The Gratitude Project (2018)

Last year, a few days before Thanksgiving, I began what I affectionately call “The Gratitude Project.” (You can read read more about it HERE and HERE.) Essentially, I forced my students–and myself–to carve out some time to reflect on the Good in our lives. We were inspired by Kid President, we looked at an experiment that the Science of Happiness conducted, and we saw how gratitude is being expressed in ongoing global projects such as the 365 Grateful Project and Thnx4. I shared my own musings–in the midst of aging parents–both of whom have battled cancer and defeated the ICU in the last year alone.

In addition to wanting my students to have a positive digital footprint (hence our Passion Blog Project and our use of Goodreads–among other 21st century learning opportunities), I wanted my students’ parents–and the world!–to see the fabulousness these students show me on a regular basis.

The result was a community slide deck where students expressed reasons for which they are thankful this year. Some contributions were light, others were heartfelt, but all reflected the diverse mix of thinkers in Room 1227. Take a look at what they shared below!

The Importance of Choice

frusrated teacher

Penny Kittle said,  “A book isn’t rigorous if students aren’t reading it.” This single statement has shaped my teaching career more than just about anything else. And for my first fifteen years, my students (and, chances are, probably yours, too) simply weren’t reading.

I was beyond frustrated.

So, I decided to teach the students in front of me, rather than teach how I had been taught. I decided to teach the students in front of me, rather than reuse the resources I had feverishly created the years before. I decided to teach the students in front of me, even though it required me to turn what I do in the classroom on its side and allow the students–who were fake reading, at best–to choose what books they would read. Part of my rationale was to help my readers build the stamina they’ll need to tackle the 600-pages-per-week of assigned college reading AND the other part was to help them fall back in love with reading.

Study after study has shown that the more students read, the better they will be at reading, writing, grammar, spelling, and even the unavoidable test-taking.

What study after study has NOT shown is that students have to curl up with the Complete Works of the Bard or anything Dickens or even–dare I say it?–Harper Lee. Nope. These studies simply show that students need to be reading. Period. And my students weren’t doing that. 

Lest you think your cherubs would never fake-read (which Much-Younger-Me absolutely believed), check out the video below. (I show it to my students every September!) It features a group of Penny Kittle’s seniors–all of whom earned good English grades despite–wait for it–rarely cracking a book!

My favorite comment? The Everyman who confesses (at 1:23) to snowing his teachers with, “‘Well, this really gets back to the American Dream’… and then you just make a bunch of stuff up.” That was literally every literature circle in my class prior to allowing choice.

Mind you, this was in spite of my high expectations and my years of facilitating seminar discussions. And I worked hard at creating higher-order-thinking questions that were challenging and could not be found online. (Even now, I generate my own questions so students can’t allow someone online to do the thinking for them. For example, the use of color in The Great Gatsby? I’ll bet both your students and mine would have trouble ignoring the Siren Song of the 52.8 million (!) hits Google just generated for me. In 0.56 seconds.)

Even still, my students weren’t authentically reading. Their writing was formulaic and lacked depth and/or free-thought. Their discussion contributions were superficial and redundant. And they fake-read in my class just as much as they had the year before. Even though they supposedly liked (tolerated?) Teacher-Lady.

However, that all changed once students were allowed to choose what books they were going to read. 

I’ll be posting how I have made Choice work in my classroom and the importance of a blended approach separately. In the meantime, if you’re uneasy with allowing your students to direct their own learning, know that I was, too. It’s. Terrifying. After all, who’s the one with the literature degree in the room? However, choice in no way means that Teacher-Lady works less or avoids steering students toward rich titles or withholds her vast knowledge about all-things-ELA. On the contrary, it means that in a Choice Classroom, “students assume responsibility and self-direct their own learning.” Which is one of our district’s 21st Century Learning Expectations.

But for Choice to work in any school, we need to establish some ground rules.

