With a Little Help from My Friends: Getting Unstuck When Life Sucks

Today, I think I’m going to depart a little from my usual high school literacy focus to reflect on my own recent experiences as a reader and a writer. It might seem a little bit strange, but it’s authentic. Because one thing I’ve learned over the past six weeks or so that sometimes being a reader and writer means that you aren’t.

I’m going to be very honest. The past six months have been the most difficult personal and professional months I have had in a very long time–maybe ever. At work, I have been absolutely pushed to the limit at times, and while I have probably learned the most I’ve ever learned, it simply hasn’t been an easy road. In the background of all that, I have been struggling with some very deep personal hurt that just isn’t going away. All of this has been intensifying over the past six weeks or so, and it all came to a head on Thursday.

I’m not sharing this information so that you’ll feel sorry for me. Not at all. I’m sharing this because these moments in our lives are a reality for all of us, and they’re a reality for the kids that we see each day.

And I’m going to be honest right now. Being in this funk made me completely uninspired, which has resulted in the following:

1. Lots of tears (and I’m not a crier)

2. Moody behavior (sorry, Jeff)

3. The desire to watch the entire seasons of Sister Wives and Millionaire Matchmaker on my DVR in my free time instead of reading or writing a word of text.

And I’ve felt completely ashamed. I mean, how could I talk to teachers about the importance of living as readers and writers when I wasn’t?

Over the past couple of days, though, I realized that, in a way, I was. I mean, I knew that my gloomy mood was keeping me from being inspired to read or write. I knew the darkness was choking me. I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to write a blog post in the past few weeks and just couldn’t force out more than a few lines.

So what changed? Certainly, the pain really hasn’t gone away–and it probably won’t for a while. It actually took one of my teacher colleagues looking at me straight in the eye, sitting down at the conference table in our office, and saying, “Nicole, I’m really worried about you. Will you please tell me what’s going on?” And I did. I told her the general idea of what had been happening for the past several months, and I sobbed with the door shut. She listened without judgement and let me cry. Then she said, “Maybe you need to write about it.”

Of course, she didn’t mean blog for the whole world to see, but why shouldn’t I?

The thing about living as a writer is that this life is inextricably linked to every other daily experience I have. I gather inspiration for my writing from everything that happens to me. Sometimes, my ideas are sparked by conversations with my colleagues, sometimes by a Tweet, sometimes by a book I’ve read, sometimes by a video or picture someone posts on Facebook or e-mails me. But while living in a dark place, I haven’t been able to escape my head long enough to form a coherent thought about anything else.

What my teacher colleague reminded me, though, is that writing is sometimes the only way out.

And maybe without even realizing it, she also reminded me that teaching can be a lonely profession if we let it–and we shouldn’t let it. I had allowed myself to become lonely, and it took her persistence to encourage me to connect with the world again.

So when doing the hard and complex work of teaching kids, maybe we need to remember these things:

Writing and reading vaccums happen. They are a natural part of the process when writing and reading are deep in the marrow. It doesn’t mean that the writers or readers are lazy or unmotivated (though I have felt both lazy and unmotivated lately). It may mean that they need someone to say just the right words.

Teaching can be intensely isolating. Resist the urge to be lonely. Find your network, and let them support you when things get hard. I am lucky to share an office every day with three thoughtful, kind teachers and to have an even larger extended community of educators that pull me out of the most complicated days with their dedication, their humor, and their friendship.

But above all, it is important to remember that there is no greater freedom in the world than being able to put pen to paper and untrap your thoughts.

Thank you, L, for this reminder.


Teens Can Change the World

I have to admit. I have been increasingly obsessed with watching the stats for my blog, mostly because they keep growing. If I look at a bar graph of my number of views each week since I started publishing again, the towers of blue are steadily increasing. And the more the little blue bars grow, the more motivated I feel to write. It’s weird, especially considering that sharing my writing with others used to be something that sent me into fits of anxiety.

And what’s even cooler is that people are talking with me about my blog and starting to share it with others. Bloggers that I don’t even know are liking my posts. And just yesterday, a principal tweeted that she was going to share my most recent post with her staff. And here I am sitting on my couch with a laptop (usually with a glass of wine) writing whatever comes to mind. It is one of the most empowering feelings I’ve ever had, and I also feel like I’m becoming part of this incredible community of readers, writers, and educators, especially since there are so many bloggers out there that I completely admire.

