Connect to your Students as 2020 Begins

A new decade begins tomorrow. I think I speak for us both when I say "Holey moley!'

Whether you're an all-in New Year's resolutions kind of person and have already filled your fridge with green smoothie ingredients and your new planner with cute color-coded stickers illuminating your goals and dreams for the new year, or you subscribe to the chill, "New Year, Same Me" philosophy, the return from this mid-year break can be a nice time to reconnect with your students and relaunch in your classroom to level up for the rest of the year. 

Because let's face it, January and February aren't necessarily the most naturally fun months of the year (at least in my climate - hello, endless days of grayish sleety sludge and muddy feet). But they can be beautiful days of connection and progress in the cozy creative atmosphere of your classroom. 

Here are some of my favorite ideas for reconnecting with your students and starting 2020 off with a virtual leap. 


5 Innovative ELA Electives

There are so many reasons to love teaching electives. You get to craft an experience that you believe will engage students and make a difference in the direction of their education, their future. You get to share aspects of your field that you care most about. You get to work with students who choose you and your topic, always a plus.

If you get the chance to propose a new elective at your school, the prospect can be both exciting and overwhelming. Out of allllll the possibilities out there, what should you focus on? True crime podcasts? International literature in translation? #Ownvoices YA and why it matters? Puppet theater across the world? Hmmm, these are just supposed to be my opening examples, but I'm starting to want to build syllabi for them. OK, I really must move on to the actual list of five ideas I wanted to share with you today.


081: Empowering Students with Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning is one of the most powerful creative strategies available to teachers. It's the triple chocolate layer cake with strawberry cream of the education bakery.

But there's not an easy and exact road map for putting it into action. Every group of kids is different. Every school structure. Every teacher.

Ideally, a project-based-learning unit will fit the school structure, the teacher, and the kids well. It'll lead to a real-world learning experience that makes a difference in your students' lives. But of course, there will be bumps along the way. You'll have to figure out how to structure your projects, how to tap into your students' gifts and motivation, and how to keep track of it all.

Will it be worth it though? YES.

In this episode of the podcast, we're learning with Marynn Dause and Cathleen Beachboard, English teachers and authors of a new book, 10 Keys to Student Empowerment: Unlocking the Hero in Each Child. 


Celebrating Voices from Indigenous Nations in our ELA Classrooms

Think back to the way indigenous people were represented to you when you were a kid. Maybe you watched Pocahantas and Peter Pan, digesting the Disney version of American Indians without question. Maybe someone you knew loved the Cleveland Indians and cheered for Chief Wahoo, their mascot. Maybe you celebrated Columbus Day without a second thought. Maybe you had a headdress in your costume closet that someone gifted you.

Probably your education didn't teach you to question any of that. You might have learned briefly about the relocation of Native peoples, skimming over the accompanying genocide. Perhaps a teacher or two guided you in creating Pilgrim hats and feathered headbands for a beautiful "reenactment" of a Thanksgiving feast that never really happened.

Today, we can do better. We know more. We are empowered to make a difference in the crisis of how the Indigenous nations of the Americas are viewed and talked about. We can help fight stereotyping and misinformation by including many voices from native Nations in our curriculum.


10 Podcast Episodes to Help you Innovate in Class

I don't know about you, but I've got a lot of car and plane hours coming up in the next six weeks. Of course, the age of my children dictates that I'll spend most of those hours serving up bags of pizza-flavored Goldfish and baby carrots while playing travel Bingo and listening to Laurie Berkner sing "There's a Song in my Tummy," but travel CAN be a great time to get inspired by listening to podcasts.

Whether you need a playlist for a long car ride or a few good options for long post-turkey-and-pie walks, I thought now would be a good time to share ten of my favorite podcast episodes for sparking innovation in your classroom. After all, the show is almost up to one hundred episodes (can you believe it? My aspirational placement of the double zero before episode one is finally going to pay off!), and you might have missed some gold along the way.

I've embedded all the episodes here if you want to bookmark this post and play them right off the web, but you can also listen now on Spotify (for those who have asked) and as usual, on Apple Podcasts, Sticher, Blubrry, Google Air Play, etc. If it's not yet available wherever you prefer to listen, just let me know and I'll do my best to get it onto your platform of choice.


The Busy Teacher's Guide to Stitchfix

Perhaps, at some point, you loved to shop. To swish through the racks with your friends, trying things on, matching jewel tones, layering completer pieces over basics, adding statement jewelry and colorful, not-so-comfortable shoes. Maybe you had a lovely Pinterest board with ideas for what to wear to work, like me. 

Then life got more complicated. Your chosen career began to dictate parts of your outfit, and sap a lot of the time you used to spend at your favorite shops. Shoe comfort ruled the day. 

Maybe you had kids. Kids who'd rather climb to the top of everything in sight and eat Superman ice cream with you than watch you shop. 

Somewhere along the way, buying clothes became a hassle, even though looking put together still mattered to you. 

Let's face it, teaching in "the outfit," something awesome that feels really comfortable and looks good and doesn't get in the way, is kind of a big deal. But it's not easy to accomplish. 

079: Goodbye Data Hawks, Hello Innovation, with Ted Dintersmith

Last year I discovered the documentary produced by Ted Dintersmith, Most Likely to Succeed, which asked the big question: is it better for our schools to focus on coverage, breadth, and testable skills, or to focus on creativity, critical thinking, and depth? In my review, I applauded the amazing questions and stories of the documentary while at the same time wishing that the film had answered its own question.

Imagine my delight when Ted Dintersmith read the review and sent me his book, What Schools Could Be, documenting his next project after the film, to crisscross every state in America and discover the answers to the film's questions. Over the course of one year he met with teachers, administrators, parents, politicians and students in every single state. He learned so much about what's working in education today (hint - it's not breadth of coverage and standardized testing), and he shared all the highlights in his wonderful book.


