The Anthropocene Reviewed Essay for High Schoolers

Use John Green’s classic for awesome student essays

Author John Green

One of my favorite book purchases of 2022 was uber-popular author John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed. This book contains about forty-four personal essays on events, objects, and/or people chosen by The Faults in Our Stars author as examples of how humans have helped shaped our current age. Each essay ends with a star review, ranking each topic on a scale of one to five stars.

If you haven’t checked it out yet, you should. It’s an invaluable 274-page resource for showing students real-world blended-genre writing that incorporates research, personal anecdotes, and historical context… on a wildly diverse range of thoughtful topics, including:

As written on the book’s dust jacket, the essays in Green’s book celebrate the Anthropocene, the current geologic age, “in which humans have profoundly reshaped the planet and its biodiversity.”

Green’s essays serve as wonderful mentor texts to inspire students to write their own similarly styled essays.

In my own classes last year, I read aloud several of Green’s essays, and then facilitated a retroactive outlining activity to help students prepare to write their own Anthropocene reviews.

To define the project, I created an essay assignment sheet that briefly spelled out the gist of the assignment. I used this sheet with my high school juniors and it resulted in one of my favorite essay assignments of the year!

The Anthropocene essay assignment sheet is shown below. Visit my Site Shop to purchase for $3. This is also available on Teachers Pay Teachers in my store.

Note: My assignment sheet does not include a word count requirement. I had my students write essays of 750-1,000 words. Please include the word count requirement (if needed) that suits your students. Also, a rubric is included with blanks so you can fill in the points you prefer.

Briefly, students chose topics (events, people, objects, or inventions), and then they explored those topics’ histories, adding personal connections, observations about the topics’ impacts on humanity or life today, and star reviews that served as the thesis statements.

This sheet will guide your students to write their own Anthropocene reviews based on the style and format that Green uses in his book and on his podcast.

The directions read as follows:

  1. After reading and taking notes on three to four of John Green’s essays from the book or the podcast, write your own review that could be featured in the book. 
  2. Choose anything you are interested in writing about and then take a mental stroll with it. Like Green does, choose something that you can research and identify with on a personal level that will also make a larger statement about humanity and/or life today.  For example, Green wrote about Diet Dr Pepper to comment on man’s innovation. He wrote about the QWERTY keyboard to comment on man’s collaboration. 
  3. Simulate Green’s style. Use your notes to recall and reference the choices Green made to include the four areas on the rubric below: historical info/context, personal connection, a larger statement about humanity, and a thesis with star review. 

My students seemed to enjoy writing such creative and personal essays, and I enjoyed learning so much about their perspectives on all sorts of interesting topics…

…including toe socks and drag racing!

Also, it seemed that nearly everyone was familiar with John Green (thanks Crash Course!). He’s got serious street cred, and that helps A LOT when assigning essays LOL.

I hope you enjoy using this assignment with your students. It’s a winner! Thanks to John Green for his amazing collection of thoughtful essays.

Marilyn Yung

Thanks for reading! I appreciate your continued interest in my blog! If you haven’t become a subscriber, please fill out the form below to catch future posts.

As mentioned in my first post of the year, I’m currently reading and researching some nonfiction texts that address student disengagement and how it is encouraged by the Internet, Chat GPT, screen time in general, and our distraction-filled culture. Stay tuned for more information and, hopefully, some creative ideas on how to address this issue with and alongside students.

Feel free to leave a message or ask a question about the Anthropocene Reviewed essay resource, student disengagement, or another teaching concern by leaving me a message on my Contact page. I appreciate you!

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The Great Gatsby: Chapter 1 Challenges

Chapter 1 isn’t always a student’s cup of tea

“In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” (from The Great Gatsby, Chapter 1)

We all recognize that famous first sentence of The Great Gatsby. It’s a quiet sentence, isn’t it? But it’s abrupt, too. There is no setting, no context… just Nick Carraway telling us about his family, judging people (or not), the Eggs, his cottage on Long Island Sound. The chapter picks up speed when we meet Tom and Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker. To a first-time Gatsby reader, Tom’s loud, Daisy’s ditzy, and Jordan’s forgettable.

And then there’s that closing vision of the next-door neighbor Nick assumes to be Gatsby stretching his trembling arms toward a green light at the end of a dock across the water. Add in Tom’s racist rant, all those strange allusions to “Midas and Morgan and Maecenas,” the phone call from Myrtle, and the “beautiful little fool” comment and it’s no wonder that for my students, Chapter 1 is a lot to take in.

And I must confess: because I love The Great Gatsby so much, I tend to overhype it in the weeks leading up to the novel. We build up to the book by studying Modernism and spending a class period watching Cosmopolis to get some Jazz Age context. And then we pass out the books, I read Chapter 1 aloud, and it falls flat.

Despite my prepping for Chapter 1 and despite (or because of) all its action, it can sometimes turn kids off.