In thinking about my own excitement and empowerment, I began to reflect again about this idea of citizen journalism–something that my husband inspired me to write about because of the way he is harnessing its power to create his own charcuterie business. It’s this idea that anyone can be a published author–from YouTube creators to Yelp reviewers. Of course, because this blog is all about how we can start to inspire our high school students to be members of literacy communities by engaging them in authentic reading and writing work–the reading and writing work that is similar to what adults do in school, work, and life–an exploration of citizen journalism, and by extension, blogging, seems to be a natural fit here.

Then I started thinking about something. Blogging isn’t just something that teenagers could do. It’s something that they are already doing. In fact, there are some teen bloggers that are so successful that they are literally impacting popular culture. Take Tavi Gevinson, for example. This Style Rookie blogger started out blogging about fashion when she was 11. Eleven! Now she’s 16, and she’s appeared on shows like The Colbert Report and Jimmy Fallon and has even been profiled in The New York Times. Recently, she started her own magazine with Jane Pratt, the original founder of 90s-mag phenomenon, Sassy. Did I mention she’s 16?

I mean, this well-adjusted, wise-beyond-her-years adolescent even has her own TED talk. And it’s good. See?

Gevinson isn’t the only teen blogger out there. There’s also Spencer Tweedy. Yes, he’s the son of the front man for Wilco, but he’s still only a high school student. His blog, The Weblog of Spencer Tweedy, showcases everything from pictures of his pasta-making parties to videos he’s made for his biology class.

There’s also The First Lime, a blog by 14-year-old Monica, who writes about music, photography, and her own DIY projects. It’s actually pretty adorable.

But not quite as adorable as Know and Tell Crafts, a crafty blog written by a 13-year-old boy (yes, boy) who crochets. You go, kiddo.

These kids are writers. They are creating their own niches in literacy communities.

I wonder how they do in English.

Now imagine if we showed our high school students these blogs. Imagine that we used these as mentor texts and talked about the ways in which these teens thought about their task, purpose, and audience. If you look at the literacy skills of these young bloggers, they’re actually pretty impressive. They need to understand their audience (and how their language and topics can best engage their audience), they need to understand how to create visual images that echo the tone created by their verbal messages, and they need, in some cases, be willing to experiment with a variety of genres in their writing (all based on their task’s unique purpose) Take Ty’s most recent post that combines images of his latest project (a mock headboard created with electrical tape) with a list of tips to consider when using electrical tape. It goes beyond the simple and predictable “how to.”

In thinking about the Common Core, I turn to the expectations to grow digitally literate citizens. Look, for example, at Writing Standard 6 for grades 9-10: “Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically.” If that doesn’t describe blogging, then I don’t know what does.

And in eleventh grade, that expectation ramps up: “Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information.”

Think about these teen bloggers. Not only have they learned how to harness the power of digital media to project their voices, but they are also always making new decisions about content–based on what their audience wants and needs. These kids are the poster children for digital literacy.

How can we, too, use these writers as models to inspire all of our students to see writing as a way to speak up, to teach, to contribute?


Possible Units

  • Social Media/Blogging
  • Argument Writing
  • Informational/Explanatory Writing
  • Narrative Writing
  • Research Skills

Possible Essential Questions

  • Why write?
  • What does it mean to teach and learn?
  • Where is my voice? How can I make it heard? What happens when I do?
  • What is the role of media in my life? What is the role of media in our lives?

Possible Common Core State Standards

  • Writing 1: Write arguments
  • Writing 2: Write informational/explanatory pieces
  • Writing 3: Write narratives
  • Writing 4: Produce writing taking into consideration task, purpose, and audience
  • Writing 6: Use technology to publish writing
  • Writing 7: Conduct short or sustained research projects, using an independently designed question

Teaching Readers, Not Books

Earlier this week, I met with a teacher and good friend to talk about her classroom and teaching practice. Through our conversations, some of the tension around teaching novels bubbled to the surface and created some meaningful dialogue for both of us. As I drove back to my office (the car is second only to the shower as a productive place to reflect), I thought about this quandary: What is the role of the whole class novel? How does the whole class novel allow us to initiate students into communities of literacy?

Whenever I think about what to teach and why, I think about how that genre or skill translates to what adults–grown-up readers and writers–do. In my own classroom, I wanted to recreate those authentic reading and writing situations so that students could get practice (and support) engaging in them before they actually became adults. Now, when I work with teachers in their classrooms, we also explore this together. As my friend and I were talking, we started unpacking the moments in adult life when people read novels. This is what we came up with:

1. When they want to

2. When they’re in a book club

3. When they’re literary critics

Then we started talking about what people do once they read a novel.

