

Through writing-to-learn activities, we can address these questions. While these activities are important for any subject, I’m an English teacher, so my ideas are informed by my experiences in the ELA classroom. I welcome you to contribute your ideas for other content areas.

WtL: Literary Analysis and Response

Great literature beckons us to question everything about it: characters, setting, language, style, theme… We explore our prior knowledge within its context. We find evidence in the text to help us interpret what the author is expressing about its themes. We build knowledge in this process and bounce it off what we knew before. We then either know something new or reject the author’s premise; this decision-making process is a sign of maturity.

Although younger readers might need time with the canon of “accepted” literature, more mature readers should learn about books that make society uneasy. Just as they are starting to question their nurturing, they should be allowed to read texts that help them question. As a teacher, I think it’s my job to curate those texts and present them to my students. My gift to them is an opportunity to experience the discomfort that comes with exposure to inconvenient truth.

Why Discuss Banned Books?

Books are banned because their authors dared to raise certain questions in “unacceptable” ways. Themes emerge from those texts that are anathema to society. Those books, however, hold the keys to human evolution. Where is society hiding the keys? Some may be in a dusty library closet, probably, or a corner of a professor’s office.

As humans develop cognitively, they may find the keys; it’s a “Where’s Waldo?” game with themes. There are clues left by those who disagree with banning books, for example. They are there, and we need to identify them to find them.

At the very least, there should be a discussion about banned books. The American Library Association helps us with “Banned Books Week” each year. The association is promoting the freedom to read. Indeed, reading and freedom do go hand in hand. Consider the audacity of Martin Luther to suggest that ordinary people could – and should – read the Bible! My word! What was he thinking? (That was meant to be sarcastic.)

On this page, you will find the Top 10 Most Challeged Books each year from 2001 – 2020. It is truly amazing to me that last year Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas made the list. In other years, I noticed titles that shocked me as well.

The reasons for banning books also saddened me, especially those LGBTQ-themed books. At a time in which society needs to understand LGBTQ perspectives, to ban the books that express them indicates that society considers the community dangerous.

“Anti-police” books are banned because society doesn’t want to have the conversation we so desperately need to have about police reform. One book that falls into that category, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, allegedly addressed topics that were too “sensitive” to consider “right now.”

Not now, honey, we’ll discuss it later.

Unfortunately, tomorrow never comes.

This year, Banned Books Week is September 26 – October 2. I plan to address this issue with all my classes that week, and to ask them to write-to-learn about their reaction to banning books. We will also read and react to Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, because that book addresses the notion of banned and destroyed books as the destruction of knowledge itself. We will write-to-learn about our reaction to this theme, whether we agree with it or not.

The New York Times’ article, “The Banned Books Your Child Should Read,” by Perri Klaus, M.D., ends with a perfect reasoning for allowing your child to read banned books.

As a parent, I was dazzled when my daughter’s high school summer reading assignment was to choose a book ‘out of your comfort zone,’ however the student chose to define it. Because that is, of course, what literature does, and part of the glorious freedom (and human right) of literacy is the opportunity to journey with words well beyond your comfort zone.

Yes, indeed.

Thank you for reading this post.

Speaking Your Truth

I teach a creative writing class by the seat of my pants. Why? Because each student who experiences the class is a unique individual. Creative writing is a personal endeavor; pre-established expectations should not hamper creative writers. Therefore, while the skeleton of the course is there, each item in that “curriculum” – such as it is – has the goal of helping students understand themselves better and find their voice.

To find their voice, creative writers explore their truth. What is it about the human condition they know, deep down, in the bones of their experience? What themes do they turn to, perhaps without knowing it? I don’t think my students are expecting such freedom or challenge when they start the class. It’s jarring to consider one’s metacognitive processes and to examine what they know to be true, especially if they have never been asked to do that before.

The activities of this elective class can only help them become better writers and readers, ultimately leading to self-actualization and increased self-confidence. As I have written many times before, we study literature to better understand the human condition and our place in society. Well, we write to learn the same things.

The First Magazine Post

That brings me to a project we worked on this past week. While our literary and arts magazine had been in print for years, due to COVID-19, I moved it to a WordPress instance last year. Every creative writing student is invited to contribute to the magazine. This week, I asked the students write their first post for the magazine.

The name of the assignment is “Speaking Your Truth.” We explored the concept of theme – a message or statement about the human condition. Usually we are asked, as readers, to find the theme of a work, so I decided to ask the students to determine what theme they would like to express in their post. What is the important message they want to send to their readers at this point in their lives? What do they know to be true about how humans interact, how they live, human nature, and society?

