180 Days: Day 87–Balancing Act

Anytime politics comes up in the classroom, I have a balancing act on my hands. Students are a captive audience and they need to have a safe space to feel differently than I do. But students always ask me what I think. I struggled for years with whether to answer and how to answer. But I finally arrived at the notion that honesty is the best policy.

In order to effectively create a safe space in my room, I feel I must own my biases up front–and I label them as biases. I encourage students to disagree with me and each other, as we can learn from dissension if we do not double down in a quagmire of cognitive dissonance. So these conversations deal just as much with psychology as they do with the content of nonfiction works like the State of the Union Address that we spent the day examining for use of rhetorical devices.

Needless to say, after assigning my students to watch the president’s address and be ready to discuss, they wanted to know what I thought. Before I could answer them, I had to ask a few questions in return. What did they think? What issues stood out to them? The president’s four pillars made the top of their list–along with comments about the overabundance of clapping, especially on the Republican side of the room. My students were curious about why the Democrats didn’t clap. That’s where I felt I could shed some light and help fill in the gaps in their background knowledge with as little bias as possible. After about 5-10 minutes of debriefing, I gave each table one page from the president’s speech. Each group had a different page from the speech (which printed out at 11 pages of 11pt. Times). They were assigned to read it, identify any use of ethos, pathos, and/or logos used by the president. I gave the groups about 10 minutes to work, then we shared out and found some commonalities–ethos and pathos with the personalized stories of the president’s guests, logos with the statistics on the economy, etc. The students were surprised that all three showed up on just about every page of the speech. And yes, I did give a few thoughts of my own but also acknowledged viewpoints that may not align with mine as well.

One last task the groups worked on with their page was to fact check the information found on their page of the speech. I showed them via the ELMO some great fact-checking websites. And they worked diligently until the end of the period on this piece that I gave them the opportunity to finish up at home that night.

I also assigned for students to “Chart the News” as we begin our examination of whether the media is doing a good job of informing the public or just part of the propaganda machine. I gave them a few days to watch two different news programs listing the segments/stories in the program for further analysis in class later in the week. If they thought they would dislike watching the president giving a speech, they knew that watching the news–something most of them had never done–would be even more of a challenge. If this is the only time in their high school career that they ever watch an entire news program, at least I will have exposed them to it.

“American Idiot” by Green Day



180 Days: Day 86–Defining the State of Our Persuasive Union

As my sophomores are moving into a new unit on persuasion/argument, it seemed almost too serendipitous that tonight is @POTUS’s first State of the Union Address. So we spent the day learning about Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle featuring ethos, pathos, and logos. Since it was a short class period today, we focused primarily on looking at examples of each and defining each fully. I wanted students to show me that they did indeed understand these three concepts.

pillars of persuasion

Found at https://www.tes.com/lessons/XzmT4a4PyXxVQw/resources-for-understanding-ethos-pathos-and-logos

After we spent the bulk of period defining these three pillars and examining examples, we discussed the evening’s homework–to watch the State of the Union Address and be ready to discuss it tomorrow–as we will analyze the president’s speech for these three elements. We will put these definitions and our understanding of them to work, actually apply them.

I’m quickly learning that assigning things to watch on TV is not as easy as it used to be either. Many students no longer have cable in their homes, not just because of affordability, but because they pay for streaming services in lieu of cable. So we had to make an exhaustive list of where students could access the SOTU via the web, network TV, cable, etc. Since so many plan to livestream the speech from their computers–so we looked at the 24-hour news channels along with the likes of CSPAN, PBS, and others that might be providing live internet feeds. Ensuring access is key to this exercise. I certainly hope the students do their homework tonight. It may be more enlightening than they expect it to be.

“Pretty Persuasion” by REM


180 Days: Day 85–Clean Slate

Welcome to Day 1 of Semester 2; Day 85 of the school year.

Today all students have a 100% A+. Today all students have a clean slate–a mulligan, a do-over, a fresh beginning.

And I have a few days to reboot content-wise as the grind of grading for the end of the semester commences throughout this week–grading semester finals and make-up work.

I spent today debriefing the semester exam assignments with my students–going over what worked and what didn’t, what we need to revisit and what we got down cold. My seniors were adamant they needed help with time management on prose pieces. My sophomores need more help with adding analysis to explain their evidence both orally and in writing.

I also used today to work with students on their grades. Since grades are due at the end of this week I can take a day or two to ensure that students’ grades are complete and accurate as I commence the grade-a-rama.

But today just feels like a load lifted for all of us. The pressure is off for a few days. Unfortunately, my seniors need to be reminded that the pressure is not off forever yet. This is the quarter where the dreaded senioritis hits, so we have to pay close attention in the coming weeks.

Otherwise, today feels like we are just starting over.

“(Just Like) Starting Over” by John Lennon


180 Days: Day 84–Finals Day Two

Well, it’s official. The semester is now over. And my fourth period kicks both second and fifth periods’ butts when it comes to finding deeper meaning. Sorry fifth period, we have a lot of work to catch you up to your peers. But fifth period, the lone saving grace for your class–the most interesting concept to explore came in your class.

