Mini-lesson Monday: Taking on the Thesis Statement

Right now, my students and I are writing spoken-word poems. I’ve wanted to play with language this way for a long time now, but finally mustered the courage — and figured out a way to make this kind of poetry fit into my AP Language goals and the needs of my students as they prepare for the AP Lang exam.

While watching and listening to many spoken-word poems, I realized that most of them are an argument, filled with not only beautifully crafted language — devices galore — but they also show craft in the use of the appeals. With the help of my student teacher, Mr. Zachery Welch, we designed a unit that centers around the rhetoric in spoken-word poems. And we are all writing our own. (This is a challenge for me, but I absolutely believe the the importance of a teacher writing beside her students. Thanks, Penny Kittle, for teaching me that!)

The performance task for this unit reads:  Craft a spoken word poem that addresses a personal conflict and/or a social issue, include rhetorical techniques and literary and rhetorical devices to convince your audience of the need for positive change. Perform your poem for the class live, or create an automated slide show with visuals, or a video recording as a way to digitally perform your poem.

This lesson stems from our work  — and the need for students to include stronger thesis statements in all of their argumentative essays.

Objective:   Using the language of the depth of knowledge levels, students will identify powerful lines in a spoken-word poem that serve as position statements. They will discuss and then categorize these statements in order of importance as it pertains to the poet’s overall theme. Students will then formulate three powerful thesis statements of their own and revise their drafts to include these powerful thesis-like lines.

Lesson:  Watch and listen to “Paper People” by Harry Baker. Ask students to pay particular attention to the lines of the poem that hold the weight of the poet’s position. They must listen carefully because Baker’s poem is primarily crafted with the alliterative “p”. Give students a copy of the lyrics, and on the second listening, having them mark specific lines they think represent Baker’s position. Then, ask students to discuss the lines they marked with their small groups. As a class, determine the line that best serves as Baker’s thesis.

Next, instruct students to write three thesis statements for their own poems. They should discuss their thesis statements within their groups and help one another develop powerful statements that hold the weight of the meaning in their poems. Then, instruct students to revise their poems, including all three of their new strong lines.

Follow up:  Students continue to revise and strengthen the arguments within their spoken-word poems. They should also remember to write three powerful thesis statements in their argumentative essays and challenge themselves to use all three in their writing.

Mini-Lesson Monday: Reader’s Response to Frame a Unit

Penny Kittle recently shared this article about the diminishing attention span of humans, thanks to the plethora of instant-gratification stimuli that burdens our plugged-in students.  I was reminded of my vow to help my kids simplify their lives, slow down their minds, and just…be.


The unit plan Mike and I designed

All of this led my student teacher, Mike, and I to design a unit plan around mindfulness, reflection, and deep thinking.  We wanted to use all of Siddhartha, parts of Hamlet, articles like the one above, various poems, the music of Cat Stevens, activities like contour drawing, and exercises like meditation to help our students slow down and explore their minds.


So, today we’re launching this unit of self-reflection and self-exploration, and one of the first mini-lessons we’ll teach is a reader’s response to “The Eight Second Attention Span” article.

Objectives:  Using the language of the depth of knowledge levels, students will identify patterns in Egan’s writing that align with our unit theme, cite evidence in the text of those patterns, and synthesize Egan’s argument with our prior readings.  Or, from the Common Core:  students will read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

41drZBnWSzL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Lesson:  We’ll pass out copies of the article for students to read and annotate, and they’ll also have their writer’s notebooks out.

“First,” I’ll say, “let’s read this article and just identify Egan’s argument.  What is he saying?  Underline or highlight key lines or facts that help make his point.”  We’ll read and annotate together, me using the document camera to model.

“Once you’ve figured out what Egan is saying here, go ahead and jot it down in your notebook in your own words.  What’s the gist of what he’s talking about?”

After the jot, students will talk in their table groups about the article and what they’ve noticed.  We’ll share out as a class and make sure our thinking is in sync.


Nonlinguistic storytelling through doodles–one of my proposed solutions from my response. We’ll do this exercise later in the unit.