1. When people pick up novels to read them independently and then share that experience when they’re finished, they do a few things. First, they might talk to a friend who has similar (or even different) interests. They might talk about the book they just read and perhaps even recommend it. They might also write an Amazon or Goodreads review (or, at the very least, rate the book).

2. When people are in book clubs, they democratically choose a common text, and then talk about it a few weeks later over a glass of wine (or three). They decide on the topic of conversation, they decide on the questions to ask each other. They make a commitment to read the book and then hold each other accountable to that commitment.

3. When people are literary critics (these are few and far between), they read all kinds of books–new and old–and write for literary magazines, journals, or the New York Times. I’m guessing that this is a job for English majors who don’t want to go into teaching. Either way, it’s not necessarily a huge field.

This is what people do not do once they read a novel:

1. Take a quiz

2. Write a book report

3. Make a poster

Our big question was this: why is it that, traditionally, the way we use novels in school is in direct opposition to how students interact with novels in the outside world? And, more importantly, how can we help our students build reading identities in order to make them life-long readers? Because I assure you that I am not a life-long reader because my junior English teacher assigned Grapes of Wrath. I am a life-long reader because I have taught myself what I enjoy, which incidentally, is dystopian literature and novels that include strong female characters–neither of which were present in my required high school reading lists.

As a sidenote, though, I now do really love Steinbeck, but that’s because of East of Eden, a book I read when I was 24 and out of school.

“So, Nicole,” you might be saying, “what exactly do you believe? It kind of sounds like you’re saying that the whole class novel is sort of bullshit.”

That’s not exactly what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that before we choose any instructional practice or materials for our classrooms, we probably should be really clear about what our goals are. Among lit majors, I feel like my skeptical opinion of the whole class novel is taboo. In fact, I hear so many reasons from a variety of people about why we should continue to teach the whole class novel. Here are some of them:

1. As teachers, we have a passion for this book, so that passion will inspire our students.

2. Students need to be exposed to rich and challenging literature.

3. Students need to understand basic texts that provide a foundation for our culture. In other words, kids need to read the canon.

4. Sometimes we just need to teach kids that, in life, they’ll have to do things they don’t want to do.

5. I can’t read all the books. How will I know if students have read them? How do I hold students accountable?

And here are my responses:

1. A teacher’s passion is very important in the classroom. Instead of thinking about how important it is to be passionate about a particular book, what if we reframed that to, “I am a passionate reader.”

2. Agreed. We’ve all heard about Common Core and text complexity, and beyond that, it just makes sense to give students practice in reading challenging texts. However, we can still provide an element of choice in our classrooms. What if, for example, we teach a unit about the ways in which a historical and political context shapes the literature of its time. Students could read a wide range of challenging and rich texts in a unit like that: 1984, Brave New World, anything by Dickens…the list goes on. If students were able to choose the text they read based on their interests and reading identities, then that builds engagement and ownership.

3. This is where I have trouble. Here’s why. The “canon” really is representative of a world of dead white men. Yes there are a couple of token women and/or more diverse authors thrown into the canon, but by and large, it is a very Anglo- and male-centric body of literature, and the fact of the matter is that a significant portion of our students see themselves nowhere in those texts. For the implications of this, you should see this TED Talk. It’s pretty amazing:

4. Persistence is a skill we all need to learn. When we’re faced with an unpleasant task and work through it, that definitely gives us practice in persistence. I’m just not sure if we need to teach persistence at the expense of children’s love of reading. If I have to choose what’s more important, I’m going with a love of reading. There are many opportunities in school to provide children tasks they don’t want to do. Why does reading a work of fiction–something that adults do almost exclusively for fun–have to be one of those opportunities?

5. Let’s talk accountability for a second, because that’s really the elephant in the room. I have to say that, when I taught the whole class novel, there were students who wouldn’t have read it if I had paid them $1000. I am not kidding. They hated some of the books that much (I, of course, loved them). No amount of accountability coerced my students into reading the books I assigned  taught my students persistence.

So here’s what happened. They failed the quizzes, got less-than-stellar grades in my class, and still didn’t read. Of course, because they didn’t read, they also didn’t learn anything.

So there’s one of the problems with accountability. Even when you do a whole class novel, accountability systems don’t guarantee you anything.

