7 Spoken Word Poems for Teaching Literary Elements

The first time I announced to a high school class that we were starting a poetry unit I was met with groans and broken-voiced protestations.  I realized that no matter how moving or influential the poems I’d selected were, teaching elements like devices of sound and diction would be utterly painful for everyone involved.

Despite having some experience in the realm of spoken word poetry (okay, so I only  competed and placed in ONE local poetry slam back in Santa Cruz, CA), I figured this most engaging format was too pedestrian for school, and as a new teacher it was safest to stick to the canon.  Boy, was I wrong.

Here are seven awesome spoken word poems that can be used to teach specific literary elements and poetic devices.

Allusion, Refrain, Devices of Sound (Alliteration, Assonance)

To This Day – Shane Koyczan

This is perhaps the most popular spoken word poems shared with middle to high school students, and there is an amazing animated video to go along with it.  I’ve decided to share a video of the poet himself delivering a full version the piece, but you can find the shorter animated version here.

Excerpt to discuss in class:

I’m not the only kid who grew up this way, surrounded by people who used to say that rhyme about sticks and stones, as if broken bones hurt more than the names we got called, and we got called them all. So we grew up believing no one would ever fall in love with us, that we’d be lonely forever, that we’d never meet someone to make us feel like the sun was something they built for us in their toolshed. So broken heartstrings bled the blues, and we tried to empty ourselves so we’d feel nothing.

Full text of To This Day

Internal and End Rhyme, Diction

3 Ways of Speaking English – Jamila Lyiscott

Excerpt to discuss in class:

So when my Professor comes on the block and says, “Hello”
I stop him and say “Noooo …
You’re being inarticulate …
the proper way is to say ‘what’s good’”
Now you may think that’s too hood, that’s not cool
But I’m here to tell you that even our language has rules

Full text of 3 Ways to Speak English

Extended Metaphor, Personification

A Love Letter from a Toothbrush to a Bicycle Tire – Sarah Kaye

Excerpt to discuss in class:

They told me that I was meant for the cleaner life, that you would drag me through the mud. They said that you would tread all over me, that they could see right through you, that you were full of hot air, that I would always be chasing, always watching you disappear after sleeker models, that it would be a vicious cycle.

Full text of A Love Letter From a Toothbrush to a Bicycle Tire

Simile, Repetition, Ambiguity, Euphony

Until We Could – Richard Blanco

Note: “Until We Could” may not have been written as a traditional spoken word piece, but the following video from Freedom to Marry has arguably become its most far-reaching manifestation.

Excerpt to discuss in class:

                                 Yes, I counted your eyelashes,
read your dreams like butterflies flitting underneath
your eyelids, ready to flutter into the room.  Yes,
I praised you like a majestic creature my god forgot
to create, till that morning of you suddenly tamed
in my arms, first for me to see, name you mine.

Full text of Until We Could

Analogy, Devices of Sound (Assonance, Consonance, Internal Rhyme)

A Letter to a Playground Bully, From Andrea, Age 8 1/2 – Andrea Gibson

Excerpt to discuss in class:

my mother says most people have heartbeats
that are knocking on doors that will never open,
and I know my heart is a broken freezer chest
‘cause I can never keep anything frozen.

Full text of A Letter to a Playground Bully, From Andrea, Age 8 1/2

Rhythm, End Rhyme, Simile, Diction

If I Woz a Tap-Natch Poet – Linton Kwesi Johnson

Excerpt to discuss in class:

inna di meantime
wid mi riddim
wid mi rime
wid mi ruff base line
wid mi own sense a time

Full text of If I Woz a Tap-Natch Poet

Antithesis, Parallelism

Shrinking Women – Lily Myers

Excerpt to discuss in class:

you have been taught to grow out,
I have been taught to grow in.
You learned from our father how to emit, how to produce, to roll each thought off your tongue with confidence, you used to lose your voice every other week from shouting so much.
I learned to absorb.
I took lessons from our mother in creating space around myself.

Full text of Shrinking Women


What are some of your favorite spoken word poems?  Share your recommendations here!