“Okay, so Egan ends by offering two solutions to this problem.  What are they?”  Gardening and deep reading, students will offer.


“Let’s write a response for a while in our notebooks and brainstorm what our own solutions to this problem would be.”

We’ll all write, me modeling once again on the document camera.  Then students will share in small groups what their proposed solutions are.

Follow-Up:  I’ll ask students to practice one of their two proposed solutions are over the course of the week, then request a one-pager reflecting on the experiment.  We’ll apply our reading of the article, our practice of deep thinking, and our reflection on all of it to our unit of study as we move forward in our exploration of our themes.


Best High-Interest Books for Teens

This year, Amy and I were determined to make our exams authentic.  One of the options for the reading portion of the exam was for our students to create top 10 lists, and many of them did.  Their lists are funny, honest, and so valuable for helping spread the word amongst readers about good books.  Below is Aleigha’s list of recommendations for high-interest books that will hook teens and get them to fall in love with reading–feel free to share them with your students!

img_1175Aleigha’s Top 10 List:  Best High-Interest for Teens

  1. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Though this book was funny and lighthearted it still had the ability to change my life.  It really helped me realize that you should appreciate your siblings while they are close to you.  Seeing how quickly Cath and Wren distanced themselves in college put my relationship with my siblings into perspective.

  1. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

This book is so much different from your usual love story. By that I mean it’s extremely realistic. It changed my life because I could picture myself as Eleanor. It was one of those books that are so realistic it’s kind of scary not many love stories can make you envision yourself as the character.

  1. I Hate Myselfie by Shane Dawson

hatemyselfieI have never laughed so hard while reading a book. This guy literally takes everything that should have been traumatic to him and turns it into humor. This book changed my life because it taught me that it is important to laugh at your own pain. You shouldn’t take everything so seriously.

  1. Looking for Alaska by John Green

This book for me is one that really set an example. It breaks away from the normal click of kids you have in high school and puts a group of complete opposites in a single friend group. That was one of my favorite things about this book. It just kind of made me feel like it’s okay for me to talk to the jock or the pothead.

  1. All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

This book is very eye opening. It is about two teenagers who bond over a mental illness and fall in love it. It makes you very aware of the signs of depression and makes you analyze not only yourself but others. This book has the ability to change lives because it teaches you about the sensitive topic of depression.workinprogress

  1. A Work in Progress by Connor Franta

The author of this book is a Youtuber who tells you all about his life in high school and his YouTube journey. The book itself contains a lot of life lessons. He tells a story and then wraps it up with a lesson at the end. I enjoyed this book a lot because it shows how a normal really small town kid can become really successful with hard work.

  1. We Were Liars by e. lockhart

If we’re being honest, the only reason this book changed my life is because it just made me really depressed. I was just extremely upset once I reached the end of it. I didn’t want to believe what had happened was true and I cried for the main character. And then I cried because what other reaction can you have to a book that ended so terribly. So I guess this book changed my life because it made me realize that I cry more for fictional characters than I do for people I actually know.  

  1. The Fault in our Stars by John Green

Again another book that screwed me up emotionally. This one really does make you cherish your life and your friends. If after reading this you are not greatful for what and who you are blessed with that will be a surprise. Everytime I read this book I don’t just form my own imaginary relationship with Augustus Waters. I also find myself being very thankful that I have experienced little loss in my life.  This book is another one that puts it all into perspective.

  1. Every day by David Levithan

Every day is a book about a person who wakes up in a different body every day. He never has the chance to experience what it is like to have a family or best friend. This book is perksofbeinglife changing for me because it makes you appreciate the blessing of continuity. I think having a constant in your life is something that we all take for granted.

10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of those books that make you really cherish your friends. Until you find out what happens to Charlie as a child, you assume the book is about a young boy coming out of his shell. As u read through the book, you experience the ups and downs of friendship and watch Charlie become a whole new person. This book has made me really appreciate my friends.


