Promoting Creative Writing to Reluctant Students

I’ll never forget the moment when I saw Robin Williams, for the first time, standing on a desk looking down at a group of students, professing his love for poetry. He attributes poetry to the muse for living; poetry, as a form of expression, makes life worth living. As a college student seeing this for the first time, I was impassioned with his speech, but I didn’t need to hear this to be aware of the impact poetry (and writing in general) has on our world. Indeed, written expression illuminates the unique mind, demonstrates creativity, informs, and provides perspectives on the meaning of life. Writing provides nutrients for the soul. Without writing, we would merely be existing in a melancholy world; life would be dismal and tantamount to Winston’s in George Orwell’s 1984. I believe this. My colleagues believe this. Authors believe this, but do my students? Do students always see the insurmountable value writing has on the human experience? In a word, no. For whatever reason, students can be dismissive towards writing. Attribute their disposition to shortened attention spans, increase in technology usage, and lack of music and art with meaning in popular culture today, but writing and creative expression doesn’t always vibe with kids.

I teach in high school. Currently, I teach AP Language & Composition, Modern Literature, Mythology, and Composition/Literature 10. Writing abilities range from low to high with the students I see on a daily basis. Grades range from 10th grade to 12th, but one thing remains common with all these students: they don’t like to be graded on their creative work. In fact, getting a “good grade” can often prevent these students from taking risks and thinking outside of the box in their writing. Kids have been conditioned to focus on the grade they wish to earn. You’ve heard it before: statements like, “How many points is this for?” or, “Are we going to be graded on this?” type of questions. While grades are important, what is even more important is encouraging creativity and original thought. So, consider how you evaluate your students when they do creative writing. Can it be graded on a level of effort/participation? Perhaps they can grade it themselves? You may be surprised with how honest they will be when evaluating their own work. Above all, keep creative writing assignments as low-stakes as possible in the gradebook. Encourage them to write for themselves, their heart, their story, and NOT for points.

For students, it can be hard to tap into creative writing simply because they haven’t seen the process ever done before. Sure, they’ve read fiction novels, but they most likely never saw how the story was made. So, you yourself must model with them. Tap into your personal side in front of them. This can be awkward for you at first, but this method pays dividends. Model how you ask yourself questions in your head. I often say things like, “I don’t like how I phrased this. I am going to go back to it later,” or, “Am I really telling this story in the best way possible?” or, “I don’t know exactly where this is going at this point, but I’m going to keep writing,” and so forth. These statements do not need to be rehearsed. In fact, the demonstration of you writing naturally, in the moment, is what is most beneficial for kids. Students will be able to see you become introspective, which in turn can give them guidance and inspiration for their own writing. After I finish modeling, I ask the class for feedback. I often use the “hamburger” or “sandwich” method — whatever you want to call it. Essentially, this is where you start with a positive comment for feedback (the top bun), moving into the constructive criticism (the meat of the feedback) where I ask where I can improve my writing, and finally end with another positive comment (the bottom bun). Students love to give constructive criticism! Let them voice their ideas and value what they say. Model open-mindedness to feedback, as they then will be more open to receive feedback from you in the future.

The term creative writing is incredibly vague. So, find what creative outlet is suitable for each individual student and let them run with it. You’ve heard it before, but let your students have voice and choice in terms of what form of creative writing they wish to explore. I use creative writing all the time in my Greek Mythology course. Students tend to find the stories and myths engaging enough to let the light of creativity shine on them. I give the students parameters on ways to write, but they ultimately have the final choice. For example, there is a myth in Ancient Greece where Almighty Zeus has his throne tested against the force of Typhon, an immortal multi-headed monstrous being with a hundred dragons’ heads. The myth details the epic clash between the two, with Zeus throwing a mountain on top of Typhon, which created the volcanic eruption of Mount Etna. After we read this myth, students have the choice of how they wish to write about it. They can create a dialogue between the two of them as they are fighting each other, write a news report detailing the events of the battle, write a modern day version of the myth, create a play adaptation, dabble in comic style writing, compose a rap song detailing the account, and so forth. The possibilities are endless. I’ve had a student write a rap song, record the song, and perform it for the class. This all happened because he had the ability to demonstrate his learning in a way that was appealing to him.

