Headline poetry and serendipity

Concrete Prayers | M. Yung

It’s okay to go with the flow… or not

Concrete Prayers

Concrete prayers

Repel, repel

A doomed self-regard

& remake common children

into Hydrangea tides.

When creating a headline poem, it’s okay and good to let the words find you. Another way to say it: don’t insist on finding the word you think you need.

Be open to the poem that will surface on its own.

Be open also to the poem that may surface in response to its background. When you forego a blank background and arrange your poem onto an image (like I did with the vintage photo above), you may wish to exert some control over happenstance.

For example, my original poem included the words “common mistakes,” instead of “common children.” However, because placing the word “mistake” near the little girl’s gaze seemed incongruous and dismissive, I opted to find another word. I knew I had seen “children” somewhere in the scattering on my desk, so I searched until I found it.

When I took control and opted for “children” over “mistakes,” this poem transformed into one about motherhood and parenting and trusting that the children you raise will flourish with the confidence that prayer brings.

As for those Hydrangea tides… I do love headline poetry’s capacity for metaphor. If I had been searching only my mind’s eye for the words for this poem, I never would have compared children to tides of flowers.  But it works beautifully… for me, anyway.

The metaphor speaks of the generations of children, which follow one after the other, — a ceaseless tide of humanity, if you will — that rise, recede, and rise again to bear, influence and assume the course of humanity.  

Headline poetry is my jam. I love its possibilities and its artistic potential. I love how it makes me think. Check out my headline poetry resources here. Leave a comment to let me know how I can help you use headline poetry to reach and engage student writers. For more ELA teaching ideas and lesson plans, sign up for my mailing list below. Thank you!

Success! You're on the list.

The New York Times announces two new writing contests

Photo: Marco Lenti on Unsplash

Both ask students to record their lives in the year 2020

Last Thursday, I attended a webinar titled “Giving Students a Voice: Teaching with Learning Network Contests.” It was hosted by The New York Times’ Learning Network. Teachers from around the world gathered online to get the skinny on a total of ten student writing contests scheduled for the 2020-2021 school year.

You can still attend the webinar on-demand by clicking this link.

Despite the uncertainty looming over classes this fall, please know that these contests (including the two new ones discussed below) are still on the schedule to motivate your students with the possibility of being published in The New York Times and/or on The Learning Network website.

I’ll provide links and details about all the contests within the week. For now, discover the two new contests below.

The two new contests are:

  1. Coming of Age in 2020: Teen Takeover (Sept. 10-Nov. 12): According to the contest calendar, this contest is intended “To recognize just how tumultuous this year has been — and how disproportionately young people have been impacted.” Complete details are still being worked out, and that includes the age range for students who may enter; however, read “This Year Will End Eventually. Document It While You Can” for ideas about what judges will be looking for… authentic stories from Gen Z about their lives in 2020. In the webinar, Natalie Proulx, staff editor for The Learning Network, suggested that essays, art, song lyrics, and other creations will be eligible. Click here for more details.
  2. Election 2020: Civil Conversation Challenge (Sept. 22-Oct. 30): A repeat of a similar contest in 2016, students (U.S. and international) may post comments in several topic forums, which are currently being chosen. To contribute an idea for one of the forums, read this article, What Issues in the 2020 Presidential Race are Most Important to You? The object of this contest is to get students engaged in civil conversations comprised of respectful, productive comments about the divisive issues of 2020. (Adults have problems being civil, so maybe kids can do better, right?!) For more info, click here. Traditional prizes are not awarded for this challenge; however, Learning Network staff will recognize some of their favorite comments and conversations from the various topic forums.

There. That should get you started in creating some authentic writing experiences for your students with these 2020-2021 contests. Follow me to be notified of my post about the remaining contests and the accompanying materials that will help you use them in your classroom. In the meantime, check out the links below.

More really useful links:

  • Webinar Resource List PDF. This is full of links to everything you’ll need to access these contests and other Learning Network resources in your teaching next year.
  • Contest Calendar. This contains all the pertinent info and details you need on each of The Learning Network’s contests, including mentor texts, lesson plans, idea generators, and rubrics. Bookmark this site for future reference.

Thanks for reading! I’m really into contests for students. Click on my Student Writing Contests page for more listings. Also, for more ELA teaching ideas and lesson plans, enter your email below. In return, you’ll receive an email with a link to a free Treasured Object Poem guidelines sheet that includes mentor texts.

Success! You're on the list.

Six writing prompts for Article of the Week essays

Offer students more ways to respond

If you’re a fan of Article of the Week (AOW) assignments and student choice, then this post is for you.

Side note: If you’re unfamiliar with the AOW assignment, scroll to the bottom first for a quick explanation and here’s a link to my post about how I use the AOW in my classroom.