That’s why I decided to create an anticipation guide of sorts. My guide isn’t a typical chart of columns that kids check off or fill out. Instead, it offers four discussion questions that you can use in one of three ways before you dive into Chapter 1.

I’ve added this guide to my Site Shop. It’s also available for your convenience on my TpT store.

Great Gatsby Guide Cover

I’m hoping these questions will help students visit a few important ideas before reading Chapter 1… ideas that will help them personally connect to the novel, and raise a few questions. The point of those connections and questions? To cushion Chapter 1 with a more defined purpose for reading. Here are the four questions to get your students engaged before reading:

  1. Why would we overlook someone’s negative qualities? (Think Nick overlooking that Gatsby represents everything that he scorns.)
  2. In your own life, what are you reaching for? (Think Gatsby reaching for the green light.)
  3. Have you ever not wanted to know something? Why or why not? (Think Daisy saying the best thing to be is a beautiful little fool.)
  4. How can our past victories affect our worldview or outlook on life? (Think Tom’s success in athletics paving the way for his future power.)

The “key” included on the last page of the packet spells out where these questions come into play in the chapter. See the slideshow for more info below.

Here are the directions stated on my product description:

How to Use These Posters

To collaborate: Print these posters, and then have small groups choose one to discuss among themselves. Share out their responses and ideas with the class before and after reading Ch. 1.

To get students moving: Print posters and place one in each corner of the room. Have students walk to the question they would like to offer their thoughts on prior to reading. Do a check-in after reading to see how/if students’ ideas have changed.

To work independently: Prior to reading, project page 8 and ask students to choose a question and write a paragraph in response to their question of choice. Revisit their responses after reading.

And very importantly (wink-wink), I’ve also included a key with discussion notes to help you facilitate class discussions and to connect the anticipation guide questions with details from the chapter.

I hope this helps you introduce The Great Gatsby — arguably, what many consider to be the great American novel — and coast through the first chapter swimmingly.

Marilyn Yung

Thanks for reading!

Just so you know, this guide does focus primarily on Chapter 1. In addition, while it could also work as a prelude to the entire novel, just know that some of the important themes of the novel are not discussed in this guide.

Feel free to leave a comment or question on my Contact Page. Happy Gatsby!

Check out my other Gatsby posts:

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Frederick Douglass Final Project: The Graphic Essay

A fresh way to reflect on Douglass’ heroic life and text

Back when I taught middle school ELA, I assigned graphic essays (essentially a dressed-up one-pager) to my eighth-graders after they finished reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. This incredible book, which provides Douglass’ first-hand account of the horrors and traumas of American slavery, provides a reading experience that is both sobering and inspiring.

In short, Douglass’ narrative is a lot to take in.

For my students, I felt graphic essays would:

  1. offer a break from traditional essay writing;
  2. help students discuss theme with evidence and their own commentary;
  3. allow students to discuss symbolism; and
  4. allow students to get creative and apply their artistic skills.

I found the idea for a graphic essay on a blog by teacher and author Buffy Hamilton at her website, Living in the Layers. Hamilton’s post references projects created by students at North Atlanta High School, including the graphic essay project created by teacher Casey Christenson. Her students created graphic essays based around Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond.

A sampling of my students’ essays:

Usually in my classes after we finish reading a book, students write a traditional essay on a specific topic or question from the book. However, at the conclusion of reading Douglass, my eighth graders were already writing another essay on Douglass  to be included in their human rights dissertations.  So instead of writing another essay, I decided to provide some variety and offer an alternative… the graphic essay.

When I explained the assignment to them, they were eager to be my “guinea pigs” (yet again!) for this new-to-me project.  I’ve never had students not want to experiment with a new idea and I let them know that I appreciate their flexibility.

More student essays:

To introduce the project, I gave each student a copy of the assignment sheet. My sheet was based on Hamilton’s, which was based on Christenson’s. (Don’t you love how teachers borrow from each other?!?)

I’ve placed the printable sheet for this Douglass assignment in my Site Shop. (It’s an editable Microsoft Word document.) The image below shows you what you’ll get instantly if you order.

Note: This is NOT my Frederick Douglass Unit Plan. Click here for that resource.

In class, we read through the steps and the requirements for the project. We also discussed the three theme options from which they could choose. Deciding on one of these themes was the first part of the process, as shown in step number one in the photo above.

They then were to develop a thesis statement that would argue the theme they chose. Following this, they were to cite three quotations from the book that supported their theme, and then provide a commentary or explanation of how each quote supported or related to the theme.

Students then were to select a symbol that would connect to and unify  the theme. Finally, they were to compose all these elements on an 11″ x 17″ sheet of construction paper.

They could use any art materials I had in my room (markers, colored pencils, crayons, stickers).

We also decided to sacrifice an older copy of Douglass to use in the essays. Students could use the pages of the actual text in their compositions. Some cut shapes out of the pages, while others used the pages that contained their quotes used to support their chosen themes.

I also had printed off some photos from Christenson’s blog post. These photos showed some examples of graphic essays. This was very helpful as it showed my students the level of detail that was expected.