Another way to promote creative writing is through journaling. Last Spring, the pandemic hit, leaving teachers just days to flip their classrooms completely online. The world was changing drastically and I knew that my content I was delivering had to change as well. Yes, I still met the required standards and went through all the necessary materials, but I wanted to do something to capture this unprecedented moment in time. Thankfully for me, I follow Kelly Gallagher on Twitter and he uploaded a “Historian COVID-19 Journal Writing Project” that I tweaked to my liking and used it for my AP Language students. These students still reviewed for the AP exam, but they also were asked to document their feelings, emotions, and reactions to the weekly changes revolving around the pandemic. Each week, students found one informative article, read it, and uploaded their response to it, as well as a creative, open-ended, journal response. I was able to see the fear and anxiety these students had in their first few journals. However, as more weeks came and went, their writing became more positive and even therapeutic. I had students who told me they began journaling regularly because of this assignment and have continued to do so throughout the break.

There are numerous ways to promote creative writing to students. Moreover, one way is no more important than the other. In my experience, I have found that if you eliminate the stress of getting a good time, model with your own creative writing, offer voice and choice, and engage them through various styles of writing, the unwilling walls will break, allowing vulnerability and creativity to flood through pens onto the paper. However, it takes consistency. It will not magically change right away. Like any exercise, it takes time and energy to build up muscle to write creatively. Nonetheless, your students have what it takes.

How do you encourage creative writing in your classroom?

Thank you for reading. GO FORTH AND CONQUER!

Reflecting on Resmaa Menakem’s Approach to Eradicating White Trauma

Ten Percent Happier is a podcast that I frequent often. It is hosted by news anchor Dan Harris and shares strategies and philosophies related to meditation, increasing vitality of life, and suggests ways to improve overall health. One of his latest episodes “Why We’re All Suffering from Racial Trauma (Even White People) — and How to Handle It,” Harris interviews therapist and trauma specialist, Resmaa Menakem. Menakem shares profound research in regards to trauma and how it is impacting white people in a way that has perpetuated systemic racism for hundreds of years. His interview, albeit dense at times, is full of necessary information that antiracist white people need to hear in order to make serious change when dealing with race. I’m a middle class White American. I grew up in a town with predominantly White families and I had very few Black classmates in high school. I know I have White privilege that other, worthy African-Americans, simply do not have. The awareness and discernment of this injustice led me to believe that I was doing enough to spark change. Moreover, I know other White people, like me, who are aware of the injustice, stand with the Black Lives Matter movement, and think they are doing enough. About a month ago, there was #BlackoutTuesday, a movement on Instagram where people simply posted a picture of a black square to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Supporting the movement is fantastic, and we need more White people to continue to show support, but what have these participants (specifically White people) done to show support other than posting a black square on their social media? What ultimately comes from this? I posted a black square, signed numerous petitions, and have read texts to inform myself to the degradation that African-Americans STILL face in this world today. But again, this is simply me becoming more aware of the injustice. Am I really doing anything? Not really – and that must change. Hearing Resmaa Menakem directing White people to “do your work” is a slap in the face. We all need to be broken down in order to grow stronger. I thought about the position I am in as a high school English teacher, thinking of ways I can do more with my students. I still don’t have the answers to this, but Menakem offers some ways that White people can work on ending racism once and for all.

Unfortunately, to end racism is nearly an impossible task. Menakem mentions how White people have carried notions of racism from ancestors for hundreds of years. He points to an experiment with rats to reinforce this idea. The cherry blossom experiment was one where a community of male rats were placed in one enclosed location. As time went on in this location, scientists would emit electric shocks on the ground, causing the male rats to jump in fear, ultimately creating trauma for these animals. The shocks continued, followed by a scent of cherry blossom sprayed in the enclosure. Eventually, the scientists added female rats in the community and as you could have guessed, the male and female rats created babies. Before the arrival of the babies, the male rats (the dads) were taken out of the enclosure, leaving just the babies with their mothers. However, when the scientists then sprayed the scent of cherry blossom in the enclosure, the babies jumped off the ground in fear, illustrating the fact that the trauma of the electric shocks and cherry blossom scent rooted in their fathers had carried to them. The fathers had this trauma of the shocks and cherry blossom that was never healed. Therefore, this trauma was transferred to their offspring.