After creating a theme statement, the students created a discussion post on the LMS (learning management system) in which they expressed their theme statement and explained why they know this to be true. The discussion was phenomenal. As I had hoped, granting students freedom and challenging them to think about their values and experiences opened the flood gates of creativity.

The next step was to learn how to use WordPress to create a post. As they are all contributors, that part was easy. Write, click on “Publish,” and then click on “Send for Review.” I will format the post for them. For example, if they want to add media, I can upload their media and insert it for them. If they write a poem, I can ensure the text is in a verse block.

Students were allowed to create any type of text they wanted: poem, short story, comic strip (yes), graphic story (a mini version of the graphic novel), micro-fiction, essay, etc. I believe that thrilled most of the students and frightened some of them.

For example, one of the students asked the age-old chestnut: “How long does this have to be?” in an email. Since no one else knew that this student asked that question, I felt free to comment without embarrassing anyone: “Please do not ask me how long this has to be. It needs to be as long as you need to speak your truth. If that’s one page, cool. If that’s twenty, cool.”

This weekend, I am going to review what has been posted. I am sure that there is some great writing waiting to be read. I can’t wait to learn more about these wonderful individuals and what they know to be true.

“How do I teach now?” – Lessons from the Classroom after an Insurrection

On January 6, 2021, I was working with a student during office hours when my husband came into the dining room to tell me that people had stormed the U.S. Capitol. My mouth dropped open. My student’s mouth dropped open. After my husband apologized for interrupting the meeting, he went back downstairs to his office to watch the incident unfold live. Once my schoolday was finished, I joined him. I missed about an hour of what was happening, but I have since watched many videos that frighten me sufficiently.

Later that evening, I checked Facebook. A fellow teacher had posted, “How do we teach now?”

The responses indicated the resilience and commitment of teachers across this country. Lesson plan after lesson plan was posted by hundreds of teachers. Each focused on truthful and/or positive aspects of this country; none had a focus on violence or rebellion. I chose to do the following with two of my classes.

AP® Lit: “America” by Claude McKay

Thank you, Poetry Foundation

In AP® Literature and Composition, the plan was to write an essay on a sonnet “For That He Looked Not Upon Her,” by George Gascoigne. With what happened the day before, on 1/7, the plan changed to feature Claude McKay’s sonnet, “America.”

I explained to the students: “Yesterday, something happened in the U.S. Capitol that rocked me to the core. We were going to work with a sonnet written by a contemporary of Shakespeare, but now we are going to use a sonnet written about America. Any objections?”

Hearing none, we proceeded.

I chose this poem to illustrate the complicated and complex feelings that many have about this country, this “cultured hell.” It gave me a chance to talk about the Harlem Renaissance, too, and how the artists, musicians, and writers of that movement demonstrated to everyone that Americans are resilient, beautiful, brilliant, and determined.

The turn of the sonnet describes how the speaker assures the reader that although the nation has fed him “bread of bitterness,” sunk “her tiger’s tooth” into his neck, and overwhelmed him with her power, he is not afraid. He stands up to her “cultured hell” as a rebel would face a king. The turn shows us that the speaker is a persistent individual with foresight, one who knows truth.

The last four lines, however, were those I hoped the students would pick up on. My interpretation: If we continue – as a country – along the path we are on, we are in big trouble. The sonnet was written almost 100 years ago, but the message resonates today: We must be vigilant, protect the American Experiment, strive toward improvement of life for all, and not be fearful of those who would prefer the United States fail, even those within our borders.

The students’ responses blew me away. I’m so proud.

Creative Writing: Langston and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In Creative Writing, I developed a final project for which students create a story from a poem. As a sample, I created a draft using “Harlem,” by Langston Hughes as its foundation. A line from this poem provided the title for the play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, which I had been working on with another English class. Therefore, the poem was on my mind. We had just finished reading “I Have a Dream” in that other class, so it just seemed natural to me to have Langston pay MLK a visit in August, 1963, before the March on Washington.

On 1/7, I introduced the students to their final project. I presented my draft to them and read a bit of it. This time, I did not tell the students that 1/6 rocked me to the core. Instead, I focused on the Civil Rights Movement and, again, the Harlem Renaissance. Several of the poems I provided for the students to pick from were from diverse voices, too, and the students have gravitated toward them, especially “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” by Joy Harjo, our nation’s first Native American Poet Laureate.