Overall, the project went well, considering it was my first attempt. When all the essays were finished, I posted them in the room in “gallery walk” style, so students could vote for their top six. I projected the requirements on the Smartboard during the “gallery walk” so students could choose those that best met the criteria. This was needed so students wouldn’t focus too much attention on the artwork at the expense of the theme, evidence, commentary, and symbolism.

How well each essay met the criteria was an important distinction for them to make, too. One student with excellent creative execution didn’t cite any quotations. Despite the visual appearance of this student’s project, it didn’t accomplish the other goals, and as a result, students wisely did not give this student’s essay “Top 6” status .

Marilyn Yung

Thanks for reading! I really like how this project capitalizes on students’ learning differences and creativity to discuss and argue theme and symbolism. Another — and perhaps more important — bonus: students further explore and reflect on Douglass’ sobering testimony and inspiring life and career. Thanks to Living in the Layers for the idea and inspiration.

If you have questions or would like to comment, please use my Contact page. Happy teaching!

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Argument Writing: Stossel in the Classroom Contests

2023 deadline: March 31

Need a real-world reason to assign argumentative essays? Look no further. The Stossel in the Classroom 2022-23 Essay Contest welcomes your students’ arguments. I have used Stossel in the Classroom contests twice with middle schoolers, and even though none of my students won, the contests were valuable experiences. I think whenever we can get kids writing for a real-world audience, everyone wins.

The deadline is March 31 and the prizes are generous. Granted, these are national contests and, therefore, very competitive. Still, providing a contest of any kind often provides some motivation to make writing argument essays worthwhile. After all, students can’t win if they don’t enter.

“Stossel in the Classroom” is a program of journalist John Stossel and the Center for Independent Thought.

Choosing a topic is often a barrier to starting. Stossel in the Classroom makes that easy by providing three essay topic choices to choose from.

In the past, my students could usually zero in on one topic that piqued their interest. Sure, you may need to help middle schoolers connect the some of the choices to their young lives, but once they see how these grown-up topics do indeed affect them, they’ll be able to insert their unique viewpoints into a conversation!

Here are this year’s argument choices:

  • The American Constitution in our lives
  • Inflation: Root causes and community impact
  • Economics in the Wild

Refer to this page of the website for the rest of the prompts, which provide context and background info, videos, and resources to get students brainstorming.

Here are a few other details to know:

  • Essay length must be 500-1,000 words, excluding Works Cited entries
  • Both high school and middle school students have their own age category and prizes
  • Stossel in the Classroom also invites students to create video essays in a separate contest. Visit this page for more info on that option.

Check out the website for resources that will help you guide students to their research. The contest website offers a video library, Both Sides of the Issue video series, and modules that offer more videos centered around debatable topics. Also: mentor essays! Read previous winners here. These would all make good sources and would keep students from wandering the internet for random research.

Marilyn Yung

Thanks for reading! Stossel’s argument essay contest is a good thing. There’s no cost to enter and students can learn so much from producing an argument for a real-world audience.

Browse through my Student Contest page for more contests, most of which I’ve used with middle schoolers and high schoolers. Also, feel free to leave a comment or ask a question using my Contact page. Have a great week!

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The Web, Student Focus, and Ralph Waldo Emerson

Five Allusions to Emerson in The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

Today, we mostly know Ralph Waldo Emerson, the popular nineteenth-century transcendental philosopher, through a handful of quotes that have filtered down through the centuries. Three examples:

  • “To be great is to be misunderstood.” (“Self-Reliance”)
  • “Hitch your wagon to a star.” (“American Civilization” in the April 1862 issue of The Atlantic magazine, which Emerson co-founded, by the way)
  • “In the woods is perpetual youth.” (“Nature”)
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Beyond Emerson’s many well-known sayings, however, the larger ideas behind his writings ring few bells in the collective minds of contemporary Americans.

That’s why I was taken by surprise recently to come across multiple allusions to Emerson as I read Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2010). This book, which I discovered while reading Stolen Focus by Johann Hari, investigates “the mental and social transformation created by our new electronic environment,” according to poet Dana Gioia.

Carr’s book, packed with scientific research, historical context, and more literary allusions, finds inspiration and grounding in the renowned thinkers, writers, and poets that constitute our cultural DNA. In fact, Carr repeatedly alludes to several other classic authors often found in American literature curricula. For example, besides Emerson, Carr includes Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, T. S. Eliot, and many others to support his arguments.

Carr’s book analyzes in ten chapters, two “digressions,” a prologue and an epilogue exactly (and inexactly) what is going on with our students’ brains… and ours as well.

Quite simply, our brains are changing to adapt to the way we read and think on screens. We skim, scroll, jump from link to link, digress, and remember little. We no longer engage in meditative thinking or, as Johann Hari calls it, mind wandering. Often ridiculed as mere day-dreaming, mind wandering allows us time and space to process the vast amount of information we take in every day.