Period 4: Fourth Period rocked this seminar. They found connections, opened their books, used “because” statements to link their findings in their texts to their analysis and the current state of the world. These students all participated and were on point. They made my job of scoring so much easier.

Period 5: Lucifer fell from the heavens. And so did the parachutist in Lord of the Flies. So is the parachutist a fallen angel? A sign that man is more beast than angel? My Fifth Period students struggled mightily with this deeper meaning stuff. What could have been an interesting concept connecting the parachutist to Lucifer, they, unfortunately, took us on a fishing expedition (this is the term my friends and I used in college when someone tried to fish for a meaning in a text they clearly didn’t understand or possibly even read). I will definitely have to continue working on the concepts of claim/evidence/analysis with this class.

Period 6: My conference period–but I spent it scoring and recording seminar packets, rubrics, AP multiple choice questions, etc. Let the semester ending grade fest begin!

“Dazed and Confused” by Led Zeppelin


180 Days: Day 83–Finals Day One

Period One: I worked frantically sifting through a three-foot high stack of folders checking attendance for students I’d placed on contract throughout semester one for tardiness and attendance issues in my capacity as Attendance Advocate. I rolled a good number of the contracts over into semester two, created a list of new students to place on contract, and rolled about 10% off of their contracts. Now let’s see how long it takes me to complete this list and share with my faculty. I’m betting another week and a half. We will see….

Period Two: My first sophomore section started finals off on a good foot. They thrived in their small group settings but struggled as the groups grew larger until at last, we were a whole class having a conversation. As typically happens a few students who are comfortable speaking in class tend to dominate the conversation. I had to move them outside the class circle and call on students, but in general, period two demonstrated the ability to speak their thoughts cohesively even if their analysis lacked depth.

Period Three: I shake my head at this class. I gave them an easier test than I had originally planned. Yet they acted like it was the hardest test they had ever taken. At least I have an idea how to modify my instruction in the next few weeks in teaching them some strategies for tackling May’s AP Lit exam. Time management seems to always be the problem with AP style exams. But 25 multiple choice questions and one essay are definitely doable in 90 minutes. We will definitely be working on how to approach prose passages in testing situations as we move forward.

“Just a Test” by The Beastie Boys


180 Days: Day 82–The Last Day Before Finals Equals Panic & Squirrels

It’s interesting how honors seniors view the last day before finals begin versus how regular college-prep sophomores view it. My seniors peppered me with questions, asking how best to continue preparing for the next day’s exam. My sophomores asked few questions and really wanted nothing more than “free” time to supposedly prepare for their Socratic style seminars over the next few days.

Final exams at my school take place in block class periods for 90 minutes rather than the traditional 51-55 minutes (we have multiple bell schedules throughout the week to accommodate intervention time twice a week and teacher collaboration time once a week). On Day One of finals periods 1, 2, and 3 meet. On Day Two periods 4, 5, and 6 meet. My seniors are exceptionally curious how their 90 minutes will be divided as the test is a shortened version of an AP Lit Exam. They understand that their lone essay will mimic the prose Free Response Question featuring a passage from our current novel with a prompt about that passage. What they don’t know yet is that the multiple choice questions will also feature passages from our current novel, Pride and Prejudice, rather than random poems or passages from texts of literary merit. I figured I’d try to make it as easy as possible for them so we will see how they do tomorrow.

My sophomores, on the other hand, could care less about their final seminars over the next few days. They think filling in a few boxes on their seminar packets means they are ready to discuss the meaning of our first semester works with depth. Well, as much as I felt like I was corralling squirrels today, I’m curious to see just how well they really do in their conversations and explorations.

“The Mississippi Squirrel Revival” by Ray Stevens


180 Days: Day 81–The Option X Field Trip (aka Irises & Crocuses)

Today I joined a small handful of district English teachers in traveling to the Getty Museum to write a unit on art and poetry.

Forget that this field trip is during finals week.

Forget that my district is opting for us to curate and write our own textbook, titled Option X, rather than adopt one. So now we take days away from our students to sift through open source materials and spend hours crafting a curriculum and units with usable multimedia resources.

Forget that I’m angry at my district that can cry broke when it comes to lowering class sizes or moving toward competitive pay, but manage to pay for substitute teachers to spend the day with our students and pay for our travel, parking, and lunch as  if that is proper compensation for all the time we will eventually spend on this curriculum development.

I’m glad I was able to clear my mind of all the local political muck and just focus on taking today to enjoy myself with colleagues in what turned out to be a fun and intellectually engaging exercise that I will be able to build upon with my students.