My message: Our nation is beautiful. Our nation is resilient. Our citizens are brilliant. We will overcome challenges to the American Experiment.

I look forward to seeing what they come up with.

Other Classes

I have a few other classes, and they wanted to talk about 1/6. I did my best to explain how I, as a citizen and an American, had thought I was witnessing the end of our country while I watched “priceless treasures” manhandled and listened to chants threatening the lives of long-time public servants. Until such time as the Capitol was cleared and secured, I worried that Congress would be overrun. I was mourning those who had died in the insurrection, also.

They were somber conversations, but also truly focused on the feelings we have about 1/6 as Americans. Forget partisanship, put aside differences of opinion, and think about how close we came to not having a country anymore.

My Secret Hope

Well, it won’t be much of a secret when this is published, but my secret hope is that these future leaders will reaffirm their commitment to a nation once a beacon of hope and a leader among those who espoused or aspired to democracy. There needs to be, just as every sonnet needs a turn, a turn toward something brighter and beautiful. We need a Renaissance.

Will my “kids” lead us there?

NaNoWriMo Is Coming and This Year I Will Write My Heart Out Because My Message Matters

From nanowrimo.org and created by Tyrell Waiters

I participated in this awesome contest for many years before taking a break, but I believe this year, with all the confusion and disorientation many of us are experiencing, it is critical we do what we love. For more information, please visit nanowrimo.org.

It was a late September morning, the day after the demons blasted a hole through the wall of the high school to get their latest fix, that Paul — a demon himself — found his best friend Aidan lying in his California King bed with his feet still dangling and a white sheet covering him from head to toe. Paul stood in the doorway, hands on his hips, smiling. The smile faded as his brows furrowed, and he shook his head in disapproval.

“What the hell is this?” Paul asked the sheet. Aidan groaned and told him to go away. Since confrontation was part of Paul’s nature and he found it useful, so he didn’t fight it, he dismissed his friend’s request with a snort. He went over to the bed and sat down. Then, he bounced on it. Aidan growled, which made Paul laugh. It was a derisive cackle, really.

“Would you please go away?” Aidan said in his deepest voice.

“No,” Paul said. “Listen, this is ridiculous. As much fun as it might be to see you in existential agony, your time of self-pity is up. Get up and let’s figure out what to do.”

Aidan pushed the sheet back, allowing his friend to see his ancient, beautiful face streaked with blood tears. His white hair had been stained with blood in places as well. “To do?” he asked.

“Yes! You never give up. In a thousand years, you’ve never given up! Why the hell are you being so stupid now?” Paul was slapping Aidan’s thigh as he spoke. He knew it wouldn’t hurt, but figured it might emit some reaction at least. Aidan did not move.

“They won. There was nothing I could do to stop them. Now, hundreds are gone.”

“And more remain! Besides, they aren’t really gone. Their minds are gone for now. They’ll be back. Yeah, some died from the blast,” Paul said, shrugging his shoulders. “But more survived it. You can help them, and you must.”

Dear Reader, if you ever tell Paul or Aidan they are best friends, they’ll deny it. Trust me, though, they are.

At this moment, Aidan grew furious. He raised his head, growled, and showed his teeth. His pale blue eyes flashed. Paul cackled again. It had been years since that display made any difference to him. Aidan backed off, as usual. He slammed his head down on the pillow.

Aidan cried into the pillow, “What?! How am I supposed to help them?! Do you think I can cast a spell to return their wits to them? We can’t even find most of them! They’ve run off somewhere…”

“So you’ve wasted time laying here under a flag of surrender while the kids are out there? You’re a coward.” Paul said this in a menacing voice that made Aidan sit up. Finally, he thought.

“I am no coward. I dinna know what to do!” Aidan’s Scots accent was prominent now, which always came out when he was in crisis. Paul decided to push because that’s what Paul does.

“You ARE a coward,” Paul declared, emphasizing his opinion with a stab of his finger into Aidan’s chest with each word. “You are acting like a helpless human instead of what you are. Stop it.”

Aidan, Paul, and the other characters to come have been in my head for years. That might sound crazy, but I’m sure you can confirm with any writer at any level that characters do that. I’m not a good writer, but I have the need to tell a story. These characters fit the story I need to tell. It’s their story, but the themes are mine.