Nicholas Carr | Sander Duivestein, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I’ll be writing more about The Shallows in an upcoming post, but in this one I wanted to let you know that if you need some timely text excerpts to incorporate Emerson’s nineteenth-century prose into contemporary discussions, you should check out Carr’s book. Also, if you teach Into the Wild or any Transcendentalism-related text, these Emersonian quotes may tie in nicely.

I can see these excerpts making great fodder for weekly AOW assignments or even discussion-starting “Reading Minutes” a la Kelly Gallagher. I’m always on the lookout for interesting things to read that I feel could appeal to high schoolers if framed and supported well. Here are those five Emerson allusions.

Five Emerson Allusions in The Shallows

  1. “Things are in the saddle | And ride mankind.” (Carr 46) This quote, from Emerson’s “Ode, Inscribed to W. H. Channing,” concisely explains “technology’s role in shaping civilization,” writes Carr, adding, “Technological progress… has been the primary factor influencing the course of human history.” As examples, Carr explains how Karl Marx wrote how windmills birthed the feudal lord and steam mills birthed the capitalist. Emerson quips that our “things,” our technologies indeed determine and control our societies.
  2. “Gladly would I unfold in calm degrees a natural history of the intellect, but what man has yet been able to mark the steps and boundaries of that transparent essence?” (Carr 48) Carr quotes Emerson’s 1841 essay titled “Intellect,” where the philosopher asks a question that supplements Carr’s assertion that mankind understands little about the influence of intellectual technologies on our brains. Carr writes, “There are plenty of fossilized bodies, but there are no fossilized minds.”
  3. “The book made possible the delicately nuanced self-knowledge found in Wordsworth’s Prelude and Emerson’s essays and the equally subtle understanding of social and personal relations found in the novels of Austen, Flaubert, and Henry James.” (Carr 76) With this statement, Carr alludes to Emerson as he ponders the cultural changes brought on by the letterpress. Carr writes, “As the book came to be the primary means of exchanging knowledge and insight, its intellectual ethic became the foundation of our culture.”
  4. “Deep in concentration, he (Nathaniel Hawthorne) was attending to every passing impression, turning himself into what Emerson, the leader of Concord’s Transcendentalist movement, had eight years earlier termed a “transparent eyeball.” (Carr 166) Carr’s anecdote featuring Hawthorne spending a summer morning outdoors in Concord, Mass. grounds a discussion about the “key to intellectual progress.” Carr cites Google and the Industrial Revolution to show how each force’s technologies have moved humans further from the ideals of the transcendentalists, who believed that “true enlightenment comes only through contemplation and introspection.” This allusion appears in Chapter 8, The Church of Google, a critical assessment of Google’s ever-expanding presence in intellectual tech.
  5. “The best rule of reading will be a method from nature, and not a mechanical one.” (Carr 171) In his 1858 essay titled, “Books,” Emerson calls on Time — and not an instant message or a “tweet” — as being the natural force that is the best judge of writing. Emerson’s quote helps Carr assert, “We no longer have the patience to await time’s slow and scrupulous winnowing. Inundated at every moment by information of immediate interest we have little choice but to resort to automated filters, which grant their privilege, instantaneously, to the new and the popular.” Carr explains that Google’s ability to grow and thrive is based on the notion that efficiency is the “ultimate good,” attainable only through information provided so quickly that we don’t take the time ponder, think, evaluate, and ultimately, enjoy.

How did I even encounter The Shallows? Well, I’ve decided to pay some particular attention during 2023 to the problem of student disengagement. I’m reading a selection of books as I attempt to address this phenomenon among students.

I notice this problem among my current college freshmen students and I definitely noticed it during my previous position as an 11-12 high school English teacher. Also, I’m observing an increasing disinterest in reading among students. Some students — on more than one occasion — have been pleased to tell me that they didn’t read and had no desire to.

It is truly disheartening and definitely an enthusiasm killer for me. There’s nothing worse than trying to work with students who outright tell you they don’t find value in your content. I want to find out more about how to address this trend.

Thankfully, Carr’s book makes sense of what I’m experiencing in my classroom.

Yes, The Shallows is twelve years old, but its discussion of how our brains adapt to technologies new and old, including the alphabet, the book, Gutenberg’s press, typewriters, personal computers, Smart phones, the internet, and yes, artificial intelligence (AI), is enlightening. A burgeoning technology in 2010, Carr warns about AI and I plan to convey more about his views of ChatGPT soon. Stay tuned.

Marilyn Yung

Thanks for reading! Do you struggle with kids being able to focus? Are your students unable to work on one thing at a time? Do they seem unmotivated? I’ve seen this in my own classroom, and I truly need to know what’s happening.

Carr’s The Shallows has much to say, and with Emerson as textual support, provides understanding and insight into the changes we’re seeing in our classrooms today.

