Corona virus acrostic poems perk up distance learning

Students create acrostic poems to document the pandemic

My students learned from home since March 17 until yesterday when the school year officially ended. As part of their distance learning, I asked students to write a couple of paragraphs every other day or so for a “Life in the Time of Corona” journal.

This journal, which we will finish in the fall, will document their personal experience during the global pandemic.

I got the idea for students to create these journals thanks to a tweet from Kelly Gallagher in March. Here’s the assignment sheet I created to guide students through the journal assignment.

To add variety to their journals, I suggested that students illustrate life during the pandemic by creating an acrostic poem… a poem where certain letters in each line spell out a word or phrase. In this case, students used terms such as corona virus, COVID-19, or pandemic, and so on.

As you can see, the acrostic poems below exhibit varying levels of quality. That seems to be a common by-product of distance learning. Several factors affect the amounts of effort students spend on a distance learning assignment.

These factors include:

  • Internet access (especially having strong, reliable service)
  • Support from parents (who may have to continue to work jobs outside the home)
  • Jobs (part-time or other that a student works)
  • Family responsibilities (such as students having to care for younger siblings during the day)

Regardless, I’m glad some students chose to make an acrostic poem to add some variety to their journals. It’s interesting to see how word choice and ideas reveal the concerns and individual personalities of my students. Enjoy!







Thanks for reading! As of yesterday, school is now officially out for the summer. I made it through my first year teaching high school with new curriculum, new students, new co-workers, and new experiences dealing with COVID-19 and distance learning. I plan to continue to post during the summer. Feel free to leave a like, share a comment or become a follower!

Use Article of the Week assignments to build relevant mini-lessons

Photo by Javier Sierra on Unsplash

The AOW can help you design targeted instruction in specific problem areas of writing

Don’t you love it when a classroom activity teaches something not only to your students, but to you as well? That’s the case with my most effective writing assignment, the Article of the Week (AOW). Not only do Article of the Week assignments teach my students to produce informed, structured writing in response to texts on current events, but these babies also teach me what specific problem areas of writing my students need targeted instruction in.

The AOW is a win for students and a win for me.

Here’s my Google Slides presentation. It’s nothing fancy, but gets the job done.

Modeled after the assignment developed by author and English educator Kelly Gallagher, AOWs can also be used to teach and reinforce lessons in grammar, usage, and mechanics… if I approach them as learning tools for me about the writing skills of my students.

Stay attuned to the ten percent

With my AOWs, I’ve learned that I must make a conscious effort to do more than just mark each paper when I grade them. When I’m reading students’ essays, I consciously stay attuned to the “ten percent,” the errors that I see ten percent of my students making.

Approximately 45 students were on the rosters in my junior classes this past school year. When, for example, I noticed the same error or style problem in the writing of four or five students, it was a signal that I needed to discuss that error in a mini-lesson.

This slide shows passages from two students’ essays. Even though they began their interpretations with the transition, “In other words,” several students had trouble actually putting those quotes into other words. In class, we also discussed how the second passage doesn’t contain enough of the direct quote to make sense for the reader. Honestly, I was surprised how difficult this was for students to grasp.

Knowing that I can address errors in future mini-lessons gives greater purpose to my grading. Beyond assigning points to student writing, I search for common areas of confusion that exist among the highest and lowest skilled students. For example, it surprised me this past winter when one of my strongest writers, who could pass a college-level class with flying colors right now, told me he struggled with the difference between then and than.

During this past school year, I gave these mini-lessons on Tuesdays right after I passed back essays from the previous week and before passing out the next one.

Again, this slide shows how important it is that when writers begin a sentence with “In other words,…,” they actually put the quote into other words, and not bring up new information.

When I notice a recurring grammar, usage, or mechanical error, I quickly mark the error on the student’s paper (I have students hand in assignments on paper, in general), and write a quick comment nearby in the margin. For example, I might draw a star and write, “use different words than those in the quote.”

Then I make a Google Slides presentation that addresses the error. I retype the sentence or paragraph that contains the writing error the student made either from their handwritten or printed paper onto a slide. As the year progresses, I add a slide to the presentation each time I feel the need to present a mini-lesson.

When I project the presentation, which I titled “AOW Noticings,” I make a point to ensure that students know they are looking at the writing of their peers. They seem to pay better attention when they know they are looking at writing from class, as opposed to an unrelated text.

Elaborative sentences that start with phrase such as “For example,…” must actually provide information that is an example of the information that came before.

