180 Days: Day 72–Don’t Lose the Plot

Writing with a clear main idea…what we English teachers preach for kids to do daily. But today I quit preaching and started showing and writing examples of clear thesis statements with them. On day two of our “getting back to the basics/develop the fundamentals” of writing workshop, we focused on answering the prompts we dissected yesterday.

We started class by having the students define “thesis” in their own words. Most of my students intuitively knew that a thesis was the main idea of what they are writing/reading. We added the concept that good thesis statements use sophisticated, nuanced vocabulary to answer any prompt that might be given (and what do we do when there is no prompt), and that a thesis is an arguable opinion (i.e. there could be multiple interpretations and this is the one that I will explore/defend).

We discussed the need as a writer to have a clearly stated thesis–to help the reader, our intended audience, not “lose the plot.” After we defined a thesis, we started to look at examples from student writing as well as teacher generated examples. I pulled in work from last year’s students from the same novel, but different prompts. Then I asked students to look back into the essays they wrote before the winter break, to find what they thought their thesis was, then pass their paper to their neighbor to see if their neighbor identified the same idea. Many students had the wrong ideas highlighted or no ideas highlighted, so when I gave them time to rewrite their thesis statements, ensuring that they answered their prompt, had a clearly stated, sophisticated, arguable opinion, they put pen to paper and worked diligently. They felt they could actually do this.

And that’s a win in my book. The kids may have never had the plot before, but they had found the plot and were not going to let go of a few moments of feeling like they could actually write something good.

“Lost in the Plot” by The Dears



180 Days: Day 71–New Year, Old Writing and New (Old) Novels

We started 2018 off with our noses to the grindstone. I reminded my students that it’d sharpen their boogers.

My sophomores attempted to write literary analysis essays on Lord of the Flies before winter break. I stress the word “attempted.” So we spent the day breaking down essay prompts (because they clearly didn’t know what the prompts asked for from the contents of their essays). Who knew a few sentences could be so hard to understand? But needless to say, two-step directions are often difficult to follow. I had to seize on the moment to refocus on strategies to break down multi-step instructions. Once the students went through all six of the prompts with me, they had a-ha moments. Some chose to switch prompts. Some knew they needed to change their essays to better answer their prompts. But all students had a better understanding of what was being asked of them and felt relieved that I took the time to acknowledge their struggles rather than plow forward and accuse them of not trying hard enough.

I also needed to start the process of putting together “the fundamentals” of good writing for the kids. We spent time earlier in the year with narrative writing in which we focused on solid word choice (details/sensory words) and action verb usage. These two skills are fundamental skills for all styles of writing. We added to the fundamentals today with our exploration of literary analysis–creating a solid central message that is well supported by evidence from the text and commentary/analysis showing the importance of the evidence. We are now compiling a writing fundamentals list to accompany the reading fundamentals list on the wall. I want my students to think of reading and writing skills just like they think of batting and fielding skills in baseball. In order to be good, really good, you have to practice a lot and you have to practice with fundamental soundness. And you have to not psyche yourself out of the game.

My seniors, on the other hand, reviewed elements of the English Renaissance and Neoclassicism in preparation to move on to the Romantic Period tomorrow. Where we will begin reading the Jane Austen classic satire/novel of manners, Pride and Prejudice. It was a well-needed review of how to spot a Renaissance work versus a Neoclassic work. But I have to admit, I’m getting to my favorite part of British lit–I’m a huge fan of Romantic/Victorian works. So let the fun begin!

“I Believe” by REM from Life’s Rich Pageant


180 Days: Day 70–I’m the Only Thing between Them and the Holidays

*Author’s Note: This evening, on the last day of 2017, I am posting the last 6 school days before winter break. Most of the writing has been previously completed, but the finishing touches (i.e. songs, links, etc.) had to wait until all of the holiday hustle and bustle died down. So without further ado…

“Today is gonna be the day
That they’re gonna throw it back to you
By now you should’ve somehow
Realized what you gotta do…”

Today does feel like a Wonderwall–My students wonder why I am the wall between them and a two-week break. I wonder what kind of dog and pony show is really necessary for my students to remain manageable and focused.

So we wrote listicles with my sophomores. And my seniors finished up and shared their rejected superheroes. And I effectively filled up the entire class period each period of the day today with practice in reading, writing, speaking, and listening. So, mission accomplished!