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Poetry Chapbooks for High Schoolers

Have students self-publish their poetry in chapbooks

This will be a short post, but I wanted to briefly fill you in on a culminating activity my high school poetry class completed last spring. Our final project of the year was to create a poetry chapbook, a small(ish) book that contained the many poems they created throughout the year. While we wrote about thirty poems during the year — some focused on a certain structure and some free verse — I required students to choose thirty to include 24 in the book.

This is a typical chapbook by poet James Sweeney. I purchased this chapbook online. I was introduced to Sweeney’s poetry through an email subscription to Poetry Daily.

In case you’re unfamiliar with chapbooks (as I was prior to teaching this class), chapbook is the name used for the book where a poet publishes his or her collections of verse.

Of course, chapbooks vary in size and dimensions, but for my class, I decided to go the easy route and have students create theirs on 8.5″ x 11″-inch paper that I could easily print down the hall in our workroom.

Students had been saving their poems all year in their Google drives, so when it came time to assemble their work, they could easily retrieve their poems, make any additional revisions and edits, and then publish their books.

Here’s another chapbook from one of my favorite poets, Aimee Nezhukumatathil.

Students had about thirty poems to sift through and prioritize and include in their books. Those works included free-style poems on a variety of topics (cold water, for example), villanelles, odes, apology poems, list poems, sonnets (challenging, but illuminating!), ekphrastic poems, cinquains, and others.

I suggested to students that they use to design their books. Canva has hundreds of templates to choose from, all with built-in graphics and photos, if students wished to use them. Of course, many students did just that, but several opted to modify the templates and/or the art elements to create a personal statement to complement their unique poetry. Still, one creative student veered away from Canva and designed her entire chapbook using her own hand-drawn illustrations on Microsoft Word.

Several photos of my students’ chapbooks appear below. Enjoy!

I decided to print the chapbook covers on a color copier in the school. I left the interior pages to be printed on a copier in the workroom.

Here are several covers from some of my students’ chapbooks:

This is basically “project-based learning” for a poetry class.

Obviously, collecting this much poetry may require a fully dedicated poetry class. And, fortunately for me, my previous school gave me the green light to pursue this passion of mine to teach poetry appreciation. It was hands down my favorite class I’ve ever taught.

If I were to do chapbooks again…

I would definitely make sure to have students write more poems during the year, so they would have a greater quantity of verse to include in their books. Most professional-level chapbooks contain more than fifty poems, and I would like my students to end a dedicated poetry class with a similar amount of material with which to approach a traditional publisher or agent. I want my students to see how real world writers market and present their work, and to present their work seriously, they will need a collection of substantial breadth.

So, for next time (there’s always next year, isn’t there?!), my poetry students will generate more work overall. I know they’ll appreciate having a slew of poems, so they can select only the very best for their chapbooks.

Marilyn Yung

Thanks for reading!

I wanted to publish this post now at the beginning of January, so you could start putting the plans in motion to enable your own students to have a handful of poems to include in a chapbook of sorts at the end of the year.

Sure, it won’t be a collection from the entire year, but if you teach a semester-long poetry class or have poetry units coming up in your regular classes, think about having students gather them into a brochure-style chapbook as a culminating project. Feel free to ask me any questions about chapbooks by replying to this post below, or leaving a message on my Contact page. Thanks again!

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On Tap for 2023: Gatsby, Inspiration & Insights into Student Focus

Plus: my top ten posts of 2022

I savor these last moments of the holidays. They’re the perfect time to reflect, rethink, and redirect my site’s content to better serve you, my dear readers, in the coming year.

In doing so, it’s always interesting to learn which posts resonated most strongly with readers throughout the previous year. For example, as 2022 progressed, it was especially interesting to see how my posts that focused on teaching the The Great Gatsby rose to the top of the list. In fact, the popularity of my Gatsby posts caused me to create a dedicated pull-down menu you’ll find under the blog menu at the top of every page.

My collection of Gatsby posts is now twenty posts strong, and I know that number will only grow during 2023. I’ve been doing more reading and researching on Fitzgerald’s classic and have more posts planned on new topics to teach such as water as a symbol, the acts of vanishing found throughout the novel and their significance, a piece on Jordan Baker (to flesh out my reportage on the novel’s key characters, similar to the one I wrote for Wolfsheim), and more. It’s all in the service of students and how we as teachers can better bring this novel and its myriad nuances to life for them. Of course, this site is NOT turning into a Gatsby website. Since teaching involves so many texts, there will continue to be a plethora of topics covered.

However, also know this: I am doing more reading and researching on the loss of focus (and the disengagement it fosters) that teachers are witnessing in their students today. Check out my post on the new book by Johann Hari, Stolen Focus, for a brief rundown on what I’m learning. I see this phenomenon in my own students. Our brains are grappling with the onslaught of interruptions and distractions that is endemic and vital to the internet and its ancillary social media.

So for 2023, expect these three things from this website:

  1. More Gatsby posts
  2. More information to help you understand and address our students’ capacities for the focus that learning requires
  3. More ways to stay enthusiastic about teaching. It’s a tough profession and you are needed more than ever to stay in the classroom. After all, what other profession allows you to dwell daily in your literary passions and share those passions with others?!