In the past, when creating my AOW assignments, I usually included only one prompt and positioned it below the rubric on each AOW. Often, the same or a variation of the same prompt appeared on more than one AOW, but yesterday I asked myself:

Why not simply provide a list of response options that students can access and choose from each week?

So yesterday morning, I skimmed through my AOW assignments from 2019-2020, copied and pasted the various writing prompts and compiled them into this group of six.

This group of six response ideas could be used with any AOW assignment in order to give students choice in their writing. They could be posted on a bulletin board or an anchor chart, on a Google doc, in a Padlet, or wherever.

I hope to develop about six more text-based prompts that are “meaty” enough to require a response of 250-400 words; however, in the meantime, I’ll share the first six with you here:

Reader’s Response Choices for AOWs

  1. Make a clear, defensible claim about the topic of the text. Support your claim with clear reasons and relevant evidence from the text. 
  2. Explain your opinion on the main argument of the article. Explore the ideas of someone who would disagree with you.
  3. Discuss the research and/or other sources used by the writer of the article. Is the research relevant? Is it from a reputable source or not? How do you know?  
  4. Choose a new-to-you word from the article and reflect on its use and meaning in the article.
  5. Discuss a “writing move” made by the writer in this piece that you think is interesting. Explain its effectiveness.
  6. Pick a specific passage from the article and respond to it. (Credit to Kelly Gallagher for these last two prompts.)

No, these prompts might not be suitable for every AOW. After all, you might find an article that warrants an entirely different prompt, one that you would need to design specifically for that article.

However, for the majority of texts, I think students could find one from this list that’s to their liking and go with it.

If you’re unfamiliar with Article of the Week assignments, read below:
Article of the Week assignments, also known as AOWs, are a mainstay in my high school ELA classes. Many teachers across the country use these assignments, which were designed by teacher and author Kelly Gallagher. Gallagher's basic goal of the assignment is to get students reading about current events in order to build their prior knowledge so they are better able to comprehend the texts they encounter during high school and beyond. 

According to the AOW archives page of his website:  "Kelly recognizes that part of the reason his students struggle with reading is because they lack prior knowledge and background. They can decode the words, but the words remain meaningless without a foundation of knowledge."

Gallagher offers his complete archive of AOW assignments from 2019-2020. Click here for assignments dating back to 2013-2014. 

Here’s an example of one of my AOWs. The individually written prompt below the rubric could be eliminated from this sheet (and allow more room for text and annotating) if students could refer instead to a standing list of response choices, which could be posted in the room or in Google Classroom.

I plan to offer these six choices regularly this fall with the AOWs I assign, so I won’t have to make a writing prompt section on the assignment sheet each time AND so students have more choice when planning out their responses.

There is a risk, though. If the standing choices imbue a sense of ready-made “generic-ness” or diminishes the individual nature of each AOW, then I’ll rethink this change.

However, if the bottom line is to infuse more choice into these trusted assignments through more response options each time, I definitely want to at least try it.

Thanks for reading! Do you use AOWs? How do you assign the writing topics for them? Feel free to leave a comment below with your ideas.

And one more thing: Join my mailing list by entering your email address below. In return, I’ll send you a link to a guidelines sheet for Treasured Object poems that you can use to introduce this creative activity to your students.

Success! You're on the list.

Unapologetic and Afrocentric: The Bluest Eye

Toni Morrison | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Toni Morrison claims the center of the world

This is a follow-up post to the original one I wrote on The Bluest Eye by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison. I concluded that post discussing the benefits of second and multiple readings of texts in order to fully and more completely grasp their messages.

In re-reading The Bluest Eye, I have one main observation: this novel clearly reveals one goal Morrison sought throughout her career… the desire to remain unapologetic with regard to Black American culture.

The Bluest Eye | Penguin Random House
Am I over-reaching to connect this unapologetic thrust to Afrocentrism?

Morrison took inspiration from Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) for this direction in her work. She explains in this Associated Press article:

“The writers who affected me the most were novelists who were writing in Africa: Chinua Achebe, ‘Things Fall Apart,’ was a major education for me,” Morrison, who had studied William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf as a graduate student, told the AP in 1998.

“They took their black world for granted. No black writer (in America) had done that except for Jean Toomer with ‘Cane.’ Everybody else had some confrontation with white people, which was not to say that Africans didn’t, but there was linguistically an assumption. The language was the language of the center of the world, which was them.

“So that made it possible for me to write ‘The Bluest Eye’ and not explain anything. That was wholly new! It was like a step into an absolutely brand new world. It was liberating in a way nothing had been before!”

