Reflecting with My 9th Graders

As a final assigned post on their freshmen blogs, I asked my 9th graders to reflect back on their rapidly dwindling academic year, answering (in at least 300 words) one or more of the following questions:

What has been the hardest thing about this past year?

-What is one thing from this past year that you are deeply proud of?

-What is something you have learned about life this year that you will remember going into 10th grade?

-What is something you have learned about yourself this year that you will remember going into 10th grade?

-If you could change one thing from this past year, what would it be?

As I was explaining the value in reflections such as these, I got to thinking that I might as well take my own advice and join my students in the exercise. And so, as my freshmen ponder their experiences over this past academic year, I am choosing to do so alongside them, looking back carefully at my first year here at LCA as I sit in my sunny spot on the school’s lawn.

-What has been the hardest thing about this past year? Grading. I don’t at all mind spending time at home reading student papers and giving comments. The harder part for me has been trying to assign meaningful numerical values to somewhat subjective, nebulous qualities like voice, flow, intensity, depth etc. I try to be objective while still considering my personal tendencies. I’ve also gotten to know my students very well, and I like to think that I have a sense for where each one is at. I know what they are working on in their writing, what is particularly difficult for them, and what aspects of assignments bring out their creativity and potential. I’m often aware of factors at home that absolutely must be impacting their scholarly work. I have struggled this year to assign numbers to work that students have done when I know each student personally and at least something about the process each one went through to create the thing sitting in front of me waiting for a number grade. I want my grading to be honest, ethical, and fair, but also supportive and safe; this has been difficult.

-What is one thing from this past year that you are deeply proud of? I actually predominantly teach 10th graders, whom I love so much it’s ridiculous, but the thing I am the most proud of this year is the writing quality of my 9th graders. They were a ragtag gang when we started the year, representing a remarkable range of ability levels and content knowledge. They will tell you this themselves; some of them were very far behind in skill and experience. We worked really really hard together this year, and I am so deeply proud of the ways in which their writing has developed and strengthened. Each student has made tremendous progress in their own ways.

-What is something you have learned about life this year that you will remember going into 10th grade your next year of teaching? My colleagues are a storehouse of support, wisdom, solidarity, and insight. They know me, they know the school, and they know their craft. Anytime I have reached outside of my discipline or my own grade level to get feedback from one of my fellow teachers here at LCA, I have been richly rewarded. They also humble me with the way they love their students. They are fiercely protective of their students, and they inspire me with their tenacity. This year I have learned how stunningly impressive my colleagues are and how willing they are to support me as I grow into my own as an educator. I’ll make sure to use that knowledge next year.

-What is something you have learned about yourself this year that you will remember going into 10th grade your next year of teaching? This was the year, to the best of my own knowledge and self-awareness, that I learned how much I love to teach. This was my first  year with a classroom that was entirely my own. It was my first year in a school that trusts me enough to give me autonomy over my curriculum and coursework. It was the first time I was responsible for the academic, emotional, mental, and spiritual wellbeing of a group of students for an entire academic year. It was the first time I designed every single lesson plan for every single text in every single class. And everything in me rang with just how right it is for me. I love digging deep into words, how they work, how we use them, and what they can do. I will never get tired of laughing, playing, and learning with groups of students who constantly humble me with their insight and capacity to cut right to the heart of complicated issues. I don’t foresee myself getting tired of hearing a student say, “OHHHH!!!!” as understanding dawns or “Mmmm, this is just like when we talked about _____________ last week,” making connections I didn’t see. I love teaching, and I think that this was the year I learned with certainty that I was made to teach.

-If you could change one thing from this past year, what would it be? Seeing as how I’ve met my own 300-word benchmark, I think I’ll answer both honestly and succinctly. I’m not saying it was a perfect year, but I don’t really think I’d change a thing. I’ve grown and learned so much this year, and I can honestly say I enjoyed each moment and phase. I am genuinely sad to see this year draw to a close.

So there you have it! My past academic year in at least 300 words. It’s been a beauty!



Using Words for Good II

In a recent post, I blogged about the power of words to make tangible differences in and for communities and individuals. I talked about this specifically in light of some of the ways I had seen Lexington Christian Academy students use composition and words to support and connect with one another.

Well, at 6:30am on this dreary Thursday morning, I strolled into the freshmen hallway, and those LCA students were at it again. Anonymous freshmen scrawled simple, but powerful messages of kindness, acceptance, and encouragement on happy yellow post-its stuck to the front of every single freshmen locker. No one was left out. Everyone was included. Simple, but powerful. I love my job almost as much as I love my kind and clever students.


Teaching Composition as Activism in the Real World

My 10th graders and I just finished Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Night. To say that we loved the experience of working through it together is not only minimizing, it doesn’t capture the heartache and heaviness that we shared as we grappled with the reality of human suffering. We were moved by it.

When designing the unit we would use together, my goals echoed what I understand Wiesel’s to be, which is to push everyone, students included, to understand the critical weight their voices hold in the age-old battle against those who would oppress, consume, and destroy humanity. Following the publication of Wiesel’s memoir, his countless books, speeches, and essays all seem to focus on one central theme: what can we do to stand with and for those who suffer? In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Wiesel states clearly,

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

For me, the design of this unit had to strengthen critical thinking and composition skills while also honoring Wiesel’s legacy by asking students to engage personally and practically with issues of human suffering in the world around them. As it turns out, these two goals complement each other in beautiful ways.

The unit itself was a truly meaningful one to share together; however, where my students blew me away most was in the final assignment. The assignment, based on this one which I found from a fellow teacher’s blog, asked students to choose a current instance of human suffering and pain and then to use their composition skills to create artifacts that enacted change in the world around them to benefit those in pain as a result of the issue they had chosen. See the assignment statement below for what I gave them to work from.

As you can see from the assignment, the constraints were few. They had no rubrics. They had a high degree of choice. They had total control over how they implemented and pursued the choices they made. I was nervous that they would go rogue or use this as an opportunity to avoid work. They were nervous that I wouldn’t like what they did or that they wouldn’t get a good grade. We pushed through it, and, per usual, they stunned me into silence.

My beautiful, kind, clever, empathetic, and motivated students made this project their own. They chose a wide array of issues ranging from the faraway, like the drought in Somalia and the Syrian refugee crisis, to the local, diving into homelessness and sex trafficking in Boston. They built blogs, pamphlets, videos, sculptures, audio pieces, children’s books, and maps that informed, implored, and supported. Their creations traveled extensively within their communities, with letters being sent to local government officials, funds being raised within churches, information being shared with friend groups, and resources being distributed in all of these. Students created complex, strategic compositions with specific rhetorical goals that we then set loose into the real world to see how they performed.

Returning to my two initial goals, which were to build composition skills while making an impact on human suffering, I can see in retrospect that they are meant to walk hand in hand. When you give students a real reason to compose, and then you assure them that their compositions can make an impact, they rise to the circumstances. Using real-world activism to teach and explore composition not only gives students real-world experience with how their compositions can work, it shows them why good composition matters and how it can change the world around them.

I’ve compiled some shots of samples from different projects so you can see the smart and creative things students ran with. The gallery below has a variety of the visual pieces.

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The digital creations were no less impressive.

Some students made informational sites like…
– this one on South Sudan
this one on the persecuted Yazidis in Iraq
this one about the Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar (complete with a Storify outlining the background of the conflict if you’re interested!).

Other students created videos like…
this one about working with children in rural Chinese schools
this one on the genocide in Darfur
this one on the persecuted Yazidis

Another student conducted first person interviews with individuals directly involved in combatting homelessness in Boston, two of which can be heard here and here.

