Our students are learning without us + how passion projects can fix that

pedagogy Jan 14, 2019

If you're not learning with intention, then why are you learning at all?

I remember sitting in our high school’s auditorium waiting for--what I expected to be--the usual, run-of-the-mill assembly to start.  (You know, the well-meaning kind that still manages to derail entirely my neatly-timed lesson plans. Sigh...)

But this assembly was different.  Way different.

In lieu of the usual, hackneyed modicum of topics scaring-or-shaming high schoolers away from (or toward) a given behavior, the audience was being offered something entirely unique this time around.

There before us was the AP Language teacher, Mrs. Garofalo, holding in her hand a DVD.  In her small but mighty voice, she told us we’d be taking part in a school-wide documentary viewing.  

Now, you would think that such an event might give some 3,000+ teenagers a shot at the Guinness Book of World Records for ‘most young adults napping in the same room’, but instead, it...

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Mastering the basics: foundational elements of an essay

pedagogy Jan 07, 2019

If there’s one thing I know about mastery, it’s that experts master the basics first before building upon them...

Some of the finest athletic coaches will agree--including Vince Lombardi, former head coach of the Green Bay Packers and arguably one of the greatest football coaches of all time:

‘become the best in the league at the basics everyone else takes for granted.’

Lombardi won 5 NFL championships in the span of 5 years, 3 of those in a row...and I’m no football fan-freak; but as a teacher, I do consider ‘coach’ as one of my many hats, so yeah, that’s pretty impressive.

Or as Pablo Picasso apparently saw it (you can’t trust these ‘quote’ websites for nothing):

‘Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.’

Long story short, a focus on the fundamentals can be a game-changer because it’s been known to drive results, and build the shoulders from which to stand...

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Why I left the classroom (+ how I'm a better teacher because of it)

pedagogy Aug 29, 2018

I've been doing a lot of thinking about our learners these days.  As teachers, we strive to make an impact on their lives by pointing them in the direction of their future.  Now maybe it's just me, but the more I think and the more I dig, I'm beginning to feel like we're failing to hit this mark in the traditional classroom setting.

(Like...something's got to give type-of-feels.)

In the days leading up to my decision to leave the classroom (AKA '2nd biggest heartbreak of my life'), I felt like I could’ve taught writing until my face turned blue, but it wouldn't necessarily mean that my students were going to apply these principles beyond the paper-pencil exam we were prepping for...or past the handful of college essays they'd go on to write for the application process or as part of their 'intro to comp' classes.

...and I definitely didn't like that feeling...

That my blood, sweat and tears would only carry them as far as a lifeless essay lost on the collegiate...

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Using Twitter to Empower Classroom Learning

21st century tools Nov 15, 2016

So there I was, thirty sets of eyes on me, fumbling awkwardly at my computer, trying desperately to get the school’s video announcements going before my class went into technological mutiny.

The Wifi appears to be working…that’s not it.

I tried refreshing the page…that’s not it.

I even pasted the link into the browser myself…no such luck.

Why won’t the video play, dammit?! With the ‘abandon all hope’ sign looming ominously above my computer, I started quietly praying to the YouTube gods for access into the Multimedia City before this band of teenagers ties me up with my own HDMi cables and hangs me from the overhead projector...

“Um, Miss?” I heard a voice proffer. “I think you just need to log in to your YouTube account. Just...hit the button in the top-right, there.”

First, I felt the golden warmth of a miracle descending upon me before the sting of stupidity snuffed...

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Build Perspective, Deepen the Convo

foundational Sep 26, 2016

How do we take our writers to the next level?  Sure, we can teach them to generate and organize ideas, but how do we get them to engage with these ideas on a more critical level?

It's all about perspective, brave teachers.  Getting our students to appreciate just how intricate the conversation is involves an awareness of who thinks what and why, and how these viewpoints impact the issue entire.

Here's a brief activity that reinforces the concept of perspective.  By activity's end, your students will have:

  • considered context
  • identified line of reasoning, perspectives
  • analyzed perspectives
  • drawn evidence-based conclusions
  • engaged in critical thinking
  • engaged in public speaking

Suggested span of time? ~ 1 Week


Put students into Socratic seating and pose the following issue:

A newborn baby is suffering from a life-threatening heart defect.  Doctors recommend she immediately undergo heart transplant surgery....