Today I asked my colleague, Elaine Miskinis, if I could share her writing with the TTT community.  Elaine teaches Sophomore English, Junior English, and AP Language and Composition.  I am fortunate to pass my freshmen along to her while receiving her juniors in return. She perfectly sums up the struggles of first semester, the hope that comes with second, and the transformative power of literature. ~Jackie

Rye_catcherThe plan?  Spend the hour and a half between the end of the school day and kiddo pick up time entering my students’ midterm grades, doing some lesson planning for “Hamlet” and cleaning and organizing my room in preparation for third quarter.

The reality?  A student who is failing with a single digit average came to finish his midterm.  He mentioned, in passing, that reading Catcher in the Rye made him realize some things about himself.   Any conversation that opens with “The Catcher in the Rye made me realize…” is never going to be a short conversation.  It’s just the nature of that novel and the power it holds.

Long story short, he’s experienced some significant trauma and, like Holden, nobody has really been there to help him to process it.  He said, “You know how Holden is really smart, but he’s failing because he just can’t get out of his own head and move on from what he’s experienced?  I think that’s like me.”  Over an hour later we came up with a plan to get him someone to talk.  We also scrapped any plans of turning him into a model student this year and replaced them with the goal of helping him so that he, in his words, “Can stop pretending to be happy and actually start to feel it”.

So, now my classroom is a fire hazard of papers and books, my planning for Monday stands at “Wing It” and I have two bags of papers that have come home with me that still need to be logged into my grade book.  But, this was one of those days that will likely stand out when I think about why I teach. And, more specifically why I value teaching literature.  For every kid who whines and “Spark Notes” and skims, there might be one kid in the back of the room who looks like he’s disengaged and disconnected but who, in reality is so much in his own head at that moment, and possibly even so far in the head of a character that he’s lost in ways we can’t begin to see.

It’s easy to forget the power of novels, especially the ones we teach year after year and it’s easier still to forget the power we hold as teachers, especially when we’re consumed with midterms and grades and planning, and frankly, all of the things that really, in the end don’t amount to a whole lot.  Today was an important reminder to me of what it’s really about and why what we do really does matter.  I don’t know that we’ll be able to help this kid in any substantial way, although I certainly hope we will, but I do know that he felt comfortable broaching the topic with me this afternoon because he had Holden Caulfield there to lean on.  It makes me wonder how often these small, important moments get lost as we focus on assessments and core competencies and all of the minutia of our lives as teachers.  Sometimes it just has to be about more than that, and about more than reading check quizzes and essays.  Sometimes it has to be about letting our kids hang out with characters for a while to learn that they’re not alone.

Mini-lesson Monday: Moving Past Identify

When my students and I talk about reading, we talk about writing.  If they pay attention to not just what the writer means in the words on the page, but how the writer crafts that meaning with words on the page, they move much quicker into the rhetorical analysis they must do on the AP Language exam in the spring.

But it is not easy. So many of my readers read below grade level. They struggle with fluency, so their reading is slow and laborious, and as a result, they miss out on much of the flow of the language that leads to constructing meaning as they read. If they cannot comprehend, how can they analyze craft?

They are pretty good at identifying devices and figurative language and the like though. They are pretty good at identifying structure. They’ve learned writers have different ways of approaching a topic, but they are not so good at discussing why. Why did the writer craft the text that way? What does that move do to further the writer’s message? What effect does it create? What is the tone?

So, this lesson came about as a way to help my students practice some critical thinking about how writers make choices with language — and as a bonus, introduce my readers to four new book titles.

Objective:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will recognize a variety of structural and craft moves in fiction and non-fiction texts.  They will identify patterns and compare effectiveness through discussion. They will analyze the tone. They will summarize their discussion in their writers’ notebooks, and apply their understanding to future reading and writing assignments.

Lesson: Introduce three new titles as choices for independent reading by providing copies of the first few paragraphs of The Other Wes Moore, Nothing to Envy– Ordinary Lives in North Korea, and The Dog Stars. In small groups, giving each group one (or more of the passages depending on the time you want to take for the lesson) instruct students to read the passage and determine the structure and the craft moves the writer makes to begin the books. Ask:  Why do you think the writer chose to begin the book this way? What does that beginning do to capture the reader’s attention? Why might it be an effective way to do so? What is the tone of the passage? How do you know?

