Saturday, November 7, 2015

Authenticity in the Classroom

I love when I can use other parts of my life in my classroom work. It makes me feel good to engage my whole self as part of my practice. Whether it's baking a favorite recipe for a party, using my camera skills to document a poetry slam, or incorporating my travel experiences into a writing prompt, I like the feeling of sharing my world with my students.

This week I made a fun series of writing prompts with pictures I've taken around the world. I posted it as a Thanksgiving freebie if you'd like to try it with your students too.

How do you use your whole self in your practice?

Thursday, October 15, 2015

More Halloween Fun

For a fun start to the day, project this for ten minutes of writing at the start of class. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Fun Bell Ringer Freebie for you! Awesome sauce.

Get class started with this fun ELA freebie! What concert would Harry Potter go to? What T.V. taping would tempt Hester Prynne? Would Huck Finn rather see the World Cup or the Superbowl?

Engaging Students with Interdisciplinary Work

I've been working on some ELA/STEM connections lately, and have always loved the Humanities crossover with art and history. But this week I began to wonder if economics and entrepreneurship couldn't fit into the English classroom too. The skills of an English major play a big role in helping build new and interesting companies in the modern era of the small-business artisan.

What do you think?

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Promoting Reading with Your Students

Though it isn't always popular with my administrators, promoting independent reading is one of my greatest passions in the classroom. Reading has meant so much to me since I first began reciting my childhood favorites, pretending I could read them aloud.

One of the first steps is to create an attractive place to feature reading in your classroom. A book display, some reading posters, and a plant or a little dish of candy go a long way.

One fun way to make posters is to use the Big Huge Labs online motivational poster tool. It's super easy to upload a photo of yourself or your students and then make their favorite book a recommended read with the caption. I put up a free guide to making these posters over at Teachers Pay Teachers.

I just made a series of fun posters for older students too. After years of recommending books and hearing from my students about their favorites, I tried to focus on some of their favorites with these posters.

If the posters get your students fired up for more recommendations, send them along to read reviews my students have posted here and here. It's always nice when students can share their ideas directly with other students!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Making quoting easier for ELA students

What is it about contextualizing and analyzing quotations that is so tricky? I don't know, but I've corrected issues on this so many hundreds of times that I've finally developed a resource to end the madness. Enter, the quotation burger. 

Get the whole slew of handouts free this fall at my TPT store. While you're there, follow along so you never miss a great freebie like this one! 

Third in a Series: Creativity Cards

I love the rotating circles. I always arrange our desks in a circle, so it's really easy for me to use the rotating circle method for mini-presentations, partner work, vocabulary illustrations, editing, etc. It helps wake up the room for the kids to stand and move around, and they get many perspectives during the rotations.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Older kids like holidays too!

The primary grades do a lot of things well. I admire their classroom decor, for example. I also think they have a lot more fun with holidays than we in the older grades. Why shouldn't teenagers get fun Halloween creative writing prompts, for example? Here are a couple images it might be fun to pop onto the Smartboard for 10 minutes of creative writing. Or go nuts and buy a whole set of fun Halloween creative writing prompts on Halloween paper here

Second in a Series: Creativity Cards!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

First in a Series: Creativity Cards for Unexpected Free Time

I'll never forget the first time I taught a class unprepared. All year I had scrupulously prepped lesson plans minute by minute. Then one day in a very stressful period, I accidentally tried to teach the same lesson plan for the second day in a row. One of my favorite students pointed it out in his usual comic way, totally inoffensively. "We liked this lesson yesterday, we can do it again if you want." Suddenly I had 45 minutes and no plan at all.

But I made one up.

Now, as an experienced teacher, the thought of unexpected time doesn't scare me anymore. I have developed dozens of strategies over the years for fun ways to fill the surprise gaps that surface in even the most well-prepared lesson plans. So I thought I would develop a series of these strategies to share. Interject the ones you like in your next spare classroom moment, and have fun doing it!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Differentiating Work

I'm a big believer in differentiating assignments. I assign dry analytical writing and half the class is miserable. I assign creative, artistic assignments and half the class is miserable. I assign film, photography, museum exhibits, plays... some love it, some hate it. So what I aim for is to find a balance so that students must try some of what they are unfamiliar with, but can have a chance to truly engage their own gifts and passions. Creating assignments with menus, tic-tac-toes, and different graded levels of work has always generated great results for me. After my first year of grading each project with ten different types of rubrics, I also realized I can create a flexible rubric to help me grade these varied projects. What a lifesaver! 

If you've never encountered differentiation, it's worth looking into. I've found it revitalizing for me and for my students to let them engage their best selves. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Harry Potter!

My packet of Harry Potter activities has quickly become my most popular product. So I thought I'd design another one, this time with a focus on creative writing and sensory detail. Check it out if you're teaching Harry this year!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

I'm excited to introduce...

I have been working hard this month on a lot of creative projects over at Teachers Pay Teachers. Above you'll see spreads of two of my favorites - The Literary Food Truck Project, and a STEM ELA Architecture & Design Crossover Project.

I'm so excited about these projects that I've decided to put them up as a bundle with three of my other favorites for just $5. 5 projects for $5 - that's more than 30 pages of material at more than a 50% discount.

Cruise over and grab it while it's cheap! I really want these projects out there in classrooms engaging students!

Monday, August 17, 2015


If you're teaching Gatsby this year, go check out my new chapter one materials, posted for free at Teachers Pay Teachers. It links to some more great materials, if you're interested.

I've also been posting some cool Gatsby ideas on a Pinterest board. I hope you find something you like.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Featuring: Common Core English with Ease

Today, I'm featuring a teacher making a splash on TPT. She goes by "Common Core English with Ease."  I asked her what the most creative project she's ever done with students was, and here is what she wrote.

"The most creative project we did was a social justice project where students were able to research any cause and organization and then use a detailed packet to independently write a fictional grant proposal for their organization. Every day, I have a student start the day by paraphrasing an inspirational quote for the "Do Now". I list one sample quote a week on my blog!"

You can check out her creative project here

Monday, June 29, 2015

Summer Revitalization

What do you do with your summer vacation?

For years I spent the summer getting my masters of English at the Bread Loaf school. I traveled to Vermont, New Mexico and England for my courses, learned and saw so much. It was awesome! Now that I have my M.A., I spend the summers at the lake, canoeing in search of frogs and turtles with my three-year-old and cooking as much as possible. I don't focus too hard on curriculum, though I enjoy a bit of work here and there.

As a teacher, do you think it's more important to be revitalized by the summer or to get ahead in your work?

I used to work hard to get ahead over the summer, planning units and projects like mad. These days, summer feels like the time to let that part of my brain rest a bit. Perhaps it all depends on how long you've been teaching, or how stressful your job situation is. I'm not sure. But I love to hear the wind in the trees and smell freshly baked cinnamon rolls in my oven. Somehow it helps me get ready for everything else that is to come when the leaves begin to change color.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Launching my 50 Follower Challenge and Giveaway

50 Follower Challenge / Giveaway

Hi Everyone,

If you'd like to learn how to create a classroom blog this summer and save yourself oodles of time and energy by linking in your homework assignments so you never have to deal with the make-up work paper trail again, read on.

This week I developed a great product for Teachers Pay Teachers that gives you a step-by-step guide to starting a classroom blog on Blogger and uploading and linking any documents you want to share at Google Docs. My class blog got over 5,000 hits in its first year - that's a lot of questions and e-mails I did not have to answer!!! 

I'm going to make this guide free to my followers as a flash freebie as soon as I hit 50 followers at TPT. Since I'm new to the site, I don't have many followers yet. But I'm not new to teaching, and I have dozens of great products available. Come on over, click the green star, and get us a bit closer to that blog product giveaway. Thanks! You'll soon find that Teachers Pay Teachers is quite a resource, both for sharing your own curriculum and finding wonderful resources developed by your peers.

Saving Grading Time and Energy

Nothing overwhelms me as a teacher like having an essay due in every class. Or a stack of finals to grade. I love writing curriculum and working with students, but the hours and hours of grading are really tough.

After seven years and thousands of essays, I've found that 95% of my students errors come from the same eight mistakes. That's why I've developed a simple handout that addresses them all. I'm giving it away over at my Teachers Pay Teachers store. Grab it. Print it. Insist that your ELA students use it in their self-edits, peer edits, and maybe even lunchtime conversations. If they can get the hang of these eight simple things, they will be so much more prepared for college, and your grading hand will finally stop cramping up...

Friday, May 29, 2015

This I Believe!

I love doing "This I Believe" essays with my students. Listening to the amazing radio clips from NPR from essayists all over the world is a wonderful experience for them. There is so much variety - humor, poignancy, incredible written detail that comes through aloud. Some of my students have even had their essays posted online by NPR - a wonderful culmination for them.

If you've never heard the series or taught this type of essay, be sure to check out the amazing resources at NPR. I've been so impressed by their efforts to create curriculum.

One of the resources available at the above link is the poster shown here, which you can download and print for your own classroom.

Sunday, May 24, 2015


Here is one of my best resources on Teachers Pay Teachers. I'm giving it away for the next 24 hours.

Use these 15 fun activities to kick off discussions as you start the next school year. You won't be sorry! Your students will be warmed up and ready to go instead of stuck thinking about the last period and whatever is going on with their friends.

I'm giving this away so more people can see what kind of products I design and consider following my store. Please consider following along if you enjoy the product! Or take a moment to review the product so others will know what it is like. Thanks!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Why not try a new kind of final exam?

The ELA exam is time-consuming to create and so arduous to grade. Why not try something new this year with my Graduation Speech final exam? My students and I had a blast with this. 

And while you're checking it out, follow my store! Just click on the green star at the top. There are lots of great differentiated projects, discussion starters, outside reading materials, and more for the 7th-12th ELA teacher. Not to mention lots of freebies. As a follower, you'll be the first to find out about new freebies and sales. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Cool Books Project

Do you know about NAIS's Cool Books Project? You can send in your recommendations for great nontraditional classroom books and share them with teachers across the country. Here's mine from the NAIS website:

Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer
In a canonical curriculum, students rarely have the chance to read non-fiction. Like most English teachers, I believe they can address life's biggest questions and issues through connections to fictional characters and situations, but for a teenager in the throes of identity construction, there is nothing quite like reading about a teenager experiencing the same thing. A real teenager. Holden Caulfield will do the trick for some, the Garcia sisters for others, a few will fall for the Bennets or Hemingway's young travelers, but when I introduced my junior American Literature students to Christopher McCandless from Into the Wild, they almost all found a way into the book.
I liked reading Into the Wild after a unit on Transcendentalism, in which students considered Thoreau's call to the wild and Emerson's push for self-reliance. Chris seemed a young and modern cousin of these two interesting gentlemen, practically their P.R. person for the new generation. Students enjoyed debating the extremity of Chris's response to the literature he was reading, his responsibility towards his family, the possibilities and dangers inherent in a decision to stray off the path laid out for an independent high school student. I was glad to be using Harkness, the student-based round table discussion method, as we discussed the book. The students needed very little guidance from me to engage with Krakauer's text. 
One final note: despite my students avid lobbying, I refused to show the movie. If kids wanted to see it, they could do it on their own, and many did. I felt it took major liberties with the text, and though interesting, did not suit my classroom needs. 
—Betsy Potash, The American College of Sofia (Bulgaria)

Sunday, May 17, 2015

ELA Teachers: Need something fun for free at the end of the year?

At my Teachers Pay Teachers store, you can grab one of my favorite series of activities for free here. If you are struggling for fun activities to keep your students interested for the final buildup to the end, you'll find it here. Have students tweeting, blogging, programming smartphones for, and writing radio essays inspired by characters from any novel at any upper level.

And while you're there, consider following my store. I'm relatively new to Teachers Pay Teachers, but not to educational writing or teaching. There's a lot of good stuff there, and as a follower, you'll be the first to hear about great freebies and sales.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

From a Newbie to the Newbies (2 months In): Getting Started on Teachers Pay Teachers for a HIGH SCHOOL teacher

It's been about two months since I started trying seriously to share my curriculum on Teachers Pay Teachers. It's slow going, but so interesting. I have always loved creating lesson plans and project designs, and since I am currently staying home with my little one, it feels great to access this part of my brain again.

I've read A LOT of posts about getting started on Teachers Pay Teachers lately, but many of them seem to come from the perspective of very experienced folks on the site, and they gloss the details a bit. Here's some advice from a newbie to the newbies, with as much detail as I can pack in. 

#1 Create all of your material in Powerpoint. As soon as you open Powerpoint, go to page setup and change your paper to 8 1/2 X 11. Now you are basically creating Word documents as far as anyone knows, since you'll be saving the work as a PDF to export at the end. The difference is that it is wildly easier to shift your graphics around in in Powerpoint. You can easily add shapes, layer clipart, put in colorful backgrounds and dink around with text in small boxes without changing everything else on the page. I thought Powerpoint was just for Powerpoint slide shows, but it turns out it's for EVERYTHING you want to look good. 

#2 Make a template for all your products in powerpoint with the second page filled in with your store/blog/facebook/twitter/instagram information. On this page you can thank your customers, invite them to e-mail you with questions, and include lots of lovely graphics and screenshots of your other products to entice them back to your store. Reminding them to follow you can't hurt either. This way, every time you make a sale, you know the person who bought your product will know how to get in touch with your line again. I also included a third page in my template called "Educator Info." It's just a nicely designed background and header with a text box waiting for my instructions to teachers on how to use each product. With this template, I don't have to keep copying and pasting from my other products when I start something new. 

#3 Buy a little bit of clipart. I wan't sure if I'd ever find some appropriately classy and understated clipart for my secondary products until I stumbled onto Paula Kim Studio. But I've been really happy with the few frames and papers I have purchased from her. I also use Pixabay (free!) for more specific graphics if I want something to really match a product. Pixabay doesn't require you to cite in your products, as almost everything there is public domain (unless the clip is specifically listed as private, which I've only run into once in months of browsing). If I end up making a hit of it on Teachers Pay Teachers (which would be fun!), I'll probably invest in more clipart, because I really enjoy graphic design. But until I am making more money from my products, I don't want to pay too much to create them. I'm sure you can relate. 

4. Browse the popular stores in your area. I've learned a lot about what teachers are looking for by checking out popular middle and high school ELA stores like Laura Randazzo and Tracee Orman. I don't want to copy their products, but I want to see what thousands of teachers are choosing to follow and like, so I can get an idea of the types of assignments and formats that make other teachers happy. Then I use my own material from years of teaching to craft the types of bundles and activity sets I see that people want. 

5. Use the forums sparingly. Boy, is it easy to waste time on the forums when you could be creating products. Try as I might, I haven't found anything on the forums that leads to much in the way of advertising or sales. You can connect with a few other bloggers and facebookers, get your products pinned to Pinterest (which seems to be of dubious merit since Pinterest changed the way they do pin feeds), and slowly watch the little phrase below your name go from "Becoming Active" to "Active" to something like my current status, "Collaborator Extraordinaire." But do you have more followers? Not really. Bottom line in my opinion, it's a nice thing to do when you are totally burnt out on creating products but want to feel productive. 

Good luck! Feel free to post questions below and I'll respond as best I can. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Teachers Online

I love the site, Web English Teacher. Whenever I'm about to teach a new unit, I go there and browse through some of the ideas linked to whatever book or poems I'm beginning. It's inspiring to see all the ways other people have taught whatever I'm about to teach, and I often learn something I didn't know about the text.

I was thinking about this today after looking back over an article I wrote a while ago for NAIS about technology in education. Though I haven't given my classroom over to the iPad just yet, I see a lot to love about teachers sharing their ideas online, and connecting with information they might never have been able to share before. If you're interested in the article, here it is. 

What's your favorite online resource?

Monday, May 11, 2015

Check it Out

I'm happy to introduce my latest Teachers Pay Teachers product, 15 Discussion Warm-Up Printables. It has some of my most fun ideas from years of teaching. Each of these 15 activities will give students a great way to review their reading, so they begin the discussion with plenty to say instead of awkward silence. If you buy this packet, you'll have fifteen well-designed handouts that you can use for any of your classes (7th-12th) with any novel.

This is the 35th product I've posted, and the one I'm most proud of. It's taken me months to get the hang of the Teachers Pay Teachers system, but now I'm starting to feel that I have. It's an interesting idea to let teachers write the curriculum for each other - almost like an educational version of Wikipedia. After years of browsing Barnes and Noble unsuccessfully for educational material that is actually engaging instead of stuffed with dry research useless to my classroom, I think Teachers Pay Teachers is on the right track. Will it catch on for secondary teachers? I don't know. But I'm all in for now.

Introducing Harkness for Discussion

I created a video a while ago about the Harkness method of discussion, my favorite way to discuss literature with my students. I used it to introduce the model to some fellow teachers. Imagine my surprise the other day when I searched "Harkness" on youtube and discovered my video was the first hit.

I thought I'd share the video here, and give a plug to the Exeter Humanities Workshop, an amazing professional development opportunity to consider.

Art / English Interdisciplinary

Does your school do any English/Art crossover? I used to work at a school with a humanities program, but art was the most silent partner in the group. And yet, I see a million ways that art plays a role in understanding and processing writing. Above, I am posting a few pictures of student projects that used art to help interpret their understanding of writing and literature, and I could post dozens more that I love. I always enjoy assigning projects that access students' artistic abilities, but I am also mindful that some of the students hate to be forced into art projects. So I try to create differentiated assignments, leaving room for a wide variety of intelligences. I either assign options that do not include art, divide students into groups only some of which pursue something art-related, or try to clearly show that it is the thinking behind the art that matters, and that the artistic representation can be just as brilliant in pencil or computer generated graphics as in watercolor or oil paint, etc.

How do you incorporate art into your curriculum? Or don't you?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Teaching 1984, Then and Now

I've been working on 1984 resources all week, and it reminds me of the days I used to teach it in Bulgaria. I wrote an essay on the experience for Independent School Magazine, because it was one of the most challenging and at the same time fascinating experiences of my career so far.

The past meets the present in Sofia, Bulgaria. Here, a 2009 Christmas sculpture hangs suspended near a Socialist Realist statue leftover from the Communist era.

A Conversation with Orwell
Teaching 1984 in Bulgaria

My students know more than any textbook about Bulgaria’s Communist regime. Todor Jivkov, the party leader, invited Siyana’s grandmother to be his mistress for one night. Kety’s mother was his translator. The state took over Boris’s grandfather’s factory, but then allowed him to work in it instead of exiling him. He was grateful. Nina’s grandfather was less lucky; no one ever found his body. 
I didn’t know these stories the first time I taught Orwell’s 1984 at the American College of Sofia, in Bulgaria. I became more interested in discovering them after one disturbing day my first year here, when I found myself facing off with a student who had botched his final exam essay. After two months of class discussions focused on how Orwell wrote a dystopian book to try to get people thinking about civil rights and personal freedom, Alex had spent three pages arguing that Winston Smith achieved happiness once O’Brian had broken his mind through torture at the Ministry of Truth, converting him into a loyal party member.
“Maybe you’re just too closed-minded to see it,” said Alex in class, his voice tight. Flabbergasted by his response, I defended the grade I had given, pointing out that though he could have any opinion he wanted to about Winston’s happiness, Orwell’s shone clear from the pages. Smith was a destroyed man at the end of the novel. I wasn’t closed-minded, Alex was misinterpreting the text.
I started to wonder just what might be influencing Alex’s views, since I knew it wasn’t Orwell’s book. No one talked much about the political system in Bulgaria before “The Changes” of 1989, but those changes had only happened twenty years before. All my students had parents and grandparents whose lives were at least partially defined by the Soviet system George Orwell lashed out against. Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948, just one year after Bulgaria joined the Soviet team captained by Stalin. Though Orwell was socialist, he was also disgusted by the purges and lies of the Soviet regime. Most agree he wrote 1984 and Animal Farm to get people thinking about the role government should play in their lives (Court, Enright). Yet the novels revile individuals strikingly similar to those that would reign in Eastern Europe for years to come. How were my Bulgarian students, children of a history Orwell fought to prevent, supposed to react to his words? What was to prevent them from seeing Orwell’s novel as a condemnation of the history of their country, written by an Englishman who hadn’t the faintest idea what their relatives went through?
I could see the book from two opposing perspectives. Was it literature encouraging free thinking and civil rights, or was it propaganda condemning the Communist dream with exaggerated and disturbing images? I realized I had been reading the book uncritically, glad to accept Orwell’s presentation of his opinions, since I shared them. What tools had I given my students to question their text and create a dialogue between their views and Orwell’s? None. I had presented Orwell’s context, but I had never given them a chance to respond.
As an English teacher, one of my core pedagogical principles is that literature and life are intertwined. Each influences the other and keeps a human dialogue alive from generation to generation. What I wanted, now, was to provide my students a chance to converse with Orwell, to agree or disagree as they saw fit.
As I began teaching the book the second time, to a new crop of 10th graders, my first lesson was about propaganda. We discussed methods of influence and looked at examples from WWI, WWII, and finally, The Cold War. After reading the first few chapters of 1984, we returned to the subject. I asked them to write a short essay with their response to a question I still couldn’t answer. Is 1984 propaganda? After only a few chapters, some were already furious with the way Orwell was trying to influence them. One wrote, “After reading it, the reader cannot disagree with the author and therefore, shares his opinion and politics.” Another commented, “The negative feeling which is transferred to the reader, and the negative thoughts about the party, are propaganda itself.” These and many similar comments made me wonder if the American critics who descry the label “propaganda” for Orwell are looking at it from a comfortably Western perspective. It’s easy to say Orwell is just trying to make people think when you agree with the “thought-provoking” ideas he presents. As I continued paging through the essays I found a wide range of responses. One student thought the novel was “good” propaganda, “This type of propaganda kills all other types of propaganda.” Another argued simply that the danger was not in reading a strongly worded presentation of ideas, but in accepting them too easily: “By reading the book, everybody, who doesn’t think critically about it, starts to believe that socialism is the worst type of government.” As I scored every well-expressed opinion with the same 10/10, I wondered how I would keep the class thinking critically throughout the remaining hundreds of pages of ever-darkening imagery.
A few days later in discussion, Ivo, a bright and quick-tempered student, burst out with “It just wasn’t that bad!” I could see he was frustrated and verging on furious. Though we had discussed Orwell’s bias and his goals, it was still hard for many of the students not to take the hyperbolized world of Oceania personally. We were trying to discuss Orwell’s ideas for what they are, Orwell’s ideas, not some kind of universal truth, but it wasn’t easy. The students weren’t used to having school curriculum that they were allowed to disagree with. I decided to add some research into our unit for context. Each student would interview a family member or friend alive during the Communist era, and share with the class both good and bad elements of the time. We’d use Orwell’s fiction as inspiration to find out more about reality, and draw our own conclusions through our reactions to both.
A few days later stories flew thick and fast through the room. Everyone agreed that health care and education had been better under Jivkov, close ally of Orwell’s thinly-veiled version of Stalin, “Big Brother.” The streets were safer, orphans had better care and the layer of trash that now coats the city didn’t exist. Beyond these general concepts, the students’ stories varied sharply. Simona was disgusted to discover the government had knowingly let children march in a patriotic parade, while toxic rain from Chernobyl poured down on them. Mina’s grandfather had been a party hero, laden with medals, now eager to extol socialism at every family gathering. Velizar’s grandmother had to go to weekly lectures on the virtues of the party so she could stay with his grandfather, a party member. She told him society really was split up into proles and party-members. “I was surprised how much was like what’s described in the book,” Velizar said. Students presented a wide range of interview results – some made the party look almost as bad as Orwell’s novel, others extolled party virtues and championed the equalization of the classes.
As we finished the book, I felt better about the way I had taught it this time. I had no idea if Orwell had influenced my students, or if their stories had influenced each other, but at least I had made room for the possibility. One girl argued in our final discussion that no fictional book could ever change her opinion on anything, and another, that Bulgarians had their opinions formed about the Communist era long before they ever arrived in high school. But I wasn’t so sure. Orwell had influenced me, not by scaring me with his dystopian vision of a world where everyone is watched, but by forcing me to ask questions. Reading his frightening vision had eventually made me wonder about my own, and six weeks of conversations and research with my students had led me in new directions. I still thought Communism came with way too many problems, but now I also knew more about its virtues. I knew why some of my students would defend it until they were blue in the face and why others got quiet when it came up in class. I better understood the hammer and sickle graffiti in the bathroom by my room, and the nostalgic tales of the older generation for a time when they received benefits they now lacked.
My conversation with Orwell has been complicated, far more so than the one I had ten years ago with the Cold War section of my 20th century history textbook. My first class of Bulgarian students helped me remember that reading a book demands an internal conversation between the ideas presented and the reader’s beliefs, helped along by a critical eye and an open mind. My second class shared that conversation with me. As I hope it always will, great fiction forced me to reconsider my views, to add details where I didn’t even know they were missing. As I continue to teach, I hope to start many conversations between authors and students, conversations every bit as complicated as the one I shared with Orwell.


Court, Ayesha. “George Orwell.” Bookmarks. July/Aug. 2004: 14-19. SIRS Renaissance. Web. 13 May 2010.

Enright, Michael. “Why Orwell Matters.” Queen’s Quarterly (Kingston, Canada). Vol. 109, No. 4. Winter 2002: 532-543. SIRS Renaissance. Web. 13 May 2010.

“Timeline: Bulgaria.” BBC News. 2010/05/06. Web. 15 May 2010. <>

“Timeline: Soviet Union.” BBC News. 2006/03/03. Web. 15 May 2010.

Weeks, Jerome. “Orwell is Back: Author’s Ideas Still Spark Debate…” Dallas Morning News (Dallas, TX). Jan 14 2004: n.p. SIRS Renaissance. Web. 13 May 2010.

Here's one of the 1984 collages my students made in Bulgaria, and here's a link to my latest version of the collage assignment, with links to more fun 1984 resources over at my Teachers Pay Teachers store. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

How do you recognize student achievement?

There are so many ways to recognize stellar students. I've awarded picnics, ice cream, "Eternal Honor and Glory," get-out-of-homework free cards and of course, As and A+s.

But one of my favorite things is my Project Hall of Fame. It's been building for eight years now, and boy it has some doozies. I love laying out the best work of thirty-two classes worth of students at the beginning of the year on a special shelf. I think it inspires both me and my students to greater heights.

Just in case you'd like to try it, I created a Hall of Fame poster for you to download and print free at my Teachers Pay Teachers store, Spark Creativity. Check it out here if you want to add a Hall to your classroom. And if you grab it, consider following the store so you'll get updates on new freebies and creative classroom prompts.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Street Art in the English Classroom

I'm working on a class assignment in which we take a look at famous street artists like Shepard Fairey and Banksy, and then imagine a character from our book becomes a street artist.

Which begs the question, is it OK to expose students to the idea of street art as a respected idea? Where is the line between famous artists like Banksy and taggers who are charged with defacing public property? I can see the line clearly enough, but how will other teachers feel about a street art assignment?

We brought Shepard Fairey in to speak at our school a few years ago, and he was fantastic. He inspired and intrigued the students. His message and purpose were clear, and defacement had nothing to do with it.

So... would you let students at your school do a street art project? 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

STEM in the English Classroom

Lately I've been thinking about the focus on STEM in the school curriculum. Sadly, my own discipline of English is not what the "E" stands for. Does that mean English is not too relevant these days? Certainly not. But you know what they say, make yourself necessary. So I've been working on developing some lessons that incorporate STEM into English. It's been a really fun challenge. 

The first one, which I love, is an assignment asking students to design a new app, as a character from a novel. It is a huge challenge, since just coming up with a creative app that they haven't already seen is going to be tricky, much less doing it from within the mindset of a character. I had a great time researching some of the creative new apps coming out these days to give them inspiration, and designing questions to help them pursue the dual challenge of app design and character analysis.

Here's the opening paragraph of the assignment:

You probably know there are a lot of apps out there. You may have used an app like Google maps to get around, an app like Facebook to stay in touch with your friends, or one of the many app games to entertain yourself. But did you know there are well over a million apps out there and designers are constantly creating new ones? Did you know you can create restaurant reviews with Tastemade? Use Brushes to create art on your own digital canvas? Download Walk the Dog to track the miles you walk and see money donated to a local animal shelter for each one? Use Quizlet to develop flashcards for studying and to study others’ flashcard sets? Try Zenith Telescope to view the universe through the lens of your phone?

When I finished crafting this assignment, I kind of wanted to go design an app myself. So I think it's going to inspire my students. 