Now let’s talk about the real world. A few years ago, I read The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller, and it changed my life. She opened the book about her story about how novels played a central role in her marriage to her husband. She then discussed how, when she finished a book, she absolutely did not go running to her husband and say, “Honey! I finished this amazing book! Come look at the diorama I created to represent it!” Instead, she talked about those books with her husband. And that’s what we do as adults, isn’t it? We have authentic conversations about books we read. Why couldn’t students also do this work? That is the work of a community of literacy.

Finally, here’s something else to think about. When we make all of the choices for students, when do they learn to make choices for themselves? How are we using our experience as readers to have conversations about pushing students beyond the boundaries of what’s comfortable? How are we using their interests to encourage them to read something new?

Teaching is a monumentally complex job, and when we focus on what we really hope students learn in our class–what our end goals are–maybe it makes things a little bit easier.


Possible Teaching Ideas:

  • Use a site like TeenReads to help students choose books based on their interests.
  • Students could write book reviews and share them with other students in the classroom or through technological avenues.
  • Create book clubs around themes so that students have choice but also have a built-in literacy community.
  • Focus on teaching skills of a reader rather than the content of a book. Students can then apply any of those skills to the books they are reading.

Other ideas? Share in the comments!

Social Media: Not Just for Sharing Pictures of Grumpy Cat

This week, my husband started his own Yelp page for his budding smoked and cured meats endeavor, Smoke & Salt. He pushed it out to some of his loyal customers, a couple of whom have already written reviews for his products. He also has a blog and a Facebook page that are both helping him build a following.

Through social media and blogging, he has networked with seasoned chefs, seduced new customers, and shared his charcuterie story. He is continually becoming a part of the bacon community (yes, I said bacon community), and he is accomplishing this through literacy.

My husband’s experience has really been making me think recently about this idea of citizen journalism. This phenomenon of reporting has its roots in the infancy of our country when regular people created and distributed political pamphlets to spread their beliefs. With the spread of the Internet and all of the tools that come with it, however, literally anyone can be a citizen journalist. Take Yelp, for example. Anyone can write a review of a business, and people really do read them. Speaking from personal experience, my husband and I recently chose our current pest control company based on Yelp reviews. And, of course, Jeff is also using the power of Yelp to grow his business.

Think also about the power of social media. Almost all of our teenage (or pre-teen) students are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or something else. They are using these tools to socialize with their friends and, in some cases, comment on life.

And then there’s Arab Spring.

The world held its breath when, in January 2011, Egypt erupted into revolution and forced its leader out of power. This revolution, which was sparked on Facebook by a 29-year-old Google exec in Dubai, and which continued on Twitter and in other social media outlets, made it plain to everyone in the world that social networks could be used for more than sharing pictures of vacations, children, and restaurant meals. Much more.

To read or hear an account of how Wael Ghonim helped to begin a revolution is to understand the true impact literacy–and citizen journalism–can have on the world. Take this segment from a New York Times review of Ghonim’s memoir, Revolution 2.0:

Ghonim drew on his considerable skill and knowledge as an online marketer while running the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page. Early on, he decided that creating the page, as opposed to a Facebook group, would be a better way to spread information. More important, he knew that maintaining an informal, authentic tone was crucial to amassing allies. People had to see themselves in the page. “Using the pronoun I was critical to establishing the fact that the page was not managed by an organization, political party or movement of any kind,” he writes. “On the contrary, the writer was an ordinary Egyptian devastated by the brutality inflicted on Khaled Said and motivated to seek justice.”

He polled the page’s users and sought ideas from others, like how best to publicize a rally — through printed fliers and mass text messaging, it turned out. (“Reaching working-class Egyptians was not going to happen through the Internet and Facebook,” he notes.) He tried to be as inclusive as possible, as when he changed the name of the page’s biggest scheduled rally from “Celebrating Egyptian Police Day — January 25” to “January 25: Revolution Against Torture, Poverty, Corruption and Unemployment.” “We needed to have everyone join forces: workers, human rights activists, government employees and others who had grown tired of the regime’s policies,” he writes. “If the invitation to take to the streets had been based solely on human rights, then only a certain segment of Egyptian society would have participated.”

This Times article attributes these skills to Ghonim’s prowess as an Internet marketer, and I’m sure that helped, but if you think about it, the skills demonstrated in his decision-making are also the skills of a highly-literate person. Take, for example, his decision to use a Facebook page, as opposed to a Facebook group. In the introduction of the Common Core State Standards, the writers call for students who can “use technology and digital media strategically and capably” and then go on to explain that students should be “familiar with the strengths and limitations of various technological tools and mediums and can select and use those best suited to their communication goals” (p. 7). This is exactly what Ghonim did when he chose the tool with which he’d communicate both ideas and events with the page’s followers.