Help students recognize the effect of beginning a text with a passage of dialogue versus startling information versus first person narrative. What are the similarities? What are the differences? What structure do you find the most engaging? Why?

The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore

Nothing to Envy, Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

Follow-up:  Students will apply their understanding to their independent reading books, and as homework will write a one-page response that analyzes the first few paragraphs of their books.

A Question about Equity

I have this idea stuck in my head, and it keeps spinning like the record player my sister broke when I was 11.

When we think about equity in an English class, what comes to mind?

I hope fairness, impartiality, “justice in the way people are treated,” says Webster.

But what does equity look like? What does it look like every day in an English class?

Too many days I spend too much time with my students who do not do the assignments than those who do. Is that equitable?

Too many days I find the time to talk to the talkative students about their lives outside of class, but I rarely take the time to talk to the quiet kids who have a gentle grace, pay attention, complete assignments. Is that equitable?

A week or so ago I conducted a training, and one of the teachers asked something like this:  “Do you still have students who do not read, or do not move forward, in your workshop pedagogy?”


Will I keep encouraging, pushing, pulling, doing everything I — and my extensive network of workshop teachers –can possibly think of to help that student want to read and grow in her literacy skills?

Of course.

But let’s be real. I offer choice reading in my classroom. I offer choice of writing topics on every writing assignment (except timed writings when we specifically practice for the AP English exam.)

I’m going to have to allow the student choice when it comes to actually reading.

I can tell you this though:  More students read and grow and become avid readers than ever did when I chose all the books, all the prompts, all the everything.

And this brings me to the real question spinning in my head:  What does equity look like when it comes to instruction in an English class?

Choose one:

a. A teacher chooses six books for her students to read in a given school year, all books shining with literary merit. She teaches in a school where the majority of her students live in poverty. The children come from diverse homes where they face some struggles, but they seem eager to learn. She believes that since the more affluent school across town requires its students to read these six lofty books, she must require her students to read them. (Maybe her administrator even told her she has to teach these books– she’s just doing what she’s told.) This teacher wants her students to have the same rich literary experiences with these books she had in high school. She wants them to think about literature and analyze the language. She want them to grow in cultural literacy. All good goals. But probably, more than anything, she wants them to be on equal footing with the students across town. She wants them to have the same advantages and the same knowledge about the world’s great books.

b. A teacher allows her students to self-select the books they read. She models the moves of a reader. She talks about rich literature, what makes a compelling story, hboys readingow characters and plot lines develop and how they mirror their lives. She challenges students to consume pages, develop stamina, and grow in fluency. She gives them opportunities to read more and read harder because she knows the value of reading in building confidence and competency. She introduces different genres, authors, themes. She surrounds them with shelves weighed down by high-interest books and gives them time to read in class. To this teacher, it is not about the book — or the six books of lofty literary merit — it is about the reader. Readers who read 12 books in a year instead of just six. This teacher knows if she makes a reader she can make a life.  And the skills gained through reading extensively transfer to their writing and permeate like energetic friends into the reading they must do in other classes.

I am going to go with b.

Equity is not in the books we require students to read in English classes. Equity is in the skills and the fluency and the stamina students need to read those books if they chooses to read them.

Too many students in high school read below grade level. The only way to help them read better is to read more. Six books (and I’ll question if he really reads them) is not enough. So much research helps us understand this. Donalyn Miller collected a lot of it for easy access here. And Penny Kittle cites scores of it in the bibliography of Book Love.

I met with a reader today. I asked her about the reading she did as a sophomore in her Pre-AP class. “Did you read last year?” I asked.

“Uh, no, not really,” she said. “I only read two books last year. But I only remember one.”

Two books.


And before you jump all over me, I know there is option c. Yes, we can have a mix of both, but I will hold my ground:  If we are not advancing readers and writers, we are doing it wrong.


Integrating Reading & Writing Instruction: Craft Studies & Mentor Texts

This is a continuation of our post from yesterday.

#3TTWorkshopWhat are you reading now, and/or what are your latest finds that could be strong mentor texts?  