Balancing Concepts, Content, and Skills

Sometimes I miss the good ol’ days of grad school and student teaching, sticky Michigan summers and lake effect winters, and strict adherence to the UbD framework by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins.  To the best of my knowledge, nobody else at my school does this, but I’ve taken to writing learning objectives on the whiteboard at the start of each lesson:


I know, I skipped the “Students will be able to…” objective.  Still, a little UbD is better than none at all, right?  Okay, okay, JM and GW, don’t freak out!  I’ll do better next time!

I can see how the “Students will know” sentence stem may feel a bit too prescriptive to some.  A defining characteristic of the MYP (in fact, the entire IB curriculum) is that it is “concept-based” rather than content and skill-based, and the most important “skill” students are supposed to learn is inquiry.  Theoretically, this is beautiful.  It reminds me of Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy of education, placing independence, imagination, and the development of a well-rounded individual over mandated learning objectives.  The adults I’ve met who attended Steiner schools are uncommonly articulate, have varied proclivities and proficiencies in all disciplines, are all multilingual, and tremendously kindhearted.

The MYP lives in a strange liminal state between the boundless, exploratory Primary Years Program, where all students progress in phases and there are no actual standards to master in order to move up a grade level, and the strict Diploma Program, which is skill- and content-heavy.  Reconciling the desire to continue concept-based teaching with the need to equip students with skills they will require in later years seems impossible.  I know I’ve struggled with this enormously, and that each MYP teacher at my school has a different idea of how concepts, content, and skills should be balanced.

These are my thoughts:

1. Content is important, no matter what they say.

The fact that the MYP is supposed to be “inquiry-based” often manifests as a series of open-ended research projects.  One problem I have found with this kind of approach is that younger students often lack foundational knowledge, and are unable to ask the right kinds of questions because they simply do not know where to begin.  Also, it can be difficult to find texts on the topics they truly find interesting at low enough reading levels, as reading comprehension is a skill and therefore not always emphasized in concept-based educational systems.  Another difficulty I have faced with this model is that it allows teachers to run units, perhaps created by someone else, without actually knowing the content.

For example, last year I was new to teaching seventh grade Individuals and Societies, aka social studies, and with an overwhelming total of six preps (four of which were new to me that year) I decided to take the easy route with one of my units and have the students do research essays.  I helped them come up with research questions, guided them to resources, and gave them organizational models, but I didn’t bother to learn all of the content.  Anyway, they had selected such an array of topics to study that there was no chance I could possibly learn it all in time for their assessments.  When it was time to grade their essays, I ended up just checking their claims on the internet.  I felt–and still feel–ashamed at my lack of preparedness for that unit.  I did not have the subject knowledge required to teach it properly.  This year, despite being allocated classes outside my areas of expertise once more, I have vowed to never again teach a class or unit without knowing the content backward and forward.

2. Students learn concepts from content, not the other way around.

I don’t think understanding concepts and learning content are mutually exclusive; in fact, quite the opposite.  One must have content knowledge in order to come up with conceptual understandings.  Factual knowledge leads to inquiry leads to more factual knowledge leads to analysis leads to the generation of new understandings.  A conceptual understanding shouldn’t be dictated first and supported second; that would make it simple dogma.

Besides, isn’t the whole point of any curriculum to have students walk away with conceptual understandings?  Isn’t that an essential part of all forms of education?  All educators believe that what they teach matters in the grand scheme of things.  The way in which it matters–the way in which the content is not only relevant, but important–is generally conceptual.

3. Assessing what we don’t teach is unethical, so we should make sure to teach the skills prescribed by our standards/criteria.

Check out Criterion D: Using Language, one of the four MYP Language and Literature objectives:

crit d

In the MYP Language and Literature, there are 4 Criteria: Analyzing, Organizing, Producing Text, and Using Language.  That means a full 25% of the course standards are tied to literacy skills.

During my couple of years in the MYP I didn’t teach grammar, spelling, punctuation, or any of these mechanics explicitly.  Nobody else was doing it, and I didn’t want to be that one person who was too old school.  Now, I do daily grammar games to make mechanics fun and get kids talking about language.  I have kids do sustained writing and practice proofreading in every lesson.  I’m in the middle of this action research at the moment, so maybe the results will show that this work has been ineffective, and that all of the students in that grade level made similar growth in literacy skills.  Still, I’d rather make the attempt to address these skills than assume any attempt would be futile.


Education professionals, students, and parents: What do you think is the right balance between concepts, content, and skills in late elementary/middle/early high school?

Why aren’t curriculum standards research-based?

