Shakespeare for All Ability Levels

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 always 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 interpret the conflict between the Capulets and Montagues as an allegory for the conflict between the Anglican and Catholic church in Shakespeare’s England.  The other student will write about cultural relativism in terms of patriarchy and parenting in Romeo and Juliet by the norms of Shakespeare’s society compared with 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 more interesting.

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.

Five Features of Effective Co-Teaching

If you’ve read my previous article Co-Teaching: A Subject Teacher’s Perspective, you’ll know that I haven’t always been great at sharing the big chair.  Recalling how my mentor teachers had worked together during my teaching internship, and reflecting on my own practice since I started co-teaching with special educators, I’ve come up with five features of effective co-teaching:

1. Teacher Equality

In order for the students to see both teachers as equals, both teachers must have desks of equal prominence.  A special educator should not use a student’s desk, but should have his own professional space inside the classroom.  While this may make it a tight squeeze, and some administrators may refuse to pay for another adult-sized desk, this is crucial to visually establishing the special educator as a “real teacher” in the minds of the students.  Check out my 3 Steps to Establishing Co-Teacher Equality.

2. Structured Lessons

Lessons can be structured to enable the special educator opportunities to do remediation and/or learning extension with individual or small groups of students.  For example, the first ten minutes of every English lesson I teach is dedicated to sustained independent reading.  This gets students in “literature” mode, and encourages reading for pleasure.  The special educators I work with use this time to do reading remediation with a few students who need it.  They know that they will always have those ten minutes to work with those students, unless we have an assessment or special event.  The special educators are completely in charge of this activity, from planning to monitoring to documentation.

3. Divided Responsibilities

Certain jobs can be delegated among the teachers so that students know who to ask about various things, and who they can expect to do something in particular.  For example, in my English and social studies classes, the special educator is in charge of vocabulary.  Since she is the expert on disabilities that affect literacy, such as language disorders and dyslexia, it is only logical that students should always approach her with questions about vocabulary, and that she is in charge of developing learning materials for vocabulary.

4. Fair Grading

Grading should be divided among the two teachers fairly, while minimizing discrepancies.  The way I do this with my co-teachers is we grade two students’ work together, explaining our reasoning and perhaps even negotiating.  This establishes the shared understanding necessary before dividing the workload.  At this point, I take the assignments submitted by the students without special needs and my co-teacher takes the assignments submitted by the students with special needs, some of whom have been given modified tasks.  We both have access to the grading system and put in our feedback independently.

5. Coordination

I use Google Docs to plan out every lesson of a unit before that unit begins, and share the documents with my co-teachers, allowing them to make edits.  I type out which teacher will be responsible for what, and highlight the activities that we will need to co-plan.  I make this available before the unit begins so that my co-teachers can make changes or additions, and we don’t experience conflicts or confusion due to impromptu lessons.  This is especially helpful for special educators who co-teach a variety of different subjects.  It is equally important for special educators to read those lesson plans and familiarize themselves with the content.  When one teacher is in the dark about the lesson objectives, he may inadvertently jump ahead or steer the discussion off topic.  Read my 3 Tips for Coordinating Co-Teaching.

Are there any features of effective teaching I’ve left out?  Comment below!

3 Tips for Coordinating Co-Teaching: Are we on the same page?

Guess how long it took me to make this document, which spells out the learning objectives and activities for my next 28 seventh grade social studies lessons:

Abrahamic Religions lesson plan doc.jpg

page 1 of 6



Three hours.  That’s about six and a half minutes per lesson.  I’d already written the unit plan months ago, so it wasn’t like I was starting from scratch.  Still, I think a lot of teachers forget that backward design (I subscribe to the cult of Wiggins and McTighe) actually makes it easier to plan lessons.

“But you haven’t planned out everything!

What about those highlighted words?”

That’s right.  I left some sections intentionally unplanned, because these are things that will require my co-teacher’s input.  I am deliberately engaging my co-teacher, who is usually relegated to a supporting role, in an active teaching role.  She also has permission to edit the document, and I hope she uses it.

3 Tips for Coordinating Co-Teaching

1. Plan ahead.  Well ahead.

Do the majority of your lesson planning before starting a unit.  If your co-teacher doesn’t know what you’re going to be teaching every lesson, he may reveal spoilers (“Actually, we’ll be discussing that next week!”) or inadvertently distract from the lesson objectives.

As subject teacher, you should expect to be more familiar with the lesson’s content than your special education co-teacher.  Give your co-teacher a chance to prepare in advance instead of expecting them improvise.

2. There is a middle ground between laissez-faire and control freak status.

Leave some activities unplanned, but have an idea of what you want to do so that you and your co-teacher don’t spend an entire planning period brainstorming.  Be open to making changes based on your co-teacher’s input.

Don’t expect to be able to co-plan everything, and clearly specify the activities that do need to be co-planned.

3. Google Drive is your friend.

Janine, one of my co-teachers, recently created a Google Doc of lesson notes for our students with dyslexia and processing disorders.  I’m able to add additional info into those documents whenever necessary.  Likewise, she can read and edit the lesson planning document I created.  Imagine how much stress this will prevent the next time one of us is at home with the flu or out of town for a workshop.