Tips for Successful First Chapter Fridays

First Chapter Friday is an easy, fun way to get students excited about reading the books in your   library.  Simply set aside time to read out loud - you guessed it - the first chapter of a popular book each Friday. This works best as part of an independent reading program, so you can simply pass the book off to one of the many interested readers you'll have by the end. (Don't have an independent reading program? This is a great place to start). 

In this post, I'm going to share some quick, doable ideas to help you make your first chapter Fridays series a success. 


077: Integrating the Arts & ELA, with Eileen Landay

Years ago I stumbled into my first arts integration units. I was trying to figure out how to get my students interested in classic poetry and theater, and it wasn't easy. 

So during our poetry unit we studied performance artists, did choral readings of famous American poets, did a workshop with a guest writer, and eventually had our own slam. The kids shone. Quiet students became leaders. Classic poetry took on a new life. 

During the theater unit I was able to bring in my cousin, a theater professional, to do theater games and warm-ups, teaching the kids to create silhouettes and themed statues, to warm up their bodies and voices, to explain the symbolic nature of movements and facial expressions. When we began to read Death of a Salesman, we started work on group performances of various scenes at the same time. Again, the kids shone. The play began to matter to them. 

Replacing Apathy with Purpose

If there's a single word that stands out this year from everything I've read, everyone I've interviewed, everything I've worked on, it's purpose. Our biggest fight these days is apathy and disconnection, and our clearest solution is to give our students meaningful purpose.

Last night I interviewed Ted Dintersmith about his yearlong trip across The United States, visiting schools and meeting with education leaders and stakeholders. He told me about a classroom in North Dakota where eighth graders had the idea to repurpose an abandoned bowling alley into a community center, fundraising and pulling their town together to make it happen. Their project gave them a fresh sense of purpose at school, and seeing their efforts did the same for their community.


076: You'll Love the "This I Believe" Writing Project

This weekend I spent three days in Richmond, Virginia in my first ever experience as a keynote speaker. It was delightful to get to meet so many wonderful educators and hear about their work. As I watched two young teachers spending all their free time at the conference planning a Halloween escape room to engage their 8th graders, I was reminded for the millionth time how much I believe in teachers. How much I wish our system believed in each teacher and put their work and their artistry above scripts, standardized tests, and purchased programs.

I found myself itching to write a manifesto about this, and it reminded me of the This I Believe essays I wrote years ago with my students in Bulgaria. So today, I want to share this writing project with you, and show you the simple steps you can take to launch a high-engagement personal writing project that culminates in a public performance of student work. This was one of my favorite writing units that I’ve ever done, and it’s an ideal way to help juniors and seniors with college essays too. So let’s get into it.


In Search of Deeper Learning: Join the Book Club

I get to read a lot of great books about teaching. Recently, I read one I want to share with EVERYONE. It feels that important, like the guidebook that will help us leave old-school learning in the dust and sprint up the golden stairs to the new era of creative education.

It's called In Search of Deeper Learning, by Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine. And I'd like to invite you to discuss it with me and a community of forward-thinking, creative educators online through a book club in my Facebook group, Creative High School English. We're going to begin the conversation on the first two chapters come October 15th, and will continue to discuss the book over the coming months. Please join us! Right now the invitation is pinned to the top of the group as an announcement, and as I introduce new threads for discussion throughout the fall and early winter I'll use the hashtag #deeperlearningbookclub so you can easily find them all.

Mehta and Fine spent many hundreds of hours in high schools across America, exploring how school structures, teaching styles, and content choices influenced the deeper learning outcomes of students. They did deep research dives into project-based learning schools, I.B. Schools, No Excuses Schools, Harkness schools, and large public high schools. They also did a careful examination of what they call the periphery - clubs, after-school activities, and electives - and came to the conclusion that core academic disciplines have a lot to learn from the alternative "grammar of schooling" that exists outside of the core.

By the end of the book, I was singing along to their tune. Loudly. Think Journey.

They push for many wonderful things, like...
  • giving teachers the respect they deserve to create meaningful courses in their own ways
  • treating students as meaning makers in their own right
  • blurring the lines between our disciplines as they work out in the world and as they function in our classrooms, adopting David Perkins' idea of "the whole game at the junior level" 
  • creating learning communities with aspects of apprenticeship - in which younger learners can learn from adults and older, more skilled peers about how to be successful
  • choosing depth, choice, and habits of mind over breadth of content
  • respecting engagement as an important part of learning, not just some song and dance contrived to entertain students
I was so anxious not to forget anything, that I made my own GIANT sketchnotes to refer to as we discuss this book. Maybe you'll want to make some of your own - there's so much of value to discover and apply. (Still working on my sketchnote figure drawing - don't be offended, Jal and Sarah, or anonymous everystudent stick figure!)

There's more I could say here, but I really want to invite you to dive into the book and find your own favorite takeaways and ideas, so we can discuss them in the book club. Check it out from your library, download it to your Kindle, get your department to buy it, or order your own copy and come join us! 


080: Let's Teach Students how to Collaborate

Do you teach collaboration in your classroom? Or do you just assume that students will figure it out? Or that someone taught them long ago?

In my experience as a teacher, the foundations for good group dynamics are not an integral part of most curriculums. The process of learning how to learn together is rarely if ever discussed in faculty meetings, professional development seminars, or department meetings.

And yet, in a world where collaboration is increasingly valued as a vital 21st century skill, our students need to succeed with this. When we say "get into groups...", we are assuming that they understand how to share a space, value everyone's voice, and build a conversation or group process that will actually work for everyone. And they probably don't.

Very few people really know how to do those things. 


Celebrate Ally Week: 4 Ways to Show your Support all Year

Happy Ally Week! This week is a great reminder for us to turn our attention to creating safe spaces for our LGBTQ+ students, and finding ways to show them our support in class. But of course, it shouldn't be the only time we do this. In this post, I want to share four ways you can support your LGBTQ+ students all year long. 