My first theme has grown out of our current health and economic crises. If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. If all you do is complain without having a suggestion for how to make things better, how is that helpful? If you pull the flag of surrender over your head, how is that helpful?

My second theme is that part of growing up is finding your why. You might find it odd that I’m talking about growing up in the context of ancient beings, but we can experience growth at any time in our lives. Stick with me.

  • We can feel small and insignificant, or we can feel integral and necessary. 
  • We can bring our gifts to the situation, or we can keep them to ourselves. 
  • We can risk ridicule and failure while we try to make a difference, or we can avoid feeling less significant than others by doing nothing.

But can we live with ourselves if we do nothing when we know we can do something? That’s why I want to be part of the conversation.

If we teachers support the notion that failure is an opportunity to learn when it comes to our students, can’t we support that for ourselves as well?

In a world where no one believes in demons, as almost no human does in my story, to blame the behavior on demons seems nutty in itself. And so, these poor humans, the ones that Aidan allowed to escape by diving under the sheet, live through years of trying to rebuild their lives and reputations because no one believes the catalyst for their actions was a supernatural creature. 

Outwardly, they look the same. Inwardly, they are a hot mess. Some don’t make it.

In my story, the demons are the beings that siphon the fear out of humans. They live off of fear, encourage it to come forth before sucking it out of you, leaving you unhinged, not happy. Instead of being sufficiently afraid, which we all need to be, these people become bold and brazen and start doing dangerous things they would never have done if they had their wits about them. These humans declare their allegiance to absurd ideas or people. They become sycophants to tyranny and autocracy. Eventually, the levels of fear even out again, but it’s after they have displayed risky behavior for a sustained period, ruining their reputations, relationships, and lives.

Putting the demon aspect aside, think about current events. Messages delivered by important people matter. The messages being sent these days — whether good or bad — have emboldened people to behave in ways they would not have before. My fear is that those who support ideas that hurt others, because these messengers have validated them, are going to regret what they are doing someday and experience intense and crippling remorse. A bigger fear is they won’t.

So, yes, in my opinion, my story matters. It might be convoluted and sound silly. It might not be good writing. It still matters. I’m trying to be a messenger, to send helpful messages that support the solution seekers, not the troublemakers. That’s why I’m going back to NaNoWriMo this year. Writing is part of my why, even if I’m not going to win any awards. I must. I will.

(Yes, NaNoWriMo, I do plan to make sure I write 50,000 words in November, but I had to start writing now.)

Thank you for reading.

The Thought Piece

The Thought Piece (TP) can be used with any work of literature. It is an informal writing assignment that asks students to reflect on the work they read and annotated, and then write about those thoughts coupled with the text itself. It is through this informal writing process that students can learn about what they read and how their minds are processing what they read. TPs should be formative assessments, grouped together for later reflection on metacognitive strategies and processes along with content learning. They should not be used for a grade, although perhaps a rubric could be used to evaluate the assignment. I first heard about this type of assignment as I was combing through materials for the AP® Literature course. For more information, look at the College Board site: https://apcentral.collegeboard.org/. I have expanded this assignment to include some rules that help students with their writing-to-learn skills.

The Rules

  • Read the text.
  • Use Cornell Notes or another method to annotate the text. The text should be referenced by paragraph, stanza, page number, or Act/Scene/Line. Quotations, in full or in part, are recommended highly. Then, you should indicate whether that part of the text generated a question, commentary, or other type of reaction.
  • Look at your notes. Do you see thoughts that have things in common? Do you see thoughts that build on one another? Do you see any trends? What are they? Use the summary area of your notes pages to point out those trends to yourself.
  • Get ready to write! Using your notes, just start writing out your thoughts about the work you read.
  • When you write your piece, use complete sentences and try to use expanded sentences as much as possible. Try starting out a sentence, then add because, but, or so. Although this is informal, you should not create fragments or run-ons. One point of this assignment is to learn how to create complete thoughts.
  • You do not need a thesis statement for this informal writing assignment, but you might want to celebrate if you write into one.
  • Read your piece after you have finished writing it and then edit it for grammar and style.

Six Facets of Understanding (UbD) and AP® Lit Big Ideas and Essential Knowledge

According to Wiggins and McTighe, the six facets of understanding include “the capacity to explain, interpret, apply, shift perspective, empathize, and self-assess” (UbD_WhitePaper0312.pdf, 2012). These can be aligned to Bloom and DoK, but I like UbD because it seems simpler to me. Frankly, I guess I’m getting a little tired of this being so complicated, but that is something I will get over. That said, let’s look at how this assignment could be applied to the Big Ideas and Essential Knowledge of AP® Literature and the six facets of understanding, which will require a bit of alignment. The spreadsheet below is a work-in-progress.