Lastly, THANK YOU for reading my website!

I know that around 80 percent of my readers are what Google calls “organic visitors,” readers who search for a specific topic, land on a post I’ve written, read it for ideas, and then jump back out. Further, ten percent of my readers are termed “referrals.” These readers find my site by clicking on a link embedded in another article or website. I love that. It’s gratifying to know that other writers and bloggers see value in the information I produce.

However, another ten percent of my readers, visit my site specifically for ideas, resources, and inspiration to maintain their enthusiasm for teaching. These readers compel me to persevere with blogging, and I will be acknowledging them soon with a post that shares the specific ways this website has helped them tackle their content and love their jobs more. THANK YOU and cheers to a great 2023!

Without further ado, here are my top twelve posts of 2022!

“Where I’m From” Poems

My All-Time Favorite Poetry Activity (updated Aug. 2021) “Where I’m From” poems are perfect for going back to school! Read on to get acquainted with this awesome poem that every teacher I know raves about. Have you heard of George Ella Lyon? She’s an American writer and teacher from Kentucky who wrote a poem several…

Keep reading

Where I’m From Poem Templates

Plus photos and links to help you plan Back-to-school is the perfect time for Where I’m From poems. I’ve decided to repost this article from last May to help you add this great activity to your opening days. Where I’m From poems from the author and poet George Ella Lyons… you just can’t write enough…

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Finally! One-pager success!

Plus: the idea that finally made one-pagers work for my class One more try. That’s right. In December, I decided to give one-pager graphic essays one more try. In case you’re unfamiliar with one-pagers… visit Spark Creativity for a complete explanation and also some awesome one-pager templates. One-pagers, in a nutshell, offer a way for…

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Pros and Cons of Padlet

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…

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Marilyn Yung

Thank you! I so appreciate your taking the time to read this post! This year, please let me know how I can help you maintain your enthusiasm for teaching. What are you struggling with? What good thing happened recently? Leave me a message on my Contact page and I’ll do my best to address your requests or give you a virtual high five! Again, thank you so much for your continued readership. Cheers to an enthusiastic 2023!

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ELA Brave and True

Photo by Aakash Dhage on Unsplash

Last-Minute High School ELA Christmas Lesson Plan

Use this fun info text right before Christmas break

You are welcome.

I say that because I know you will love Secrets of the Christmas Tree Trade by first-time author 24-year-old Owen Long and published in And frankly, whether you use it in your lessons or not, I know you will love this charming story and its:

  • fly-on-the-wall view of New York City’s Christmas tree business
  • history of selling Christmas trees in NYC
  • humor
  • vivid imagery and details
  • excellent reportage-style writing

It would be easy to build an assignment with this article to keep your students busy during these last few days before break. Read on for the lesson plan and then click the print button at the bottom of this post.

Because I’m always thinking of ways to take the interesting things I read out in the real world into my classroom, I’m wondering…

Could this be a mentor text to inspire students to write their own “tell-all” piece on a topic of their choosing?

After all, my students have some of the THE most interesting stories to tell about their jobs and hobbies. In fact, my students definitely enjoy as much of an insider’s view of their jobs as Owen Long does of the Big Apple’s Christmas tree trade.

For example, my students have their own stories about barrel racing, calving, hay hauling, working at Dairy Queen, and care-giving in nursing homes.

Long’s article would be the perfect text to kick off a final week of personal narrative writing. His first two paragraphs offer so much inspiration. Here they are:

“Squinting through sterile overhead lighting, I scan the emergency room for traces of red and green. I listen closely for the jingling of bells and the croon of Bing Crosby. I’m relieved to detect nothing, just injured people groaning, which by this point in December — the 22nd — is practically soothing. Lying flat on my back in a hospital bed, covered in sap and bleeding out of my forehead, I don’t feel very Christmasy. I feel concussed.
Even still, I can’t help but think about Christmas, the holiday that has been my daily reality for two years. I’ve worked spring, summer, fall, and winter for Santa Claus — or, rather, for a man who looks exactly like Santa Claus, and possibly thinks he is Santa Claus, and is, fittingly, one of the top sellers of Christmas trees in New York City.”

Secrets of the christmas tree trade by owen long

What do we notice in Long’s lead? Look at that first paragraph alone:

  • the scene in an ER
  • imagery (fluorescent lighting)
  • sounds (groaning, jingling bells, Bing Crosby singing)
  • an element of surprise… He doesn’t feel Christmas; he feels a concussion.

What do we notice about the second paragraph?

  • There’s a shift from the scene to an overview of the writer’s experience and involvement with the job.

It would be easy to build an assignment with this article to keep your students busy during these last few days before break. Here’s how.