And of course, the writer’s name isn’t identified, but I know students recognize their work. When they do, some readily raise their hands and say, “Yep, that’s mine!” Rest assured, I make sure they know I’m not in any way putting them on the spot. In fact, I mention to the entire class to check their papers for my comments in the margins to see if they also made the error.

In other words, we’re all learning.

Then we spend a few minutes discussing the error, figuring out revisions and edits, and otherwise clearing up any confusion that exists in the writing.

Whether we’re talking about…

  • accuracy in paraphrasing,
  • punctuation,
  • the use of transitions,
  • or really any writing topic…

…the goal is to notice and repair areas of confusion within the writing.

Many kids don’t know how to handle someone’s name in an article, so I made this slide to address that. Many students want to refer to well-known people by their first name.

When we’re finished, I encourage students to revise and/or edit their AOW writing to earn a higher grade. True, only a handful will make those corrections, but it’s still worthwhile to make the extra effort.

And now it’s confession time.

Don’t tell anyone, but I’m not always faithful to adding to my AOW Noticings slides. At times during the school year — and especially when things get really busy — I do little more than mark up the essays, enter the grades, and move on. Yes, it’s always good when I do provide that targeted feedback (including accolades for the many things they do right!), but it can’t always be done. In other words, #endteacherguilt.

In closing, for all those times when I do manage to keep all the balls in the air, it’s nice to know that I can learn as much about my students and their writing — and then apply that to a relevant mini-lesson — as my students do from my AOW assignments.


Thanks for reading again this week! AOWs are a mainstay in my high school (junior and seniors) English classes. They definitely provide the most bang for the learning buck. Do you use AOWs in your teaching practice? What tips do you have for me? Leave a like, make a comment, and become a follower for more posts like this one.

Mini-lesson idea: Avoiding first-person point of view in academic essays

Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

For the most part, it’s an easy fix.

It’s nice when a common issue you know your students have with writing can be easily remedied. This is one of them: avoiding unintentional and unnecessary first-person point of view in academic writing.

For the most part, the first-person words can simply be removed with… wait for it… NO ADDITIONAL CHANGES.

Easy-peasy.

In the “before” photo below (from a literary analysis of The Old Man and the Sea), I’ve underlined the first-person verbiage that needs to be removed for three reasons: 1) it doesn’t accomplish anything, 2) it’s not intentional (meaning it’s not used for any desired effect), and 3) it has no purpose.

Project these examples in a mini-lesson to show a student-written mentor text:

In the “after” photo below, the student had to merely remove those first- person references to infuse his writing with more authority and credibility.

Here are those changes again, but now removed from their context:

  • “…and I think they are right;…”
  • “Instead, I believe the religious aspect doesn’t change…”
  • “We have one story in which…” changes to “There is one story in which…”

But to back up a bit… why is first-person point of view so objectionable in the first place?

I usually take the traditional view that using unintentional and inappropriate first-person point of view in academic writing lends an air of opinion to the writing… and therefore, some bias… and therefore, some weakness to the argument. When the first-person references are removed, the message is more direct and convincing.

At the same time, first-person point of view does have its place, even in academic writing. Above all, first-person point of view should be used with a sense of purpose, especially with regard to the intended audience of the piece.

And that’s the problem. With the example in the photos above, this student didn’t foresee the effect of using the first-person.

She just plopped those words into the text without thought or intention.

Purpose and intention are key. As this handout from Duke University advises:

Finally, academic writers should consider their audience and message when employing the first person and/or the personal voice.

What is an appropriate tone to take with regard to a certain topic? What is one’s own relationship to the subject at hand? For example, if one is writing about the Holocaust or a natural disaster, it may not be appropriate to cite personal material unless it is directly relevant and can be included in a respectful manner. On the other hand, when writing about topics such as race or gender, one’s own experience(s) of living in a racialized/gendered society may be not only appropriate but even necessary to include. Academic writers must decide whether, when, and where first-person references and the personal voice are appropriate to their message and their audience.

“The First Person in Academic Writing”; Thompson Writing Program at Duke University

In other words, writers must be intentional and weigh their options with point of view, try out different perspectives, revise, and make the needed changes… often only to go back to the original version after all.

Basically, choosing point of view in any written piece is a judgment call.

And that’s why teaching writing is so hard. It’s full of judgment calls,…

and it takes time to make them… more time than kids want to invest, unless they genuinely care about the assignment. (Learning how to create assignments that kids genuinely care about is another blog post entirely.)