It's not very hard. It won't take much time. But it just might change someone's life, to feel your acceptance and support in a world that's still making it hard for them to be who they are. 

Show your Support on your Walls

Find a little corner of your room to display posters, signs, or stickers that show your students you accept them. I love these posters, free from The SuperHERO teacher, who often shares ideas and resources for teachers on LGBTQ+ issues on her beautiful Instagram feed.  But there are lots more options out there. You can print the GLSEN safe space sticker set here or just do a quick Google search to find more safe space posters and signs to choose from. 

Show your Support on Yourself

This week is a great time to pick up a shirt that shows your support to wear throughout the year. I got this one from Hear our Voice. I also like the ones over at Human Rights Campaign. Or maybe you could spearhead a project at your school to design one people can order during Ally Week.

Show your Support on your Shelves

As English teachers, I think this is one of our most important jobs. Students need to be able to see themselves on your shelves. Their stories. Their dreams. Their pain. I read two books this year that would be powerful LGBTQ+ themed additions to your shelf.

The first, Birthday, is an #ownvoices story by a transgender woman about two best friends. Told in alternating perspectives, it shows the journey of a transgender teen as she struggles with who she really is in a highly conservative, rural football town. The story doesn't shy away from intense pain along the way, but finishes with a beautifully happy ending. It's gritty and real but also, in the end, so hopeful. As I often do with fiction, I found it expanded my ability to imagine a totally different experience of life.

The second, The 57 Bus, is an exploration of a series of events in the life of a teenager who identifies as neither male or female. Sasha loves to invent games and languages and spend time with their best friends. They understand who they are and they are accepted in their school and home. Then one day a young man touches a lighter to their skirt on the bus and sets them on fire. The book explores the lives of Sasha and the young man responsible for Sasha's terrible pain, discussing a huge range of important modern issues in the process. This is a great book for your independent reading shelves or for a whole class read. 

Of course, there are many more books exploring LGBTQ+ issues worth including on your shelves or in your curriculum. Always remember The Danger of a Single Story. While their website design leaves something to be desired, the Rainbow Book Lists are a great source for finding strong titles. Each year they select the best of the best books including LGBTQ+ themes or characters. Queer Books for Teens is also a good place to look.

Show your Support with your Words 

Another important way to support your LGBTQ+ students is to find out what pronouns and names they prefer to be called, and whether those pronouns and names are the ones they want to be referred by when you talk to their families, who may not accept their evolving identities yet.

A simple survey will tell you their answers, and give you the chance to honor who they really are every day in class. If your students prefer "they/them" as their pronouns, you may struggle at first. But don't let fear of making a mistake stop you from trying. It is much better to try and mess up than not to acknowledge this important part of your students' identities.

Merriam-Webster has officially recognized the nonbinary "they" now too, so don't let grammar hang-ups stop you.

For me, sometimes just using a student's name at first makes it easier for me to avoid using the wrong pronoun while I'm making the transition to "they." For example, "Look at Sasha's incredible first paragraph" instead of "Look at their incredible first paragraph," if you're afraid you might accidentally say "Look at her incredible first paragraph" when you're scattered mid-class. Make it easy for yourself to honor your students' preferences as your language adjusts to the way things are now.

I hope you can easily incorporate some or all of these strategies into your classroom. It'll make a big difference to some of your students, whether or not they ever feel ready to tell you.

Selected Further Resources:
Ally Week for Educators
LGBTQ+ Student Resources and Support
6 Ways Teacher can Support Trans Students


3 Easy Ways to Display Student Work

There's a common suggestion in business these days to use "social proof." Show people happy customers, and you'll find new customers.

Can we apply this business model to the classroom? I think so, though in this case it's really more of an inspiration model.

Putting amazing student work from the past on display will help inspire your students in their efforts. It will give them something to reach for and put their work in context. Putting amazing student work from the present on display will honor their efforts and give them a larger audience than just you, their teacher. It will also continue to push the standards up, as students see the heights to which their peers are reaching.


75: 10 Review Activities for any Unit

So you've finished a unit, and you'd like to go back over the material a bit. Give everyone a chance to peruse their memories and reinforce what they've learned. But how?

It's easy for review to get a little mundane, quickly going back over everything through a teacher-led Powerpoint or silent study with flashcards. But there are lots of other options. In this post and podcast, I'm going to share ten easy ideas to get your students thinking back clearly and creatively.

Read on, or listen in on the podcast player below, or on iTunesBlubrry, or Stitcher.

Unit Sketchnotes

This is my personal favorite way to study. Right now I'm creating a posterboard-sized set of sketchnotes about a book in preparation for a podcast interview. All I have to do is close my eyes and I can see what I've put on the sketchnotes - that's how memorable the process of creating a visual version of the most important information is. Teach your students the basics of sketchnoting with this quick, three minute-video and then give them time to create their own sketchnotes version of your unit. This review activity lends itself beautifully to a gallery walk at the end, giving students a chance to see everyone's visual representations of the material and reinforce their knowledge even more.

Podcast Version

There are hundreds of thousands of podcasts out there, and chances are, your students have noticed. Podcasting as a platform is not going anywhere anytime soon. Getting students thinking about podcasts and how they are used to share information is a nice side benefit of this quick review activity. Ask students to imagine a worldwide project in which high school courses are being made available to all kids for free, via podcasts. Ask them to outline a podcast episode version of the unit you've just finished, including the most vital information. Whether or not to go the extra mile and do some recording is up to you!

Google Slides Group Review

If you use Google classroom, this is a great form of collaborative review. Open up a set of Google slides, label them with the important topics in your unit, and share them with your class. Assign one, two, or a group of students to each slide, and let them create the most powerful one-slide review for that topic they can, including images, ideas, and maybe even sound clips and videos.