Lesson Plan: “Secrets of the Christmas Tree Trade” (4-5 class periods)

  1. Take one class period to read this article aloud to your students. Please note: the article is lengthy. It runs about 6,500 words… just a little longer than Chapter 1 of The Great Gatsby.
    • Vox Media, which owns Curbed, allows teachers to distribute print handouts to up to 150 students. See their policy here.
  2. As you read, have students circle especially strong imagery, dialogue and details. In other words, circle those phrasings that catch your eye, ear, or mind for any reason. Discuss these noticings. Talk about the effects of the various strong verbs, specific details, the literary devices.
    • Use the bullets above for discussion ideas.
  3. During the next class period, have students brainstorm with a partner some ideas for their own “insider” essays.
  4. Once topics are chosen or fairly settled on, have them refer to their annotated copies of the article, paying special attention to Long’s first sentences, to imitate as they zoom in on a moment in their jobs with intense descriptions. Start drafting.
  5. Have students work on 500-word (or the length you prefer) “rough drafts” for another day or so. Have them share their drafts to you when they’re ready.
  6. Skim through their writing and:
    • highlight in yellow their three strongest moments.
    • highlight in another color any fused sentences, comma splices, or sentence fragments.
  7. Then tell students to 1) remove 250 least important words, 2) leave in their yellow highlighted strongest moments, 3) repair their sentence errors. Students should retain their marked-up draft.
  8. Assign the final draft. The goal: significant improvement over the rough draft.
  9. Grade it fast! Award students full points for showing improvement through revision.

That’s it!

Need to fill another day?

Have students read their first two or three paragraphs. Fit in speaking and listening standards by asking students to write down one question on notebook paper after each reading. Call on a student at random to ask their question.

Marilyn Yung

Thanks for reading!

I truly love this article. It’s Christmas-y, well-written, and ripe for imitating. Isn’t it great when you find real-world essays that can be used in the classroom?

Let me know if you decide to use it and tell me how it goes by leaving a message on my Contact page.

Merry Christmas!

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ELA Brave and True

When Students are Disengaged and Unable to Focus

4 Causes of Distraction from Stolen Focus by Johann Hari

Cell phones have taken over our lives. And I know that sounds simplistic and ranty. But y’know what? It’s true. I find myself increasingly using my phone… even when I don’t want to. It’s just there. So I grab it. And then I start skimming and scrolling. I know I use my phone too often as a crutch. It’s too easy to do.

And it’s not just me, either. Heck, I can’t even show a movie in class anymore without kids drifting off to their phones. I’ll say it again: They can’t even watch a movie. That kind of distraction is more than distraction; it’s dependency. (Not to mention that it kills your enthusiasm for teaching!) I won’t go so far as to say that distraction is an addiction, but Johann Hari, the New York Times Best-Selling author of Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — and How to Think Deeply Again, might call it that.

I read Stolen Focus, the New York Times best-selling author’s new book a couple of weeks ago. It’s ranked as one of Amazon’s Top Ten Best Books of 2022.

The book’s title immediately resonated with me because I’m curious about what’s happening with our attention spans. Students tell me frequently that they don’t read books. They tell me they can’t focus. They tell me books are boring. “I get too distracted,” they say. “I’d rather watch a video or a documentary than read a book,” I also hear.

Digital technology — specifically, the internet, social media, and the ultra-convenient Smart phone — has cultivated an epidemic of distraction and a loss of focus. Quoting Dr. Joel Nigg, professor and clinical psychologist at Oregon Science and Health University, Hari writes, “…we need to ask if we are now developing ‘an attentional pathogenic culture’ — an environment in which sustained and deep focus is extremely hard for all of us, and you have to swim upstream to achieve it.”

Stolen Focus author Johann Hari also authored Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression. Watch the TED Talk here.

According to Hari, we need to heal our attention spans and regain the ability to focus for three reasons. The book’s introduction includes those reasons:

  1. We need to take back our focus because “a life full of distractions is, at an individual level, a diminished life”.
  2. We need to take back our focus because “this fracturing of attention isn’t just causing problems for us as individuals — it’s causing crises in our whole society.”
  3. We need to take back our focus because — if we understand our loss — we can.

In the following fourteen chapters, Hari outlines twelve causes of our epidemic of distraction. Four of those reasons — all at the top of his list — seemed especially significant and prescient to me as they are also reminders of how I can minimize my own distractions and regain own my ability to focus.

Hari’s Four Top Causes of Distraction

1. The Increase in Speed, Switching, and Filtering

Speed: Hari’s ideas on this cause boil down to this: “More speed means less comprehension.” Our brains cannot operate as fast as our devices can to process the increased speed in the information that I consume. We need to slow down.

Switching: Basically, Hari shatters the myth of multi-tasking. When we think we’re multi-tasking, we’re not. Instead, our brains are switching from one task to another. For example, when I switch from writing a thesis statement to answering a text, my brain changes gears to read that text. Plus, when I return to the thesis statement, my brain doesn’t simply pick up where it left off. It has to backtrack to resume the earlier thinking. Our brains cannot multi-task; they’re built for mono-tasking.