It’s no secret that I would love a career in curriculum development.  Some educators complain about how it’s always changing, and mandates from above seem to disregard teachers’ needs, but I actually kind of love it.  I like to think that curricula are modified according to the latest educational research, and that there cannot be a perfect curriculum because human societies are in a constant state of evolution, and education does not exist in a vacuum.

I am sure there are great (and not so great) examples of this kind of remodelling from all over the world, but for now I want to focus on the progression of learning prescribed by the IB’s Middle Year Program.  The MYP’s revamped curriculum, dubbed “The Next Chapter” was rolled out at my school just a year ago, but it was already long outdated when it was published.

Here’s an excerpt from the MYP guide for Language and Literature:

progression of learning-edited

Year 1 of the MYP corresponds with 6th grade, Year 3 to 8th grade, and Year 5 to 10th grade in the American system.

As you can see, for three of the four criteria strands, the cognitive processes expected of students in 6th grade starts out at very low order thinking, and progresses up to higher order thinking by 10th grade.  FYI, I use Anderson and Krathwohl’s revised taxonomy, not Bloom’s:

myp command terms anderson krathwohl-edited

This is from my workshop on using graphic organizers to scaffold higher order thinking.  Of course, many of the cognitive processes cannot be scaffolded using graphic organizers, so I’ve left them off this chart.  I will make sure to post a complete Cognitive Process/Command Term chart in the next week or so.

However, I’ve found that all of my sixth grade students can demonstrate higher order thinking when learning experiences are within their zones of proximal development.  It is only when faced with brand new content that has not been connected to what students already know that these eleven and twelve year old students become incapable of higher order thinking.  They are so overwhelmed and confused by this unfamiliar content that they can do little more than recognize and recall.

Don’t just take my word for it.  Just the other day, Alex Quigley posted links to five fantastic readings on his HuntingEnglish blog (see his Top 5 Reads for Evidence Informed Teachers).  So far, I’ve only read the shortest two: “Top 20 Principles from Psychology for PreK-12 Teaching and Learning” from the APA, and “The Science of Learning” from Deans for Impact.  Both of these texts debunk Jean Piaget’s stage theory of cognitive development (but preserve the notion of schema).  Although these texts only came out within the last fourteen months, most of the sources they cite were published between 2000 and 2010, years before the MYP’s “Next Chapter” was mandated.


American Psychological Association, Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education. (2015). Top 20 principles from psychology for preK-12 teaching and learning. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ed/schools/cpse/top-twenty-principles.pdf

Middle school students are not limited in their ability to reason.  They merely lack content.  If teachers can help students draw connections between what students already know and new content, using analogies and other scaffolding techniques such as graphic organizers, students should be able to implement higher order cognitive processes to develop new understandings.


Deans for Impact (2015). The Science of Learning. Austin, TX: Deans for Impact.

So, why don’t the MYP criteria descriptors reflect this research?

Educators, sound off.

“You should know this,” or, What ever happened to ZPD?

Remember Zone of Proximal Development?  It’s that sweet spot between what a student knows and can do, and what’s out of reach.  A student’s ZPD is the perfect “challenge level” for that individual.  We all learned about ZPD in our teacher training, but once we started working and became bogged down by paperwork and deadlines and emails and collaborative planning, teaching principles we know to be crucial can fall to the wayside.

Middle and high school teachers sometimes expect students to know things that they simply don’t, leading to frustration for all parties.  For instance, a ninth grade student may be assigned a discussion essay in biology, and then earns a low grade because he submits a persuasive essay instead.  He’d just been taught how to write a persuasive essay in his literature class, and it was fresh in his mind.  He had never actually been taught how to write a discussion essay.  Now, he doesn’t understand why he earned such a low grade when he followed all of the instructions for writing an essay, and his biology teacher has no idea how this student completely missed the point of the assignment.  Nobody’s happy.

I encountered something like this this last year, when the mother of one of my students asked me why her son didn’t know how to write a certain type of essay for a subject that I do not teach.  “But you’re his English teacher,” she snapped.  I explained to her that in literature and history classes, the types of texts (both written and spoken) students produce are different from those they produce in mathematics, design, and other subjects.  Hell, the writing did while studying education in graduate school was completely different from the textual analysis I’d done as an undergraduate drama and English literature student.

I know all of you educators out there use formative assessments to guide your teaching, but don’t forget to assess all of the skills that you will be grading, in addition to content and concepts.  If you are going to grade students on organization, check to make sure that they actually know how to organize their work effectively, and if they don’t know how to do it, teach them.  Some kids may not have mastered it in previous years, others may be new to the school, and some may have just forgotten.

One way I scaffold summative assessments is to provide students with graphic organizer templates (I love Thinking Maps) to help them brainstorm, rearrange their ideas analytically, and finally put together a cohesive product based on the type of assignment they’ve been given.  Let’s say it’s a compare/contrast assignment.  First, I’ll have students make a simple mind map just to brainstorm.  Then, the students will rearrange that information into a Double Bubble in order to compare and contrast.  Once they’ve done that, they can analyze the information before them to determine what the thesis statement should be.  The relevant information should then be rearranged into a Tree Map.  Finally, now, the student can begin to write.

That whole process usually takes about 45 minutes for students with a good amount of content knowledge.  I’d be happy to walk any of you through the whole thing in a fun, interactive workshop like the one I did at the AGIS conference in February of 2015.  Otherwise, I will also be posting a video demo in the next couple of weeks.

Anyway, in terms of meeting students at their ZPD, perhaps a lot of this can be resolved by using formative assessments that more closely resemble our summative assessments, with plenty of time in between to address deficits.  Even the best teachers have to sacrifice a little bit of unit content in order to reteach things the kids didn’t understand the first time around.  Maybe we can save a bit of that time, though, by truly listening to our students from the beginning.

Mazel Tov! Learning about Culture through Celebration

This morning, my seventh grade social studies class had a holiday party.  They’ve been studying Judaism, and to wrap up that part of our unit on the Abrahamic religions they got into groups to research and prepare interactive stations for four of the major Jewish holidays: Yom Kippur, Passover, Chanukah (it’s more significant in the USA than in other countries), and Rosh Hashanah.

Of course, I love to party (and eat), but I’ve also found that snacks and games tend to engage kids in learning more effectively than watching one another give Powerpoint presentations.  It also helps them form positive associations with cultures and religions that differ from their own.

yom kippur station_anonymous

They taught us some Hebrew phrases for the Day of Atonement, and provided plenty of snacks for after the Yom Kippur fast.


matzo passover

As a vegetarian, I don’t really mind that these students were unable to bring lamb to class at 8:30 on a Tuesday morning.

rosh hashanah apples

Mmm…a delicious Rosh Hashanah (New Year) treat!


Isn’t this model of a mikveh (ritual bath) just adorable?

We’ll be moving on to the beliefs and traditions of Christianity, and then those of Islam, in the next few weeks.  I’ll make sure to share photos from our next holiday party!

Do you ever trick students into learning by using parties and games?  Share your ideas below!


A Call for Diversity in Literature Education – And Not Just During Black History Month

In honor of Black History Month, jclumpner of Arts Insubordinate urges teachers not to “fall into the trap of thinking that artistic genius is an exclusively European tradition.”  The author asks, “Why do we call Picasso’s Cubism genius, but not the work of the Africans making the abstract masks that inspired him?”  While the College Board has made some recent strides in diversity by changing its AP Art History curriculum, the same can’t always be said for English literature classes.

“It is of huge importance that every student in my class regularly sees examples of success that look like them,” writes jclumpner.  I certainly agree.  However, not every teacher knows quite how to make this happen.

I’ve been teaching middle/high school English for a few years now and it always shocks me how homogeneous the selected texts tend to be. As a woman of color, I didn’t identify with To Kill a Mockingbird’s Scout back when I was in school.  Rather, I saw myself in The Color Purple’s Celie and the first-generation Chinese-American characters of The Joy Luck Club.  I was fortunate enough to grow up in a book-rich household where non-white authors weren’t just novelty.  My teachers, too, assigned novels that explored the lives of minority protagonists and families, such as Bee Season and The Bluest Eye.  In college, I took courses like The Color of Theatre and Black Women Writers because, well, why wouldn’t I?

Later, while I was completing my year-long teaching internship, I remember a curriculum meeting I attended with the rest of the ninth grade team.  I suggested we focus on Black writers for our poetry unit, since over 30% of our student population was Black and so far we’d only used texts by White (male and female) authors. One teacher asked, “But, what could we use?” I casually listed some of the most famous Black poets in American history–Hughes, Wheatley, Giovanni, Brooks, obviously Angelou–just to remind these qualified professional English literature teachers of what I was sure they already knew. An awkward pause.  Blank stares. “We could do the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” one suggested.

I realized then that many teachers simply hadn’t been fortunate enough to learn about writers from diverse backgrounds when they were young.  Perhaps they hadn’t grown up with books by authors of color on their shelves.  Maybe the schools they’d attended had been less diverse, and they’d only been taught standards of the White western canon like The Scarlet Letter.  It’s possible they were doing the best with what they knew.

The thing is, reading about the evils of racism in books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird, which feature White protagonists, is not the most effective way to prevent or halt the development of prejudice in children and teens.  It is far more effective to select texts by authors of diverse backgrounds–ethnicity, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation–so that students learn to value their contributions to literature.

Sunili Govinage wrote in the  Washington Post that “reading more diverse literature has the power to convey the universality of human experience and show that we really have more in common with one another than expected.”  She had completed a year of reading books by only minority authors, and had managed to move past what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the “single story” narrative of suffering and oppression.  This is something I’m still working on, as a majority of the fiction I’ve read by minority authors deal with identity and “otherness” as central themes.

I urge all literature and drama teachers to seek out texts by minority authors, poets, and playwrights.  Read them in your spare time and look for ways to use them in your classes.  If you are truly committed to fighting prejudice, stop waiting until Black History Month to introduce students to works by minority authors.  Here’s a list of 25 New Books by African Writers from The Atlantic to get us started.


Comparative Religion for Middle Schoolers

My American peers may find this hard to believe, but most of my seventh grade students (at a private international school in Germany) don’t know what a menorah is.  They have never heard of a yarmulke, kosher, or the 10 Commandments.  Make all the jokes you want about the “exodus” of surviving Jews from this part of Europe in the 1940s, but I found it appalling that these kids knew so little about Judaism, a religion that has had so much influence on the world.

A few months ago, I created a long unit of study (32 lessons ≈ 10 weeks) on the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  The driving questions may seem a bit ambitious, but I think you can guess what I’m trying to do here:

Factual: What ideas, stories, laws, and beliefs do all of the Abrahamic religions share?

Debatable: What is more significant: the similarities or the differences between the Abrahamic religions?

Conceptual: Why did Christianity, and then Islam, evolve from Judaism?


After doing guided readings of primary texts (that’s right, I’m reading passages of scripture from the Written Torah, New Testament, and Qu’ran to these kids) and having students do mini-research projects on traditions and customs of each religion from around the world, they’ll pick one current religious conflict happening in the world and use it to explore the debatable question.  They’ll also have an understanding–albeit rudimentary at the seventh grade level–of the historical evolution and influence of these three religions.

Of course, the whole point is for students to see that, while the armed conflicts and religious imperialism of ancient times still exist today, we must appreciate and try to understand others’ beliefs rather than giving way to prejudice and hatred.

Click here to get my lesson plans for all 32 lessons of this unit, complete with learning objectives, texts, and suggestions for independent practice (homework).

Note: I allocated fewer lessons for the study of Christianity and Islam because students at my school are more familiar with those two religions.  Think about the demographics of your own class and do a quick formative assessment, if you wish, and adapt the lesson schedule to suit your needs.

Are you tackling any big concepts with middle school students?  I’d love to hear how you do it!  Comment below to share your tips.


Shakespeare for All Ability Levels

Note: I will share my lesson schedule and pedagogical methods in a later post.  This post is focused on conceptual understanding and task differentiation.

My eighth grade English class is almost finished with their drama unit for the year.  Right off the bat, I want to clarify that Romeo and Juliet is not my favorite Shakespeare play.  Sure, I love a good tragedy, and Othello, Hamlet, and King Lear have always been my top three.  However, when faced with a room full of hormonal, emotionally unpredictable thirteen year-olds, Romeo and Juliet seems like a natural choice.  Most middle schoolers are too sheltered to understand Edmund’s pain and Lear’s internal conflict, and are simply unable to keep track of the multitude of characters in Hamlet.  I have taught Othello to ninth grade students with success, as it is thematically appropriate for high school, but the overbearing and abusive parents, gender inequality, infatuation and desperation of Romeo and Juliet–eighth graders can actually recognize a lot of these elements in their own lives.  Believe it or not, when middle schoolers actually understand the play, they absolutely love it.

Basing a unit upon a text is a big no-no in the current epoch of backward design, but that doesn’t always translate to school and department policies, which often require teachers to use texts by Shakespeare as opposed to other playwrights.  Luckily, my BA in theatre arts and (amateur) stage experience leave me well equipped and enthusiastic when it comes to teaching the bard.

My small eighth grade class is made up of merely 13 students, but the majority of students have exceptionalities: 6 have learning disabilities that affect their literacy and critical thinking abilities, 5 are what some may call “mainstream” students, and 2 are considered talented in the discipline of English literature.

Modified for CD (cognitive disability)

Students with cognitive disabilities have trouble with higher order thinking, abstraction, and conceptual understanding.  They can be successful in more guided reading and writing, especially when texts and tasks remain at a literal level.

The conceptual question I have these students address is “Why do authors make some characters flat and other characters round?”

Although this can be difficult to answer, we play a game as a class and come up with the conceptual understanding together:


This fast-paced game can work for any text.  The goal is for students to work in teams to analyze characters and justifying those analyses with textual evidence.


The whole class came up with this understanding.  The next step, which I walked a small group of students through, was to figure out why protagonists tended to be round, while antagonists tended to be flat.


These students must be appropriately challenged with critical thinking, but can be guided through the processes.  Some students in this “mainstream” group also have disabilities that affect their literacy skills, but they are capable of higher order thinking and should not be given overly simplified tasks.  They either complete essays and are not graded on certain writing skills, or complete oral assessments.

The conceptual question I have these students address is “Why do authors make some characters dynamic and other characters static?”

In order to scaffold this concept, we play another round of the character analysis game:


The difference this time is that I do not guide them to the conceptual understanding.  Students are expected to use what they have learned about Shakespeare’s audience and Elizabethan society, as well as analyses they have already done on young adult novels in a previous unit, to write their own thesis statements with guidance.

Modified for GT (gifted and talented)

Students must be challenged in terms of critical thinking and knowledge transfer between disciplines, e.g. history and literature.

This year I worked with two students one-on-one to help develop their theses.  One student will write about how the conflict between he Capulets and Montagues can be interpreted as an allegory for the conflict between the Anglican and Catholic church in Shakespeare’s England.  The other will write about cultural relativism, and different ways of interpreting the patriarchy and parenting styles in Romeo and Juliet by the norms of Shakespeare’s society and today.


As you can see, by using just one Shakespeare play that young teens can relate to, students can explore one of four (or more!) different concepts based on their abilities.  Everyone is appropriately challenged, and nobody’s time is wasted.  Plus, grading is a lot less tedious.

When Crying in Front of Students is a Good Thing

Today I cried in front of my sixth grade social studies class.

We start each lesson with the news. I cycle through the class, and the kids do a great job of checking the list and preparing in advance when it is their turn. Each student concludes his presentation with a debatable question, and we hold a five minute discussion based on that question before students journal about the event.

This afternoon a student reported on the recent firebombing in the village of Dalori, Nigeria. The student mentioned that 86 people, including children, had been burned alive. When others expressed dismay and asked questions she couldn’t answer, I stepped in and clarified:

No, Boko Haram isn’t ISIS, but they do want to establish a caliphate, or Islamic government, in Western Africa. They have actually killed more people than ISIS has. Really? But why don’t we hear about them? People are influenced by what they read in the news, and attacks south of the Sahara don’t make as many headlines here. Maybe it’s because the Middle East is closer. Maybe it’s because of that attack in Paris. Maybe it’s because people from Iraq and Syria look more like Europeans than Nigerian people do. But that’s racist! I know it is.

As I spoke, tears leaked out and the indignant class grew pensive. Eleven year-old faces contorted and pencils furiously scribbled in notebooks. There was no need for a debate.

It is in moments like these that I think it is perfectly fine to express genuine emotion. As I thought about all of those people–especially the children–dying horrific deaths that barely garner any news coverage (compare to, say, Donald Trump), in such large numbers that these people become abstracted in our minds, so that we quickly dismiss them and move on to the next topic, it hurts. I look at my students and think, those were someone’s children. They were kids just like the ones sitting before me. And I can’t help myself.