What’s a listicle? Well, my students wrote a listicle the day before Thanksgiving Break with my jury duty substitute. And they wrote them poorly. Most were merely a 10 item list with no true explanation given for any of the items. Therefore, they weren’t really listicles. So I explained listicles to them and showed them a few  (yes, with tongue firmly planted in cheek). Then they set off to write their listicles of the Top 10 Things I Want to Do Over Winter Break. They had to focus on the explanation for each item, not just listing an item. Then we shared items at the end of the period.

And my seniors shared their rejected superheroes–and they really got the gist. They picked relevant and timely topics and hit right at the heart of the issues in surprising ways. I hope to share pictures of some of their work after the break.

“And all the roads we have to walk are winding
And all the lights that lead us there are blinding…”

And so off we go to our holiday break…it took us many winding roads and blinding classroom lights to reach it, but we finally made it to the last class of 2017. See you next year!!

“Wonderwall” by Oasis from their 1995 album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?


180 Days: Day 69–Serial Killers and Super Heroes

*Author’s Note: This evening, on the last day of 2017, I am posting the last 6 school days before winter break. Most of the writing has been previously completed, but the finishing touches (i.e. songs, links, etc.) had to wait until all of the holiday hustle and bustle died down. So without further ado…

Jesse Pomeroy kept my 100+ sophomores glued to their seats today, on Mid-Winter Assembly day. Who is Jesse Pomeroy, you may ask? Known as The Boy Torturer and The Red Devil, he was a 14-year-old serial killer in the 1870’s. He targeted young children, beating, sexually assaulting, and mutilating them. Pomeroy eventually graduated to murder, killing at least two children before being tacked down by Boston police. So his story became the perfect vehicle to compare to Golding’s Lord of the Flies–the whole question of nature versus nurture. Are men inherently evil or made that way? We used this guiding question as we practiced our close reading and annotation strategies. My students were enthralled. Pomeroy is sort of like a train wreck. Horrifying, but difficult to turn away from.


Jesse Pomeroy, sketch at age 14.

My seniors, on the other hand, had a fun task today–to mimic an old MAD Magazine League of Rejected Super Heroes section from a 2014 issue. My students were charged with the task of using the bones of the entries–a hero, a number of descriptors, and a satiric message–to create their own rejected hero. I showed them a few fantastic students samples from years past that made statements about Asian stereotyping, police brutality, and politicians. As they started their projects, they readily admitted that using humor to criticize and reform is more difficult than it looks. But they were eager to take on the task. I look forward to seeing their products tomorrow. They are taking a stab at the level of sophistication in ideas and writing required by satire in a fun format. Yes, indeed, here I go again trying to get them to transfer knowledge from one area (reading and definitions) to another (usage for a publication).


MAD Magazine, February 2014 issue.

“(I Am) Superman” by REM from Life’s Rich Pageant


180 Days: Day 68–The Negotiations That Never Say Die

*Author’s Note: This evening, on the last day of 2017, I am posting the last 6 school days before winter break. Most of the writing has been previously completed, but the finishing touches (i.e. songs, links, etc.) had to wait until all of the holiday hustle and bustle died down. So without further ado…

I spent today out of the classroom in contract negotiations. We are already 15 months into this toxic negotiations cycle. And now it looks like it will easily be even longer.

I will keep this entry mercifully short. Sort of like the substance of our negotiations session today.

Can you tell I’m annoyed?  My team and I made it clear that we would not meet with the district again until they were ready to actually talk and negotiate rather than put forward the very same items we already took to our members–and that our members in a historic first, voted against ratifying.

All I know is that our union leadership has its work cut out for us–an angry membership that feels disrespected and undervalued by our employer and an employer that disregards and dismisses our issues saying we don’t really have any problems and that teachers are just whiners.

Needless to say, I was so disheartened by today’s session that I couldn’t even be angry. I couldn’t even get my blood pressure elevated. I have just become so numb to the district’s behavior that I wasn’t surprised. They are acting just like I expected them to act. And saying the things I pretty much expected them to say. I’m sure I’ll be angry later. But mot today. I’m just done with them today.

And I’ll be so happy to see my kids again tomorrow. They are why I’m here. And they are what makes all the frustration with protecting the profession and their classrooms worthwhile. At least they will see me wearing my Goonies cred on my sleeve: “Goonies never say die!”

“Goonies Never Say Die” scene from Richard Donner’s 1985 movie The Goonies


180 Days: Day 67–Soundtracks & Satire

*Author’s Note: This evening, on the last day of 2017, I am posting the last 6 school days before winter break. Most of the writing has been previously completed, but the finishing touches (i.e. songs, links, etc.) had to wait until all of the holiday hustle and bustle died down. So without further ado…

My sophomores finished reading Lord of the Flies over the weekend. They knew they were facing a quiz today. Okay, they should have known because the whole month’s reading and quiz schedule is on the front board, but I’m a nice teacher. So we participated in a fun exercise to delve back into the book before taking the quiz. We created a soundtrack for the novel.

I assigned each table group (I have tables in my classroom rather than desks–and the tables are set up in pods of four students) a different chapter of the novel. Each group had to delve back into their assigned chapter and select a song, any song, that they felt properly reflected the chapter’s plot, characters, setting, theme, and/or mood. I shared my model for chapter 7 of the novel–which no other group was assigned. I selected the song “Rhythm of the Heat” by Peter Gabriel and connected it to the mood, characters, and themes of the chapter. After I modeled, the kids worked feverishly as they had a very short time before we compiled our list for discussion.

Needless to say, each class came up with very different songs in most instances, but they did have fun selecting and creating their rationales for songs like “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns n Roses, “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC, and “A View to a Kill” by Duran Duran. But overall, I’m working on students transferring their background knowledge to the texts we read and vice versa.

And the students aced the quiz.

What a great start to a short week ushering us into the holiday season!

“Rhythm of the Heat” by Peter Gabriel


180 Days: Day 66–The Last Friday of 2017

*Author’s Note: This evening, on the last day of 2017, I am posting the last 6 school days before winter break. Most of the writing has been previously completed, but the finishing touches (i.e. songs, links, etc.) had to wait until all of the holiday hustle and bustle died down. So without further ado…

Day 66. Order 66. Not the same thing, but for my Star Wars fan students it may as well be. The new Star Wars: Episode VIII opens tonight. So I donned my Yoda holiday shirt (okay, it’s my son’s shirt that I borrow) proclaiming, “An elf I am not!” All in honor of the trek back to that galaxy far, far away.

elf i am not

Regardless of intergalactic stories, my students are embroiled in the heart of the darkness of the novel that is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Today they read chapter 9–the chapter where Simon, the resident Christ figure, meets his fate at the hands of boys who literally kill the messenger. I was pleasantly surprised that most students had completed their reading from the previous night–as they all came in lamenting Simon’s passing. So we started class with a few minutes of outpouring their grief for the poor kid, before dissecting the chapter. We discussed Ralph and Piggy’s despair at losing all members of their tribe. We discussed how Simon must appear with his blood-crusted nose and chin weakly dragging his seizure-wearied body all the way to the mountaintop to confront the beast. We discussed how the pilot must have looked and smelled after a day or two atop a hot tropical island mountain, yet how Simon faced what he feared and found the truth. We discussed how messengers with the truth are often ignored or deemed crazy–introducing the concept of archetypal characters. We discussed how he must have looked crawling out of the forest in the dark as the storm broke loose and the tribal dancing had worked the boys into a frenzy. Lastly, we looked at pictures of phytoplankton and other glowing sea creatures so that students could understand Simon’s halo. We broke it down, step by step, how boys had escalated from accidentally killing (the boy with the mulberry birthmark perishing in the initial fire on the island), to purposely torturing (the sow and each other when re-enacting the hunts), to outright murder (Simon, the messenger of truth). We discussed whether it is in man’s nature to act in this escalating violent manner and that laws merely kept us in line when we truly feared our leaders or whether some of mankind learns this evil behavior and needs a social contract to keep them civilized.



I was pleasantly surprised by how many students still say that man is born essentially good despite Golding’s jaded view of mankind in this novel. We will see how they feel on Monday after they complete the novel this weekend. And we will see if the students who do go see Star Wars can apply this worldview to that other galaxy’s worldview. Transferring knowledge and using it outside the classroom is a true mark of success.

Simon’s death scene from the 1963 adaptation of Lord of the Flies


180 Days: Day 65–Brutality Showcase Day

*Author’s Note: This evening, on the last day of 2017, I am posting the last 6 school days before winter break. Most of the writing has been previously completed, but the finishing touches (i.e. songs, links, etc.) had to wait until all of the holiday hustle and bustle died down. So without further ado…

Today’s the day that my sophomores read about how a small band of boys devolved into violence and brutality by essentially raping and killing a sow. And my seniors learned that despite all the refinery of civilization, the rich essentially eat the poor through subjugation and irresponsible economic practices. And they all learned just how universal and still relevant the issues that William Golding and Jonathan Swift highlighted in their respective pieces raised really are in today’s world that has seen a rise in mass killings, a reckoning for purveyors of sexual misconduct, and new national tax policies that overwhelming help the haves in our society.