In addition, his choice to use the pronoun I in his posts (instead of we) was also an intentional decision based on his purpose and audience. When we connect this to an image of literacy as described in the Common Core, there are natural connections: “Students appreciate nuances, such as how the composition of an audience should affect tone when speaking and how the connotations of words affect meaning” (p. 7).

Finally, when he chose to change the name of his Facebook event, this decision was also driven by what he knew about his audience and the unique demands of his task and purpose.

Is this a somewhat extreme and extenuating example? You could say that. But why couldn’t any one of our students be like Ghonim, using the power of technology and social media to create lasting change?

In order to accomplish this, it is important to think about how the power of technology can be harnessed to initiate students into communities of literacy. Because that’s the power of digital tools–not simply to create cool stuff, but also to share these creations and interact with the world outside the walls of our schools.

There are already avenues for citizen journalists to be heard. Certainly, there are tools such as blogging sites and tools to design webpages. However, there are also citizen media outlets: places like Allvoices, Demotix, CNN iReport, NowPublic, and others to help people dip their toes in the citizen journalism pool. There are also places for teens to publish for an all-teen audience–places like TeenInk.

We need to show our students that literacy matters, that our voices matter. We need to show them how to navigate and use digital tools not just to create new material to share with their classmates and teacher, but to share with the world. By doing this, we may discover other revolutions waiting to happen.


Possible Unit Ideas:

  • Social media awareness and use
  • Digital literacy
  • Argument/persuasion
  • Revolution

Possible Essential Questions:

  • What is our individual responsibility? What is our collective responsibility?
  • How does one voice become many?
  • Why write?
  • Whose voice is being heard, and whose is being left out?

Possible Connecting Common Core State Standards:

  • Writing 1: Write arguments
  • Writing 2: Write informative/explanatory texts
  • Writing 3: Write narratives
  • Writing 4: Ensure that writing is appropriate for task, purpose, and audience
  • Writing 6: Use technology to produce and publish individual or shared writing products
  • Writing 8: Gather quality information; present the information thoughtfully and effectively

Other ideas? Share in the comments.


Visual Literacy and Disney Magic

Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of spending time in Disneyland with my family, and before I left, one of my friends and colleagues, a high school English teacher that I have known for years, jibed me a little on Facebook and encouraged me to look for plenty of “real texts” to write about while I was there.

Challenge accepted.

You might wonder how anyone could find any substantive texts in The Happiest Place on Earth, but because of the genius of the Imagineers, they’re everywhere you look. Still don’t believe me?

You only have to go as far as Peter Pan’s Flight, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, The Pirates of the Caribbean, or any other similar Disney adventure to see what I’m talking about. These rides are texts. Sure, they may not have many (or any) words, but they certainly tell stories, and as riders (or readers), we have to make meaning from the visual images. Of course, I really can’t go anywhere without making some connection to my work, so this idea of visual literacy was continually percolating in my mind all week, and it got me thinking about one of my favorite genres: Infographics.

Infographics have been around since prehistoric times. I mean, hey, what do you think cave drawings were? But now, with the use of these images in popular online news sources and with the easy sharing features of social media sites, modern infographics are everywhere.

I have a few good sources for Infographics, but my absolute favorite is Good Magazine. It was in this magazine that I first noticed these visuals, and I’ve been fascinated by them ever since.

Check out this one about reading:

Reading for the Future, Good Magazine

At first glance, it’s definitely appealing to look at, but it becomes even more sophisticated when you notice what this infographic includes. In it are compelling statistics, researched facts, possible solutions, powerful graphics, and complementary verbal and visual elements. The design takes the reader from one segment to the next: from the importance of looking at third grade reading levels, to the link to high school graduation, to the effect of poverty, and finally to some potential solutions. This logical organization is accomplished through visual elements, rather than paragraph structure. But it’s still an organizational scheme–and quite a powerful and sophisticated one at that.

If you want to look at sophisticated organization in these visual elements, take a look at this infographic about world hunger:

Can We Feed 7 Billion People? Good Magazine

Look at how it begins. Underneath the title, the infographic is set up in a very clear two-column compare/contrast organizational scheme with the U.S. on one side and developing countries on the other. Within the individual columns, the information is parallel for added impact: “the U.S. wastes 40% of their food” vs. “developing countries lose 40% of their food.” The organizational scheme continues, as information about waste in the United State is on the left, and information about loss in developing countries is on the right. Like the reading infographic, this one also includes powerful statistics and researched facts. Additionally, the graphic ends with some ideas about what people can do in order to remedy this concerning problem.