  1. DON’T JUDGE WHAT THE STUDENTS ARE READING. Please don’t assume that because the students are young and inexperienced and don’t hold a literature degree, they are reading “garbage” or “bubble gum” literature. And for the love of all that’s holy, please don’t shame the students if they happen to pull out a Choice Book during your study hall or after your quiz that you don’t feel is “real” literature. Some of their choices are lighter-fare. However, when was the last time you went to the library or and left with only rigorous titles? Likewise, most of us don’t exclusively watch Shakespearean film adaptations either. We read (and watch) for different reasons. And if we’re going about the business of creating lifelong readers, what they read–especially when they have a say–cannot be judged. (I’ll save my “Who Died and Made YOU What-Students-Should-Read King/Queen?” post for another time.) Plus, it’s all about moderation. Those lighter-fare reads are the very Gateway Titles our reluctant readers need to come back into the fold. Rest assured: My sophomores authentically read–and enjoy!–The Great Gatsby every spring. When they’re ready. But many of them confessed to fake-reading it when I used to assign it in September. Same level of readers. Same Choice Reading Program. Just students who weren’t ready yet.
  2. DON’T ASSUME IT’S QUANTITY OVER QUALITY. And please don’t tell the students that reading should be about quality over quantity. Says who? You don’t know what the students are reading. You don’t see the students who struggled through The Hunger Games in September poring over Vonnegut and Orwell and Heller and Shakespeare in February. Further, why are they even mutually exclusive? Why not hold students to a higher reading standard quantity-wise while helping them climb Teri Lesesne’s “Reading Ladder” toward more complex books? Ironically, I only require my students to read one Choice Book each month–a number so low it would make both Penny Kittle and Donalyn Miller guffaw. However, because my students quickly realize they actually enjoy reading (they just don’t love what we teachers have done to it), students read upwards of 80+ books during our 10 months together!
  3. DON’T JUDGE WHAT GOES ON IN OTHER CLASSROOMS. This is a good rule for all of us. We shouldn’t judge what our colleagues are doing in their classrooms–especially if we’re not current in what the research says. Until we read a professional development book about literacy or attend a workshop or take a graduate class or do something else to professionally develop, have we really earned the right to cross our proverbial arms and assume that what our colleagues are doing (with results) is lesser than whatever we’re doing? Conversely, Choice Embracers shouldn’t judge what goes on in a more teacher-centered or lecture-heavy or traditional classroom. Students need to be exposed to all types of teaching.
  4. DON’T ASSUME, IN GENERAL. And how about we just put a moratorium on assumptions altogether? Don’t assume that those of us who allow choice don’t teach whole-class novels as well. Or dig in to texts with close-reading. Or assign works from the Canon. Or adhere to the one-size-fits-all curriculum that was purchased for us on top of all of the rich work we do with Choice Texts. We do all of that–and then some.

Can we disagree? Absolutely! After all, don’t we teach our students that respectful discourse is how we better understand the other side? Isn’t that one of the very reasons we read? However, let’s put the assumptions and the judgment and the book-shaming the aside.  It’s time we have each other’s back. We have enough on our plates.

Okay, rant over.

Authors Who Inspire

Since reading is the inhale and writing is the exhale, our Creative Writing class reflected on which authors have inspired the inner writers in each of us. Take a look at the community slidedeck that we created! (Use the control bar to control the speed.) Teacher-Lady played, too!

When Numbahs Don’t Lie (2017-8)

Students can’t be reduced to a number. They can’t be defined by their results on a common assessment, reduced to where they fall on a state test, nor limited by their SAT/ACT scores.

However, sometimes numbers don’t lie.

With a towering goal of helping students fall back (or, for a select few, remain) in love with reading–while building their stamina to endure the 600-pages-per-week of reading they’ll be asked to do in college, I need numbers. They help validate what I do in the classroom (e.g., allowing students to choose the majority of their texts, beginning every class with 10 minutes of reading, using Goodreads for goal-setting, tracking, and review-publishing, maintaining a classroom library).