Then and only then will students be willing to take the time to get the perspective intentionally and purposefully right.

Until that time, though, know that removing first person POV — when it’s unintentional and unnecessary — can be as easy as deleting a few words and leaving the rest as is.

Ahhhh. Like I said, easy-peasy.


Thanks for reading! Do you grapple with this common, hard-to-explain issue with your students? Tell me your approach by leaving a comment. While this post shows my best effort to help kids with this, I’m open to your suggestions, as always. Check out this recent post and become a follower for more.

Corona virus journals foster creativity

A student’s journal entitled “The Lost Journal of a Miss Savannah B.”

A reminder that students can still thrive in uncertain times

Don’t underestimate your students when it comes to distance learning. Some of them might surprise you and take your assignment to new heights, as my senior student Savannah B. did with her journal (shown in photos).

Savannah took my Life in the Time of Corona journal assignment and made it her own. She ditched the laptop and wrote it on brown kraft paper, burned the edges to give it an antique look, and added stains to age it some more. She even glued a swatch of toilet paper to the cover!

In short, it’s unexpected, innovative and has an anachronistic time-travel vibe.

I was intrigued with Savannah’s motivation and process, so I asked her a few questions (via the Remind app) about her journaling experience:

Q: What prompted you to get so creative with your journal?

A: I had started doing it on a Google doc and to be completely honest, that was very boring to me. Who would want to read that? I had a hard time concentrating on it and actually wanting to do it and I remembered I had created something similar for an assignment at my old school and so I took that idea and created something new with it. I wanted to hook people in.

Q: Why did you decide to give it a historical tone?

A: I was definitely going for the ancient effect. I figured it would give it more character.

Q: Your journal almost sounds imaginary due to its historical look and the word choices you made. Was any part of it made up?

A: Everything, or almost everything, in it was true. For example, I really did have a family member that got tested for COVID-19 and it was scary. Thankfully, the tests were negative though.

I am convinced that someday Savannah’s journal will be a treasured record of her life during this historic global event. It will also be an expression of her creative mind and aspirations as she heads off to college in the fall.

I’m sure you have students like Savannah. Y’know, those students who enjoy what you teach (for the most part, right?!) and thrive with projects that get them away from the notebook or keyboard for a while. Savannah is one of those students who saw the potential in doing some extra time with this project.


Here’s what the assignment initially asked students to do:

Over the next week, keep a journal of your activities, thoughts, and experiences in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.  Here are some ideas:

  • Write about what you do know about the virus.
  • Write about what you don’t know.
  • Is it business as usual? (Describe business as usual… your normal routine.)
  • Are you going out? Where?
  • What have you cancelled?
  • How has COVID-19 affected your life so far?
  • Have you tried to shop for supplies in case of a lockdown? How did that go?
  • Do you know what to do if we are restricted?
  • Write about the contradictions or confusion that exists in the media.
  • Reflect on the memes that seem to be multiplying faster than the virus itself.
  • What news stories have you heard, read, or watched?
  • Has anything or anyone inspired you in the midst of the coronavirus?
  • In short, write about whatever you want to write about as it relates to the pandemic.”

For a link to this assignment sheet that you can adjust to fit your needs, click here.

It’s important for kids to be writing about their lives right now. Years into the future, we will need to hear their stories and it’s always more valuable when those stories are written down as they are happening… and not in retrospect.

On one of my favorite blogs, Two Writing Teachers, children’s author Laurel Snyder advises students that…

“…for much of history, kids got left out of most storytelling. Which means that what we know about the children of the past are mostly the recollections of adults, trying to reach back in time, or to guess about the thoughts and feelings of the children around them.  But of course, most grownups see the world differently from kids, and that is why it’s so important that you record your voice. Tell your story. So that in ten or twenty or a hundred or a thousand years, people will be able to look back and know what it was like in the Pandemic of 2020, for someone like you.  What it was really like.

Beyond that, write about the things this moment is decidedly NOT. Write about the places it takes you in your dreams at night, your imaginary games, your flights of fancy. Build worlds of your own, invent people to talk to. Reach beyond your current moment, and down deep into what you have always carried inside yourself. The physical limitations of this pandemic have no power over your imagination, where you can wander anywhere you like.

Laurel Snyder, Author Spotlight, Two Writing Teachers

And didn’t Savannah do exactly what Snyder suggests? She built a world of her own and invented people to talk to. Yes, she reached beyond the current moment. With her journal, Savannah indeed exemplifies Snyder’s notion that the corona virus has no power over her imagination.