These examples make me think about writing standard 6 in the Common Core State Standards for ninth and tenth grade ELA: “Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically.” The infographic is certainly a shared writing product, and technological tools could definitely make it feasible to create these types of visuals in which information is presented “flexibly and dynamically.”

Think also about writing standard 9 for grades nine and ten: “Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.” Then imagine the skills that it would take to create infographics like the ones above. The amount of research and synthesis to make such complex topics so deceptively simple and easy to swallow is mind-blowing. Why couldn’t high school students demonstrate their understanding of researched topics through an infographic either in addition to–or instead of–a research paper (I’m not suggesting at all, however, that students shouldn’t write about their research. They should. There just might be other ways to demonstrate these skills as well).

If we want students to research questions that are self-generated (and we know that providing choice is a powerful motivator for people), consider this infographic:

Star Wars vs. Star Trek, Daily Infographic

Is this an Earth-shattering (no pun intended) topic? Probably not. But is it interesting and well-researched? Yes. Think about the level of thought and research the author of this image had to consider. I mean, to take into consideration the amount of Facebook likes and Twitter followers in determining a franchise’s success is kind of genius. Could a kid do this if provided examples like these? Of course.

If we’re going to think about a) growing writers and b) providing relevant examples of “real-world” texts, using these types of tools (and asking students to produce this type of work) could be one way to get us there. Our kids are Twenty-first Century citizens, and when they are bombarded by an absolute firestorm of data (much of it in visual form) on an almost daily basis, we are doing them a disservice if we don’t teach them to critically read and produce these kinds of texts. If this element is absent from our curriculum, they are missing out on one avenue for their voices to be heard.

I know these infographics are a far cry from the Haunted Mansion, but they do remind us that not all information comes to us in neatly typed black and white packages of text. Sometimes, the way that our minds fill in the blanks is the most powerful part of the story.


Possible Units: Infographics could be worked into units on research, or they could be woven into thematic units, based on the topic. Want to teach a unit using the definition of education as a driving force? Maybe use some infographics about that topic to supplement other readings.

Ways to Use Infographics: They could be used for close reading, as sources for research projects, or even as mentor texts to do some infographic-composing.

What ideas do you have? Share in the comments.


Rules Are Made to Be Broken

The other day, a few of my friends/people I stalk on Facebook and Twitter posted this article from College Humor about the “8 New Punctuation Marks We Desperately Need”. It included such suggestions as the Sarcastises (“use when you want to be sarcastic but in a way that’s totally different and better than what you’re using now”) and the Morgan Freemark (when you want someone to read something you wrote using Morgan Freeman’s voice in their head). I mean, these are useful, right? So useful, in fact, that I might have downloaded the font. I might have. Maybe.

Other than finding my 8 new favorite punctuation marks (move over, em dash), this article planted a seed for my next blog post. Because here’s the deal. Joking aside, these punctuation marks are about creating meaning, which is really what all punctuation marks are about. Sometimes, though, I think we get so caught up in THE RULES that we might forget that rules are made to be broken.

This brings me to the teaching of punctuation (and grammar) in high school. It’s confession time. Early in my career, I busted out my grammar handbooks and grainy worksheets (duplicates of purple dittos–told you this would be a confession) and made my students do endless drills of correcting sentences and filling in blanks. Then I realized something. The kids could get all the answers right on these worksheets, but I kept seeing the same errors come up over and over and over again in their writing. To top it off, we all wanted to gouge our eyes out with spoons because we were so effing bored.

There had to be a different way. A way to actually teach students about punctuation and grammar AND get them to actually use what they were learning. There was. I started pulling examples of grammar and punctuation use from my kids’ writing and using that to have them find patterns of usage AND errors. Immediately afterward, I would ask my students to turn to their drafts and edit based on what they had learned.

Suddenly, they were transferring their new grammatical understanding to their writing.

A turning point for me was one day a couple of years ago when I was discussing with my freshmen what made the difference between a “proficient” use of grammar and punctuation and an “advanced” use of grammar and punctuation. To answer that question, we thought about what writers do. Through looking at examples of well-crafted writing, my students came to this conclusion: the most effective writing manipulated grammar and punctuation for effect and meaning, even if that meant breaking the rules.