Students made incredible use of social media, using Instagram to share artwork along with facts and links to organizations that can support those suffering OR using Twitter and Facebook to gather first hand accounts to compile into profiles. One student wanted to gauge the impact Planned Parenthood had had on those she was connected to, so she placed an open call for firsthand stories of experiences with and care received at Planned Parenthood. She received a wide variety of responses and was able to synthesize those into an audio/video presentation to her class.

I could go on, but I know I have gone on too long already. All I will say in conclusion is that correcting these projects has been one of the most wonderful and inspiring things I have ever done. Students used their developing composition skills to chip away at injustice, both in the world at large and in their own lives. In reflecting on this project, I take heart that the future of our world will be placed in pretty good hands.

All student work shared with permission.

Storify Fun

Remember that time I blogged about all the ways to incorporate Storify into classroom work? Well, at the time I was writing that post, my only practical experience using Storify had been for my own personal scholarship (see this collaboratively written story) or exploration. Fortunately, since that time, I’ve had the chance to give my students a go at integrating Storify into their writing processes! And I was thrilled with the results.

The assignment was to perform a rhetorical analysis on a set of photos from an international photographer of their choice. The end product needed to be an alphabetic essay outlining their reading of the photo’s main arguments and appeals. The work leading up to drafting the essay, however, involved a whole lot of research into the rhetorical situation surrounding the photos. I asked students to dive deep into social media, news articles, and museum archives to learn more about their photographers, the photos, the audience, the context surrounding the photos, and whatever else they could dig up. We had a lot of fun with it, but we needed a space in which to organize our very multimedia findings. Students were coming up with podcasts, video interviews, personal blogs, and all manner of information on their topics of research. This is where Storify shone.

I asked each student to hand in a story outlining the rhetorical situation that gave rise the photos they had chosen. The stories served as dynamic, visually engaging, easily updated, and shareable hubs for their delightfully scattered research. Students pulled from photographers’ Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. Selections from personal blogs were incorporated. All the while, students were able to organize and annotate their research as they assembled it.

The BEST part of all of this was how shareable the information was. I saw this resulting in high levels of naturally occurring, voluntary collaboration. Students who chose different photographers from one another were able to send links to their research and show their classmates what they were finding and how they had formatted their research. I had students sharing photos they found particularly beautiful or information they found unusually interesting. The consolidated nature of the Storify story made that an easy, natural option for them.

There were indeed struggles.

  • Not all students had their own Instagram, Facebook, and/or Twitter accounts, which is necessary to link your Storify account to those outlets. However, we found workarounds where students could simply screenshot and then textually reference the selections they wanted. Some students simply manually entered the URL for the social media page they wanted to refer to.
  • The prospect of using a new software was more intimidating to some students than it was to others. Fortunately, Storify has a largely user-friendly interface and most students felt comfortable working independently on their stories by the end of the unit.
  • The ease with which sources can be pulled into Storify led to some students accumulating an impossibly daunting number of sources that they never actually read through or annotated.

In my humble opinion, none of these hurdles outweighed the ease with which Storify facilitated incredibly interdisciplinary, multimodal, and collaborative research.

Two of my stellar students gave permission for their stories to be featured in this post so you could see some examples of the different ways in which students interacted with Storify!

  1. This Storify story explores the work of Daniel Beltrá, a Spanish photographer who is interested in the destruction of African rainforests and animal rights.
  2. This one chronicles research into Matilde Gattoni, a French-Italian photographer, who photographs issues relating to feminist agency and environmental preservation.

As you browse those two (of the many) excellent student-authored stories, I encourage you to notice the beautiful and interesting ways that the personalities and visions of the two students come through. Storify for the win!




Using Words for Good

Something I love deeply and profoundly about teaching writing and reading is the ability to delve into what words can do and how they do those things. Words are amazing. They can literally create realities. J.L. Austin’s description of a “performative utterance” has forever shifted my understanding of the power of language. Austin explores the ability of words to perform and accomplish things, noting that sometimes,

“the issuing of the utterance is the performing of an action – it is not …. just saying something” (7).

Composition and communication affect change. The prospect of this is so beautiful and so terrifying that it sometimes makes me weep.

As an English teacher, this prospect is one of my driving motivators. If we are dealing in creating and consuming words and texts, we are necessarily wrestling with what those words and texts do. The power and influence we are toying with is not something to be taken lightly. The ways this truth impacts my lessons, assignments, and demeanor in the classroom are diverse, shifting, and complex. I can’t say I entirely understand them myself. However, just the other day, my wonderful school, Lexington Christian Academy, hosted a small event that I thought truly encapsulated the importance of teaching and then allowing students to deal wisely with their meaning making and composition.

As most truly great ideas are, this one was cooked up by the students involved in the student-led Peer Issues Group (PIG). The idea was simple: to anonymously post encouraging phrases written by students in the student bathroom, and to allow other students to anonymously share some of their struggles and encouragement. This was a bathroom graffiti-style activity and, since I often use the student bathroom in order to avoid an infinitesimally longer walk to the faculty bathroom, I was able to bask in its glory.

Students blew me away with the vulnerability, tenderness, and strength of their anonymous words. With their simple, brief compositions, they managed to support, build community with, and listen to one another. Their words DID something. What they wrote mattered, and you could feel it as you stood there and read what they had to say. The activity was simple, but, in my opinion, powerfully demonstrated the ability of words to create real change and exert real influence in individuals and communities.


For what I have learned will never be the last time, I sat there learning from my students, letting my students’ words teach me about the power of allowing them and helping them to use their words for good. I’m still working to learn the lesson.


What is this, an art room or something?

If I had a nickel for every time someone walked into my room and asked this question with a smirk on their face…

I’m not offended by it; in fact, quite the opposite is true. What I could do without, however, is the tone in which the question is often pronounced. The asker almost always seems to be suggesting a subtle amusement at the frivolity of a room that should be dedicated to “serious literary scholarship.” It’s as if they are skeptical that real academic rigor in the literary discipline could possibly occur in a room such as this one.

This question, and the attitude that so often accompanies it, represents a school of thought that I find deeply concerning when it comes to the way we tend to approach the study of the English language. In our concern surrounding declining literacy rates and plummeting standardized test scores, we seem to have lost sight of something big. Reading and writing are artistic endeavors. Scholarship in the realms of composition and meaningful interactions with texts has to take place against a backdrop of curiosity, play, and creativity. I have seen this most poignantly in my own teaching. When students are able to play with texts, probe them, translate them into different modes, and wrestle with them, their work comes alive. This kind of learning, in my opinion, relies very heavily on the affordances of incorporating multimodality into the English classroom, which I’ve blogged about before. It also relies on an emphasis on the interdisciplinary nature of composition and reading. Why can’t my classroom be an English room and an art room and a science room and a programming room and whatever else my kids want to mess around with in order to create and interact with texts?

When we panic in the face of test scores and standards, we end up stifling our students under the weight of our own ideas on what makes for competitive literary studies.  We suffocate their ability to love reading and writing in our efforts to make them literate. Instead, I believe our goal should be to teach them how to dive headlong into all the different ways meaning can be made and experienced through composition.

And so, when I am asked that dismissive question about my room and, by extension, my student’s work, I proudly answer: Yep, among other things. 

And if you want to see some legitimate literary scholarship performed in ways that may fall under the category of art, feast your eyes on the smart and explorative compositions by many of my students in the slide show below. It strikes me as very worth noting that a good portion of these works were done entirely voluntarily, in addition to required classwork, simply because those students felt like they wanted to augment the meaning of their pieces using some of the tools at their disposal.

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Many of these images above show visual representations of academic essays, illustrations from short stories, or brainstorms for poetry. And if you think these artistic endeavors didn’t make for some wildly excellent written texts, you obviously haven’t read my students’ work.