Filtering: The increased speed and switching means our brains must also learn to filter out irrelevant or unimportant information. That filtering takes a toll on our abilities to focus as well.

photo of a girl reading a white notebook
Photo by cottonbro studio on

2. The Crippling of Our Flow States

When we find ourselves getting lost in an especially meaningful task or hobby, we experience what Hari calls “flow.” Finding fulfillment in an activity (for example, painting or rock climbing) that we can lose ourselves in fortifies our lives with focus and purpose. However, going out for coffee won’t give us flow. Neither will watching a movie, lounging by a pool, or scrolling social media.

Hari writes that flow state activities should be 1) clearly defined, 2) meaningful, and 3) at the edge of our abilities. They can’t be too easy or too difficult. We won’t achieve fulfilment in a flow activity if it doesn’t challenge us.

And because part of why I’m interested in this topic is because I care about my students, here’s the sentence that leaped from the page as I read it:

“Starved of flow, we become stumps of ourselves, sensing somewhere what we might have been.”

Johann Hari | Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — And How to Think Deeply Again

Is it possible students are suffering more anxiety and stress because they’re not experiencing “flow” and — here’s the kicker — deep down inside they know they’re falling short of their potentials? Could that realization be the actual root of their anxiety?

3. The Collapse of Sustained Reading

Hari writes that sustained reading of printed is plummeting. In fact, Hari writes, “…between 2008 and 2016 the market for novels fell by 40 percent. In one single year — 2011– paperback fiction sales sales collapsed by 26 percent.”

He also contends that reading a novel or other longer work is one of the most common “flow state” activities that most people have participated in. But let’s be real: for many high school students, the last time they read a complete book was in middle school. However, allowing ourselves to return to quiet, undistracted periods of reading will improve our focus.

This is probably the most disheartening prospect for me to consider with students. I’m just not sure how to effectively encourage kids to read. (When I hype up reading, I picture myself as the teacher in the old Charlie Brown cartoons who drones unintelligibly to the classoom.)

A picture of a woman saying "Blah, blah, blah." This is what I picture my students thinking when I encourage them to read.

I know their enthusiasm hinges on finding a book they can get lost in. That’s really hard to do, especially given the state of many school libraries. While I have known many students who read for pleasure, those kids are in the extreme minority.

Reading from screens is also having a negative effect on reading.

Here’s a thought from Hari: “Reading books trains us to read in a particular way — in a linear fashion, focused on one thing for a sustained period. Reading from screens, she (Anne Mangen, professor of literacy at the University of Stavanger in Norway) has discovered, trains us to read in a different way — in a manic skip and jump from one thing to another.” The author adds that Mangen’s studies conclude, “We’re more likely to scan and skim” when we read on screens, … — we run our eyes rapidly over the information to extract what we need.” As a result, we lose the ability to immerse ourselves in another world, and to experience the deep thought that our brains crave.

Screen reading is contaminating our book reading, Hari writes, adding that Mangen informed, “‘…we are now losing our ability to read long texts anymore,’ and we are also losing our ‘cognitive patience… (and) the stamina and the ability to deal with cognitively challenging texts.'”

As a literature instructor, this is indeed my call to arms.

4. The End of Mind Wandering

The fourth and final cause of distraction that I’d like to share with you from Hari’s book dispels the idea that “downtime” is time wasted. On the contrary, we must allow our minds to roam freely. Have you ever felt that your best ideas come to you, for example, when you’re driving or in the shower? When our minds are allowed to rest, we are better able to think deeply. According to Hari, three things happen when we allow our minds to wander. Here they are:

  1. We slowly make sense of the world. He uses an example of the activity our brains engage in when we read. As we read, we comprehend the action of the book, but we also make behind-the-scenes connections to our own lives, the earlier chapters of the book, and what might happen next. Hari writes, “Having enough mental space to roam is essential for you to be able to understand a book.”
  2. We make new connections between things, which often produces solutions to your problems.
  3. We start to think about the future. We are freed up to prepare for what’s next by reflecting on what’s passed.

So many of Hari’s ideas are provocative and practical. Some of the other causes of distraction that he discusses in Stolen Focus include:

  • The Rise of Physical and Mental Exhaustion
  • The Rise of Technology That Can Track and Manipulate You
  • Our Deteriorating Diets and Rising Pollution
  • The Confinement of Our Children, Both Physically and Psychologically
Marilyn Yung

This has been one of the most valuable books I’ve read recently. Check out a copy from your library or order one to read soon. At 283 pages, it’s a quick and engaging read.

Thanks for reading! Struggle with teaching when students have their phones, laptops, and airpods in? Do you wonder where this is all headed? Have your read Stolen Focus?

Share your thoughts below or on my Contact page. Happy teaching! Have a great December!

Need a new poetry idea?

Enter your email below and I’ll send you this PDF file that will teach your students to write Treasured Object Poems, one of my favorite poem activities. I know your students will enjoy it!