Our task as we visited the J. Paul Getty Museum was to select a piece of art, analyze it for its texture, lines, colors, space, shape, and other elements of art. My partner and I chose to view at Vincent Van Gogh’s “Irises” to start our morning. We discussed what each of us saw and how each of us saw the image differently (my partner felt claustrophobic and saw the iris leaves as snakelike; I saw light & brightness, a path through the flowers). Then we started discussing what poetry with which we could pair this post-impressionist masterpiece.


irises van gogh

We ended up pairing Van Gogh’s painting with a modern poem by Ruth Fainlight titled “Crocuses.” The poem describes a newly budding crocus of early spring compared to the bruised bodies and faces of Jewish Holocaust victims. Once we agreed on the poem, we analyzed the poem for its form and function as well. The bold uses of color in each, the painting and poem, struck both of us.


These crocuses are appalling:
pale, bare, tender stems rising
through the muddy winter-faded turf,

shivering petals the almost luminous mauve
of lurid bruises on the frightened faces
and naked bodies of men, women, children

herded into a forest clearing or
towards a siding where a train has halted
and the trucks are waiting.



I look forward to creating different versions of this exercise for my own students–to help build their cultural literacy, bolster their ability to read and analyze poetry, to develop their critical thinking skills while connecting arts to our experiences, and to expand their appreciation for the arts.


“Art School” by The Jam


180 Days: Day 80–BLUE MONDAY

Today was a hard day all the way around. I spent the weekend doing incredible work and empowering activities with the Women’s March in Downtown LA and my work with the California Teachers Association State Council. Then the flu bug caught up with me. I had to leave Council early on Sunday to spend the entire day in bed with fever, chills, and vomiting. And the thought hanging in my aching head that Monday is our local union Day of Action to try to bring the district back to the table to reach an agreement on an already 18-month long negotiations cycle.

Luckily, my fever broke and I felt strong enough to stay in my corner of the classroom all day while students worked diligently on their final exam preparation. Then I returned home sticking to my diet of chicken soup and to sleep a bit resting up for what turned into a return of Saturday’s Women’s March type of empowerment.

My colleagues made me so proud to stand with them and share our stories about how our school board and district administrators have dismissed us for long enough–that we expect our voice as the experts in working daily with children to respected, that we have had enough of being marginalized, overtrained, under-compensated, with more duties, planning, and work outside the classroom eating away at our time in the classroom.

We turned out in force wearing our local’s shade of blue…

“Blue Monday” by New Order


180 Days: Day 79–Half Day & Heroics

I was only at school a half day for Friday–as I am spending this weekend working on policy and legislative updates for my state union affiliate. Today (Saturday) I participated in the Women’s March in Downtown Los Angeles (last year, I marched in Las Vegas). I’m really excited to be part of the historic women’s movement/resistance for the second year in a row. But before I headed downtown for some weekend work and heroics, I was lucky enough to spend some quality time with half my classes working on Pride and Prejudice and giving a preview of semester two concepts of rhetoric and analyzing news.

But I did have many students asking me about the Women’s March, so I showed them when, where, and how they could participate as there were a number of local opportunities for them. Redondo Beach hosted a Women’s March for the second year in a row. Some locals built a “Wall Against Misogyny” at Trump National Golf Course. And of course, students could travel the 20 miles to downtown Los Angeles to participate in the march between Pershing Square and Grand Park. Over 600,000 people participated in the Saturday morning march (compared to over 750,000 last year–so momentum has not really tapered as much as some expected). I was thrilled to see so many people joining together–to stand up and be heroic, to stand up and be counted, to stand up against discrimination and predatory practices. And I was thrilled in my half-day Friday that so many students had questions about what they could do and how they too could be counted. My students give me hope for our future.

My photos from the Women’s March while we gathered at Pershing and marched up Hill Street toward Grand Park:

women's march a

women's march b

“Heroes” by David Bowie


180 Days: Day 78–Failure, the Greatest Teacher?

I have 14 sophomores with Ds and Fs. That’s 14 too many in my book. So I spent time yesterday and today working with each of these 14 individuals to develop a prioritized plan to save their semester in the next 8 school days. I predict maybe half will succeed in flipping their grade at the last second–a habit that far too many of these students expect to do semester after semester, year after year.

Their having ingrained the ethos of my generation’s grungy, angsty, distorted apathy will not save them from my pushing them to do better and always give their best, even if their best isn’t enough. Choosing failure is not an option. Failing at something and learning from that failure may be, but not even trying is the option I’m taking off the table.

I can only hope that these 14 individuals take the opportunity I’m handing them and make the most of it. And I hope they learn the lesson from my Gen X world that maybe we shouldn’t be okay with being losers.

As Yoda would say, “The greatest teacher, failure is.” But typically failure implies Yoda’s earlier teaching has taken hold: “Do or do not. There is no try.” Don’t sit and do nothing in my class and say you tried. If you choose to do not, just know it’s not because I didn’t confront you with your choice and provide you the choice to engage with the greatest teacher of all–failure while taking action, while finding the way that didn’t work. Or better yet, not failing at all and learning the lessons of success.

As Rosie Knight writes for Nerdist: “…it’s the master’s burden to watch their student grow beyond them, and to teach failure as well as victory.”

I can only hope that my students will work for victory, but learn from their failure. And that I will be lucky enough to see them grow beyond me.

“Loser” by Beck