In Golding’s horrifically brutal scene,  Jack’s hunters descend upon a frantic, bleeding, scared sow whose piglets have been injured, killed, or lost in the jungle. Jack jumps atop the sow stabbing downward while Roger thrusts a spear up the pig’s anus and leans with all his might. Golding uses not just brutal imagery but couples the brutality with sexual imagery–implying that the boys were sadistically pleasured by the sows fear, screams, blood, and pain. I read this passage aloud to my students, who were horrified by the sheer savagery of the boys. Then I asked them to reread the passage silently and to turn their “dirty minds” on for the second read through. After the initial giggles about what they were being asked to do, they jumped into the silent reading. The expressions on their faces when it dawned on them just how truly terrifying the scene was–a symbolic act of rape–gave me my cue to open the discussion. We covered a lot of ground in a short time. We discussed what happens to women in war zones as well as how many traditional female roles–like caring for children (think Piggy, and to some degree Simon)–are valued less than traditional male roles–like hunting and building shelters (think Jack and Ralph). Sixteen-year-olds do have opinions about what they see in the world around them, and were surprised that the same issues from over 60 years ago still ring true today.

Eighteen-year-olds also have opinions. And today’s review of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” prompted a boat load of questions about absentee landlords, economic policies that intentionally gut a nation’s economy while still enriching said absentee landlords, shaming and blaming the poor who struggle in said economy, and essentially leaving said poor so desperate that they’d sell their children as food. Once we found answers to our initial questions about Swift’s proposal, it only prompted more questions about what students were seeing in the world around them. Today’s students are much more aware of social justice issues than we give them credit for. In a world of people who are often more in touch with virtual reality than physical reality, the fact that kids are more in tune than what we might think, and are willing to ask questions about what they don’t know, excites me.

Great revelations can come from the direst of situations–even situations that are fictional or from nearly 300 years ago. Great writing about universal struggles–like man’s struggle to be/do good in the face of evil or like man’s struggle between social classes fueled by insatiable greed–makes for a great day of learning on the countdown to winter break.

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” sung by Peter, Paul & Mary


180 Days: Day 64–Hunting Pig & Eating Irish Babies=A Heavy Day w Engaged Kids

Chapter 7 of Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a great calm before the storm chapter. It is quintessentially and skillfully setting up these teen readers for the shock of their lives. But I do enjoy when I hear kids ask me to read to them. So we read all period today. And I walked them through analyzing passages about the boys hunting pig and finding “the beast” on the mountaintop from the chapter.

My seniors, on the other hand, read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and started searching for their own examples of satire. We were about halfway through class when I heard the first, “Oh, no!” My jokes about fricassees and roasts became way too clear for them.

Needless to say, tomorrow we will keep reading and staying engaged with the texts. I’m lucky in that these two texts are well-liked by students. That makes my lessons leading to the holidays easy. I have six more days to keep them on task. And yes, I am counting.

“Die Hard the Hunter” by Def Leppard from Pyromania


180 Days: Day 63–No Beauty in the Beast

Lord of the Flies is getting good–at least according to my sophomores. We are up to chapter 6 today, the chapter titled “Beast from Air.” This is the turning point where the students quit thinking of “the beast” as a boogeyman and start to understand that man IS the beast–a dead man that becomes nothing more than a caricature of the marionette he was in life being pulled by the strings of his parachute to mimic live movement rather than the orders of his wartorn government.

And this is the point in the novel in which the kids ask me to read to them every day. They like my read alouds–which I call think alouds because I pause often to question, comment, predict, or otherwise engage with the text. I point out literary devices they do not recognize. I ask them to consider why an author would include certain plot points before getting the “a-ha” of “foreshadowing” flowing forth. I don’t mind modeling for them. But now I’ve gotta figure out how to get that guided practice in. I have a few ideas that I will be working on with the kids to practice close reading strategies that we’ve gone over time and time again when we return from winter break.

Meanwhile, my seniors continued their notetaking for satire. We looked at some examples from music, film, and TV, as well as online sources like The Onion and The Spoof. I also brought in a couple of old MAD Magazines for the kids to peruse. I was heartbroken that none of the students had ever heard of MAD Magazine as Alfred E. Neumann was a staple in my childhood. So much so, that I took advantage of the $9.99 holiday subscription rate this year. I miss that over-the-top view of the world. Plus, I need some new magazines to add to the stack that students can understand. The newest MAD in my arsenal is four years old. So I’m due for some DJT era MADness.

Alfred Trump MAD-Magazine

“The Mob Song” from Disney’s Beauty and Beast featuring Luke Evans and Josh Gad