Jackie:  For fun, I am currently reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and for AP Literature, I am currently reading Othello.  I read Ready Player One as a departure from my typical YA reads.  I was never a gamer or 80s enthusiast, so I wanted to “challenge” myself by choosing a new genre.  Ernest Cline brilliantly writes action pieces.  Somehow he manages to translate the video game structure into a novel AND make it interesting for non-gamers like me; I am planning to use an excerpt to discuss movement of time either when we work on our multi-genre project this year or our fictional writing next year.  

Most recently, my CP freshmen read the picture book The Promise by Nicola Davies as a mentor for our narrative fiction unit.  In my academic freshman classes, we recently completed process papers based on The Compound by S.A. Bodeen.  Mentors for these included “What you will need in class today” by Matthew Foley and “Instructions for a bad day” by Shane Koyczan.  Students used each as a mentor text by which to craft their own poems and then eventually built them into unique survival guides ranging from “How to survive a zombie apocalypse” to “How to survive a friend’s breakup.”  As Shana said yesterday, I like pairing professional work with my own to show them the messy process of writing, so prior to class I get a head start on my own piece and then I continue developing it while projecting my writer’s notebook on the board at the beginning of workshop time.    

img_1056-1Shana:  I just finished the beautiful Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon.  I love it as a mentor text because it’s a bit multigenre, and it’s an engaging YA love story, AND it’s gorgeously written.  With tons of parallel structure and a short-chapter format, it’s a quick read but one that lends itself to lots of frequent re-reading.  I’ll use this text for craft studies at the sentence and paragraph level to teach things like repetition, parallel structure, and varied sentence structure.

Another book I just read was Caitlin Doughty’s memoir Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and Other Lessons from the Crematory, which I usually booktalk with Mary Roach’s Stiff.  This tale of Caitlin’s experiences working in a crematory will be useful for my students to analyze at the chapter level, during which she employs narrative to blend her adult experiences in the crematory with the formative experiences of her youth in order to make a claim about the nature of human life and death.  It’s a powerful example of the use of narrative within nonfiction.

I also recently read Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin, which tells the story of a high school senior who falls and loses all memory of everything after sixth grade.  As a result, most of her life story is revealed through dialogue with other characters, so this will be a fantastic mentor text at the whole-text level–how can we craft a short story that uses dialogue to reveal movement through time, a character’s background, or a character’s personality traits–all without that dialogue being spoken by that character?


How will you integrate your current reads into your practice?

Shana:  I like to share this article about noticing beautiful writing with my students.  We use it as the basis for two sections in our notebook–“Quotes & Craft Study” and “Wondrous Words.”  I like to break down with my students why a particular line or paragraph or chapter in a piece of writing is so powerful–at the word level, the structural level, the punctuation level.  When we read like writers, we can notice all of those details and begin to imitate them in our own writing.  

img_1057My students asked for more craft study and grammar instruction in their midterm exams.  With our new notebook setups, I’m hoping to create a routine for the wordplay we’ll need to constantly return to in order to strengthen our use of punctuation, specific diction, sentence structures, and other craft moves.  I want to employ more “triple-plays,” as Penny Kittle calls them–books that act as a booktalk, a quickwrite, and a craft study mini-lesson.  For example, I’ll take the chunk of Everything, Everything pictured at right and make copies of it for my students to glue into their notebooks.  Beneath it, we’ll imitate the parallel structure of the sentences, and the exercise will serve to teach parallelism, talk up the book itself, and be a quickwrite we’ll call “it could be.”

Jackie:  Inspired by a course we took this summer with Tom Newkirk, my colleague and I are putting together a superhero unit for our academic Freshman English classes.  The unit will involve both a persuasive essay and a comic strip students make about a hero in their life.  In turn, I’ve been skimming comics and graphic novels to find inspiration for students.  

In this unit, students will practice storyboarding their own comics while studying the use of craft like onomatopoeia, movement of time, and internal and external dialogue.  My hope is that these building blocks will provide a foundation for us to further discuss the use of colors to portray goodness and evil within a comic (or novel) as well as the use of framing or perspective in the pieces as well.

Please join the conversation–how do you approach the study of craft with your student writers?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,776 other followers

%d bloggers like this: