Category Archives: American Lit.

Films in the Classroom

I’m not a huge fan of showing movies in class; most films do not meet my expectations for a good use of class time. I tend to ask myself:

  • Will a clip suffice?
  • Will a series of short clips from a film suffice?
  • What is the purpose of using the film in class?
  • Is this the best way to teach my stated goal/objective?

However, just like the English language, rules can be broken for effect. I do use one film in its entirety each year when I teach Transcendentalism; that film is Dead Poet’s Society.

Usually, I have students pair up with one student responsible for listing as many instances of conformity and groupthink as possible while the other student creates a list of examples of individuality. More than anything, this is a kick start for thinking–almost like a brainstorming session.

I show the film in four segments of approximately 30 minutes. Before each section of the film I set (or reset) the purpose for the day’s viewing, and prior to the final three segments I have the students do a quick exercise to remind themselves of what was seen the previous day. One student summarizes the previous day’s segment in one minute, and the partner then adds any missing details within 30 seconds. Lastly, I have each student note what his/her favorite part was from the previous segment.

The kids are thinking, recalling, expressing themselves aloud, and finishing this quick exercise with a positive statement. This last portion is critical to create a positive, forward-leaning mindset. Why not start a lesson with a positive?

Once the 30 minute segment concludes I have the students share their findings with their partners (the aforementioned lists) for one minute each. At this point I may conduct a truncated version of the fish bowl activity my students enjoy or I may conduct a full-class discussion about what the students viewed, what they think about the ideas or events, and how the students react to the characters. Sometimes I finish with an exit ticket to be turned in as students leave the room, or I have the students finish the day with a quick notation in their binders answering this simple question: “What is one thing you learned today?”

At the end of the film I provide the class a series of quotations from Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walden by Henry David Thoreau (and from each we have read excerpts) in a two-columned chart with the quotations down the left side. On the right I have the students identify scenes, ideas, and characters matching the ideas of the left column.

The students’ explanations are generally excellent, and their insights impress me each year. Plus, they often come up with ideas I had not previously considered. I love learning something new, but I’m also an admitted nerd. 🙂

Allusions and Cultural Literacy

I continually hear from my fellow department members that kids today are not as intelligent as kids 10 years ago, and I admit that I have seen a distinct difference between the general students of today and a decade ago; however, I also see a marked contrast between the top 10% of my school’s students today and 10 years ago.

I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I don’t think the change is intelligence. If anything, in math, students today are a year ahead of the high school students of the early 2000s. Still, my Language Arts students are not as proficient as they once were.

My thinking now is that the students of today lack the cultural literacy of yesteryear. Kids struggle to catch allusions to historical events, biblical figures, and current events. Even in my non-honors classes of the late 90s and early 2000s, kids could explain who King Solomon was when reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This year I have four classes of American Literature of different levels and only two students could identify King Solomon. No one this year knew the Dauphin (a bit more understandable), only a quarter of my juniors knew Hamlet was a Shakespearean play, and (maybe) 10 students knew what decade the Civil War occurred much less that Reconstruction followed it.

I just don’t think today’s kids, on the whole, read as much or are exposed to as much of what is typically defined as “culture.”

Anyway, after seeing this lack of cultural literacy while reading Twain’s novel, I decided to test the kids’ cultural literacy. I have a book about cultural literacy by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., and I had six kids shout out a page number. I wrote these on the board, and I then opened to those pages, wrote down the first item I saw, and had the kids try to identify each item. The ones I chose the first time were:

  • The Battle of Hastings
  • coup d’tat
  • Robert Oppenheimer
  • Babe Ruth
  • Canterbury Tales
  • gulags

After the pseudo-quiz I polled the students to see how they did, and the high score was a single student with four correct answers, two students got three correct, and the rest of the students correctly identified 2 or fewer items.

It would be easy to complain and shrug my shoulders and move one, but I decided to try and help increase the students’ knowledge base. I talked with my students, and they liked the cultural literacy quiz so we’re going to try it once a week throughout the second semester.

Also, I started projecting a political cartoon, a comic, or a short music video with allusions. Each day I project the item onto the front screen, give the kids a minute to think about what is seen, and then I ask someone to explain the joke and/or allusions. They love it!

Does anyone do anything similar?


Here is the comic I provided on Thursday with two obvious references to Snooki and Kim Kardashian as well as an allusion to Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” quote (and I had to explain what a timeshare is):

15 Minutes of Fame

















On Friday I shared this comic which uses Angry Birds and The Three Little Pigs:

Angry Birds & The Big Bad Wolf

A New Activity Every 15 Minutes

The title of this post is a goal I set for myself two years ago. I do fairly well now in this endeavor, though it was quite difficult at first. Now, I feel like it’s becoming second nature to refocus my students every 15 minutes.

And the results are telling.

My classes have raised their overall averages significantly, and attendance in my classes is high. Students compete to get into some of the courses I teach, which is all well and good (and not really that telling because they fight to get into the Video Queen’s classes too) but the best comment I hear in my room now is this:

“Class is over? Already?”