Both co-teachers must have the ability to edit all documents.

If you aren’t using Google Drive or another collaboration platform, start now.  The old school lesson planning notebooks do not work for co-teaching.


Share this article with your co-teacher and let it start a discussion about how you can improve your collaboration, with or without my three tips.

If you have any other ideas, comment below!


On any given school day, Janine and Marianne work out of three or more different classrooms each, in two different buildings.  They are considered “push-in” support for various subjects, including but not limited to mathematics, science, and English literature.  Over the course of the day they each work with students ages 11 through 18, and then after school they host exclusive, invitation-only “homework clubs” for students with special needs.

Janine and Marianne are highly qualified special educators with decades of experience.  Yet, they are often treated as aides rather than co-teachers and valued professionals by subject teachers.

I know, because I used to be one of them.

Those days, I’m proud to say, are over.  Here are my tips for establishing equality among co-teachers:

1. Desk Identity

As any teacher can tell you, a huge portion of students are visual learners.  My eighth graders–nearly 50% of whom have learning disabilities that interfere with their language and literacy skills–are perceptive interpreters of images.  They’ve had a lot of experience analyzing Instagram.  That’s part of the reason I’ve made such an effort to personalize my desk area:

My apartment looks so bland in comparison.

I’m not the only one with a big desk, though.

The very first thing I did upon being told I’d have co-teachers was to request a second teachers’ desk from our school’s Hausmeisters.

My apartment looks so bland in comparison.

Special educators should not be expected to sit in a student’s desk.  It is demeaning and sends an immediate cue to students that this teacher isn’t a real teacher.  Just ask for another adult-sized desk.  If your school doesn’t have the means (or is too cheap) to supply one, check Craigslist and yard sales for something secondhand.  Do this before the beginning of the school year, if possible.

2. Pronouns: We are us.

This takes some practice, but lately I’ve made a concerted effort to instruct students to “ask us” and tell them that “we want” them to do things.

As a subject teacher who also works as a solo artist, my habit is to use singular personal pronouns.  I currently teach sixth grade English literature and social studies classes, as well as ninth grade English language acquisition class on my own, and have taught grades 6-10 English literature without a co-teacher in previous years.

I noticed an immediate shift in classroom dynamics, and the degree of ownership my co-teachers have taken since I began to refer to “us” instead of “me” is dramatic.  I was so worried about losing control, about not knowing about every little thing happening in my class that I wasn’t letting my co-teachers do their job.  I demanded that students talk to me if they needed clarification.  I told students that expected them to complete assignments.  I grew exhausted fielding questions and conferring one-on-one with students.

Indeed, I was acting as though I were the only teacher in the room.  That doesn’t make for a very good partnership!

It takes some effort, but switching to the plural–we, us, our instead of I, me, and my–makes a huge difference.

3. Ask for feedback

Most special educators are more experienced and educated than subject teachers.  They started out as subject teachers, but later added a degree or qualification in special education and exceptionalities.

Both of my co-teachers, Janine and Marianne, have children older than I am.  They’re veteran teachers and have seen it all.  I have an abundance of confidence in my content and pedagogical knowledge, and I regularly reflect on my practice, but it would be arrogant (and delusional) to assume I always know what’s best.

Lately I’ve consulted my co-teachers much more, and have started asking for feedback after lessons.  They have given it graciously, pointing out where students continue to struggle and suggesting ways to address those things without criticizing my teaching.  I can tell they value my asking, and I definitely value their advice.

Do you have any other tips for establishing co-teacher equality?  Comment below!

Co-Teaching: A Subject Teacher’s Perspective

A Two Parent Household

Back in August 2012, I started my teaching internship under the mentorship of Dr. Elena Garcia, an English teacher with a background in theatre.  It seemed like a perfect fit; I had done my BA in theatre and felt lucky to have been matched with a teacher with similar interests.  I had no idea how fortunate I really was until the school year began.

In addition to Dr. Garcia’s guidance, I was given the opportunity to learn from Marcie Rosen, another English teacher who was also a qualified special educator.  The two veteran teachers complemented one another perfectly, and even more impressively, they actually got along (even outside of work!).  Everyday, the three of us had lunch together, sometimes collaborating on work, but usually just chatting.  Grading was always divided fairly.  While the two teachers had large desks with framed photos and plants at opposite ends of the classroom, I was given a small table.  It was clear that the two of them shared responsibility and leadership of the classes, and that I was, as Marcie once joked, their “indentured servant.”

marcie and me
Once I earned my freedom from bondage in the summer of 2013, Marcie treated me to high tea.  Not only was I trained by two brilliant professionals, but I was also fortunate enough to have two fun-loving, patient, and genuinely caring role models during my teaching internship.


I observed in awe how they proceeded through each lesson, never having to ask or remind one another of what to do, each knowing her role.  They supported one another without interfering.  They took turns speaking in academic language and clarifying that language for students who needed it.  They continued to fine-tune their lessons.

When I interviewed for my current job, I stressed my interest in special needs education and co-teaching.  At the end of my second year, my wish came true: our school was going to begin implementing co-taught classes, and I was going to co-teach three of my classes with special educators.

Continue reading “Co-Teaching: A Subject Teacher’s Perspective”

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