Toni Morrison as quoted in “World Mourns the Death of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison” by Hillel Italie, Associated Press, August 6, 2019
Things Fall Apart | AbeBooks.com

Following Achebe’s lead, Morrison tells the story of Pecola Breedlove in a plain-and-simple way. There is an absence of justification, explanation, and background. In other words, she feels no need to defend or rebuke her characters’ actions or speech. She feels no need to couch the narrative in context.

Morrison tells us what Cholly did. She tells us how Pecola survived. Period.

She never writes, for example, “…and it helps to know that Cholly was like this because…” or “but Pecola had cause to feel this way because…”.

What does this absence of justification accomplish? A centering of the experiences of the lives within the novel.

They are no longer the “other.” Like the inhabitants of Wakanda, they are the center of the world.

Yes, there is so much more to understand and learn from The Bluest Eye. However, this unapologetic nod to Afrocentrism — as told through Morrison’s first novel of the story of a black girl named Pecola Breedlove — is what I recognize first and foremost in The Bluest Eye.

Thanks for reading! Have you read The Bluest Eye? Feel free to share your number one takeaway by leaving a comment below.

One more thing: Join my mailing list by entering your email address below. In return, I’ll send you a link to a Treasured Object poem guidelines sheet that you can use to introduce this creative poem activity to your students.

Success! You're on the list.

A mentor text for Treasured Object poems

Clfton’s poem, “Poem for My Yellow Coat,” makes a thought-provoking mentor text for Treasured Object poems. | Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

“Poem to My Yellow Coat” by Lucille Clifton

Last winter, I wrote a post about a fun, creative activity called Treasured Object poems. Click here for that link.

In that post, I included three student-written poems that former students had written. One was about turquoise Converse shoes, another was about a piano, and another a rocking horse. I also included a Treasured Object poem I had written about my vintage 1990s bomber jacket.

Note: If you’re unfamiliar with Treasured Object poems, think of them as an easy way to introduce your students to the creative and personal expression possibilities of poetry. Treasured Object poems are short free-verse poems about an object students value. Paying tribute to a precious personal item encourages students to think positively about their lives and builds their creative writing skills.

I remember in January wishing I had a published Treasured Object poem that students could draw inspiration from. Good news! Last week, I found a treasure from African-American poet, Lucille Clifton (1936-2010), in The Paris Review.

In this short video, Clifton explains that we come to poetry “not out of what you know but out of what you wonder.”

Below is Clifton’s poem that I plan to use the next time my students write Treasured Object poems.

Poem to My Yellow Coat

today i mourn my coat.
my old potato.
my yellow mother.
my horse with buttons.
my rind.
today she split her skin
like a snake,
refusing to excuse my back
for being big
for being old
for reaching toward other
cuffs and sleeves.
she cracked like a whip and
fell apart,
my terrible teacher to the end;
to hell with the arms you want
she hissed,
be glad when you’re cold
for the arms you have.

Locate the poem here: The Paris Review, Summer 2020.

Below, I’ve written some general steps for how I plan to include Clifton’s poem the next time my students and I write Treasured Object poems. In addition to reading a few student-written mentors, we’ll spend some time asking questions about “Poem to My Old Yellow Coat.” Read on for those general steps I plan to take.


Read the poem aloud to students two to three times to fully hear its complexity. Pause between readings and discuss any or some of the points listed below under the Discuss subheading.


Hear Clifton read this poem (and others) at voca, the University of Arizona Poetry Center’s Audio Video Library. Here’s more from voca’s About page:

voca… features recordings from the Center’s long-running Reading Series and other readings presented under the auspices of the Center. The earliest of these recordings is a Robert Creeley reading from 1963. voca includes multiple recordings of poets who have read for the Poetry Center numerous times over the years. All recordings are made available with the permission of the reader. Images are from the Center’s photographic archives.”

The University of Arizona Poetry Center

Clifton’s reading of “Poem to My Yellow Coat” is interesting because it’s recorded live before an audience. As a result, there’s an informal air to the poem that is a nice contrast to the heavier thoughts conjured by the poem’s weighty word choices.


  • Talk about those metaphors:
    • How could a coat be a horse? A rind? A mother? A potato?
    • Can’t you imagine the rich discussions about Clifton’s intention with using these out-of-the-box comparisons?
  • Talk about the repetition:
    • What’s the effect of for being big, for being old, for reaching
  • Notice the sensory imagery with sound (splitting of the skin, hissing, the cracking whip)
  • Notice the lack of capitalization. What’s the effect? Is it actually effective? How?
  • What’s the purpose or effect of comparing the coat to a snake or the cracking of a whip?
  • How could a coat be a terrible teacher?
  • What does it mean to “Be glad when you’re cold for the arms you have?”
  • What else do your students want to discuss? What more do they notice?

Make a poem:

To start, ask students to fill in the blank in this sentence:

Lucille Clifton’s yellow coat, at the end of the poem, makes me think of my _______________.

In other words, have students think of something they’ve used so much that it’s worn out and write a Treasured Object poem about it. Here are some ideas: track cleats, hunting vest, felt-tip markers.

A much used skateboard would make a great Treasured Object poem. | Photo by Ēriks Irmejs on Unsplash

If a student struggles with thinking of an object… suggest that they may write about an object that belongs to someone else, such as a family member. For example, what about that old chipped bowl their mother uses, for example, or a really old tool from the garage? After all, many students may not be old enough to own something that has worn out, so extend their thinking to objects that others have used.

If you still get blank looks from a student or two… extend their thinking to something valued that has been lost. For example, three years ago my favorite old pocket knife was confiscated by airport security when I was boarding a plane in Venice, Italy. Read this post from my other blog about that scenario. Memories about that knife, which had resided inside a little blue floral zipper bag in my purse throughout my children’s growing up years, are perfect fodder for a Treasured Object poem.

Tell your own story:

Think of a something you own that you’ve worn out and tell your students about it.

  • My own example: About a year ago, our letter opener finally gave out when the blade separated from the handle. It had been a wedding gift (28 years earlier!) and was engraved with a Y. Think of how many things it had opened: electric bills, birthday cards, medical bills, junk mail, letters from my grandmother’s visits to Texas years ago.

Don’t underestimate the power of telling stories to get your students started. Recall something of your own that would make a meaningful treasured object poem, and then…

Write alongside your students.

Some final thoughts:

  1. Ask students to pack as many unexpected metaphors as possible into their poem. For unexpected metaphors, suggest that students look for fresh words in magazines or old newspapers. Use the process of headline poetry to generate unusual, yet powerful, word choices.
  2. Display poems in your hallway, in your classroom in a “gallery walk” style, or for online learning, have students post their poems to Padlet.
  3. Middle school students are invited to submit their poems for publication by Creative Communications. This company publishes hardcover poetry anthologies. There is no purchase necessary to submit poems or to appear in the anthology. Read here for more information. The deadline for their summer anthology is August 13.

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to receive a PDF file of my Treasured Object Poem guidelines to use with students, enter your email address below and I’ll send it to you pronto, along with more ELA teaching ideas and lesson plans.

Success! You're on the list.

“Poem to My Yellow Coat” by Lucille Clifton used following guidelines from the Center for Media & Social Impact Best Practices for Fair Use of Poetry

When students ask, “Why do we read such depressing stuff?!”

Especially in times like these???

My students have told me the following list of nonfiction books is depressing.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

Unknown photographer; Collectie Anne Frank Stichting Amsterdam / Public domain

Flesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglas 1840s | Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Public domain

102 Minutes by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn

Night by Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel | Photo: World Economic Forum from Cologny, Switzerland / Creative Commons

And I wholeheartedly agree that yes, these books are about terrible atrocities. I mean, look at the subject matter:

And these are just a few books that many students would label as downright depressing. I’m sure several others spring to mind as you’re reading this.

When my students have voiced their concerns over depressing lit, it has usually led to some of the best, deepest discussions we’ve ever had because it gets us talking about life, about learning, about making a difference.

Those discussions usually end with an understanding that while literature can be sad, it can also illuminate cruelties, dangers, and inequities that exist in humanity.

So why do we spend so much time reading literature that is undeniably mournful?

Because most literature, while depressing, still affirms life.

Despite all the horror and despair found in the events that authors have written about, there is an underlying affirmation of life. An event can very much be depressing and sorrowful, but the retelling and analysis of that event through literature can affirm the human experience and the precious gift of life.

You can read about New York City’s 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, for example, but leave it with an appreciation for the progress in workplace safety that the disaster brought forth. The fire where 146 mostly female immigrant workers perished in a burning building with empty water buckets, a dismantled fire escape, and locked doors eventually resulted in mandatory fire drills, sprinkler systems, improved working conditions, and more.

Those fire alarms on the wall? The Triangle Fire put them there.

So many needed changes resulted from the depressing story of the Triangle Fire. I visited the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire in spring 2019. There are two plaques on the corner of the Asch Building (as the building was known in 1911), the location of the fire. The upper plaque, placed by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, reads as follows: On this site, 146 workers lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in a March 25, 1911. Out of their martyrdom came new concepts of social responsibility and labor legislation that have helped make American working conditions the finest in the world.

So whether we’re reading about that horrific fire or some other terrible tragedy, there is positive purpose to our reading and we can take comfort in that.

We read depressing literature to proclaim that life is beautiful and to attest that the human experience is worth improving by correcting wrongs, undoing injustices, and striving for better.

Life affirmation is the key.

I just had to get this off my chest because sometimes I question what gets read in the classroom. I’m still planning on having some of my students read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, the landmark novel that spurred changes in the meat-packing industry this upcoming school year. Some students will think it’s depressing, but they also must realize that it affirms life.

For creative ELA teaching ideas and lesson plans, enter your email below to stay in touch. Enter your email here:

Success! You're on the list.

Distance learning idea: Two crowdsource history sites need your students’ help

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

Add a touch of PBL to distance learning

Students thrive when what they do is REAL. And by real, I mean that their work actually has a purpose not just within the walls of the school building, but beyond those walls in the real world.

When students know that real people are going to consume their work, they intrinsically care more about the result. That intrinsic care is what makes me a big fan of Project-Based Learning (PBL).

As a result, I try to keep my eyes open for free PBL opportunities where students — especially those in high school — can produce work for the real world.

In addition, with distance learning being a real possibility for schools in the United States, allowing your students to work with these sites may infuse some PBL magic into your lesson plans.

In this post, I’ll highlight opportunities from the Library of Congress and the National Archives that invite students (or any volunteer, for that matter) to transcribe historical documents. Apparently, there are thousands of documents that both of these groups wish to make accessible to the public. The sheer volume of letters, journals, diaries, newspapers, court brief, memoranda, and other documents necessitates that volunteers — including students — help out.

Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

And while I’ve touted these sites as PBL projects, let’s make sure we understand that the primary contribution students are making to these projects is transcription… not exactly a higher-order thinking activity.

I get that concern. I really do.

However, I believe there is value in allowing your students to peruse through a variety of primary sources to experience history in a tangible way and to gain an appreciation of the development of language and communications technology.

After all, who wouldn’t be intrigued with the prospect of transcribing 1925 “secret and confidential correspondence” from the Chief of Naval Operations to the Commanding Officer of the USS Dallas about submarine battle depth charges?

Or the diaries of physician Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), the woman “widely considered to be the first American woman to receive an academic medical degree” and who worked with the support of Florence Nightingale and others to open the medical profession to women?

Elizabeth Blackwell | Photo: Public domain

Or the 1982 nomination form by the owner of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’ home for placement on the National Register of Historic Places?

Langston Hughes | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There’s a trove of history on both of these governmental sites. There’s also exposure to vocabulary, grammar, usage, mechanics, and linguistics… not to mention an intimate glimpse into the lives of people who have gone before us, from the well-known to the obscure.

Transport your students back in time while allowing them to contribute toward the online publication of these documents for use by real people out in the real world.

And yes, I should warn you that some of the documents are indeed difficult to read. There will be opportunities for you to get in the trenches with your kids and decipher handwritten and even some of the typed documents. It can become tedious and frustrating (trust me on this), so definitely take a look at some of the documents beforehand to find a project fit for your kids.

Dig deeper into these two sites:

  • By the People at The Library of Congress
    • This is a crowd-sourced transcription project that “invites you to transcribe, review, and tag digitized images of manuscripts and typed materials from the Library’s collections.”
    • Transcription projects are grouped into several “campaigns.” For example, students can transcribe letters and other documents from educator, women’s rights advocate and civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell. She was the founding president of the National Association of Colored Women and, in 1909, a founder of the NAACP.
    • Another By the People campaign is called The Blackwells: An Extraordinary Family. In this campaign, students are invited to “explore the long struggle for equality through the diaries, letters, and speeches of the men and women who fought for the right to vote and changed political history 100 years ago.”
    • Students can click on links to educational and historical info for each campaign to understand the context of the material they are reading and transcribing.
    • I opened an account and can attest that it’s very user-friendly and loaded with tips and forums to assist. Campaign projects are labelled as to their progress of completion with terms such as completed, needs review, in process, or not started. Currently, 1,703 volunteers have provided help on The Blackwell Family campaign to date. Several campaigns are marked “All Done!” and need no further work.
    • Have your students go this page to become a volunteer transcriber. They will not need to open an account to participate, but if they wish to return later to a document, they will need to open an account.
    • Get your students up and running with the site’s brief tutorials and helpful hints, which they can continue to consult as needed while they transcribe. Organizers know the process must be simple to encourage volunteers to help out, so they really do make it easy. Click here for the By The People Help Center.
    • Worried about mistakes? Don’t worry. Student work is reviewed by other volunteer transcribers and historians. Visit this page for more info.
Photo by Andrew Buchanan on Unsplash
  • National Archives Citizen Archivist
    • The National Archives has a similar program to By the People and it’s called Citizen Archivist. Students read, transcribe, review, and tag documents in the National Archives’ collections.
    • The National Archives groups its projects into “missions” instead of campaigns like the Library of Congress.
    • There are many missions available. Open a document, click on a page without a blue tag, and start typing. Their progress will be contained on their dashboards when students open an account.
    • One project includes transcribing issues from a periodical called The Mission Indian, a newsletter that served the large number of Native American tribes in the southern California Mission region from 1932-1941. This newsletter was published by the Office of Indian Affairs. Honestly, there is so much history to learn!
    • Other Citizen Archivist missions include:
      • “Submarines,” where students can transcribe patrol reports and reports of sinking enemy submarines; or
      • “Award Cards,” where students can transcribe index cards for awards such as the Purple Heart, Air Medal Decoration, and Distinguished Service Cross with soldier names, service numbers, ranks, award dates, and award type. There are forums within the site to help your students note awards these correctly and consistently.
    • Imagine how enticing it would be to transcribe a document when these words are stamped at the top: “DO NOT DESTROY – HISTORICAL VALUE – NATIONAL ARCHIVES”
    • Like By The People, the Citizen Archivist offers this FAQs page to help answer questions from their transcribers. Have your kids visit these pages to learn how to transcribe, tag, and review. When questions arise as they work, they can review the guidelines as needed.
    • I think the Citizen Archivist is slightly less user-friendly than the Library of Congress site upon initial use. It became easier the more I worked on it, though.
    • When students create an account, they’ll be able to return to their dashboard whenever they log in and return to their mission work. Creating a private account enables students to have an ongoing project.
    • Student usernames appear as the “contributor” on the projects. (Make sure students choose an anonymous username for their own privacy.)

There are many more crowd-sourcing PBL opportunities out there. For example, I’m researching one by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, but I’m having trouble coordinating the required free Ancestry.com account with the software program used to create the database.

Also, there’s another project called missingmaps.org that enables users to “map areas where humanitarian organizations are trying to meet the needs of vulnerable people.” Truly intriguing!

As I gather more information on both of these, I’ll write another post. In the meantime, if you have information or experience with these two, please let me know with a comment below or on my Contact page.

Like other teachers right now, I’m grappling with how to make my teaching “go the distance” this fall.

Even though these sites mean more screen-time (ugh) for students, I do think it’s worth exploring how these crowdsource transcription sites may enhance distance learning as well.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to sign up to be placed on my mailing list for ELA teaching ideas, lesson plans (including what I come up with regarding remote learning ideas), PLUS news about writing contests. I’ll only send an email about once a month and I’ll make sure to include a free resource. Sign up below and… THANK YOU!

Success! You're on the list.

The distance learning dilemma

“While Supplies Last” | Headline poetry by Marilyn Yung

What are your thoughts?

I made this headline poem a few days ago after reading some teacher comments in a private Facebook group I follow. The discussion centered on whether or not to return to school next month.

Many teachers don’t want to return to school. It’s a personal and public health issue for them. And they’re right.

However, the return to school is not a “one size fits all” decision.

Each district must assess its situation, taking into account its own students, parents and family members, and teachers and staff.

As for me, I would like to return to school next month with a routine that observes social distancing and uses face masks. If that means I go to school daily to see half of my students, so be it. If it means covering less material, so be it. But return to school… yes, let’s do it.

But my situation is unique.

So far, our rural school district has been relatively untouched by the pandemic. After all, our county was the LAST out of 114 in my state to see its first COVID-19 case. That’s right: the LAST county. And, according to my CDC app, that first case was seen only yesterday, July 9.

While distance learning seems like an adequate alternative for many school districts, it is fraught with impossibilities for mine due to the lack of reliable, affordable internet in our region. Administrators at my school conducted a survey that found 47.8 percent of our students did not have Internet access at home through a computer, laptop or Chromebook.

So, obviously, distance learning is a problem for us.

For us, distance learning means taking home a textbook, picking up handouts, and students dropping off homework in bins labelled with teachers’ names and arranged on tables in the parking lot. It also means using Remind, which is helpful in places without reliable internet access.

Without that access, distance learning means no group discussion. No in-person conferencing. No funny banter. No tic-tac-toe at the end of class with that one student who’s behind in all his classes.

That level of positive contact with students is a major reason I would like to see my district return to school… assuming social distancing (combined with masks) can be practiced effectively.

At least that’s how I see it. Today. Right now. With the U.S. case count now more than 3,000,000, and with no slow down in sight, I may feel differently in a few days.

This was not my usual post, but I thought I’d publish it anyway. I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas in a comment below. Also, sign up for my mailing list for ELA teaching ideas, lesson plans (including what I come up with regarding remote learning ideas), PLUS news about writing contests. I’ll only send an email about once a month and I’ll make sure to include a free resource. Sign up below and… THANK YOU!

Success! You're on the list.

Remind app revisited

Remind makes sense for areas with unreliable internet. In other words, rural areas.

In March, when my school closed for the remainder of the year, it quickly became apparent that Remind (it’s free, fyi) would be the easiest way for me to stay in touch with students. In fact, I ended up using Remind for all my student contact.

There was one main reason why Remind made sense to me: unreliable, unaffordable bad internet access.

During those final days before we closed, our administration conducted a survey that found 47.8 percent of our students did not have Internet access at home through a computer, laptop or Chromebook. As a result, I couldn’t use Zoom meetings or require kids to watch videos or even use Google Classroom. (I did try Padlet for the first time, but made sure students knew that if they had trouble posting due to a poor signal, they could text me their response or turn it in on homework drop-off days and I would post it online for them.)

Remind was my obvious choice since internet access was (and still is) a problem at my rural school district.

I’ve used Remind for several years now, starting with my middle school students and their parents in my previous positions as ELA teacher and Junior Beta Club sponsor.

I downloaded the app onto my iPhone and, of course, I also use it on my laptop. It’s easy to use on either device, but I find that messages are easier to compose when you can type them on a bigger screen.

Having the app on your phone means you can respond quickly to students. That can be good and bad since some students like to work extremely late at night and have no problem asking you a question at 1 a.m. or later! (Note to self: adjust notification settings!)

Here’s a list of cool things you can do with Remind:

  • Send out reminders about upcoming due dates and assignments.
  • Attach a Google Doc to your message. So if you have an assignment that uses a Google Doc handout, you can attach that handout straight from your Google Drive account.
  • Attach any file from your hard drive to your message, such as a Word document or PDF.
  • Include a link to any website, video, audio clip, or podcast.
  • Send a message to an entire class, a group, or to a single student.
  • Send a message to a mix of students from across all your classes (Btw, you can have up to ten classes with the free plan). Just enter one or two letters from the student’s name and it will appear in search.
  • Request that students respond with reactions to your messages (so you know they’ve been received).
A screen shot of a Remind ressage.
Another screen shot that shows how links appear from the web.
My top reason to use Remind:

It’s easy to enter students in your app, and it’s easy for students to join.

This is a screen shot showing where students are added to your classes.
Follow these directions to help your class sign up via text.
My top Remind complaint:

The 160-character limit for group messages. Ugh. However, the upside is that it forces you to be brief! (However, on a few days, I did have to send out three to four messages to get my ideas across.)

Here’s how I used Remind last spring during our COVID-19 closing:

  • I sent short messages reminding students of a day’s activity. Even though I had made and distributed a “Distance Learning Instructions” sheet and directions and schedules covering March 18-31, April 1-15, and April 16-30, I still sent Remind messages regularly to keep students on schedule. These messages usually included links to the schedules, handouts, the Padlets, and other files that students needed to do the activities.
  • I was able to determine who had NOT signed up for my Remind messages by glancing through each class’ roster. For example, about eight kids were absent on our last day before closing, so I emailed those kids instead or signed them up on Remind later.
  • I was able to give credit where it was due. One assignment was turned in without a name on one of our drop-off homework days. I took a picture of it and sent it to everyone in the class and quickly (within two minutes!) found the owner.
  • I was able to keep in touch with a student who had written about his depression in a journal entry he had turned in. Of course, I didn’t pry about his situation, but I let him know I was willing to help him contact a counselor and keep his school work up to date. There often isn’t time for one-on-one interactions like this to offer students extra help or guidance. Believe it or not, in this case, distance learning actually helped me connect with this particular student better.
Those were the days! Some of my students at a writing conference last December.

Remind was my lifeline during our school closing.

In fact, if we must close again this fall, I’ll continue to use it since it supports locales with unreliable internet. And even though Remind experienced glitches due to system overload back in March, most of the problems were solved by the time I returned with my coffee refill.

Yes, there are other distance learning resources that I may use to supplement my very basic routine that revolves around Remind, paper, and textbooks. But for then and now, Remind gets the job done well and equitably for all my students.

Thanks for reading! Are you a Remind user? Share your experience by leaving a comment below. And for more ELA teaching ideas and lessons, (did you catch my Favorite Place Poetry lesson?), enter your email below to be placed on my mailing list. Don’t worry, I’ll contact you only about once a month and I’ll throw in a special freebie that I think will be really helpful to you. Sign up here:

Success! You're on the list.

The Favorite Place Poem

Photo: Tim Mossholder on Pexels

Have students create content with a poem about their favorite place

Many of my students are reading poetry. On Instagram. Okay, okay… I know. But whether or not you take verse found on Instagram seriously, poetry is experiencing a resurgence in popularity… thanks to social media, where many poets, including Rupi Kaur and others, gain exposure. That exposure is fueling a new audience seeking out poetry volumes in stores and online. According to this October 2018 article in The Atlantic,

“This year, according to a survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Census Bureau, 28 million Americans are reading poetry—the highest percentage of poetry readership in almost two decades. Kaur’s publisher, Kirsty Melville, has seen it happen firsthand: ‘It used to be that poetry was down in the back of the store next to the bathrooms, and now it’s out front,’ she told us. ‘And that naturally helps sales of all poets. The classics and other contemporary poets are selling.’ “

How Instagram Saved Poetry | The Atlantic | Faith Hill, Karen Yuan | Oct 2018

Chances are many of your students are familiar with Kaur. They are also probably familiar with Atticus. Go ahead and drop these well-known names into your class discussions. Trust me, if you don’t know these two celebrity-poets, several of your students do.

And then, invite your students to not only consume content, but to create some as well.

One way to start: write a favorite place poem.

Whether you call them favorite place poems or sacred place poems, getting students to focus on and write a poem about a place they enjoy has many benefits. For example, favorite place poems let students:

  • Spend time thinking about a positive topic.
  • Recall a pleasant memory.
  • Practice their descriptive writing skills.
  • Reveal something new about themselves.

Favorite place poems were one of the options among several writing projects in my high school Writer’s Workshop schedule last fall. Here are the basic guidelines I offered to students:

  1. Choose a special place to write about. This could be either a physical space or a figurative place, as in the mentor poem on the PDF printable.
  2. In a free verse poem, describe the place and how it makes you feel when you’re there. Students should challenge themselves to generate as much sensory language as possible by focusing on sounds, smells, textures, and tastes, and sharp visual descriptions.
  3. Use figures of speech. Include metaphor, simile, hyperbole, onomatopoeia, personification, repetition, and alliteration.
  4. Length: 20-24 lines.  Use your judgment when assigning a certain number of lines. Some students need the structure; many don’t.

You’ll find a PDF file of these instructions after the two student-written examples that appear next.

Two student examples:

Madison, one of my junior English students last year, wrote about her favorite place in the poem below. After two revisions, she submitted this as part of her writer’s studio portfolio.

My Favorite Place to Be

"Madison Ponder on deck!"
As I hear my name, I burst up onto my feet and stretch.
Preparing myself to throw,
I concentrate on my muscles.
"Madison Ponder is up,
Emma Bloom on deck,
And Amy Matthews in the hole!"
I take a deep breath and enter the ring from the back.
I touch the toeboard with the tip of my feet,
Turn around,
And take two strides to the back of the ring.
I feel the heat radiating on me
I take a deep breath and move into position,
When I throw my shot, I watch it fo far and high.
I then hear it land with a big thump.
"38 feet and 10 inches."
I smile and xit the back of the ring.
Two hours later
"With the first place in shot put,
From Southwest Missour,
Madison Ponderrrr!"
I smile proudly and say to myself,
This is my favorite place to be.

Another student, Grady, wrote a favorite place poem about working at a cattle auction sale barn.

The Sale Barn

The smell of sweat and cigarettes fill the air. 
The clink of the gates rattles and 
The sound of cows bawling surrounds me. 
The horses stomp their feet 
And pin their ears back 
As the rider pulls the gate. 
The cows just sold by the auctioneer 
Come running down the alley. 
Dust flies in the air and the riders take off. 
The gates slam behind the cows as they run in. 
Everyone returns to their spot. 
Twelve hours a day. 
This is home. 
This is the sale barn. 

The 2019-2020 school year was my first year teaching high school at a new-to-me rural school district. Being “the new teacher” last year was really hard at times. However, assigning, reading, and otherwise working on these poems with my new students opened up conversations for us to get to know each other better. After all, a novel study doesn’t regularly reveal the after school or weekend lives our students know.

I’m positive you’ll experience the same opportunities when your students write their own favorite place poems.

Download this favorite place poem assignment sheet:

And I use the term “assignment sheet” loosely. It’s more of a list of guidelines. Adjust them to fit your teaching style and students.

Of course, distance learning could (and should!) involve some creative writing. Students could post and share their poems on a Padlet, for example. Then host a virtual gallery walk where students post feedback on a few. Some students may wish to post their poem on social media or enter it in a contest. In other words, let your students’ words about their favorite places circulate beyond your desk. Get them out into the real world.

Thanks for reading! Have you used favorite place poems in your classes? Got any ideas other readers (including me!) should know about? Share away in the comments below! Also… for more ELA teaching ideas and lesson plans, add your name to my mailing list below:

Success! You're on the list.