As they work, they'll see their classmates building the rest of the review right in their shared slide deck. When everyone's done, either let the whole class work individually through the slides to review, present them all to the class on your projector, or let each group take a minute to walk the class through their slide.

The Lightning Version

If the material you're trying to review is a book or a play that you've been enmeshed in for weeks, one fun way to sum it all up is to have groups of students script and perform two-minute versions. Ask them to hit the most important highlights as quickly (and perhaps, hilariously) as possible. They will need to write out a script, rehearse, and then perform for the class.

Instagram or Twitter Account for the Unit

Social media provides tiny snapshots of a day, a week, a life. Why not a unit? Invite students to look back through your material and put together a series of social posts for an Instagram account or Twitter feed named your unit. For example, what would the Instagram feed for Transcendentalism look like? How could students combine images and captions to share the most important ideas they've learned from Thoreau and Emerson? What would the Twitter feed for The Great Gatsby look like? What key moments, ideas, and symbols would students feature to capture what mattered most about the book and its context and significance?


A one-pager is an easy way to review a book or a set of ideas before launching into another type of assessment. If you don't have them yet, you can sign up for a set of free novel-based one-pager templates here.

Review Donuts

OK, this one's a little silly. But that's kind of why I like it. Review doesn't have to be too serious. Get your students thinking about what twelve things they'd frost onto the top of a dozen donuts if they could bring a box of donuts in on the day of your assessment. They'll have to choose only the MOST important ideas as they review the unit materials.

Hyperdoc Table of Contents

The hyperdoc is a great classroom tool if you've got tech, and a review activity could be a perfect way to introduce it to your students. Have everyone open up a Google doc. Tell them that they're basically creating a clickable Table of Contents for the unit. They'll need to put in the most important topics from the unit, then hyperlink short descriptions of them to videos, websites, images, docs, articles, etc. around the web that help explain those topics or add layers of context or connection to them.

Have everyone send you their shareable links and put them all on a single doc or slide once everyone's done so each student in your class can choose several other hyperdocs to explore as part of their review.

Review Mural

For this collaborative review activity, you need a blank board somewhere in your room - a white board or a chalkboard will work.

Give each pair or group of students a topic from your unit and ask them to come up with a way to represent it clearly and memorably on a part of the board, combining words and images. Let everyone brainstorm on paper together before transferring their final products to the board. Then ask everyone to walk around viewing the mural and jotting down the material they see that they think will help them in their own review.

Two-Slide Powerpoints (GOOD Powerpoints, really)

If you'd like to teach your students the basics of creating an effective slide presentation, you can build a mini-lesson in to a review activity. Check out Jennifer Gonzalez's wonderful article on creating better slideshows over on Cult of Pedagogy, and choose some of the insights you'll find there to share with your students. Then ask them, in groups, to create two strong slides each on whatever topic you assign to them. Ask every group to present back briefly and powerfully.

Ready for action? Hopefully you've found some helpful creative activities for the next time you've got material to review. No need to put together a big lecture, your students can take charge of their own review.

Looking for the print-and-go handouts featured in this blog post? You'll find them here. 


074: Infographics: Research, Writing, & Visuals for the Win

Don't you love it when someone takes an incredibly confusing topic you need to understand and presents it to you as a striking, clear infographic? Like this?

A good infographic can distill a concept so clearly. Take a hugely complex issue and boil it down to a beautiful display of the most important stats, facts, quotations, and images. Creating an infographic is the work of an artist, a writer, a researcher, and a critical thinker.

It is an ideal medium for our students.


073: The Discussions You've Dreamed of: Harkness FAQs

You've seen the spiderweb charts.

Heard whispers of the discussion revolution.

Other teachers have even told you that students take total ownership of their conversations using a magical method called Harkness. That the crickets cease to be an issue. That students begin to police their own commentary, dominators begin to listen, silent students begin to speak.

Yeah, right, you might be thinking. Maybe it works for them, but it'll never work for me. Not for my students. Not in my situation. 

Well, though I can't guarantee anything, what I can say is that over the course of many years in the classroom, I introduced Harkness to every single one of my classes, and I felt it was successful every single time.


The Busy Teacher's Guide to a New School Year

Somehow it doesn't matter how much you prepare during the summer, the beginning of school is always so BUSY. The to-do list spills off your phone and onto tiny sheets of paper spread all over the house and into the corners of your mind in the middle of the night.

I know. If it's not a lengthy faculty meeting with five hundred and eleven announcements that kinda sorta seem like they could have been sent by e-mail, it's a blood borne pathogens training or a CPR recertification (headed to mine in two hours).

But what does every teacher really want at this BUSY time of year? To work on curriculum. To work on the classroom. To connect with the kids. And of course, to have a glass of wine or two and binge watch Jane the Virgin Season Five afterwards. (Why do I always have to watch three episodes if I watch one??!)


072: Connecting your English Classroom to the World

A few days ago I sat with my young children at our local kids' museum, watching them watch a high school student volunteer perform magic tricks in the hall by the dinosaur room.

Another pair of high school students were re-organizing the town exhibit nearby, and their conversation drifted over to me.

"Korean wood block calligraphy. That's literally the only thing I remember about AP World. And now I'm in AP Euro," said an outgoing girl I had met earlier.

I sat thinking about this for a moment as the teenage magician wowed my kids by flicking a card and turning it into another card. Out of nowhere, or so it seemed to me, he said, "just be glad you're not in high school" to my kids.

Ack. I immediately chipped in with some rushed positive thoughts on the subject of high school, backed up by my friend the museum director who had just walked by. The magician, wanting to fix things, popped in with "oh, you're right. Middle school is really the worst."

Ummm. Perhaps sensing my panic, his friend holding the deck of cards behind me began to tell what was apparently his happiest academic story from middle school.

"Oh, we had fun. We got to take care of trout for an entire year and then release them into the wild!"

OK. Let's unpack this for a minute.

Three wonderful kids who volunteer as interns in the local children's museum. One, an AP student, was wondering aloud about the purpose of her AP classes when she was seemingly unable to retain any information. Another, a whiz at magic tricks that obviously took many hours to practice and perfect, had only negative news of school for my kids. A third, fondly remembered the one project in middle school where he felt his work was somehow relevant and exciting, connected to the world around him.

More and more in recent years, I've felt the importance of connecting our curriculum with what is going on in the world, prioritizing relevance over tradition, depth over breadth.


17 Short Stories for your ELA Classroom

Short stories sure are handy. You can pair them with longer works, read them in isolation when you have a random day or two between units and vacations, or pull them all together into a beautiful diverse unit with many voices and perspectives.

You can focus in on their language, themes, and meaning, or you can use them as springboards to inspire student writers in crafting their own stories. You probably do both.

In graduate school I built my own travel literature elective after spending two years abroad, and my final project was to read all of Ernest Hemingway's short stories and then write a travel story of my own in imitation of his style. I loved sitting at my favorite cafe in Santa Fe, reading his stunning spare prose and using it as a mentor text for my own. Yet until recently, the short story wasn't really a favorite genre of mine.

But over and over this year I've seen the amazing teachers in my Facebook group discuss their favorite short stories (check out this huge variety of themed threads on short stories). And I've listened to some wonderful Education podcasters talking about their favorite short stories and how to use them in unique and wonderful ways. And then there are the rave reviews I keep hearing about this cool (and free) short story fair project from Read Write Think.

So now I'm in. Short stories are pretty awesome. I think I just never got into them as a young reader because I loved diving into the world of novels and staying there so much. Short stories felt too fast to me. But I'm learning, and I'm enjoying the process.

This summer I reached out to a bunch of my English teacher blogger friends and asked them to share their favorite short stories with me, for you. I've collected them here across some loose categories to make it easier for you to find a related set you can use if you're looking for top hits for a certain themed course. Or just browse through and pick the ones you like the best if categories aren't a concern for you.


Title: "A Jury of Her Peers"
Author: Susan Glaspell
Category: American Literature
Themes: reality vs. appearance, mystery
Why it's worth teaching: The main characters are informally investigating a murder. As they put the pieces together, they won't dare say what really happened because it's just too horrible for them to even comprehend. Since the conclusion is never said aloud, students need to make their own inferences to determine the identity of the murderer and their motive. This mystery generates lively discussions and offers opportunities for hands-on learning as students recreate scenes and the setting.
-Amanda, from Engaging and Effective

Title: "Amigo Brothers"
Author: Piri Thomas
Category: American Literature
Themes: Friendship
Why it's worth teaching: Students love this story about friendship and boxing. They love the ending!
-Kristy, from 2 Peas and a Dog

Title: "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"
Author: Ursula LeGuin
Category: American Literature, Scifi/Fantasy/Ethics (defies genre)
Themes: Fantasy, dystopia, social justice
Why it's worth teaching: This story describes a utopia in a way that is both specific and vague. LeGuin leaves room for you to imagine it to be however you want it to be, and seems to draw attention to the fact that it only exists in your imagination, as a way to think about an issue. The utopia becomes a dystopia partway through, when you discover that all that is good in the society exists because of the torturous life of one small child, who can never be released from misery or the society will collapse. This story pairs well with any dystopian unit, but would also stand alone as a very interesting springboard for discussion about how societies care for those who suffer.
-Betsy, from Spark Creativity 

Title: "Harrison Bergeron"
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Category: American Lit
Themes: Dystopia
Why it's worth teaching: Vonnegut has so many levels of complexity in this piece, making it perfect for so many different student audiences.  On its surface, it's a stark look at the dystopian genre and what happens when the world becomes overly desensitized to violence.  It's also a great entry point into the topic of equality versus equity:  what do we really need in America?  On it's many deeper levels, Vonnegut uses dark, satirical humor to point out some major flaws in American society.
-Amanda Cardenas, from Mud and Ink Teaching

Title: "The Zoo" by Edward D. Hoch
Category: American Literature, Science Fiction
Theme: Be careful of Technology
Why it's worth teaching: Students love this story because of the twist at the end.
-Kristy, from 2 Peas and a Dog

Title: "Hills like White Elephants"
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Category: American Literature
Themes: travel, relationships, abortion
Why it's worth teaching: If you don't have room for a Hemingway novel in your course, it's nice to share his striking, spare descriptive style with students through a short story. In this one, a couple drink at the train station while discussing whether to have a procedure. While the man continuously argues that the procedure will put their lives back to what they have always been, happy and full of hope, the woman argues that they have now lost that freedom but that she will do it because she doesn't care about herself. As the story ends, it's entirely unclear what will happen.
-Betsy, from Spark Creativity

Title: "The Lottery"
Author: Shirley Jackson
Category: American Literature
Themes: horror, dystopian
Why it's worth teaching: “The Lottery” is a wonderful story to teach if your students enjoy dystopian literature. The surprise ending raises questions about morality, persecution, traditions, and rituals. It’s the perfect story to work on making connections because it overlaps with common YA literature, like The Hunger Games.

Title: "The Jacket"
Author: Gary Soto
Category: American Literature, Memoir
Themes: Poverty, bullying, identity
Why it's worth teaching: This story is perfect to use with middle schoolers. Teens can connect with the pain of being outcasted because of your clothing. Teachers can delve deep into symbolism and character development with this short story. These are two of the hardest concepts to teach students to integrate into their writing!
-Amanda Werner, from Amanda Write Now

Title: “The Scarlet Ibis”
Author: James Hurst
Category: American Lit
Themes: tragedy, coming-of-age
Why it's worth teaching: I love reading “The Scarlet Ibis” with freshmen for many reasons! It’s a great model text for author’s craft. Teachers and students can explore how flashbacks and foreshadowing as well as description and narration are used to impact the overall story’s flow.

Title: "Test"
Author: Theodore Thomas
Category: American Literature
Themes: man vs. technology, psychology, dystopian
Why it's worth teaching: The narrator explains in great detail his afternoon drive which turns into a deadly car crash. Spoiler - it's actually a simulation for his driver's permit. But students are always surprised when he fails the test and the harsh reprogramming and punishment that follows. This story is especially relevant as our students are learning to drive and as changing technology is drastically changing how our society functions. A fun activity I pair with this is an online driver simulation; as a bell ringer, we have a contest to see who's the best driver. Obviously, a free online driver test is not accurate, and this leads to lively discussions about what makes a good driver.
-Amanda, from Engaging and Effective

Title: “Eleven”
Author: Sandra Cisneros
Category: American Literature, Chicana Literature
Themes: realistic fiction, coming-of-age
Why it's worth teaching: “Eleven” is inspired by a real experience Cisneros had in 3rd grade. It provides opportunities to explore isolation, misunderstanding, and stream-of-consciousness writing. Because it is so short, it is an excellent mentor text for workshop classrooms. With a lower reading level, it’s also good for engaging struggling readers.


Title: "The Landlady"
Author: Roald Dahl
Category: British Literature
Themes: reality vs. appearance
Why it's worth teaching: This story is told from the perspective of a young man renting a room in a small town with which he's not familiar. Students really enjoy putting together all the pieces (making lots of inferences) and figuring out what's going on before the narrator does. It's a dark story with a shocking ending, so it's always a crowd-pleaser in my classroom.
-Amanda, from Engaging and Effective

Title: "Lamb to the Slaughter"
Author: Roald Dahl
Category: British Literature, Thriller
Theme: Be careful how you treat people
Why it's worth teaching: Students love this story because the character is so seemingly "harmless" and tricks the police.
-Kristy, from 2 Peas and a Dog


Title: "A Rose for Emily"
Author: William Faulkner
Category: American Literature

Title: "The Fall of the House of Usher"
Author: Edgar Allen Poe
Category: American Literature

Title: "The Company of Wolves"
Author: Angela Carter
Category: British Literature

Why they're worth teaching: There's no doubt that when it comes to highly engaging themes in literature, the Gothic genre can't be beat.  This is my go-to genre to engage readers across levels, and these three stories in particular use literary elements in innovative ways that leave plenty of room for discussion and interpretation.  "A Rose for Emily" provides a platform for discussing how point of view affects the theme of a story as well as the consequences of strict gender roles.  Poe's story "The Fall of the House of Usher" not only uses eloquent vocabulary in typical Poe style but also explores a narrative technique that builds mystery.  "The Company of Wolves" by Angela Carter is a fantastical retelling of the traditional "Little Red Riding Hood" tale that allows readers to examine how we perceive similar stories.  Since students will already (most-likely) be familiar with the plot, they can focus on the language and narrative techniques Carter uses to build mystery and suspense.  As a grouping, these three short stories will draw students in to literary analysis.
-Meredith, from Bespoke ELA


Title: "The Lottery"
Author: Shirley Jackson
Category: American Literature
Themes: horror, dystopian
Why it's worth teaching: “The Lottery” is a wonderful story to teach if your students enjoy dystopian literature. The surprise ending raises questions about morality, persecution, traditions, and rituals. It’s the perfect story to work on making connections because it overlaps with common YA literature, like The Hunger Games.

Title: "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"
Author: Ursula LeGuin
Category: American Literature
Themes: Fantasy, Dystopia, social justice
Why it's worth teaching: This story (with some mature themes) describes a utopia in a way that is both specific and vague. LeGuin leaves room for you to imagine it to be however you want it to be, and makes it seem that it only exists in your imagination, as a way to think about an issue. The utopia becomes a dystopia partway through, when you discover that all that is good in the society exists because of the torturous life of one small child, who can never be released from misery or the society will collapse. This story pairs well with any dystopian unit, but would also stand alone as a very interesting springboard for discussion about how societies care for those who suffer.
-Betsy, from Spark Creativity 

Title: "Harrison Bergeron"
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Category: American Literature
Themes: Dystopia
Why it's worth teaching: Vonnegut has so many levels of complexity in this piece making it perfect for so many different student audiences.  On its surface, it's a stark look at the dystopian genre and what happens when the world becomes overly desensitized to violence.  It's also a great entry point into the topic of equality versus equity:  what do we really need in America?  On it's many deeper levels, Vonnegut uses dark, satirical humor to point out some major flaws in American society.
-Amanda Cardenas, from Mud and Ink Teaching

Title: "Test"
Author: Theodore Thomas
Category: American Literature
Themes: man vs. technology, psychology, dystopian
Why it's worth teaching: The narrator explains in great detail his afternoon drive which turns into a deadly car crash. Spoiler - it's actually a simulation for his driver's permit. But students are always surprised when he fails the test and the harsh reprogramming and punishment that follows. This story is especially relevant as our students are learning to drive and as changing technology is drastically changing how our society functions. A fun activity I pair with this is an online driver simulation; as a bell ringer, we have a contest to see who's the best driver. Obviously, a free online driver test is not accurate, and this leads to lively discussions about what makes a good driver.
-Amanda, from Engaging and Effective


Title: "Apollo"
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Category: World Literature (Nigerian)
Themes: identity, disconnect with parents, first love, betrayal
Why it's worth teaching: I love Adichie's Ted Talk, "The Danger of a Single Story," and went searching for more of her work. In this story, the protagonist reflects on a childhood in which he felt highly disconnected from his academic parents, and sought solace in a fellow Kung Fu-loving friend who worked for his family in a position with no power at all. The story ends with a brokenhearted betrayal that comes as quite a surprise.
-Betsy, from Spark Creativity

Another category of short stories, invented by Hemingway, is the six-word story. Narrative Magazine online shares several examples and invites readers to submit their own (though you probably won't want to, because of the submission fee - ew). This could make a fun project to go along with any short story unit, perhaps creating a gallery of stories with related images in the hallway outside your classroom or the school library.

"For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn." —Ernest Hemingway

"Longed for him. Got him. Shit." —Margaret Atwood

"All those pages in the fire." —Janet Burroway

You can find more examples over here at HuffPost. 

Hopefully you've discovered some great short stories to add to your curriculum and perhaps some project ideas too. What's your favorite short story to teach? What do your students like about it? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.


071: How to talk about Equity and Inclusion, with Liz Kleinrock

For many of us in education, the lure of changing the world for the better is part of the reason we got into this game. As we see the turbulent politics and crises emerging around us, it's sometimes hard to know how to use our roles to help equip students to engage with the real world and make it a better place. We are admonished not to bring our politics into the classroom, or offend anyone by sharing too many of our own opinions.

Even if we are still hoping to find ways to bring important issues up in class, it can be hard to ask for advice on the topics of race and social justice at school so that we can do a good job. I remember the first time I was presented with Huck Finn and told to teach it. I read it and immediately came to my colleagues in a cold sweat, asking how on earth I would deal with the language of the book in the classroom. "It's just history," I was told, "you just read it."

Ummm. That didn't work for me. I was not going to have my students read the n-word aloud in my classroom like any other word.

But like me, teachers often encounter really difficult and loaded situations without any training or prep in how to handle them. Much less how to use them to help students grow, gain confidence in their voices, and learn to have conversations about important issues that don't end in fury, tears and reports to the superintendent about a teacher messing up the classroom with politics.

Sometimes even asking questions leads people to get angry at the way we phrased those questions or the fact that we didn't already know the answer. It's not easy to talk about racism, sexism, and homophobia. It's not easy to talk about the state of politics in America.

But it is important. So important. We have to keep asking and trying and reading and learning and hoping to do better. To find ways to approach big and important subjects. Subjects that sometimes feel taboo.

Since encountering a giant swastika in the parking lot at my favorite trailhead this spring, my half-Jewish children walking just far enough from me to miss it, I've wished more than ever that I could help teachers fight against hate and work towards equity. I've discovered many wonderful resources (like the ones from this post), and many wonderful people to learn from, like my guest today.

In this episode of The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast, you're going to hear from Teaching Tolerance's teacher of the year, Liz Kleinrock. I find her inspiring, and I believe you will too.

Listen in to discover ideas and strategies for safely holding conversations in your classroom around topics that can be contentious - like race, religion, gender, and more. 


A New Teacher To-Do List for Summer

Hey there, New Teacher,

So you got your first teaching job! Congratulations! Wondering what you need to prepare before those first busy days can be pretty stressful. That's why I wanted to write you this letter. So you wouldn't have to wonder what would be most helpful to do in advance, and what it's really OK to wait on.

Now of course, this is my opinion, based on my own experience in several schools and working with a lot of teachers. You may know of some specific other requirements of your job. But if you can consider what I'm going to share with you here, my guess is you're going to be in good shape.


The biggest thing that will help you this year is giving thought now to what systems you want to have in place. Let me give you some examples.


070: Help for Student Apathy, with Dave Stuart Jr.

Are you struggling with students who seem apathetic? Unmotivated? Does it sometimes feel like no matter what you do, it's still hard to reach them? You're not alone. And your problem is not unsolveable. As Marie Forleo often says, "everything is figureoutable."

In today's episode of The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast, you're going to hear from Dave Stuart Jr.,  a teacher, speaker, and author who has put a lot of time, thought, research, and consideration into the idea of student motivation. What helps make students more motivated? What can we do about the frustrating apathy that can creep into classrooms and make teachers feel powerless?

In this episode, discover the five key beliefs that help motivate students in the classroom, alongside specific actions you can take to begin combating apathy and promoting the long-term flourishing of the kids in your classroom. Best of all, you'll hear that Dave's approach is reasonable and practical, and doesn't ask you to turn your life into a Hollywood teacher movie, sacrificing everything else on the altar of motivating your students. In fact, he'd really rather you didn't. (And I couldn't agree more). 


The Best Free Posters for your Classroom

Lately I keep finding lovely free posters around the web. It made me wonder, is your classroom space on your mind now? It is July after all, the month before the month when you can probably get in there and start working your magic.

So here are some options you might want to consider for your walls. Before you get printing, let me make two suggestions.

First off, consider picking up card stock for printing your posters, it makes a huge difference.

Second, if you're looking for your posters to last all year, consider picking up some cheap black frames like these (the ones I always get) so they're protected and you can hang them with longer-lasting Command strips instead of tape.

#1 The Great American Read

PBS's travel posters for various great novels are stunning. And this is just a sample! They've also got hilarious memes and book facts you could print for bulletin boards. You've GOT to go check them out. You could probably cover a whole wall just in PBS chic. 

Amplifier Art not only has an incredible selection of posters available to download and print for free, but you can sign up for their educator network and receive access to free lesson plans and projects related to their work. I am really impressed by what they're doing, and I think you will be too.

#3 We are Teachers Downloads

We are Teachers puts out a lot of free printable sets. You can get this poster as shown, or check out their whole line of ELA-related printables. 

Teaching Tolerance has a huge set of downloadable PDFs featuring diversity and inclusion quotations and beautiful artwork. 

There is soooo much great sharing going on in the files section of my Facebook group, Creative High School English! I just put the growth mindset posters above there, and teachers are constantly sharing great activities and handouts inside. So you should scoot over and join if you haven't already, and if have already joined, don't forget to check out the files section once in a while. The posters above (and the rest of the set that goes with them) are just labeled "posters" with an upload date of June 23.

I hope you've found some new classroom decor you love! What are your favorite sources for free posters? I hope you'll share them in the comments below and keep this conversation going.