What does this experiment have to do with the human condition? Think back to hundreds of years ago – a young White male who sees his father mistreating someone of color, then grows up and then exhibits the same behavior in front of his son. His son then does the same, and the pattern continues. Hundreds of years pass, and a male in this family lineage and heritage is now in a position of authority (i.e. police officer, judge). How might he treat one of color? Just check the news; the cycle continues. None of these men in this lineage were ever confronted about their actions. According to Menakem, this is white trauma and it is not being dealt with in a way that breaks the foundation of racism, allowing for a chance to rebuild. Rebuilding comes from a paradigm shift in White America. White people, like myself, are now aware of the injustices in the world today and share a communal horror, becoming more aware of the malicious attacks on people of color. However, this way of thinking must be taken a step deeper, where White people create a sense of communal culture.

To be truly antiracist, you need to do something tangible to make strides in the fight for justice. This culture must be developed over a course of time. Menakem claims this development will take AT LEAST three to seven years for White people to help promote change. This is merely a millisecond compared to the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years people of color have faced discrimination.

The big question remains unanswered: How do White people then create communal culture? In his novel, My Grandmother’s Hands, Menakem offers some practices that White people can do. He also shares some applicable methods through the podcast with Dan Harris. One way that stands out to me is through this idea of orienting, or witnessing, observing, and going through “stuff.” Admittedly, while listening to this podcast, I was constantly thinking of how I can implement these ideas in my classroom, so I guarantee I am missing a lot of Menakem’s key points. I encourage you to watch this episode to gather a deeper understanding of his ideas. Orienting, for White people, is never saying “that is enough.” He points to the removal of the Confederate flag in the world of Nascar. More White people are now standing with Bubba Watson, but what now? Have White people said that is enough? This Nascar fiasco lasted merely a week and there hasn’t been really any further developments since. White people like to be complacent and comfortable, but in order for real change to occur, White people (including myself) are going to have to be uncomfortable. In the episode, Harris points to one of Obama’s quotes, “America goes from shock to trance faster than any country.” When I think of this, I think of trends and fads that come and go. My correlation isn’t absolute, but there is some truth to the idea that Americans see something in the media and immediately feel a sense of duty and nobility, but that feeling is fleeting and leaves the human psyche before any real change can occur.

So, how can I teach my students to create a communal culture and REALLY develop antiracist philosophies? Reading and becoming aware of the reality is the first step. Like I said, I believe a lot of Americans are working on this, but it takes a sense of orienting themselves after this. The Great Debaters is a film that takes place in the deep south where racism impacted this group of African-American college students on a debate team. These students go on to face many different colleges and see heinous acts, are subjected to torture, and are judged for their skin color. I have used this film to introduce rhetoric in the past, as my students then analyzed the rhetorical strategies the students used in their debates. But, how can I take that a step further? Perhaps students can deliver speeches, using the strategies they learned from the film, with the goal of illuminating the injustices of racism in our world today, perform them within the community, and present the speeches to (White) people in positions of power. This is just an idea, but by doing this my students could attempt to picture themselves in these discriminatory moments in our world’s history to see the contrasting lifestyles and use their privilege to promote change. What else? Does this mean writing letters to police departments across the country, proposing new practices? Does it mean hosting fundraisers to help support causes towards the BLM movement, or creating antiracists groups within the school and community to become better allies by broadening their worldly view? Maybe. What I do know is that I can use my platform and commit many years to orient myself, have the hard conversations with students, and do my work to spark lasting change.

How can you create communal culture in your classroom? What are some ways to further develop this community?

Thank you for reading. Go Forth and Conquer!

Distracted Readers Need Exercise: Helping Students Retain Information From Reading

We’ve all done it before: read something and not be able to recall anything significant out of the passage. To this day, I will have moments where I am reading a novel, a chapter goes by, and I have absolutely no idea what I just read. I can’t recall a single event, character, setting — nothing. Does this mean I’m a bad reader? Not necessarily, albeit a distracted one. There is no denying the fact that it can be challenging to stay engaged while reading. Thoughts wander, eyes get heavy, dogs bark and beg for attention. You get the idea. There are numerous reasons as to why one can get distracted while reading. For many of my students, they haven’t built up the stamina to read something intently for more than 10 minutes. Just like exercise, reading takes hard work, training, and rest or a brief pause.