Because I shift the students’ focus frequently, they often do not have time to get bored, and I rarely ever hear the b-word any more.

—————————————— Sample Lesson ——————————————

We have just finished the first 50 pages of a complex novel (Fools Crow), and I want the students to review the characters and a major theme.

1. I have the students get into groups of 3-4 and have them face one another.

2. Next, I have the first group pick a number from 1-6 which corresponds to a card on which I have listed a character. The group is given the character on the selected card. The next group chooses from the remaining five cards, the next group from the remaining four cards, and so on.

3. Now, I tell the students their task which I have projected onto the wall: “You have ten minutes to compile a physical description of your character and to list three adjectives describing your character’s personality. For each adjective, provide an example from the text.”

4. At the end of the ten minutes (I use an online stopwatch to count down the time), I ask the students to tell me their character’s name and to give me their physical descriptions and adjectives with examples. I have a chart ready to go to record this information and type the information into this projected chart. The students around the room can copy down my chart or use another note-taking method to record the information as well. Believe it or not, this group recording only took about ten minutes.

5. Once we finish this, I have the students in their groups number off so each student is a 1, 2, 3, or 4. I then have the students numbered as a one move one group clockwise, and the two moves one group counter-clockwise.

6. I then have the students exchange names and prepare for the next activity. (I also require that my students refer to one another by name, so we introduce ourselves frequently when getting into new small groups until they know everyone.)

7. This time I provide a big idea question and reset the ten minute timer. Here is the second question: “What do the Pikuni people value? Provide examples from the text and include page numbers.” This forces the students to follow their character analyses with a thematic analysis as well as reinforce citation skills I will build on later.

8. At the end of the ten minutes I project a blank word processing document and record the value (for example, “weapons”) and the page number but not the explanation. I have each group tell me one value and page number, and then I allow anyone to give me examples.  The students again copy down the information, and this takes about 5-7 minutes total.

9. At this point I now have 13 minutes left in class. I have the students return to their original seats and pull out a sheet of paper in addition to their notes and texts. I then ask the students to compare and contrast two characters they believe are being set up as foils; they must use at least two quotations with page numbers in their single paragraph response.

10. I reset the timer for 10 minutes and have the students hand me this sheet as they leave and I tell each student “good-bye” or “have a good day” or something along those lines. (I like to say something individually to each student each day, even if it’s just a greeting or a farewell.)

I don’t really grade the paragraph, but I can immediately see who is understanding the novel, who can compare and contrast, and who is having writing troubles (citations, sentence structure, etc.).

Anyway, this is a sample lesson I used last week, and my students said they felt good about the lesson and the material. Even though everything was timed, it was a low-stress environment and the writings were quite good considering the short amount of time.

A second bonus was hearing two students walk down the hall debating the morality of one of the characters. They took the day’s learning with them! 🙂

Integrate The Objectives

Well, I’m neck-deep in paperwork, meetings, and planning, but everything is working out well. Still, I want to accomplish three goals this week:

  • to have the students write in a different (and more fun) mode,
  • to force the students to review a literary work, and
  • to encourage my students to write with more sentence variety.

I am giving my students an assignment to write a break-up letter to someone in the style of The Declaration of Independence using the four structural elements as the format. Each student’s letter must have a preamble, a declaration of rights, a list of complaints, and a statement of independence.

In addition, the students have to (correctly) label and use a simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentence within the body of the letter (one each is the minimum but two each is required for a top score).

I think this short writing will present a challenge and allow some creativity. I’m excited to see how it goes.

Scoring Essays

I spent the last week teaching my students how to score AP essays, and they did a fantastic job!

We looked at the AP writing rubric and a retired prompt on Monday, and then scored a single paper based on that prompt each day this week. As we moved through the week, the kids’ scoring got more accurate each day.

The kids would read an essay and then put the score on a sticky note. I would then have a student grab the stickies in the vicinity, and the students would then put them up on the chart I made on the white board. This created a bar graph on the board for us to look at.

Then, I would ask the students to share their scores and explain why the score is appropriate using the rubric and evidence from the essay in the explanation. The kids actually started to debate the scores a bit, and I simply acted as a moderator.

Next, I asked the students if they wished to change their scores on the board. About 5-10 kids would have me move their stickies based on the conversations about the essay.

Once the stickies were finalized on the graph, I gave the students the actual score and explained the reasons. I allowed the students one more time to react, and then we looked at our accuracy.

On Thursday I gave the students a prompt I wrote based on the novel we’re reading, and I’m going to use the AP scoring guide to assess them.

This coming Monday I will hand out the students’ papers, have the kids look over what they wrote, write down with a colored pen what they would have done differently, and then try to score their essay using the AP rubric.

Lastly, I will give them their scores, and they will explain why our scores match or do not match.

All in all, it was a great week of talking about writing and assessing writing. From a geeky English teacher perspective: what a great sequence of days!