Receiving this jewel of a journal in my homework inbox last week was a real day brightener, and I just wanted to share it with you. It’s a reminder that our students can still thrive in these uncertain times.


Thanks for reading again this week! Have your students ever just totally surprised you with their inventiveness? Have they ever taken one of your assignments and took it to new levels you hadn’t dreamed of? Feel free to share your experiences below to let us know about it. Also, leave a like and become a follower for more posts like this one.

Check out The Hero’s Journey podcast

Photo by Joey Nicotra on Unsplash

A great supplement to teaching the hero’s journey

Have you discovered “The Hero’s Journey” podcast? Subtitled “Books & Films Through a Mythical Lens,” this is a fantastically interesting podcast I used in February to supplement my hero’s journey lessons.

Use the monthly show to introduce students to Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey in popular movies, some lesser known movies, older films, or even in movies you wouldn’t think (at first glance anyway) contain a hero’s journey.

The Hero’s Journey podcast features author Jeff Garvin and book blogger Dan Zarzana who dissect films into the distinct stages of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. You’ll find this short description on their website’s “About” page:

Pioneered by renowned mythologist and teacher Joseph Campbell, and refined for the context of modern storytelling by Disney veteran Christopher Vogler, The Hero’s Journey is a series of motifs and archetypes that pervade myths, folklore, and stories across all cultures and eras.

The Hero’s Journey: Books & Films Through a Mythical Lens

In each episode, the hosts spend about an hour to an hour-and-a-half parsing the movies out scene by scene to show precisely how the hero’s journey, and all its myriad steps, permeates the storyline.

Movie clips are used to illustrate key hero’s journey points in each podcast episode.

Here’s a sampling of movies covered on the show:

  • 3:10 to Yuma (In February, my classes listened to the podcast for this movie up to the “departure scene.” Listening to the hosts explain the various parts of the introductory movie scenes helped students to continue to follow the journey in the movie. It was an interesting way to help students realize that the hero’s journey is ubiquitous in narrative… even in this award-winning modern Western based on a short story by Elmore Leonard.
  • The Princess Bride
  • Field of Dreams
  • The Shawshank Redemption
  • The Dark Knight
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas
  • Say Anything
  • Alien
  • The Handmaid’s Tale
  • A Christmas Story
  • Gangs of New York
  • Braveheart
  • Plus about seventeen more!

Take note that a good chunk of each episode devolves into discussions of microbreweries, after dinner drinks, and other alcoholic endeavors. Save time and keep students from objectionable content by skipping these portions.

Give this podcast a listen.

It offers another way for students, and auditory learners in particular, to find engagement with the hero’s journey. The series will reveal to students the influence of Campbell’s formula in popular culture and show them how vitally important the hero’s journey is to narrative traditions.


Thanks for reading! Have you already stumbled upon this podcast? How did you use it in your classroom? Feel free to click like, make a comment or become a follower for more posts about teaching ELA at the high school level.

Word clouds spice up distance learning

Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay

Have kids make word clouds about life during the pandemic

My students have been home since March 17. As part of their distance learning, I’ve asked them to write a couple of paragraphs every other day or so for a “Life in the Time of Corona” journal.

This journal, which we will finish in the fall, will document their personal experience during the global pandemic.

I got the idea for students to create these journals thanks to a tweet from Kelly Gallagher in March. Here’s the assignment sheet I created to guide students through the journal assignment.

To add variety to their journals, I suggested that students illustrate life during the pandemic by making a word cloud… a collage of words from a news article or words they select on their own that this website then assembles into a composition based on the frequency of the words in the selection. Students choose the shapes of their clouds among other details explained below.

Sidenote:

Do you remember how several years ago these creations were known as wordles? I tried the wordle website, but found a message asking me, for security reasons, to purchase it in my app store. That seemed like too much hassle, so I kept looking and eventually found wordclouds.com, which was easy to access and use.

I gave students this website to use, wordclouds.com, which is published by Dutch game developer Zygomatic. I also provided them an example cloud, which I made by selecting the first paragraph of a news article I found online.

Here’s my example, which appeared quite small on the assignment sheet for the week:

My example I gave to students was in the shape of a butterfly.

In essence, a word cloud is a graphic representation of the ideas within a short text.

