Tagged: World Literature

Challenging Thought: Wisdom from a Former Student

Thanksgiving receives plenty of attention for traditional feasts, shopping, and family time; but for teachers, Thanksgiving week means more than a couple days off of work. It represents the opportunity to reflect and reconnect with former students.

Yesterday, as if posted on the school calendar, a former student stopped by at the end of my prep period. He told me about his current studies and adventures as a college sophomore. We exchanged stories and shared laughs. These reunions are my reward–my holiday bonus.

But conversations with this graduate always go deeper than catching up on life and reminiscing about old times. He wants to know how systems work and asks questions about education that challenge my thinking. He has always been a genuine learner, urged by intellectual curiosity. And he possesses one of the most observant, insightful, brilliant minds I have ever had the pleasure to teach (even when he was a freshman). The limitations of a traditional high school structure were the only obstacles in his education at the time. He exhausted our school’s offerings of Advanced Placement courses and conquered all standardized tests with ease. As anticipated, he needed the independence of college to thrive and be challenged intellectually.

So why do we continue to lack vision of the possibilities and impede the potential of our learners?

Continue reading


Change the Purpose and Audience to Renew Old Writing Prompts


Over the last fifteen years, reading Oedipus the King in-class essays has made me want to gouge out my eyes with a red pen. Students traditionally analyze the play’s themes, symbolism, irony, or character flaws. This year, while maintaining the integrity of the original prompts, I added a twist–I changed the purpose and audience. After reading the play, my juniors sent Oedipus to court to determine if he is guilty and deserving of his outcome, or not guilty–a victim of fate’s injustice. They came to court prepared to write from the perspective of the defense or prosecution. But in typical fashion of Greek drama, fate determined which side of the case they would present…after entering the courtroom. Continue reading

One Fails, We All Fail

Something amazing took place in class today. After spending the past week struggling to comprehend the opening act of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, my juniors had a breakthrough. Everyone reached proficiency thanks to one of my favorite formative assessment strategies: one fails, we all fail. Continue reading

The Epic Paper War

The question resonates across the battlefield (Room A15) and echos throughout the high school hallways: Will the Greeks win honor, or will the Trojans rewrite history? Forget about Friday night’s upcoming game or what so-and-so said about whomever on social media. There is glory to be won in World Literature this week…

Upon completion of reading The Iliad, juniors in my English classes know a war is about to be waged, with reputations and lasting fame on the line. Here is the prompt to The Epic Paper, an engaging, versatile writing strategy that could be adapted to any content area:

The Epic Paper

“How does Homer portray the concept of HONOR in The Iliad?”

You, the epic hero, have received the call to adventure. After years of training for this moment, your mission is simple–accept the call and prepare for battle. With national pride and individual honor at stake, you must win everlasting glory and fame; your name will be remembered amongst the gods and your words immortalized upon Mount Olympus.

Enter battle armed with a formal essay loaded with critical thought about the concept of HONOR in The Iliad. Simply refer to your concept map to guide your writing, and, if necessary, seek inspiration from the Muse.

[Your basic thesis would look something like: “Homer portrays honor through ___________, __________ , and ___________.” You fill in the blanks and develop paragraphs supporting each aspect of honor.]


Anonymously type [double space, size 12, Times New Roman, 1 inch margins] your paper and hand it to Grade-Slaying Durst by __________. Do not allow hubris, foolish pride, or cowardice to blind you—this ignorance will lead to your demise, and ultimately be the cause of your team’s downfall.

This is war! May the strong survive!

Here are the major stages in the process once all of the papers are collected and randomly coded with a number and color so I will be able to identify the paper and its writer–but fate determines the teams. Anonymity provides a level of comfort for everyone, particularly the insecure writers. Let it also be noted that a Greek paper will remain on the Greek side but never cross paths with its writer.

Prep for WarPrep for Battle 2

Phase 1: Preparation for Battle

*Papers have been collected and divided into armies

     3 Greek Armies = Blue, Green, and Purple

     3 Trojan Armies = Orange, Yellow, and Red

*Each army must select the top two papers in their camp (defend your selections based on the writing rubric standards)

*Write comments on each paper

*Then have discussions to determine the top 2 papers

    1) Complete a rubric for papers not advancing–these will enter 1 on 1 combat

    2) In pairs, become the experts on the paper you want to take into battle!

Phase 2: 1 vs 1 Combat–Each pair of students per camp take the leftover papers (those which did not place in to top two) into direct combat around the classroom, Greek vs. Trojan. In these battles, even the weakest papers get defended for their positive qualities.

*Determine a winner of each WRITING STANDARD on our rubric

1) Content & Critical Thinking

2) Organization

3) Fluency

4) Language, Voice, & Tone

5) Conventions

#/5 = WINNER!