One reason curriculum development and alignment is so important is that during the process the teacher realizes adjustments should be made to suit one’s teaching style and one’s students.

For example, while reviewing the Big Ideas/Essential Knowledge, I noticed there isn’t much there to apply the higher levels of understanding to (empathize and self-assess). If the purpose of studying literature is to better understand the human condition and to understand our role within the human community (that’s my idea, anyway), then shouldn’t we provide more opportunities within the course to do just that? Some of the line items to which I applied “empathize” are actually a stretch and I would need to expand on the statement to actually make that classification work. That is something I will need to work on while I continue to tweak my syllabus.

Speaking of syllabi, I would love it if someone would be willing to look at the massive mess I have right now. One reason I am doing this post is because this will be part of an example assignment I need to include in the syllabus that I submit to the College Board.


UbD_WhitePaper0312.pdf. (2012). ASCD. https://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/siteASCD/publications/UbD_WhitePaper0312.pdf

It’s National Novel Writing Month! Your novel is waiting to be written. What are you waiting for?

Hello, everyone!  I published this post originally on November 12, 2014, and it is still relevant today, so I am posting it again.  

– Heather, 11/8/16


During National Novel Writing Month, millions of words are arranged and re-arranged to form novels of many genres.  People fire up their device of choice, sharpen their pencils, buy a new pack of pens, or talk into their digital recorders as they pour their writer’s heart out onto the page.  Some will never publish their novel – perhaps most will not – but that does not matter.  The text will exist, and will join the canon of human experience nonetheless.  The NaNoWriMo crew has been encouraging writers to create their novel since 1999 by challenging them to write 50,000 words in the month of November.  One can only imagine how many novels are out there that remain unpublished.  Personally, I have three, and am working on my fourth.  For me, it has changed November from the month of early darkness to the month of limitless possibility.  Perhaps it could do the same for you.  Your novel is waiting to be written.  What are you waiting for?

Continue reading “It’s National Novel Writing Month! Your novel is waiting to be written. What are you waiting for?”

Writing across the Curriculum

Freshman year of high school was terrifying.  People seem incredulous when I tell them that, of all the years of schooling I have had, that year was the hardest.  After all, it was high school.  What could be so tough about that?

As my Grandmom used to say with a huge sigh, “Well…!”

The first problem was that I was not prepared for the workload.  Coming from a public middle school into this rigorous public high school that wanted to weed out those who weren’t able to handle the curriculum, I found myself suddenly overwhelmed by the amount of work they made us do.  By the time I turned fourteen in October, I thought I was going to lose my mind.  It didn’t help that our school President, Dr. Pavel, said to us during orientation, “Look to your left and to your right.  One of these people, or more, will probably return to their home school at the end of this school year.”  Yikes.

The second problem was that I was expected to do things I had never done before, like write papers and essays.  In elementary and middle school, we did not do much writing.  I think we did book reports in fifth grade, but I could be mistaken.  It wasn’t that I was a bad writer.  I actually enjoyed writing for my own purposes, but did not have the tools I needed to create the papers and essays the teachers wanted.  In other words, I didn’t know how to meet their expectations.  That was scary.

Enter Dr. Kreider, my World History teacher.  She is still my academic hero; I haven’t met a teacher like her since.  The best gift she could have given us hurt like hell: The chance to practice writing.  Many of us almost wrote our hand off.

OK, not really.  But it really did hurt.

Dr. Kreider did three things for us, actually.  First, she managed every student a copy of the New York Times every school day.  Second, she made us keep journals in which we reacted to topics covered in class and NYT articles.  Third, she responded to everyone’s journals over the weekend, and not just with a “Nice job!” either.  Oh, no.  We would get paragraphs back.   If we almost wrote our hand off, she must have thought she should, too.  I do not know how she did it, but I do know that she loved her kids.  She loved them enough to embrace writing across the curriculum with gusto.   Dr. Kreider actually did research in the area, I would learn later, and delivered papers about the positive effects of students learning to read and write in all content-area classes.

Fast-forward 30 years to my son’s freshman English class.  His teacher listened to the students, slack-jawed, as they told her that none of them knew how to write an essay.  Admittedly, this is her first year teaching freshmen in a long time, so perhaps she simply lost perspective.  In my opinion, however, it just shows that some things never change, but they need to quickly.