I’ve posted a few of these below that students have sent me by email or turned into my homework crate in the school lobby during the closing.

Camisha C.

I like how each word cloud is different. Each reflects the thoughts, emotions, and interests of each student.

Hannah G.

Students can customize fonts and cloud shapes, from coffee cups to continents.

Ella D.
Sara W.

Students can also choose the colors used to make their cloud.

Addysen G. (I took this picture directly from my laptop screen, so it appears pixellated.)

Some students have limited internet access. Those students –or even those tired of screentime–were able to make a word cloud by hand, like this one:

Riley C.
Jazlynn G.
Hayley J. (I took this picture directly from my laptop screen, so it appears pixellated.)
This screenshot shows the variety of shapes students can choose for their word clouds.

Along the way, I also asked students to collect scrapbook items they could add to the journals to add variety and interest. I’ve had kids collect order pad stubs from their restaurant jobs, labels off of hand sanitizer bottles, squares of toilet paper, four leaf clovers, and other items. I think I’m really going to enjoy seeing these journals come together next fall!

I like word clouds. They’re quick, fun, and allow students to be creative. Even if they’re merely copying and pasting words from another text, it’s still interesting to see what each student designs. Word clouds were a nice diversion in the middle of distance learning.


Thanks for reading! Have you ever used word clouds? Is there something else I should know about this activity or wordclouds.com? Leave a like, make a comment, and become a follower for more posts like this one. Here’s a link to a post from two weeks ago, How to Get 8th-Graders to Write 16-page Essays.

Pros and Cons of Padlet

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

My first impressions of this app for my high school classroom

Yesterday, I wrote about six assignments I am using to test-drive the discussion board app called Padlet. Click here for a link to that post. Read on for my first impressions in the form of pros and cons.

While I’m using it now for distance learning during my school’s COVID-19 closing, I really think it will have more optimal use in the classroom.

This is a Padlet I created for an assignment where students posted playlists for the two main characters in the novel, A River Runs Through It. Users can choose the wallpaper backgrounds for the Padlets from a large selection available free on the site.

For example, I can envision projecting a Padlet on my whiteboard as students work so they can see their comments publish immediately, as well as those of others.

Using Padlet in this way will add an immediacy to their writing.

Receiving instant feedback as students reach and comment to others’ posts in real time during class should add relevancy and engagement while they work. It’s definitely something I want to try next fall.

Without further ado, my pros and cons for this new app are listed below. And obviously, I have much to learn, but so far here are my first impressions based on my limited use to date.

Seven Benefits of Padlet

  1. INSTANT PUBLISHING: The program allows students to instantly publish their work. This is so key to my teaching philosophy, and I’m always on the lookout for ways for students to get published. Publishing work “beyond my desk” adds so much more accountability and engagement. Students write better when they know their work will likely be read by others besides me.
  2. COLLABORATION: Padlet allows for interaction between the poster and the reader. I can choose reaction styles: hearts, thumbs up, thumbs down, votes, stars, or assign grades using points.
  3. NO ACCOUNT NEEDED: Students don’t have to make an account to participate. I just share them the link to the Padlet and they can access it.
  4. PRIVACY: I can set the Padlet to be private so it’s only accessible to my classes, or I set it for public viewing.
  5. GOOD DESIGN: The Padlet boards look nice and can complement visually the particular board topic. For example, I can design a Padlet to fit the topic or subject matter (or my case, a text) using color schemes, fonts, wallpapers, and photography that’s built into the site. I can also use photos from my device or the web.
  6. CONTROL: I can moderate student posts if I would like to or I can set Padlets so responses instantly publish.
  7. REAL-TIME COLLABORATION: All comments and input provided by students is in real-time so there’s no waiting.
This is a Padlet where students posted their defense of their alternative titles for the novel, A River Runs Through It.

Two Drawbacks of Padlet

  1. For some reason (system overload? just a glitch?), the link for two of my Padlets changed over the course of a week. That blocked students from being able to return later to the Padlet to comment on a classmate’s post.
  2. On another occasion, the link to a Padlet simply stopped working for students. After being notified by a student, I had to make a brand new Padlet for the assignment. I never did figure out why students were unable to access it even though I was still able to.

Besides these two technical problems — which I was able to fix quickly, by the way– I think I’ll continue to use the app on an ongoing basis… both this spring and next fall.


Thanks for reading! Leave a comment with your thoughts about Padlet. Have you used it before? How did it go? Become a follower to catch more posts about middle and high school ELA.