To see what I’m talking about, consider this piece from truth-out: “Tip Your Server and Save the World.” The first paragraph, which is 10 lines, has one period in it. One. But if you read the article, you’ll see that this absolutely adds to the frenzied feeling of the piece, which echoes the frenzied and chaotic pace of a server’s work. I once met a teacher who would deduct a point for every grammatical error in a student’s paper. If this New York Times bestselling author were in her class, he’d probably get like a -47. But what he does in this article is smart. And effective. More effective than if he’d followed all the rules.

Of course, we know it’s important to know the rules of punctuation and grammar. If students don’t know them, then their “mistakes” are purely accidental, and we’re really striving to get kids to see themselves as authors who make intentional choices. Still, though, we can teach students the rules by asking them to look at real models of writing. This shows them that, again, punctuation helps create meaning and clarity in writing because they can see how comma rules work in the context of real-world examples.

With the Internet, we are so lucky to have access to so many quality sources of professional writing on websites like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Utne Reader, The Week, and Longform. Articles from any of these sites could be pulled into the classroom for students to study how writers use a variety of techniques in grammar and punctuation.

Thinking about helping our students develop independence as writers also makes me think about the Common Core. If you look at the Language standards, a couple of the high school ones really stand out.

For example, take Language Standard 2 for grades 9-10: “Use various types of phrases (noun, verb, adjectival, adverbial, participial, prepositional, absolute) and clauses (independent, dependent; noun, relative, adverbial) to convey specific meanings and add variety and interest to writing or presentations.” If students are going to master the second part of that standard–the part about conveying meanings and adding variety and interest to compositions–they HAVE to study how writers do this work. They aren’t going to learn how to make choices if they are completing out-of-context problems from our dusty class sets of Warriner’s (Not that any of you do this–I’m merely speaking from personal experience).

And to raise the bar even higher, look at Language Standard 1 for grades 11-12: “Apply the understanding that usage is a matter of convention, can change over time, and is sometimes contested.” This standard screams usage rebel. I mean, it directly calls out the fact that we need to teach students that the rules of grammar and punctuation are fluid. Exciting stuff.

If we are going to initiate our students into communities of literacy and teach them to see themselves as writers, then they need to know how (and why) to use and manipulate grammatical rules to their advantage.

Now if only WordPress could add the Morgan Freemark to my font choices.


Stage of Writing Process: Editing and perhaps Revision, based on the type of work you want students to do. If you want them to try on some different grammatical elements, such as varying clauses and phrases to add interest to their writing, that might be more appropriate for revision. If you want to have them focus on refining their use of punctuation, that might be more appropriate during editing.

Teaching Ideas:

1. Choose a concept students need to learn or work on (semicolon usage, for example), and choose texts that use semicolons effectively. Have students read the texts and pay attention to what they notice about how writers use semicolons. Students can then create rules for semicolons. Ask students to try this on in their own writing.

2. Choose some texts that break rules of punctuation (for example, using intentional fragments). Ask students read the texts and talk about how and why those authors are breaking the rules. Then have them try it on in their own writing and reflect on the effect it creates.

3. Show students how you use conventions in your writing. Think aloud for them about how you made punctuation choices in your writing. You could do this in conjunction with #1 or #2 above.

Have more ideas? Share in the comments section!

Book Reviews: Not Just an Amazon Thing

It’s funny how, when you write, your mind takes you on unexpected paths. When I set out to write (or, rather, resurrect) this blog, I really had no intention of starting with genres that encourage students to write about literature. To be honest, though, after writing my previous post about literary analysis, I am still really inspired about this notion of initiating students into communities of literacy. And writing about literature is one way for students to get access to the club.

I’ve also been thinking about giving students opportunities to create communities of literacy in their own classrooms too, and in doing that, I’ve been exploring the question of ways students can enter their voice into the world of literary criticism but also gather their peers around authentic reading and writing. And that got me thinking about book reviews.

No, I don’t mean book reviews a la Amazon or Goodreads, though those might be effective entry points into this world. What I’m talking about are meaty, interesting book reviews published in places like Harper’s, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Kirkus Reviews, or even lesser known sites like BookPage.

First, let’s talk writing. You might think book reviews wouldn’t provide enough substance to really push kids to write seriously about literature. If that’s the case, think again. You only need to take a peek at a book review like “Love for Sale,” by Francine Prose about the book Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry (Leanne Shapton) to change your mind. It is thoughtful and interesting, and most importantly, actually makes me want to read the book.