The accessible activity I am going to write about in this post covers all the key components to help distracted readers exercise with their reading abilities. This is done through thoughtful annotations. The annotation template is not my own; I found this amazing template to help kids retain information while reading a PD book back in college. The best part of this template is that it works for any age and any text. The application/use of the template is my original twist on annotating and reading for meaning. This is not the absolute way to get kids to retain information. Every kid is different and will require different tactics. Some need more attention than others, while some are able to read well beyond their grade level. Again, this is simply one way I help kids engage with what they are reading.

When Kids Can’t Read, by Kylene Beers, depicts common characteristics amongst students who struggle with reading and provides a multitude of avenues to help these students grow cognitively with their reading skills. It is packed full of strategies and tips to help students retain information via pre reading, during reading, and post reading activities. The activity I use most is for during reading, called the “Say Something” activity. Linked HERE is a visual for this annotating activity. Students who struggle with reading often have nothing to say about what they read. Either they forgot, got distracted, or simply weren’t paying attention to the text. With the say something strategy, students get to choose the most important/relevant information provided in a text for them, internalize the meaning, and make a connection, summarize, ask a question, make a prediction, comment, or clarify something. These skills are at the heart of annotating. Annotating, as I am sure you know, is more than highlighting important sentences in a passage. More specifically, annotating is a way to engage with the text in a way that is meaningful and ensures that you will remember the information when you pick up the text at a later time.

For my classroom, I use the say something template and do what I call circuit reading. Circuit reading is the process of annotating with the say something template every ten minutes. My Monday classes are dedicated to independent reading. During this time, I have students take out a scratch piece of paper and have them write their name, date, and name of the text they are reading. Also, they write down what page they are on at the beginning of the class. As they read, I pull up an activity from the say something template. For instance, after ten minutes of reading, on the projector slides I may have a question that says: “Finish the phrase… the character ________, reminds me of _________ because ________.” This is one of the ways students can make a connection with the text, all while using the say something template. If someone was reading something with little to no characters in their section of reading, I would have them find one activity to complete from the say something template that is applicable for their text. My students are familiar with the template and are given a copy of it at the beginning of the year. When I can, I like to model this strategy with whatever I am reading to encourage them to annotate thoughtfully. By the end of the class, they have made roughly 3-4 thoughtful annotations. Students then write down the page they ended on and turn in their annotations. I always make sure to comment on these annotations and give them back in a timely fashion.

Circuit reading works really well with my 10th grade students. My AP kids don’t need it as much, since they know how to annotate diligently. However, showcasing these methods of annotating is vital for kids to remember key details from a text. It is not the “be-all and end-all” approach to help kids grow in reading, but it can help and has worked for me in the past.

How do you help kids grow in their reading abilities?

Thank you for reading. GO FORTH AND CONQUER!

The Importance of Modeling in the Classroom

Humanitarian, Albert Schweitzer, once said “example is leadership.” This declaration by Schweitzer is applicable to all people in all professions, but especially reigns true for educators – leaders in the classroom. People are often influenced by those leaders they look up to. Whether this person or group of people serves as a positive influence is not for me to judge, but you can certainly assess their character based on how the people who follow them act. Think of it this way, Luke Skywalker is a renowned Jedi because his leader, Obi-Wan, was a great leader. On the other side, Skywalker’s father, Darth Vader, had the potential to be a Jedi Master, but his character grew through the tutelage of grim Palpatine. As a result, others followed suit and the Dark Side grew to be an overbearing force in the galaxy. Why? Because Palpatine embodied the spirit of corruption and greed, which enticed Anakin (Vader) to follow his lead. How does this simplistic Star Wars anecdote relate to education? As educators, we are given the privilege to lead malleable minds through a journey of lifelong learning. We are not with each student for the entirety of their life, but we do serve as a leader for them for at least a semester or one academic school year, and we must not take that opportunity lightly. We must model the behaviors and academic skills needed to be successful, not just in the confines in our classrooms, but in the infinite cosmos of the galaxy.

Modeling is imperative for student growth. Modeling gives students the opportunity to see the wheels turning in the mind of a teacher as they tackle an assignment/lesson, and promotes a growth mindset. I recently found a visual from Nigel Holmes that bullets the key components of having a growth mindset. This way of thinking helps one: embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from criticism, find lessons and inspiration in the success of others, and find a greater sense of free will. It doesn’t do a whole lot of good for students to see the end project of an assignment without seeing all the steps it took to get there. Simply showing the end result negates the fact that completing large tasks takes planning, revision, hard work, and even failure.

For me, a high school ELA teacher, I often model my writing (both creative and expository) in front of students on the document camera. With this camera, students are able to see me write, right in front of their eyes. They see my scribbles, scratches, poor punctuation, and surface level ideas. When the writing is complete, I ask them for feedback. I take their ideas, discuss with them how I could use them in my writing and move forward. This form of teaching reinforces the idea that we should all welcome feedback and setbacks, as they are essential for growth. When the writing is polished (I don’t like the word finished or final – writing is never finished), we compare what I had written initially compared to the polished result. There always is evident growth and the students see the steps that were necessary to get there. I also model annotating. I read a text to the class, stopping at strategic places to show them what I am annotating and writing in the margins of the text (more details on that in a later post). By doing this, students see how I am thinking about the text, what I find important, and what questions it is provoking in my mind. From there, students tend to feel more comfortable as they annotate on their own. A lot of modeling follows the “GRR” style of teaching: Gradual Release of Responsibility. With this approach, the teacher does something first, the class then does it all together, then the students complete the work individually. In short, think “I do, we do, you do on your own.”

However, modeling isn’t strictly for academic success. There is a HUGE SEL component that needs to be addressed with modeling. For example, elementary teachers can model what it looks like to line up at the door in single file, or how to clean up a work space. As a high school teacher, I find that a lot of students have troubles communicating effectively with their peers. The rise of technology can attribute to this, but again, I will save that topic for another post. With these classes that struggle to communicate, I provide “gambit phrases” that give sentence starters for students to use in classroom discussion. From there, I use these phrases in my discussion with them and model the desired dialogue. Gambit phrases are available all over the internet, but I would be happy to share those with you.

If your district in moving forward in the online world, modeling definitely becomes more difficult, but it is still possible. I have been thinking of ways to demonstrate modeling online if that is the avenue I am to take. One way I did it last year online was through video. In these videos, I recorded my laptop screen as I would type something or work on an assignment with them, and record my voice over it as well so I could verbally express my thinking to them. Posting the modeled work on an online platform (i.e. Google Classroom, Canvas) could be super useful also, as students are then able to see the steps that were needed to complete a larger task.

A hefty task indeed, modeling is. But, the payoff in terms of student success is monumental. Modeling, in my opinion, is the best way for students to have sustainable learning, grow as inquisitive people in general, and embrace a task rather than dread it.

How do you model in your classroom? What might you do to model in an online world of teaching?

Thank you for reading. GO FORTH AND CONQUER!

Utilizing Hip Hop in the Classroom

“Hip-hop isn’t what it used to be.” I hear statements like this constantly. Being a fan of hip-hop, I find myself defending the genre and culture against people opposed to the new sound and style practiced by many modern artists. While I agree that there are a lot of famous “rappers” now who have gained popularity by following immoral trends such as praising ignorance and defiance, I know for certain that there are artists today that hold true to the roots of the genre, all while experimenting with new sounds and flows. The truth is that nothing can remain the same over decades. Hip-hop is vastly different from when it began in the early 1970s, in the Bronx, New York. The Sugarhill Gang is no longer relevant, yet their music and influence is cemented in the craft forever. The pioneers planted a seed that has now blossomed into something unimaginable. Artists that are influential today, Jermaine Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Donald Glover, Thebe Kgositsile and many more, all have one thing in common: they speak for the voiceless. They address social issues and do so in a way that is raw, uncut, visceral, and eloquent all at the same time. Whether it be Cole and Kendrick addressing police brutality and racism, or Thebe touching on his struggles with depression and mental illness, a spiking issue in adolescence, these artists say the things that people simply cannot or are too afraid to.

I have used hip-hop in my lessons multiple times. For example, using Tupac Shakur’s song, “Dear Mamma,” to discuss strategic use of imagery, or Childish Gambino’s song and video, “This is America,” to analyze the rhetoric employed and to identify author’s purpose. The resources in this realm are infinite, and kids (I teach high school) generally gravitate towards this content because they get a glimpse of various perspectives on life and broaden their worldly view.

I remember showing my students J. Cole’s performance on David Letterman for his song, “Be Free.” I used this song to introduce the concept of social commentary, and in light of the numerous accounts of police brutality against African-Americans at the time, I thought it would be a perfect example to show them relevant social commentary. A few days after I showed that video, I had a student come up to me with a notebook. This student was an African-American male and he began writing poetry. He told me that he was inspired by “Be Free.” In his poems, he wrote about all of the anxieties and fear he faced on a daily basis being an African-American male in a town that was predominantly white. Generally speaking, he was a quiet kid and did not have a lot to say in class. However, that notebook spoke volumes. I encouraged him to keep writing – every single day. Months passed and he came up to me and showed me a video of him performing spoken word for one of his poems in the public library. I saw his posture and passion as he delivered his message to a crowd of white people. He stood strong in the face of nervousness and ended up doing something he never thought imaginable. He was the first person in his family to graduate from high school. I hugged him after he walked off the stage on graduation day and I told him how proud I was of him and to always remember to “Be Free.”

It is almost effortless to sprinkle in lessons rooted in hip-hop for English classrooms. Rhetorical analysis lends itself nicely to the words of the greatest emcees of the world today and yesterday, and one can always turn to practically any MF DOOM track when discussing internal rhyme for a poetry unit. Anderson’s .Paak’s latest song, “Lockdown,” illustrates the current condition of America: protesting, racism, illness, and indignant ignorance. It is art at its finest and will be looked at for many years to come when explaining what the rhetorical situation is and defining exigence.

However, I write this today to claim that hip-hop gives hope to students and provides a voice for the voiceless. I know I am generalizing, but a lot of famous hip-hop artists (i.e. Eminem, 50 Cent, Ice Cube, Notorious B.I.G. and more) have a “rags to riches” story. Students don’t necessarily have to like their music, but their relentless passion, grit, and integrity is something that they can pull meaning from – something that supersedes any rhetorical analysis or poetry unit. The most important hip-hop figure in my eyes, James Dewitt Yancey, also known as J. Dilla, died of cardiac arrest and battled with lupus for many years. During the years on his death bed, Dilla continued to produce soulful hip-hop beats for groups like Slum Village and A Tribe Called Quest. He was not merely a determined man focused on making bank; Dilla made beats that can bring a tear to your eye, make you nostalgic, hopeful, introspective, and inspired. Whenever I feel defeated, I play my favorite beat of his, “Alien Family,” and I know that everything will be just fine. His positivity and determination is something I can only attempt to mirror as I continue to teach. He influenced many artists today such as Pharrell Williams and Kanye West, and has motivated me to always work on sharpening my craft of teaching through care and compassion.

Hip-hop needs to be in the classroom. Let the voices be heard.

How has music impacted the way you go about your craft of teaching? How do you use hip-hop in the classroom?

Thank you for reading. GO FORTH AND CONQUER!

My Manifesto for the Coming Year

I was out on my run yesterday thinking of all the uncertainty that faces all of us educators. July is here and there are still little to no answers as to how school will look this coming year. For me, I go back early August, so the uncertainty at this point is making me more and more anxious each day. I was able to relax and unwind in June without thinking about work a whole lot. However, if I neglect it too long, I know I will not be mentally prepared for any announcements that will be made (hopefully soon) about the vision of the 2020-2021 school year.

Usually, my runs are paired with fast-paced hip-hop music and the occasional Zeppelin. But, yesterday was different. I couldn’t get the thought of school and work out of my head, so I played an episode from one of my favorite educational podcasts, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. If you have not heard of this podcasts, I strongly recommend that you check it out. Angela Watson is insightful, inquisitive, and does not shy away from the hard discussions that educators need to hear. The episode I listened to addressed her manifesto for the coming year. When I think of the term manifesto, I think of a motto – a declaration, if you will, that stands true to one’s character, beliefs, motivations, and overall uniqueness. For me, “GO FORTH AND CONQUER” is something I believe in whole-heartedly. I do not claim coining the phrase, but I do my best to live by this mantra every single day. I end each class period by telling my students to “be the best you that you can be, and, as always, GO FORTH AND CONQUER.” Some students find it silly, some find it obnoxious, and others find it inspiring. This phrase can apply to every human being, but it can mean something totally different for each individual. Conquering, to me, is all about putting your best foot forward each day, knowing that each day will present its own challenges and obstacles. Conquering, to me, is remaining positive in the face of adversity and believing that my purpose matters, and that I must continue to develop and strengthen my purpose despite any outside interferences. In the episode, Watson mentions some things related to her manifesto and the idea of conquering that all educators should remember going into the new school year.

There will be many changes that occur during the middle of the school year. Whether it be socially distant classrooms (however that is supposed to look), to a blend of online and in-person learning, teachers will be asked to do things that they have never done before. Unsettling? Absolutely. As educators, we are constantly tweaking lesson plans to best fit the needs of our current students and are able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Right now, we are stuck in the middle of the tunnel equipped with a flashlight that has dead batteries. This image is frightening, yes, but teachers are a rare breed who are resilient, creative, and adaptive. In a nutshell, Angela Watson reinforces this claim through her discussion on the necessary resilient flexibility that teachers will need this year. I encourage you to watch her podcast. Like I said, she is a wonderful voice for educators and provides copious amounts of resources to ensure teacher success. Paraphrasing Watson, resilient flexibility requires teachers to think about ways to make class both accessible online and in person. With the limited amount of time teachers have, it is utterly impossible to prepare lessons for both in-person class and online. As mentioned earlier, changes will occur in the middle of the school year, and it is best to be prepared for them. As a high school English teacher, I have been brainstorming ways to make class accessible online and in the actual classroom. I have used Socratic seminar discussions quite a bit in class and can easily adapt that to an online discussion via Google Classroom. FlipGrid can be utilized to deliver presentations at home, and video conferencing is always an option. Now more than ever, I believe teachers can experiment with assignments rooted in the Project Based Learning framework, giving students time to work at home and in the community, but also providing the opportunity to ask questions in class and conference when needed. Obviously this will look different for each teacher and subject, but I believe putting some accountability on the students to complete the work at their own pace will be beneficial during this time.

Another “nugget of truth” Watson presents is this idea that we must all practice radical acceptance. “Learning conditions will not be optimal this coming school year,” claims Watson. We’ve been taught to promote group work and value human interaction. We can still value these things, but we must accept that a pedagogical change will be needed this year. There will be times where we will have to ditch our best practices because they aren’t suitable for the environment. This truth can be heartbreaking for teachers and students alike, but remember that this is temporary and will pass. Stressing and moaning about the situation, albeit a coping mechanism, will not improve the state of conditions we are facing. In order to get through this monumental moment in humanity, we must accept the fact that this is where we are currently – but it will get better. Thinking about practicing radical acceptance, I am going to continue to meditate, run, read, interact with loved ones, and simply take it one day at a time.

Watson proclaims that education needed reform and alterations already, so why not use this time to develop ways to grow as a teacher, with the ultimate goal to make students more inquisitive learners? This is not an easy task and there is a lot of work that sits in front of all of us. However, educators are some of the strongest people that I know. We got this. There is a community of people who love you, care about you, and want you to succeed. Reach out to those people! You can reach out to me here any time. I don’t have all (or any) of the answers, but I do understand your situation. I stand with you. Stay strong.

What are some ways you can adapt your class to work both in person and online? How will you practice radical acceptance for the upcoming school year? What is your manifesto for the coming year?

Thank you for reading. GO FORTH AND CONQUER!