What are your favorite interdisciplinary activities? Do you think STEM can have a place in the English classroom?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Fun Journalism Activity: Speedwriting Practice

I like doing speedwriting with my journalism students. Nothing gets the class off on a nice footing like a quick writing exercise to settle down, and if it's a bit funny, well, bonus. It's fun making up the prompts - you can even let students have a turn.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Making Personalized Book Posters

I always like inviting other teachers, especially from disciplines outside English, to come and talk about their favorite books. And when they do, I take a quick picture and turn their book talk into a poster for our classroom wall. That way, students have a visual record of the many recommendations they have heard from the adults at our school.

I've been experimenting with the site Teachers Pay Teachers, and just put up a step-by-step tutorial for how to make these posters there. Go check it out if you'd like to make one for your classroom!

What do you think of the whole Teachers Pay Teachers idea? It's obviously skyrocketed in popularity for the primary classroom, but seems to be just catching on in the secondary realm. Would you share your resources there? 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Future without Triple Tasking?

I originally wrote this while we were still teaching abroad, but it still rings true for me.

A Future without Triple-Tasking?
Finding Creative Space in Bulgaria

It’s my second and last gray and white winter in Bulgaria. In a few months my husband and I will pack up our little red house and dive back into American life in a haze of jet lag. Working abroad has given me many unique opportunities - to perform in a Balkan dance show, to write a travel blog, to see the monasteries of Meteora and surf in Morocco. I’ve met the people and seen the places that were once just newsprint to me, and my worldview has changed. One of the biggest gifts I found overseas is space for creativity.

Last year I created a “Wall of Imagination” on one side of my classroom, filled with articles, photos, and ideas that showed creative thinking. Alongside a postcard of La Sagrada Familia under construction in Barcelona sat an article describing Google’s company policy of giving employees free time to do whatever they want.

I had to pick my students’ jaws up from the floor. Free time? To do whatever they want?

They were stunned, and I might have been too, a year before. Life at the American boarding school where I taught previously had a racing heartbeat. I learned to triple-task on day one, and my responsibilities only increased. I scooped time out of nights and weekends for creativity – baking for a poetry slam over lunch, waking at 1 a.m. to go over plans for special guest speakers, plopping into my cushioned computer chair before the sun poked over the California foothills and into my students’ dorm windows. My job environment both fulfilled and exhausted me.

In Bulgaria I suddenly found myself without the millions of stimuli I had grown so accustomed to. I taught my classes, tutored a few students who needed help, advised the literary journal and the cooking club. But using my double time skills, I could usually finish everything required of me in less than a regular working day. Plus, I didn’t know too many people, didn’t care to watch much T.V. in Bulgarian, could hardly figure out how to navigate the downtown at first. That unexpected phrase “I’m caught up” sprang to my lips for the first time in years, and I found myself with free time – that magical space Google gifts to its employees on a regular basis. At first I didn’t know what to do, but the answers came quickly.

Given a bit of lead for the first time in years, I found myself pursuing passions old and new. I learned to cook, began submitting travel features to magazine and websites, and turned my attention to the wider educational community. I published a lesson plan at readwritethink, visited other classrooms and polled teachers about best practices, ordered a book by Nancie Atwell and launched a 10th grade outside reading program. I decided to start a new faculty mentorship program to help solve our problem of high international turnover, and organized an in-service series on teaching with technology. A friend and I started a tradition of Sunday night potlucks to foster faculty community. I set up blogs for my courses and facilitated exchanges between my students and kids in Washington D.C. and Kentucky. I read for myself, and soon discovered new authors to share with my students. Suddenly, my free time filled up with my own dreams, instead of desperate naps and frantic finishing.

As one of the most successful companies in the world, Google has the financial power to fund free time in the hopes of fostering creativity. What might happen in our schools if teachers were occasionally given this same opportunity? An in-service devoted to brainstorming new ideas? An activities schedule reduced slightly to give everyone a bit more wiggle room? Mandatory homework free nights to give the doers and the graders a chance to pursue their own interests? Students at every school I’ve worked at have sometimes lamented their harried hours to me, saying “I got into this school because of the things I love to do, but now I don’t have time to do them.” What might we do to keep this from being true for our school populations – teachers and students – in an ever more competitive world? It’s not jumping through hoops that makes us who we are – it’s creating a circus of our own. 

I recently discovered that my old school has switched from seven classes a day to three, and added a block of free time for creative field trips every Wednesday. I hope more schools will follow their lead.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Public vs. Private - Why the Divide?

I have a secret.

It’s gotten me into trouble more than once with other teachers. Is it that I’m a bad teacher? That I don’t care about my students? That I don’t do everything I can to come up with engaging ideas for my classroom and to share those ideas with others?

As a young teacher, I joined the National Council of Teachers of English and attended my first annual conference in Pittsburgh. Inspired by presentations on graphic novels, storyboarding and poetry slams, I went home eager to teach with these new strategies, and to share my ideas at future conferences, giving back to the engaged teaching community I had just joined.