So, at the end of every year, I ask students to tally how many books they read–cover-to-cover during our time together and compare it to what they read the year before.

The. Results. Are. Glorious.

In a world of SparkNotes, Fake Reading, and Beating the System, check out the growth of these amazing, authentic (and hopefully lifelong) readers! It’ll warm your soul.

And just imagine the effect this much reading has had on their writing skills!

DISCLAIMER: These are all honors sophomores. However, I have done my reading experiment-turned-way-of-life for the last 5 years, and the results with my college preparatory students are equally astounding!

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As freshmen, A block read a collective 62 books cover-to-cover from September to June. (See top pic.) As sophomores? 288 books! (See bottom pic.) That’s a 365% increase, folks! 
As freshmen, B block read a collective 35 books cover-to-cover from September to June. (See top pic.) As sophomores? 245 books! (See bottom pic.) That’s a 600% increase, folks!
As freshmen, E block read a collective 45 books cover-to-cover from September to June. (See top pic.) As sophomores? 360 books! (See bottom pic.) That’s a 700% increase, folks!
As freshmen, G block read a collective 95 books cover-to-cover from September to June. (See top pic.) As sophomores? 399 books! (See bottom pic.) That’s a 307% increase, folks! (It’s even bigger if you remove the outlying reading machine!)

Teaching Style: The Art of Repetition


Most honors students enter my classroom in the fall with the ability to craft organized, error-free writing. Which is fabulous. However, most students don’t have the tools to take their writing to the next level. (And based on the Traits of an Honors Student, taken from the Honors English course description in our school’s Program of Studies, honors students are already supposed to be writing on a more sophisticated level than their college prep counterparts.) One of the tools we recently emulated is repetition, which is a “rhetorical device writers use to make their point clearer and more memorable” (Your Dictionary).

After looking at some fabulous examples in literature, the students set out to make this sophisticated technique their own. Take a look at some of their publishing!

  • Writing can be a challenge. People need a challenge. A challenge is what helps people grow.


  • It’s going to get better. Everything gets better in time and I plan on doing whatever I have to in order to make it better. I will force it to get better.


  • We played for our families. We played for ourselves. But most importantly, we played for each other in the championship game.


  • I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe the vibrant colors right before my eyes. I couldn’t believe the delightful aromas filling the air. I couldn’t believe the overall sensation and feeling of safety. I couldn’t believe I found home.


  • We waited not knowing what would happen. We waited not knowing if we would be happy with the results or not. We waited not knowing if the list would destroy friendships or bring people closer together.


  • We’d get to see ball games, we’d get to see Broadway shows, we’d get to see some museums and we’d get to experience anything else New York has to offer.


  • don’t like running, I don’t like it at all. I don’t want to like running, I don’t want to like it at all, yet all I do is run.


  • He fell hard. And he fell fast.


  • What’s outside the window? A thousand possibilities. What’s outside the window?A land far away. What’s outside the window? Anything but here


  • Green is my favorite color. Green is the color of the trees. Green is the color of the grass. Green is the color of the land we call home.


  • Tonight, we fight for our fathers, we fight for our mothers, we fight for our sisters, we fight for our sons, we fight for our daughters, we fight for our future. Tonight, my friends, we fight for our freedom.



The Gratitude Project–Part 2 (2017)

raok-2A few days before Thanksgiving, I asked my high school students to take an inventory of what they were thankful for this year.  They knew ahead of time that I would be sharing their lists, and, as promised, I emailed the class projects to my students’ parents and guardians on Thanksgiving morning.  (You can view the finished products HERE.)

Part 2 of the assignment was to commit a Random Act of Kindness over Thanksgiving break. On their first day back, the students reflected on their experiences. Take a look at some of the fabulous, very-adult realizations the students made. (I shared the list below with my students’ parents in my December newsletter.) I’m teaching some pretty kindhearted, magnanimous souls!