Rewind 26 years to English Composition class.  Typically, we would write an essay, peer review our classmates’ essays, and then create a final version for the teacher.  I remember being appalled by the writing I reviewed.  My red pen dashed across the page until I think there was as much red on the page as blue or black.  Some classmates appreciated the help.

Others, I was informed one day while riding the 66 bus home with my friend Susanne, were terrified to give me their papers to review.  I asked why.

“Because you are so mean, Heather,” she replied, quietly.

“I’m just trying to help!” I responded, indignant.

“Perhaps you could try helping with a different color ink and less sarcasm,” she said, emboldened by being right.

I sulked, as I usually did when I was wrong about something.  The next day I went to the college store, purchased a green pen, and resolved to restrain myself.

Situations like these are why the creators of the Common Core State Standards focus on literacy and writing – in other words, on communication in all its forms.  The fact is that many students need more opportunities to write their hands off (and yes, I’m an advocate of writing on paper before writing electronically).  They need to write in each content area class, not just English.  Social Studies teachers – like Dr. Kreider – have excellent opportunities to have their students write informatively, persuasively, and creatively.  Science teachers can enforce good communication skills, as well as proper grammar and style, in lab reports, responses to essay questions, etc.  Even math teachers can post intriguing problems and require a constructed response (Aside: Where did that term come from?  I’m not crazy about it.).  My son’s math teacher has done that, using a discussion board online to help the students think through Algebra II problems using critical thinking and standard English.  Technology teachers can incorporate writing skills into their projects.  PE and Health teachers can ask students to produce works that show critical thinking.  Vo-tech teachers can ask students to write about their projects and what they have learned from doing them. Any teacher can incorporate critical thinking and effective communication skills into their curriculum.

Again, why are the creators of the Common Core State Standards so keen on ensuring that communication skills are practiced across the content areas?  I am sighing now as I write, “Well…!”  Here is a another reason.

The students’ inability to communicate effectively, both when writing and when speaking, continue when they enter adulthood and the workforce, unless they are given the chance to overcome these challenges in school.  The potential for knowledge sharing is greatly diminished when a person cannot get their ideas out of their heads and onto paper, the screen, or during a meeting.  Opportunities for innovation are lost, as well as opportunities for employees to advance in their careers.

As teachers in a corporate setting, we find this inability to be most problematic when working with the SME, the subject matter expert. Often, SMEs have difficulty explaining what they do.  They express frustration, often punctuating it with, “That’s just the way it’s done!  Watch me.”  Being unfamiliar with a technique, we can watch all we want, but we will not be able to reproduce their efforts without spending more time than we have to spare trying and failing, or researching.  We cannot ask the SME to teach others, since they cannot teach us.  If we do, we just waste everyone’s time.  That invaluable knowledge remains stuck  inside the SME’s head.  No one else can benefit from it.  We educators feel that is a terrible loss.

Great communicators are not born, contrary to popular opinion.  They learn their art the same way that we all learn something that intrigues us, by watching, listening, and trying.  As Vygotsky said, all learning is social, and it is within the community that we progress from a state of not knowing to mastering something under the tutelage of one or more more knowledgeable others.  It is important that we learn from those who can explain.

I have heard time and again: “I’m just not a good writer / speaker / teacher.”  What they mean is, “I don’t have the talent to be a good writer / speaker / teacher.”  Talent is irrelevant.  Communicators such as  Hemingway, Jobs, Socrates, Shakespeare, and Twain made it look easy, natural.  In fact, they practiced.  Their first efforts were, most likely, awful, not awesome, and what I mean by “first effort” is each and every time they chose to create something new by rearranging the letters of their alphabet.  I’m sure that even Socrates had to practice on someone, perhaps Plato.  Ask any of my writer friends and they will tell you that they have “killed trees” trying to get their message “right.”  What makes the great communicators different from the rest of us is commitment, perseverance, and grit.  Somewhere along the line there was their Dr. Kreider there to push them, even if only in their minds.

I applaud any teacher who embraces “Writing across the Curriculum.”  For those who aren’t English teachers, it seems like a daunting addition to their curriculum, although it does not have to be.  There are plenty of resources on the web that will help these teachers figure out where it makes sense to include a writing or speaking component into their current plans.  Explore the NCTE and ASCD websites for more information.

Happy New Year!