Category Archives: Literature

Easy Public Relations with Students and Parents

One thing I’ve realized during my career as an educator is that positive public relations are always good for my classroom. Really, isn’t that what Open House is? It’s a PR moment for the school–especially high schools–where parents frequently state they are intimidated to enter, and a chance for teachers to reveal their plans, the standards, and themselves in a short presentation.

However, I’ve also learned that PR comes in many packages.

One way I use positive word of mouth is to show films related to the content in my classroom. Occasionally, during an evening of the work week or on a weekend afternoon, I will show a film for my students to watch while I work on grading assignments or planning projects and the like. To get the students there, I offer extra credit, but I make sure that the points are a negligible amount having no real effect on students’ grades, or I will give students a ticket which, when redeemed, allows a student to retake a test or rewrite a paper (which I do anyway, but it’s about perception).

Plus, showing films is an excellent way to use a popular medium to provide enrichment opportunities while simultaneously showing students and parents that I sacrifice my personal time for students. We all do this. We grade student work on our own time, plan lessons and units, prepare assessments, and more on our own time, but this makes the time sacrifice a visible teaching moment for the students and parents.

Moreover, it’s a fun way to show students how the literature I teach connects to what they learn in class. For example, here are a few of my favorites:

Many other films work well with the literature I teach, especially when I teach American Literature, and the students enjoy coming to school for a fun activity. Since I’ve started having these movie nights and afternoons, I’ve have seen a difference in my students’ feelings about coming to my classroom and my parents’ attitudes about how teachers care about their kids. The comments I receive from the parents are heart-warming and they sometimes come to the movie nights too and bring snacks.

I don’t attribute all of my successes to these movie nights, but they are part of a larger series of positive PR moments that increase engagement in my classroom and word of mouth about my classes.

The Identification Test

I tend to give my students identification tests where the students must do three things with each person, item, or idea:

  • (1) identify the person, item, or idea and its place in the story;
  • (2) explain the importance of the person, item, or idea; and
  • (3) connect the person, item, or idea to a major theme in the story or to a literary device.

An excellent student example for The Bastille would be:

(1) The Bastille was a famous French prison known for its harsh conditions and for the number of prisoners unjustly sent there. (2) Dr. Manette was unjustly imprisoned in the Bastille for 18 years, and when the prison was destroyed Monsieur Defarge ran to 105 N. Tower looking for a buried paper. (3) The Bastille became a symbol of the nobles’ power and cruelty before and during the French Revolution; when it was destroyed, it became celebrated like our Independence Day.

Generally, the students do an excellent job of this, and this type of test hits on all sorts of state and local standards.

However, I gave four classes a test of identifications and three classes had an average of a B+ or better, but the fourth had a C average. This fourth class was one of feast or famine with A grades or F grades up and down the roster. The reason for their low scores is obvious; namely, most of the students in this class refused to study and did little to nothing to prepare.

Now comes the hard part: what do I do about this? Do I force them to keep their scores knowing that they did little to study? Do I provide an opportunity for the students to earn back some of the points by retaking the test?

I tend to vote for a chance to retake the test, but I need the students to prove they have prepared prior to taking the second exam.

What would you do?

Teaching A Tale of Two Cities

Let the students teach one another? Of course we can!

I tend to receive many, many questions when teaching anything by Charles Dickens (currently A Tale of Two Cities), and I frequently look for ways to combat being the provider of information and instead becoming a facilitator of learning. All of that eduspeak really means I want the kids working harder than me.


Before explaining the lesson, I need you to know that I have the students write down questions about their assigned reading along with the page numbers on which the question was based. This occurs each night. For the first three days of the reading, I spent quite a bit of time answering these questions before we could actually move to analysis (since most of their questions were fairly basic). The kids were starting to think I would just do all of the work for them, and I needed the students to start becoming independent of me.

Thus, I put my students into five groups of 5-6 students each, and I assigned each group one of the five chapters read over the weekend. The students were required to sit in circles and answer one another’s questions about the chapter and then to summarize the chapter in ten sentences. I moved from group to group but really just said things like “what evidence from the text do you have for that idea?” and “how do you think you can answer that?” I wanted the onus placed on them to find their own answers. The students had 25 minutes to work in their groups. They could use any resource in the room that was in print–no online sources (because of the dreaded SparkNotes and the like).

Then, the students moved back to a full class setting after I collected their summaries, and the students could ask the groups questions about the chapters. I simply ensured that the students maintained order and remained attentive while the students helped answer one another’s questions and clear up ambiguities and areas of confusion.

I only needed to jump in once to correct the students going down the wrong path. I considered this a successful venture, and the students left the room with more confidence than when they entered. 🙂

First Day of School Activity

I’m thinking about starting my classes with the question “Why do we read?” I’ll have some individual, partner, and small group activities, and then we’ll watch the video here and react to it. I’m curious what the kids will think about the video and why they read.

Screen shot 2013-08-31 at 12.59.36 PM


Update: I worked for about four hours at the school today. I made copies, arranged desks, finished my postings, completed my paperwork, and finished all of my online trainings. Tomorrow I’m going in to re-arrange my office space because I’m sharing a desk with two other teachers, and (in truth) I really don’t need a desk. I don’t store things in the office, but I do bring some work there on occasion. Three days until the kids arrive!

Novel Bookmark Idea

I’m starting a new novel with my students on Monday, and I like to give out a reading schedule for each book. Instead of a typical placeholder, I like to do two things with the bookmark.

First, I print out a daily schedule of readings with the date and the pages to be read for that day. This means the students enter class having read those pages, and I have scheduled activities for the period.

Also, on the back of the bookmark, I will have the major themes listed down the paper slip (or the students list them). When the students identify an example of the theme in the novel, they can jot down the page number next to the theme. This is a quick and easy way to allow students to set a (minor) purpose for reading and to help students make a list in preparation for in-class writings. Plus, this doesn’t really interfere with the students’ reading process (which is a major complaint I hear regarding “during reading” study guides).

Any quick and easy ideas you use?

The ABCs of Learning

Every high school student knows his ABCs, and that’s a good thing since those very ABCs are a good tool in allowing kids to learn in fun ways. A number of assignments I use require the basics of the English language, and here are a few I’ve used recently.

1) I had one of my classes choose a Greek/Roman myth to read outside of class while we read a play in class. Once the students choose their myth, they must retell the story using 26 sentences. The first sentence starts with a word beginning with an A, the second sentence starts with a word beginning with a B, and so on through the alphabet. I also require that the students include a citation for their source material, and the 26 sentences must be free of any errors. Not one grammar, spelling, punctuation, or content error is allowed.

They have 26 days to get the assignment completed perfectly for 100 points. Any error reduces the score to 50 points. One correct sentence a day doesn’t seem like too much to ask. Plus, the kids can turn it in to me for correcting as often as they wish. I put a check mark at the end of a line if I find an error, and the students’ job is to find and correct the error. I stop marking errors after I find a third one. It’s rare that a student does not get it done perfectly in that time.

2) I put students into groups of four and have the students write their ABCs down the left side of a page as if numbering the page. Then I give the students a word such as “said” or “good” or “bad” or “sad” or some other overused and simplistic word; they write this word at the top of the page, and I give the students 15 minutes to write down as many synonyms as possible for the given word. I sometimes make this a competition with candy bars to the top group, but I always collect the students’ lists and have my TA compile their lists into one master list which gets hung on the wall. They then have a master list of better words than the given simplistic starter word.

3) I have the students in their groups of four letter their page (as in #2 above) at the conclusion of a novel of study. Then the students are to write down any characters, traits, themes, locations, or other terms related to the novel that they can (all of which is written by the letter which begins the word). For example, after reading Julius Caesar, the students may have a partial list started like this:

  • A: ambition, alliteration, attack, Antony, allusion, antagonist, avarice, Artemidorus, allegiance, apostrophe
  • B: Brutus, beloved, betrayal, blood, body, bias
  • C: Cassius, Casca, Cinna, Crassus, conspiracy, coronet, commoners, Calphurnia, compromise, chaos, Cicero, connotation, constancy, climax

Again, the students turn in their lists, my TA compiles them, and the students have a massive study guide, one they generated without needing me to create it for them.

New Course

For some time I’ve considered proposing a new course or two to my department and then my administration.

My first thought is a Film Analysis course where students analyze movies (the way the film is shot and the thematic elements within each film). We could connect the films to literature, other films, and the students’ lives as well as meet the Common Core standards chosen for the senior English courses at my school. In addition, I could incorporate the following using contemporary and classic films:

  • literary devices, 
  • the heroic cycle,
  • Joseph Campbell’s ideas on mythology,
  • classic motifs and patterns,
  • Christ-like characters, and
  • more.

My second thought would be a Modern History through Science Fiction course. This course could be a Social Studies or a Language Arts class and could begin with The Civil War and move through to the modern day. Authors such as H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Phillp K. Dick, and others would form the basis for a decade by decade historical study of political, economic, and military events as well as look at the ways science fiction reflects and influences American society.

Do you have a course like either one of these at your school? I’d love to know how well respected they are in addition to their popularity.