  • Over the break, I helped my mom put up all of the Christmas Decorations in our house, which actually took about 2 hours because we have WAY too many, and [which] I even had to wake up early to do…I knew that my mom had a lot of work to do…so it was helpful to her. This action helped me feel good about myself because I usually do not help with decorations, but this year I decided to.


  • My random act of kindness…was volunteering to help set the table at Thanksgiving. My mom was certainly appreciative of my offering, but more so shocked…I could tell it took stress off of her…I saw her face instantly relax once the table was set, and her visually exhale out of relief. I felt good after setting the table, about myself and about my contribution. Helping my mom, when she so often helps me, was a really nice feeling.


  • Although I only got a small “thank you,” I still felt better about my day, and I was glad that I got to help someone out that seemed like they needed it.


  • At work, I helped out a woman with a broken arm…It felt nice to help her out and it felt very empowering. She needed help and there was no one else who was going to help her so I did. When I think back on it I wonder, what if I was in her situation?


  • The effect of the random act on me was that I did more that day than sitting doing other things while my mom worked. I know that she enjoyed my help because she wasn’t as tired as she would’ve been if I had not helped doing small but big tasks around the house.


  • My random act of kindness was bringing the dirty dishes to the sink. I was about to run upstairs to my room after eating, but both of my parents were still sitting down. I stopped and turned around. They just finished their food, so I offered to take their plates. They said “thank you” and continued to watch their show. It felt good to do this small act for my parents. After all, that is the least I could do considering my mom cooked all the food for us while I watched Netflix.

For the December holidays, my students will be encouraged to complete another Random Act of Kindness, and I’ll be sharing  this list of fabulous ideas from fellow-educator Brad Aronson (@bradaronson).

The Gratitude Project–Part I (2017)

5d383e48b07fb7c8ccd1b46d37e460adI’m sort of done with the news. Except for the whole I-don’t-want-to-be-ignorant part. With each shooting, political scandal, and social media war, it’s hard not to head into the holidays with a heavy heart.

And our students feel it, too.

Maybe more than we do.

After all, behind all of the eye rolls, looks-that-kill, and saltiness they might display at home, they expect us adults to keep it together since their brains can’t developmentally do that just yet.

So, in addition to wanting my students to have a positive digital footprint (hence our Passion Blog Project and our use of Goodreads–among other 21st century learning opportunities), I want the world–and especially parents–to see the fabulousness their students show me on a regular basis.

Enter: The Gratitude Project.

With Thanksgiving a few days away, my students and I discussed how much we need to take a day (weekend? month? season?) to focus on all that is Good, to be Thankful for all  that we have. I shared my own musings–in the midst of aging parents–both of whom have battled cancer and defeated the ICU in the last year alone. We also discussed the many benefits of being thankful and gave ourselves a pick-me-up with wisdom from internet sensation Kid President!

The students were then each assigned a slide in a class-wide Google slide deck and told to share what they’re thankful for this holiday season.

The next step is for them to share their gratitude with others, since “Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it” (William Arthur Ward).

In the meantime, take a look at what they said. It’s all sorts of fabulous.



The Dangers of Landscaping

13-500x500Teachers don’t have favorites. Sure, and Mom didn’t like me best because I was the baby. However, there are definitely those students whose growth leaves us beaming with pride, whose writing leaves a lasting impression, whose authenticity leaves us questioning how we can help fix a systemic problem. I’ll come back to this.

For the written portion of my Final Exam, students reflect on their journeys as readers, writers, and thinkers. In examining how their culture has shaped them (e.g., home, family, friends, school), their narratives are poignant and heartbreaking and authentic and beautiful–which makes it my favorite writing assignment of the year. Their narratives are positive, as they recall reading with their parents and grandparents, zipping to the library with their elementary classes, tearing through the I Survived series, and choosing books over television and gaming because, “duh, reading was awesome!”

But these final compositions are also quite raw, as students relive the forced visits to the resource room for extra reading instruction or their ongoing struggle with dyslexia or not having anyone to read to them or to take them to the library or hating reading because of reading logs or being scolded for reading ahead or spending way too many months discussing a single book or closely reading one page in a grade-wide text for two weeks.