I’ve cried in front of classes before, in certain circumstances. Once, on a field trip to Ypres, Belgium with my tenth graders, I cried at the gravesite of a teenage boy who had lied about his age in order to fight in World War I, so naïve and with as much potential, surely, as the teenagers standing beside me. I’m glad I cried. There had been some irreverent behavior earlier in the trip, but none of the students who saw me cry were seen misbehaving afterwards. When they saw how seriously I took the trip, my students began to drop their attitude. I was amazed at the depth of feeling and personal stake the students in my class took in their poetry following the trip. Some of those students attend my weekly creative writing club to this day.

I also cried when I read the ending of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men aloud to my eighth graders. You could have heard a pin drop on my carpeted classroom floor. At that moment, we were all George, making the most painful, compassionate decision of our lives. Everyone was upset, of course, and they wanted Lenny back, but they understood and appreciated George’s anguish. Getting students (especially “cool” adolescents) to empathize with fictional characters isn’t easy. I’ve found that getting lost in a character, truly feeling along with him as you read aloud, can be astoundingly effective.

Adolescents may find it refreshing and endearing to have a teacher open to vulnerability, who has feelings just like–gasp!–a real person. The younger ones tend to have little frame of reference for what, outside of their own experiences, constitutes tragedy. The older ones, to appear tough and apathetic, often react to emotional experiences with flippancy. Perhaps sometimes, a role model who expresses appropriate emotion, without shame, is just what students need.

Constructing Identities: A Social Media Unit for Character Analysis

I listen to the podcast of WBEZ-NPR’s This American Life every week.  It’s a Sunday ritual that alleviates the tedium of cleaning my apartment.  Back in November, Ira Glass and the team brought us the illuminating episode “Status Update”.  The prologue features two teenage girls explaining to Glass not only why they post so many selfies on social media, but why they “like” and comment on one another’s photos.  If you haven’t listened to the episode, seriously, do it now.

About a third of my Facebook friends are fellow teachers.  Whenever I mention to my students that I saw something on Facebook, they gawk.  How could adults possibly understand how social media works?

Their skepticism is totally justified.  Facebook is so “our” generation, and most of us grown-ups don’t even use all of its features (or use them effectively).  How many of you out there have seen an elderly relative’s post or comment, and thought, “SMH“?

I try to stay on top of the zeitgeist.  I make the 14 year-old students in my advisory show me Vines every morning.  If we don’t know their cultural references–or worse, if we don’t care to learn–we can’t expect to make the meaningful connections that we all want to make with our kids.

That’s why I created this unit based upon the language of social media, and how we use it to construct our identities.  Assessments based upon the use of Facebook and other social media platforms are nothing new, but this one takes it a step further.

Here’s an example of a final product:

constructing identities exemplar - square edited.jpg

This book group read Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson.

As you may have noticed, we didn’t focus on academic language in this unit.  In fact, I encouraged them to write the way their characters would in the context of digital media.  This screenshot, which encompasses a mere 10% of this group’s final product, includes such language tools as spontaneous photos, posed and edited photos, public posts, private messages,  #hashtags, extra-long ellipses…and ALL CAPS.

I even let them curse.  They loved it.

These choices weren’t made haphazardly.  Before they began the project I took them through several analysis exercises so that they’d understand how images are constructed for the public.  Feel free to download this activity for your own class: Analyzing Social Media Images.

Here’s a formative assessment I did before students began creating profiles for the characters in their novels:

instagram analysis examples.jpg

I printed out 4 copies of 20 Instagram photos with a variety of subjects.  Each student was given a random assortment of images to sort on the continuum and asked to justify those placements.

My kids had to become more aware of the language choices they make on social media by implementing them in a new way: from a fictional character’s perspective, contrasting the traits they’d want to make public with their honest, private thoughts and feelings.  Along with the profiles they created, they submitted rationales justifying their language choices:

identity construction rationale examples_censored.jpg

These groups read The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chboskey (above) and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (below).

In addition to submitting a rationale, each student reflected on his/her own identity construction:

identity construction reflection.jpg

Not was the unit absolutely overflowing with opportunities for analysis and creation, it was the most relevant language and literature unit I have ever taught.  Next year, I’m making the switch to Instagram–unless teens have migrated to a new platform by then.