Essential Texts for High School Students

Many moons ago, activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X fought for racial equality. Both activists shared personal stories of segregation, discrimination, and acts of hatred inflicted upon them. Today, many revere these men as monumental figures in human history. However, their work is far from over. It is 2020 now and the movement, Black Lives Matter, is as relevant as ever. The movement was reinvigorated by the death of African-American George Floyd on May 25th, 2020. Floyd was arrested for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. A graphic video shows Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, on top of Mr. Floyd with his knee pressed down on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. The words “I can’t breathe” screeched out of Floyd’s mouth, and the phrase has been echoed in protests ever since.

There is no denying the unjustified mistreatment that African-Americans have faced in our world. As educators, and frankly as human beings, it is our duty to illuminate the injustices to eradicate hatred and racism, ultimately to develop compassion and acceptance for all walks of life.

I teach AP Language & Composition, Modern Literature, Composition 10, and Mythology. The past few years, I have used several texts that showcase racism and segregation throughout American History, so that my students (predominately white, middle class) can develop a sort of understanding for this sensitive, incredibly serious, issue. For the 10th graders, I present “Hair” to them. “Hair” is a short story by Malcolm X that recalls the time where he conked his hair (chemically making it straight) to make himself appear white. For this story, my students analyze the tonal shifts X employs as he tells the story from beginning to end, ultimately to realize the detriments associated with self-degradation. My students discuss author’s purpose and connect X’s experiences to one of their own via short story writing, highlighting the similarities. With this group, I also show the films Freedom Writers and The Great Debaters. I will not give any spoilers, and I use both films for different reasons, but both serve as a rich, raw glimpse into the life of those who are treated differently because of the color of their skin. The Great Debaters is a great film to introduce rhetorical analysis, as the plot is steered by an African-American group of college students fighting for social justice through speech. Freedom Writers is a great way to continue writing short stories, as students put themselves in the shoes of someone potentially less fortunate than they are.

My favorite essay that I use for rhetorical analysis in AP Language & Composition is “Black Men and Public Space,” by Brent Staples. In “Black Men and Public Space,” Staples reiterates stereotypical acts of racism as he navigates through the city. With this piece, students discuss Staples’ purpose and the rhetorical choices he uses to enhance that purpose. More importantly, they are shown a way of life that seems utterly unreal to them.

I continue to search for texts to pair with the Black Lives Matter movement, as I believe it is imperative to teach them now more than ever. The texts and films mentioned above are some, not all, that I have found success with. Teachers cannot idly sit by and watch this movement progress without saying or doing anything. The future is in our classrooms and we have the opportunity to make the world a better place. Don’t miss out.

How are you utilizing your platform as a teacher to discuss racial injustice? What texts/films have you used that can pair with the Black Lives Matter movement?

Thank you for reading. GO FORTH AND CONQUER!

The New Normal?

I, like many educators across the world, endured drastic change this year. At the drop of a hat, teachers were tasked with converting all classes to online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Naturally, I would spend a decent amount of time planning for my classes when they were in person. This sort of preparation is not new, and I am comfortable with it. However, the concept of making classes strictly online, with no true face-to-face interaction, was foreign.

I spent many hours looking for ways to incorporate online tools to my preexisting materials (i.e. FlipGrid, virtual meetings, Khan Academy, and so forth). Surfing the web led me down a path where I was drowning in potential resources. I realized I needed to keep it simple, consistent, and accessible. My students didn’t need another hoop drenched in kerosene to jump through.

So, I began to plan.

Nothing I did was groundbreaking. I uploaded all of the lessons to the Google Classroom pages via Google Slides. Each slideshow had a weekly agenda, learning targets, instructional resources, and assignments and directions linked to the pages. To pair with the Google Slides, I created a video of my laptop screen, where I broke down each lesson for the week and the assignment(s) that went with them. In receiving feedback from students, I found that they truly appreciated having these videos because they were able to hear my voice and thoughts as I broke down the material.

At best, I did an adequate job with the online learning phase of the 2019-2020 school year. However, I wish I made my lessons more engaging to mirror the technological age we are in today.

COVID-19 doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. Social distancing is still encouraged. My classes (in person) are rooted in productive group work, which makes social distancing challenging. Some districts have already declared they will begin the next school year online. My district is still undecided at this point. All of this uncertainty has me wondering two things: When do I need to begin surfing the web for more material? Is this the new normal?


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