The essay that stopped me in my tracks this year (and there’s always one) included the excerpt below.

School Quotes About Creativity (MP).png

For context, the narrative, as a whole, was positive. And the author is an excellent student who earns stellar grades in her classes, is creative, and has a great sense of humor. I would take a class of 25 of her any day of the week.

But she’s also a truth-teller, which made it devastating to read.

We teachers work our tails off to compete with a Grey’s Anatomy Netflix binge or a seven-hour COD (Call of Duty) gaming marathonWe get up at 4 AM to prepare for the day. We hurry home, after we’ve dropped off the last friend in the after-school carpool, to begin leaving feedback on essay drafts. We answer emails until we go to bed. When the final drafts come in, we devote another15-20 minutes assessing each one of those–multiplied by 100+ students, several times a quarter.  (To save you from doing the math, that’s 25 hours. Assessing one set of essays. Written to a common assessment prompt that we most likely did not design.) We have our own, shortchanged children snapping how they “never want to be a teacher” or how they hate how we’re “always on the computer.” We sacrifice our family time and our planning time and our lunch time and our catch-our-breath time to sit with students in need.

But we can also be dangerous landscapers.

When we get into autopilot mode or continue doing what we’ve always done or teach the way we were taught or work so long creating something that we can’t possibly abandon it or focus more on data than reading the room or assume learning is happening because we are teaching, we cut back our students’ excitement “like the sides of a perfectly healthy but unwanted shrub”–often without even knowing it.

Don’t get me wrong. I work feverishly to avoid this dangerous landscaping. I try to make my classes engaging, to bring relevancy to the content I am asked to teach, to foster a love of reading in my students, to help my students write with voice and style and sophistication (rather than craft a formulaic, 5-paragraph essay that does not exist outside of a high school classroom).

But no matter what I do and say and assign, my students (or at least the ones who feel comfortable enough to tell me) confess that–in the system as a whole–X must equal 3, that they will lose points if they create their own thesis statement instead of using the teacher-provided one, that this–and only this–is what color represents in The Great Gatsby.

We are trimming away our students’ love of learning–unwittingly inviting them to go on their phones during class–when our actions say, “I’m going to take what you said and shape it back into what I want you to think.”

Every year, we are entrusted with 100+ healthy shrubs, and despite our greatest efforts, our feelings of #nailedit lessons, our satisfaction in a year well done, we are unintentionally cutting back otherwise healthy shrubs.

Ironically, we want our students to be free thinkers.

We want our students to be passionate about learning.

We want our students to think outside the box.

We want our students to be curious about our subject matter.

We want our students to be creative.

We want our students to be problem solvers. (Employers do, too.)

And our students can be and do all of these things–just as long as they use this starter sentence. Chop. Or read that book. Chop. Or fill out this worksheet. Chop. Or color inside the lines. Chop, chop.


When Numbahs Don’t Lie (2016-7)

Students can’t be reduced to a number. They can’t be defined by their results on a common assessment, reduced to where they fall on a state test, nor limited by their SAT/ACT scores.

However, sometimes numbers don’t lie.

With a towering goal of helping students fall back (or, for a select few, remain) in love with reading–while building their stamina to endure the 600-pages-per-week of reading they’ll be asked to do in college, I need numbers. They help validate what I do in the classroom (e.g., allow students to choose the majority of their texts, begin every class with 10 minutes of reading, use Goodreads for goal-setting, tracking, and review-publishing, maintain a classroom library).

So, at the end of every year, I ask students to tally how many books they read–cover-to-cover during our time together and compare it to what they read the year before.

The. Results. Are. Glorious.

In a world of SparkNotes, Fake Reading, and Beating the System, check out the growth of these amazing, authentic (and hopefully lifelong) readers! It’ll warm your soul.