Day 1 Scoreboard

Phase 3: Championship Rounds of Battle–The top six papers from both sides of the classroom now enter a round-robin tournament in which each Greek paper battles each Trojan paper. Every battle is organized according to the criteria of different writing standards.




Which paper has a more engaging introduction ending with a highly developed thesis?


Which conclusion leaves the reader with a greater sense of resolution and closure?


What paper uses exceptionally rich, lively, and precise language to enhance meaning?


1) complete sentences 2) 3rd person point of view 3) present tense 4) pronoun agreement 5) punctuation and capitalization


photo 3


1) Seamless and purposeful quote integration

2) Sentence variety

3) Creative, varied, and smooth transitions within and between sentences


1) Excellent understanding of subject matter

2) Appropriate evidence and examples to support the thesis

3) Answers the question expertly

photo 4photo 5

And there you have it…the 4th hour Trojans rewrote history, while the 5th hour Greeks did not even need a wooden horse to defeat the Trojans this year.

Phase 4: Written Reflection–In addition to the formative feedback I receive while walking around the battlefield, at the end of the epic paper war I have students write a reflection to verbalize their learning and provide me with more valuable feedback.

1) How did this activity challenge your critical thinking skills?

2) What did you learn about the craft of writing as a result of this activity?

Their responses recognize the benefits of our epic approach to a typical English class writing assignment. A majority of responses mention the intensity of competition and the challenge of defending someone else’s writing. What they are really saying is that because everyone is engaged in a class activity, they must be on their game–preparation, quick thinking, and strategy are necessary to defend a logical argument referencing specific examples (sounds Common Core friendly). Other comments highlight thinking deeper about the content of The Iliad and finding a new level of respect for some of their classmates’ talents.

The immediate impact on their writing includes such responses as learning new strategies for analyzing literary themes, effective (yet simple) changes to make throughout the writing (and thought) process, the significance of vocabulary on the delivery of content, and the importance of supporting a solid thesis with credible evidence. I read several thoughts about spending more time on analysis, less on summary (thank you!). One student concluded, “I have to write as if I am the reader. I have to make the reader enthusiastic about reading my essay, and understand my thoughts better.” One boy called the craft of writing, “…a powerful tool,” while another articulated, “The craft of writing is like art–everyone has different styles and some people are stronger than others, but in different areas.”  Wow. Whose students are these?

As proud as those responses make me, I am most impressed with my students’ new respect for the efforts of their teachers. Many reflections mentioned the time-consuming challenge and “strenuous process” of assessing writing. Yes, minions…yes. Because readers were forced to evaluate standards separately, they gained a greater understanding of our writing rubric–that multiple factors must be considered in assessing the quality of a work. This should provide a clearer appreciation of my standards-based approach to grading, as I attempt to guide their learning toward a growth mindset (material for a future post!).

Organizing such an activity takes plenty of time and effort on the front end, but celebrating our writing in a competitive game–especially early in the school year–transforms attitudes and builds confidence for future assessments. My juniors are epic heroes–battle-tested and eager for the next quest.

“I now understand how papers are graded and I can make future papers better in multiple ways. I feel that my own writing will benefit because of this activity.”

That is honorable.

Walking far beyond the pedestrian path


Students Beware: Veteran Educator Feels Like a First Year Teacher

Every year we hear more accounts of teacher burnout, and at times, I’ve considered trying it, but the negative thoughts pass as I continue my exciting journey lifetime sentence through the high school hallways. I traditionally teach 4-5 different English courses from semester to semester, with a maximum of one repeated class per day. So, realistically, I don’t have time to get bored. This also means I have had the pleasure of teaching all brands of high school students in seventeen years. I could not enjoy a year without Visions in Literature and Composition–a class of bright-eyed 9th graders, who possess a zest for learning and untapped potential, but can’t avoid being freshmen. I love guiding juniors through the most important year in their educational journey and respect the content of Perspectives in World Literature and Composition. I am fully invested in Foundations of College Writing, my paperless senior writing course, in which I have become an edtech pioneer (self-proclaimed) by navigating a district 21st Century initiative, utilizing the power of Google Apps in our writing lab. My favorite class to teach has always been Communications, a public speaking course for upperclassmen. Despite my constructivist philosophy, no other class is as student-centered, simply due to the nature of its content.

Just as I was getting comfortable with the adjustments I have made to improve each course, an unexpected opportunity presented itself. At the end of last school year I was approached with the possibility of teaching Creative Writing, a course made popular by its previous teacher, my colleague and friend, who was moving on to another district. I always warned her students I was going to join the class as a student and write with them. And now I am, but the students are mine. Although I feel the uncertain thrill of a first-year teacher, there is renewed energy in my school day, and my passion for writing is awake after years of neglect.


Where Do I Begin?