Looking for more creative classroom inspiration? Try the Ed Deck! With 41 cards full of creative strategies for tomorrow, lesson planning is about to get a whole lot easier. Check it out HERE. 


Canva for the Classroom

Canva can be addicting. The other day my husband was putting together a few simple signs for guests at our cabin, explaining how to use different things.

"Here! Let's do it on Canva!" I said, racing for my computer.

"Umm. They're just really small...." he replied.

So yeah. You can't use it for EVERYTHING, but practically. Canva is a lovely online tool that allows anyone and everyone to design posters, flyers, social media posts, banners, stationary, infographics, resumes, postcards, programs, desktop wallpaper, and more. (I'm not an affiliate, just kind of obsessed).

I heard its founder, Melanie Perkins, interviewed on NPR's How I Built This, and I love the mission she set out with, to make design approachable and doable for everyone, without so much technical skill and access to industry programs. Canva actually began as a site to easily design yearbook pages, but it's become much more.

Scanning over my draft projects in Canva from the last few years, I have easily hundreds there. And once you get the hang of it, I have a feeling the same will soon be true for you (and your students).

So let's just agree at the top here that you're not going to get intimidated by the tech, because it's so doable. If you've used Word or Powerpoint or Docs, and you're willing to spend ten or fifteen minutes monkeying around, you can do this. Seriously, you can do this.

Before we dive into all the ways you can use Canva in class, I want you to feel confident that you can use the program. So I've done a quick screenshot tutorial of the steps to design a project tin Canva below, or you can check out the short video tutorials on their site if you prefer to learn that way.

Simple steps for using Canva:

#1 From the scrollable menu of options across the top, choose one (such as "poster").

#2 Now inside your chosen genre of design, scroll down through the many layout options available to you and choose to see "all" for one (such as "school poster"). 

#3 Now you'll see MANY options for layouts. Choose one you like as you scroll through them all along the left. 

#4 Now that you're inside a design, you can use the toolbar across the left to add elements. This toolbar allows you to upload your own images (click the "upload") button and drag them into your poster to replace existing photos or just to add to what's there. You can also add text, illustrations, icons, shapes, and other items using this lefthand toolbar. 

#5 You can adjust the text within the poster using the toolbar across the top. Simply click into the text you want to alter, type what you want it to say, and then you can adjust your colors, fonts, sizes, etc. Or you can delete sections of text if you want to by dragging them off the screen. You can also move them around by clicking them and then pulling them around the design. 

#6 Now just monkey around for a while until you have the hang of the program. Below, you'll see a poster layout I chose and the poster I created in a couple of minutes by tweaking the colors, changing one font,  deleting the bottom box and text, and putting in my photo. As long as you don't add any of Canva's copyrighted photos or illustrations, you can then click the download arrow in the top right and get a lovely free PNG or PDF of your design.

OK, just play around for a little while over at Canva. Once you have the hang of what I have found to be a pretty intuitive program, you're ready to implement some fun ways to use Canva for your classroom. Keep in mind, as you peruse these ideas, that I made each example in Canva in just a few minutes so I could show you a range of possibilities. You could spend longer and get more beautiful results.

About the Teacher

However you want to introduce yourself to students, whether it's with a poster on your door, a sidebar on your syllabus, or a flyer that goes home to families, Canva is an easy way to make it. For the example below, I used a Pinterest template and just added my photo, an e-mail address and a brief description that would give families a tiny glimpse of my life. You could go way more in depth, of course.

About the Kids

Similarly, in the first week of school you might enjoy teaching your students how to use Canva with an introductory lesson and then a chance to make a poster about themselves. Have them send you their PNGs at the end and print them for an amazing initial display on your classroom wall. I suggest giving them a few specific requirements to help them go into some depth with introducing themselves.


Making syllabi as infographics is all the rage right now. Choose one the infographic templates on Canva and start plugging in your info. (Or grab these free syllabus templates if you're not into infographics).

Book Posters

If you'd like to have your students sharing their favorite books with each other (and why wouldn't you, right?!), Canva is a really easy platform for this. Just have them snap a selfie with their book and turn it into a poster, then send you the PNG. Or they can send you the selfie and you can make the poster. You can also encourage students to make book posters on Canvas to submit to the Modern Voices Project and share their recommendations with other teenagers around the world.

Class Events

Have a poetry slam coming up? A class play performance? A one-pagers festival? You can use Canva to design a program or poster for anything you've got going.

Parent Newsletters

Trying to keep parents involved in classroom work? Canva can help you out. They've got a whole section for classroom newsletters. Just choose your favorite and drop in whatever you want, then send it out by email or print it for parents, whatever you prefer.

Novel-Based Social Media Posts

I love pulling social media into projects, and Canva would make it easy for students to put together professional-looking work. Maybe they're designing an Instagram feed for Jay Gatsby, a Pinterest board for Starr Carter, or a Facebook page for Ponyboy. When you teach them Canva, you'll empower them to elevate the level of their work, and help the kids who don't like drawing find their wings.


Are some of your students asking if they can make one-pagers digitally? Canva would be an ideal platform for this. Just let the kids open the posters section and begin adding their images and text.


Just as you could easily use Canva to make an infographic syllabus, you could assign infographics as a student project. You could do a mini research project culminating in an infographic, or create novel-related infographics featuring themes, main characters, historical context, etc.


Want to do funny Hamlet memes? Or have students create 1984 memes that show the role of Big Brother in the modern world? Memes to show what makes a good discussion participant versus a not-so-stellar one? Canva is a great place to have students create memes. The Instagram photo templates (like this one) work well.

So there are some starting points for you! Once you get started on Canva, you'll probably find even more wonderful ways to use it. I hope you'll jump into the comments below and let me know what you're excited to try or share other successful ways you've used the program.

Looking for more creative classroom inspiration? Try the Ed Deck! With 41 cards full of creative strategies for tomorrow, lesson planning is about to get a whole lot easier. Check it out HERE. 

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