Screenshot 2017-09-06 at 8.54.15 PM

C Block's Growth

Last Year’s Total: 55 Books; This Year’s Total: 189 Books!

Collage 2017-06-19 19_16_51
Last Year’s Total: 87 Books; This Year’s Total: 244 Books!
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Last Year’s Total: 40 Books; This Year’s Total: 137 Books!




Explainer Videos 101

Screenshot 2017-05-24 at 4.42.52 PMIn a world of Common-Assessment-This and District-Determined-Measures-That, it’s more important than ever to allow our students to show their learning in  non-standardized ways as well.

Enter: the Explainer Video.

An Explainer Video is a real-world digital tool that can be found on virtually every website. Between the fast-forward button on our DVRs and the ad blockers on our devices, commercials are growing increasingly extinct.  As a result, companies now squeeze what they want us to know into these tiny, bite-size videos.

And my students just did the same thing.

As a way to wrap up our unit, students were asked to answer our Essential Question in the form of a script (so that I could trace the development of their writing, which is our district’s goal). Once the writing process was complete, they integrated their scripts with a student-created video that demonstrated their learning. (We first viewed some examples of Explainer Videos and then created a list of ingredients–which I used to create a rubric for the assessment.)

Students were allowed to frolic in the Digital Sandbox to find a platform that worked for them. They played with iMovie and YouTube‘s built-in editor, as well as some new-to-them tools, such as Adobe Spark, Powtoon, My Simple Show, and the Chrome extension Screencastify (which, when used in tandem with Google Slides or Prezi, is the easiest platform)

They were given class time to work on their Explainer Videos, which always turned into students providing built-in tech support for each other. Seeing this impromptu, 21st-century collaboration warms the soul!

So that the finished products could be viewed by all students–regardless of their devices, students published their finished products to YouTube and shared these links in our Google Classroom. (The more camera-shy students made their YouTube videos UNLISTED, which makes them virtually invisible online without the direct link.) We viewed the finished products for homework, voted for our favorites using a Google Form, and then watched the winning videos in class.

And it. Was. Awesome.

Here are some of the amazing, finished products!

Carter’s Explainer Video

Harini’s Explainer Video

Rachel’s Explainer Video

Eric’s Explainer Video

Jocelyn’s Explainer Video

PostSecret: Where Language, Art, and Vulnerability Collide

Sometimes the best ideas begin with a dream. And the PostSecret project is no exception.

This ongoing community art project was born in 2005 to proud parent Frank Warren. After visiting Paris–where he experienced a lucid dream, he returned to the states and began disseminating postcards with specific directions: Recipients must write down their innermost secrets, use the postcard itself as their canvas, and mail it–anonymously–to the address provided.

Twelve years later, the project continues to thrive. It has resulted in six books (I purchased two for our class library), has won several blogging awards (the top PostSecret entries are still published weekly), was featured in the All-American Rejects’ “Dirty Little Secrets” video, and is currently on display at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum through September 2017.  And because of how much pain Warren has seen in some of the responses, he has teamed up with the National Crisis Hotline Network for suicide prevention and speaks at various colleges and communities throughout the country.

My English classes participated in our own version of this project, focusing on our greatest fear (rather than secret), since we had explored that motif in a recent unit of study. The students anonymously published their greatest fear to a Padlet (they were encouraged to go deeper than just writing, say, “snakes”) and then selected the fear of an anonymous classmate’s to represent visually in our collaborative Google slideshow. (The names on the slides are the artists who brought to life the fear of their unnamed classmate.) We used Google Forms to vote for the best one, and awards will be distributed next week.

Check out the finished products of our community art project! The sophomores’ project is first, followed by the juniors’. (Use the pause button to linger on any given slide.)

Enjoy! 🙂

“We STILL Hear America Singing”: A Collaborative Poem

Our American Lit students are examining the role that individualism plays in American society. After studying Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” (and Langston Hughes’ response, “I, Too“), my juniors, as a class, created their own 21st century anthems below. They were too fabulous NOT to share!