But if you think about what Prose did as a writer, then the intellectual demand and sophistication of writing something like this Harper’s review definitely puts this particular genre on my radar for “things that high school kids should write.”

Take the first paragraph, for example. She begins the review by mentioning a situation that has universal appeal: the fact that, as children, most of us probably wondered if our toys or possessions became animated when we slept at night. And if you question that as a universal assumption, then look no further than the Toy Story franchise.

Of course, this is the first sophisticated move she makes as a critic and writer, because as you read the rest of her twenty-three paragraphs (incidentally, much longer than 5), you realize that this opening paragraph connects seamlessly with her central observations about Shapton’s work. She moves into the second paragraph, which introduces the central tension: as we age, we tend to emotionally detach ourselves from these objects…sometimes. Then again, sometimes these objects are so sentimental that they take hold of us. Permanently and ruthlessly.

After two paragraphs of introductory material, Prose gets to the book. She first talks about the form–an “imitation of the auction catalogues that often accompany the sale of an estate or private collection,” and in this discussion, she describes how Shapton’s text is like other auction catalogues and even describes her favorite example of the genre: a volume from 1977 filled with skulls and other emblems of death. If you think about this work as a writer, Prose would have had to read other examples of the auction catalogue (and deeply understand the features of this genre) in order to compare Shapton’s work to them. And if we think about teaching our students to do this work (know what else to read in order to connect to books they are already reading), it helps us understand the various levels of rigor that writing a good book review–one that is like real book reviews–incorporates.

She takes a quick one-paragraph detour to discuss why it is the form–and not the content–that makes this text fresh, original, and engaging. This means that, as a reader, Prose needed to have read many examples of love-and-lost stories to make this assertion in the first place.

Once Prose begins to discuss both the content and the style of Shapton’s book, she organizes her review to follow Important Artifacts chronologically–through the text and, thus, through the relationship of the two main characters. As she does this work throughout 14 paragraphs, she carefully analyzes the artifacts (her evidence) and what they say about the relationship (her analysis).

Finally, we get to the central idea of the text in paragraph 20: “The seriousness beneath the joke is that these scraps of paper, used clothes, and borderline garbage were formerly objects of incalculable worth; indeed, they once meant everything to this fictional couple.” But the analysis doesn’t stop here. Prose not only discusses this important idea, but also talks about how the form of Shapton’s book allows her to explore multilayered ideas, not just the importance of these items to the couple, but also the importance of “modern love, city life, a time and a place, a social class, a milieu, and a relationship to objects that both reflects and transcends the specificities of all of the above.”

At the very end, Prose makes a connection to our lives, and we return to the universality of the opening paragraph. And that is exactly where Prose leaves us. Where we began.

Certainly, this is a masterful example by a true professional, but if we provide models like this for our students–and then teach them how to write reviews like this–imagine what would be possible for them. And there are examples of this type of writing all over the Internet. BookPage is actually a very accessible and interesting place to find these reviews, though none of them are quite as deep as the examples you’ll find in Harper’s.

Now let’s think about how these reviews might launch our kids into the community of literacy. Students can write to be a part of a larger conversation, but they can also write to share their deepest thoughts about books with their friends, and in high school, where social standing seems to be everything, this might even be the most important reason for teens to write reviews. Imagine asking students to write reviews and then publishing them in the classroom, on a class blog, or even, yes, on Amazon or Goodreads. Imagine participating in an authentic community of literacy not only outside of the classroom, but also in it, where students are thinking and writing about what they read and sharing it with others. Now there’s an authentic model of literacy.


Genre: Book reviews

Possible Essential Questions:

What’s [author’s] part in the conversation about literature? What’s my part?

What is good writing?

Possible Units:

I could see book reviews being done anytime students have read independently. Imagine doing lit circles (or independent reading) and then teaching students how to do book reviews to analyze their books and persuade others to read them

I could also see doing a book review genre study–maybe after engaging in some deep reading work around novels

It seems that book reviews could become an ongoing ritual in the classroom, with students writing them after many books they read and then publishing them in a central location that all of the kids could access (classroom, school library, class website or blog…imagine the possibilities)

Ways You Might Use This Type of Text

As mentor texts for this genre

As another way of looking at literary criticism

Other Instructional Materials or Experiences That Might Support Students’ Writing in This Genre

Background information about the author, time period, and/or book that students are reading (students could research this themselves once they know how to research effectively–or this research could be embedded into the instruction about book reviews)

Other examples of the genre that students are reviewing

Other examples of similar stories that students are reviewing

Other works by the same author