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Analyzing and Evaluating Arguments

foundational Sep 19, 2016

No matter what track they're on, all high school students are expected to master the art of argumentative writing before they get that coveted diploma.  As English Language Arts teachers, well, teaching this skill is our specialty.  But the content I'll share in this post also plays nicely with other content areas as well, so long as you're charged with teaching writing.

Soooo everybody gets a trophy! Yaaassss.

If students are going to write their own argument, they need to analyze and evaluate arguments written by others first.  

By analyzing the arguments of others, our students will gain better perspective of what it means to argue logically, fairly, and credibly; they'll learn by observing both example and non-example.  This has a tremendous real-world takeaway because with these skills, our learners can effectively evaluate those arguments which undoubtedly exist all around them in the modern...

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The All-Powerful Art of Summarizing

foundational Sep 14, 2016

The art of summarizing is a lot harder than it sounds, but it's an essential part of the note-taking process...

Being able to effectively summarize information will help students expeditiously unpack their research to the reader.  

To this end, I'd like to share a few useful activities for teaching summary-writing with your scholars.

Tweet Your Summary

One way I manage to teach the art of conciseness is through a one-sentence summary-writing activity I developed, fashioned after my love for Twitter.  In 30 words or less (as opposed to 140 characters), students are asked to capture the essence of an article's main idea.  It really requires them to think critically about the content and creatively about expression.

(PostScript: the "News & Trends" mini-articles at the start of Upfront magazine are a great resource for this activity.)

Catalog Your Summaries

Another one of my favorite ways to practice summary writing...

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A 'Handy' Brainstorming Strategy for Secondary ELA Writers

If there’s one thing our writers tend to invest in the least (ahem, besides revision!), it’s brainstorming.  To them, generating ideas for an essay or a project usually conjures cold memories of a threateningly blank piece of paper or a blinking cursor -- and that can be *really* intimidating. 

Meanwhile the benefits of brainstorming (in the classroom and in the real world) are countless.  It helps creators:

  • Gain a sense of vision surrounding a task
  • Organize thoughts into more manageable and meaningful chunks
  • Move forward in a designated direction and stay on track
  • Iterate on/elevate ideas further; innovate

Yet our learners largely lack an idea generation system that’s structured enough to actually support them and 'speak back' inspiration…that is, until now.

  • Whether you’re a teacher who’s brainstorming plans for this year’s curriculum, or you’re co-creating classroom content with your learners; 
  • Whether...
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Growing & Razing an Argument: the 'Tree of Reasoning' strategy explained

Uncategorized Aug 18, 2016

When they first arrive on our doorstep, our students are convinced that they're masters of argumentation:

(For a humorous way to show your students what an argument ISN'T, check out Monty Python's Argument Clinic!)

So confident they are (I say this in love), that when we tell them we're going to write argumentative essays this year, they challenge our very intelligence and purpose altogether:

"'Persuasive,' Miss, you mean persuasive essays.  We learned those in middle school."

...to which the next student replies: "Yeah, we already learned this in middle school, Miss.  Why do we have to do it again?!"

...before the final student jumps in: "I love arguing!  Last year, I made Sally cry during our debate.  It was awwwesome!"

Don't get me wrong...our writers certainly DO have an argumentative foundation somewhere in there by the time they reach us, but they still have a long way to go before they understand the...

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Understanding Perspectives

foundational Aug 09, 2016

I originally wrote this post when I was pioneering several brand new, advanced-level curriculums being made available to high school students: AP Seminar, AS Level Global Perspectives & Research, and AS Level English General Paper.  And though I will mention these course names during the course of this post, it shouldn't be off-putting if you're not teaching these!  Rather, the content found in this blog is applicable to virtually *any* teacher of writing, as it shares some of the most important foundational insights you'll need to teach students the basics of writing!  But instead of omitting them, I wanted to maintain my mention of these courses since so many teachers of these courses rely on this post for guidance!  Thanks, and happy reading!

Teacher: "Ok, teams, for your research, you'll need to examine the issue through multiple perspectives.  Mmm-kay?"

Student (during the presentation of research): "When I did my research from the...

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