The emphasis of my professional development over the summer focused on writing, as I outlined a plan for teaching the extensive genres of Creative Writing. I sought the advice of two of my favorite experts–Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle–who reminded me to model more writing for students in each of my classes, not solely for Creative Writing. For teachers who have never read the works of Gallagher and Kittle, please find the time. They speak directly from the classroom with authentic voices and practical approaches for improved writing (and reading) instruction.

Despite the knowledge I gained through research, I struggled up to the final days of summer vacation, before finally sketching my plans for the course on the syllabus presented at the top of this post. Yes, that’s the syllabus I handed to students as they entered the classroom on opening day. I am not an artist, but I felt I had to be the first one in the class to take a chance. I was obligated to show–rather than tell–what to expect from the course they signed up for last year (actually, I felt obligated to warn them about what they were in for with me as their instructor). Although I was unsure of their initial reaction, I have since been rewarded with positive feedback from enthusiastic writers. Students respected my honesty, vulnerability, and energy, and as a result, now trust the guidance of a first-time Creative Writing instructor.

Where Do I Go From Here?

After gaining the support of students, I had to build a community of writers who encourage each other and feel secure sharing their work. The class is composed of twenty-two upperclassmen with varying interests, social circles, and writing backgrounds, so I anticipated a challenge. Our early activities (highlighted in my previous post), discussions, and sharing sessions broke down many barriers through laughter and storytelling. But I do not take much credit for the positive learning environment that has evolved; I work with great students–genuine, compassionate, young adults.

One early influential mission was to create six word memoirs as a means of getting to know each other. After a day spent introducing the assignment and brainstorming possibilities, I once again stepped out of my comfort zone and was first to share several final options. I projected three sentences on the smart board, mentioned what I intended to express, explained my conflicts, and asked for guidance.

Students provided constructive feedback in an intelligent conversation about the writer’s craft. Without teacher direction (I simply asked questions, clarified responses, and thanked contributors for their thoughts), students engaged in an unforced discussion of good writing, audience, purpose, effective punctuation, word choice,  and the power of one sentence. Confident writers (several AP students who have been exposed to complex literary analysis) first expressed specific details about quality writing, but surprisingly, some tentative writers shared observations; other students listened and processed in silence. Their commentary was inspiring. The result… my life in six words:

Walking far beyond the pedestrian path.

The twenty minute dialogue not only impacted the rest of the semester for our sixth hour team, it provided another highlight in my teaching career. Two days later, we sat in a circle and all twenty-three shared a six word memoir. Each author left the audience craving the rest of the story (which is a logical transition to our next mission: the autobiographical narrative). After admiring everyone’s contribution, I presented one final challenge to the class. We needed to publish our words–allow the world to hear our voices. Several visionary artists took a lead role, and within a week–after having us choose between five songs to accompany our words–produced a class video. The video might not signify much to a general YouTube audience, but it forever unifies our class. It also gave me something more impressive than my artistic syllabus (which I handed out…) to showcase during Back-to-School Night. As the parents of my writers watched intently, waiting for the words of their son or daughter to flash across the screen, they were overcome with emotion (several to tears). The power of the written word, combined with the potential of our children’s minds, made a bold statement about the quality of our educational system. I am proud to share our video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkymNjSz_OI with you. Enjoy.

PBL: World Perspectives’ MAP of Authentic Learning

World Religion Wall

Project-Based Learning, the key to learn with a purpose

Learn with a purpose–for the sake of knowledge, reflection, and individual growth. Take ownership of your learning by thinking, questioning, and exploring beyond the hour we spend together in the classroom. My students receive this message daily. Some figure it out and thrive in my classes; others simply hear the words, go about their business, and continue to ask how many points an assignment is worth. I’m sure several turn up the volume on their iPod and tune me out before I start talking.

English: This image outlines the basic path of...

English: This image outlines the basic path of the monomyth, or “Hero’s Journey”. Non copyrighted, free work. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In order to earn English credit, all juniors are required to take World Literature and Composition. The course is structured thematically around the stages of the hero’s journey in which we receive a call, cross a threshold separating us from the known world, face the trials and tests of initiation, transform our thinking and understanding of life, and return to our world enlightened, poised to impact others.

I am fortunate to teach at a comprehensive high school which takes pride in its reputation of offering opportunities for every student. Students take AP courses and generally perform well on standardized tests. They go on to have college and career success. There is a comfortable–almost secure–definition of appropriate, acceptable, and normal we choose to abide by and conform to. We claim to be tolerant, open-minded, and even accepting of differences; but this is where our flaws are exposed. While the majority of our students are considerate and respectful, many are apathetic or unintentionally offensive. The only plausible explanation is that we have always done it this way, as if to justify our good intentions–our way of life.

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sa...