Two years later I arrived, shiny and excited, to present on the Harkness discussion model at the CATE conference in Long Beach. As I went from session to panel to meal, chatting with other teachers, I realized I was an outsider. My colleagues at the conference were invisibly divided into two categories – public and private. Except, as far as I could tell, I was the only private school teacher there. I felt like one among hundreds. During the Q & A session of my Harkness presentation, when I let slip that I usually used the discussion model I was teaching with a group of 15 students, I felt awkward. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I also caught a whiff of hostility. It began to feel like one against hundreds, instead of among. Embarrassed, I ad-libbed solutions to questions of how to apply my strategy to a classroom of 30 or more students. I felt I was losing my audience, as I suggested putting the students into two groups, or having half the students watch the other discuss a text in a fishbowl version of Harkness.  

That’s when I realized I did not fit in. That the worlds of public and private education in California split cleanly apart along a seam of class size, funding, and standards. That’s when I started dodging questions about my school during presentations and informal chat. I wanted to learn from my colleagues across the divide, and I felt I had ideas to share with them, so it was best just to keep my boarding school background secret.

When I first entered the profession, I learned from public school teachers through books like Educating Esme, Teacher Man, teacher; The One Who Made the Difference, The Freedom Writer’s Diary, Room 109, and I Read it But I Don’t Get It and lesson plan websites like Outta Ray’s Head and Web English Teacher. It didn’t occur to me to think that good strategies for teaching in public school would not apply to private school. Teaching was teaching, right? We’re all trying to do the same thing.

Summers spent at The Bread Loaf School of English, getting my Master of Arts in English with both private and public school teachers, confirmed my belief that teachers across regions, countries, levels and school formats could learn from each other. My best friends’ backgrounds varied – one, an education writer trying to influence policy in D.C., another a Teach for America alumna now working at a charter school, another a teacher and coach at a public high school in rural Durango, Colorado, another working at a private middle school in L.A., catering in part to the children of celebrities. These differences in background didn’t stop us from avid discussions of teaching methods over lunches and on the steps of our dorms at night. Halfway through the program, when I moved to Bulgaria to teach at an American school, I set up classroom exchanges between my students and the students of friends in a D.C. charter school and a Kentucky public school. The students, guided by us, learned about and from each other, sharing discussions through blogger blogs, facebook and e-mail.

It wasn’t always easy blurring the lines. I took one incredible class, “Discovering the Imagination,” in which the free form of the course material led to intense discussions. Three or four passionate public school teachers occasionally drew a line down the middle of the room, implying that the private school teachers had taken the easy way out. The atmosphere in the class turned toxic for weeks, as some of the private school teachers tried to defend their life choices and some of the public school teachers took out anger over too-big classes and too-few dollars on their classmates. I discussed the atmosphere with our brilliant and kind professor, an elementary school principle most passionate about engaging students’ creativity, often. It made both of us sad, and left both of us confused. What was to be gained from these battle lines? By the end of the summer, things had cooled down. I continued to share e-mails and ideas with the most vocal of the public school teachers in the class until she entered a PHD program a year or two later. She and I had realized early on that we were both on the same mission – to teach as well as we could, to bring passionate engagement into our students’ lives.  

Mixed together at Bread Loaf, teachers from every background find a way to share ideas, even when it’s hard, to the benefit of students across the world. So why, in California, can’t we blur the lines between CAIS (California Association of Independent Schools) and CATE (California Association of Teachers of English)? Why, when I presented again this year in Sacramento, did I have to brush off an interruption in the middle of my presentation to ask just exactly what my school demographic was and what my school looked like? Was that really the most relevant question as I presented strategies to help teenagers become more passionate about reading?

When we start breaking down the lines between teachers, maybe we’ll be able to start breaking down the lines between our students too.

I know it sometimes seems as if public and private school are worlds apart. But though we have different kinds of administrators, we have similar goals and probably similar passions. And our problems are not always so different.

This year about one fourth of my students speak English as their second language, though I am unequipped to help them. I was glad to see so many sessions at CATE Sacramento with advice for teaching ELLs, and to use the wonderful ESL websites dedicated public school teachers have crafted online. This year my 10th grade teaching team is working to incorporate English and history into a humanities curriculum, and it was with relief and gratitude that I attended a CATE session by two innovative public school teachers who have crafted a hugely successful Global Studies Program. Last year I wrote several lesson plans for NCTE’s readwritethink program about using blogs to host classroom content for absent students and to build student portfolios, strategies I like to think could be useful in many classrooms.

Teachers in public and private schools face different challenges in and around the classroom, but we are all trying to reach our students. Let’s share ideas whenever we can. With a liberal arts degree, a masters’ degree, and seven years of teaching experience, I am not considered qualified to teach in a public school, a fact that grates on me. Nevertheless, I have something to share and a never-ending desire to learn. I’d like to see CATE reach out for members into the thousands of private schools in this state – what have we got to lose by joining forces?