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But Plato acknowledges our flawed perception–that which we choose to overlook or ignore–and challenges us to question reality. What are the images cast in shadows on the cave wall? What exists beyond our known world? Many of us have no knowledge or understanding of life outside the cave, but are we to blame? Can we trust those claiming to be enlightened: the Form of the Good?

Too much talk…not enough action

This is the rationale I shared with students in my two junior classes before proposing their final exam:

The title of this course is World Perspectives. We spend months studying cultural themes and human behaviors; we analyze the archetypal journey and reflect on our metaphorical quests for personal understanding; we study religions of the world, while claiming to appreciate and respect diversity…yet, we do not transform beyond knowledge level–comprehension is assessed, but action is rarely taken. Therefore, little change occurs in our life patterns.

Gustave Doré's illustration to Dante's Inferno...

Gustave Doré’s illustration to Dante’s Inferno. Plate I: Canto I, Opening lines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Epic heroes model strategies for overcoming struggle. Siddhartha shares the secrets of his enlightenment–that teachers can relay information and provide knowledge about life, but they can not teach experience. We walk the allegorical path beside Dante through the Dark Wood of Error into the depths of our conscience with only a guide to point us toward spiritual salvation. We even analyze our flaws–no one wants to end up like Oedipus, right? So what have we learned? Do I provide authentic opportunities and real guidance or am I a hypocrite preparing to give another meaningless final exam? How does our 11th grade study of world literature impact our perspectives?

THE RETURN: Completing the Journey

*After surviving the trials and tests of the journey, we must return–transformed–to everyday life with greater wisdom

*We discover our gift and may become a great leader; we are spiritually enlightened

*We must contribute to our society (possibly renewing or even saving it)

*Like Gilgamesh, we must leave something behind–a MAP for others to follow (an acronym for My Awesome Project or My Action Plan…I couldn’t pick one title, so we refer to our PBL quest as MAPMAP…creative, I know)

Essential Question: “As you complete this year’s journey, how will you use your knowledge to impact life on a personal, societal, and global scale?”

Use the following steps as an initial guide:

1) Establish a concept of the “Others” based on the psychology of human perception

2) Identify discrimination, prejudice, bias of those considered “Others.” We generated the following list:

{disability, religion, race/ethnicity, gender, height, weight, sexual orientation, age, education, social class, social theories/politics, nationality, appearance, language, labels/stereotypes}

3) Select one topic to further explore

4) Narrow your plan to include a summary of the issues, challenges, investigations, scenarios, or problems

5) Frame an essential question to guide your actions (MAP your journey!)

6) Establish your purpose and audience

7) Commit to a goal: How far are you willing to take your learning according to Bloom’s pyramid? What action will you take?

C = Comprehension level: learn about the topic, collect information, knowledge (share with teacher, continuing a comfortable pattern)

B = Application level: teach others, urge others to join your cause (share with the class, the requirements of a typical class project)

A = Creation level: take action, publish, utilize technology, transform yourself, impact others (share with the greater community, crossing the threshold into an unknown world)

Here is a sample of guiding questions my students will explore throughout the final quarter of the school year:

*How can we create a more open-minded and accepting society?

*How does clothing and style influence the treatment of individuals?

*What would the world be like without the conflict created by religious separation?

*How can adolescents use social media to positively impact others?

*Accepting the fact that discrimination is a natural part of high school, how can adolescents survive the bullying and harassment they will face due to their appearance?

*Why do our appearances lead to ridicule and what can I do to raise awareness?

*In what ways can we prevent our peers from harming themselves both physically and mentally?

*How can I change standardized testing to measure everyone’s unique talents? (we had a quality discussion about Caliban while studying The Tempest)

*How can I create awareness about human rights to an online audience? (already a member of Amnesty International looking to have a greater voice)

*How can I make students aware of hurtful words made in school that people are unaware of?

*What can be done to support gay members of our school?

*Is it possible to create a community that will not reject ideas or judge others based on age?

*How can lyrical messages in music be used to inspire individuals to preserve freedoms, fight injustice, and put an end to discrimination?

I am impressed by the variety and depth of their questions and the number of students accepting the challenge to venture well beyond their comfort level. Normally, students would be coasting to the end; I could predict everyone’s final scores if given a written exam, paper, or presentation. Contrary to typical exam performances, students will close this year at their academic peak, with mostly A’s in the grade book.

So what’s in it for me? I am excited to watch my students transform, separate from their known world, and make something of their learning. I want students to have lasting evidence of their education. Next year as seniors, they will have something substantial to write about when applying to college or interviewing for a job. I am proud to share the impact of their discoveries with anyone willing to listen. Real creativity and problem solving is taking place without limitation, unrestricted by standards or curriculum. Autonomy has no answer key. My students, in turn, observe their teacher in the role of a learner challenging traditional lessons; at this point in the school year, I have renewed motivation and a quest to complete.

My Awesome Project…My Action Plan