The Dream of the Rood: a dream of a poem

Plus: a link to my new close reading activity

During this, my second year teaching junior and senior English, I’ve been teaching loads of content I’ve never taught before. Prior to my current position, I taught middle school ELA for eight years. Gone are the days of Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, I Am Malala, Flesh & Blood So Cheap and all the other texts I was so accustomed to teaching.

Now, I’m teaching the full scope (yikes!) of British Lit to my senior classes.

So far this year, I have introduced my students to the major Anglo-Saxon elegy poems; Beowulf; Le Morte d’Arthur; The Canterbury Tales; Everyman, the morality play; the sonnets of Sidney, Shakespeare and Spenser; Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and “A Modest Proposal,” and probably a few more that I can’t think of off the top of my head.

Oh, yes… and I can’t forget the Anglo-Saxon dream vision poem “The Dream of the Rood!”

How to describe this jewel of Anglo-Saxon poetry? In short, it’s beautiful, imaginative, accessible, and probably one of my favorite texts we’ve studied all year. And that’s surprising because I could have so easily missed it as I planned out my lessons.

At right is a photo of my Prentice-Hall textbook. Despite being quite old, it’s a solid resource.

Last fall, as I read and planned lessons for Beowulf, “The Wanderer,” and “The Seafarer,” I kept coming across “The Dream of the Rood.” For example, in the documentary In Search of Beowulf, the narrator Michael Wood mentions the poem as a pivotal text. (By the way, rood means cross or pole and in the poem an unknown poet dreams that he meets the tree upon which Christ’s crucifixion took place.)

However, since “The Dream of the Rood” wasn’t included in our Prentice-Hall British literature textbook, I dismissed it initially. But then it kept popping up, and and since it was included in my trusty Norton anthology, I became more and more curious.

Eventually, I decided to add it — however briefly — to my curriculum. And I’m so glad I did.

At the time, I was homebound with Covid-19 for a solid two weeks. On one of those days, I decided to create a worksheet of sorts that would 1) give students a taste of this beautiful old poem and 2) guide them through a close reading of the poem.

To do this, I created a “Dream of the Rood” close reading worksheet with key and just recently added it to my TpT store. (And amazingly, it’s the only Dream of the Rood resource on the entire site. Crazy, right?!)

My close reading activity for “The Dream of the Rood” includes a key and will guide your students through this beautiful poem.

The activity features an introduction to the poem and then fill-in-the-blank portions for each of three different sections of the reading, which is based on the prose translation by E. T. Donaldson found in the Norton Anthology of English Literature (through the eighth edition).

Side note: I will be creating a similar activity for the current alliterative verse translation by Alfred David this summer.


Learn more about this old, old poem

In case you’re unfamiliar with “The Dream of the Rood,” here’s how the encyclopedia Britannica describes this beautiful poem:

The Dream of the Rood, Old English lyric, the earliest dream poem and one of the finest religious poems in the English language, once, but no longer, attributed to Caedmon or Cynewulf:

In a dream the unknown poet beholds a beautiful tree—the rood, or cross, on which Christ died. The rood tells him its own story. Forced to be the instrument of the saviour’s death, it describes how it suffered the nail wounds, spear shafts, and insults along with Christ to fulfill God’s will. Once blood-stained and horrible, it is now the resplendent sign of mankind’s redemption.

The poem was originally known only in fragmentary form from some 8th-century runic inscriptions on the Ruthwell Cross, now standing in the parish church of Ruthwell, now Dumfries District, Dumfries and Galloway Region, Scot. The complete version became known with the discovery of the 10th-century Vercelli Book in northern Italy in 1822.

Britannica, dream of the rood

Eighteen verses of “The Dream of the Rood” are found on the Ruthwell Cross (680 AD) inside the Ruthwell Parish Church near Dumfries in southern Scotland, part of the former kingdom of Northumbria.

This photo is taken inside the Ruthwell Parish Church, which houses the Ruthwell Cross, the 18-foot Anglo-Saxon cross that was possibly used as a conversion tool. It contains an inscription in runes of a version of Dream of the Rood. Photo: Heather Hobma, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The cross, which is mentioned in Michael Wood’s documentary Beowulf on YouTube, is thought to be one of the most impressive Anglo-Saxon Era monumental sculptures in existence. “Featuring intricate inscriptions in both Latin and, more unusually for a Christian monument, the runic alphabet, the Ruthwell Cross is inscribed with one of the largest figurative inscriptions found on any surviving Anglo-Saxon cross,” according to Visit Scotland, Scotland’s national tourist board.

A picture is worth a thousand words

Showing students images from Dumfries and of the Ruthwell Cross will provide a real-world angle to their reading of the poem. Showing images and taking virtual tours when they’re available as been a real help to me this year. I like to “travel” in my British lit classes as much as possible to show students the actual landscapes from which our texts descend.

Ruthwell Paris Church, Scotland | Photo: DeFacto, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Writing for an audience

Just as we teach students to write for an audience, “The Dream of the Rood” was written with its own audience, the pagan Anglo-Saxons.

Some scholars believe “The Dream of the Rood” may have been a tool to gradually convert Anglo-Saxons to Christianity.

The idea of Christ as a hero who bravely conquers death upon the cross may seem foreign to contemporary Christians, but that kind of heroism likely appealed greatly to Anglo-Saxon warriors.

The personification of the cross by the poet is also a fresh, unusual approach and provides a clear and extended example of this literary device in Anglo-Saxon poetry. (In the poem, the anonymous author tells of a cross that feels duty-bound to provide the foundation upon which Christ may show his heroism.)

If you teach British literature, consider giving your students a taste of this beautiful, imaginative poem. Even if it’s not included in your current text or curriculum, it’s worth checking out.


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A new movie for your Anglo-Saxon poetry unit

Netflix’s The Dig is worth a watch

Make a multi-media connection during your Anglo-Saxon poetry unit with The Dig from Netflix. The movie, released in January, recounts the 1939 discovery and excavation of the mammoth Anglo-Saxon archaeology site known as Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, England.

Actor Ralph Fiennes
Ralph Fiennes, and at right, Carey Mulligan | Ralph Fiennes Photo: Siebbi, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Dig, rated PG-13, stars Ralph Fiennes as self-taught archaeologist and astronomer Basil Brown and Carey Mulligan as the wealthy widow who owned the property that held the famous site, including the 90-foot Anglo-Saxon ship, which served as a tomb for a warrior-king… similar to that of King Tutankhamun.

The 1-hour and 52-minute movie is captivating, and builds suspense and excitement around the very culture awash in the elegies The Wanderer and The Seafarer, and even the epic Beowulf.

On the eve of World War Two, as the Sutton Hoo ship’s remains and its treasures were being unearthed on property owned by wealthy landowner Edith Pretty, many archaeologists at the time assumed the finds would date from the Viking era.

However, self-taught archaeologist and astronomer Basil Brown, the site’s excavator hired by Pretty, suspected the artifacts might be older and Anglo-Saxon. He was right… and the rest is history.

Show The Dig’s first sixty-six minutes for best results.

I’ve watched The Dig twice (so far) and I plan to use only the first one hour and six minutes of the movie with students. (I’m also working on a viewing guide, so stay tuned.) The film’s storyline does meander significantly from the main plot of the excavation into the “not historically accurate” professional and personal lives and loves of other on-site professional excavators.

The first sixty-six minutes contains the major moments of discovery without delving into the story’s subplot, which in my opinion, seems a little disjointed and beside-the-point to the movie. In fact, this is where the movie really starts to veer from its historical base. (Don’t you hate it when that happens?!)

Read this Roger Ebert movie review, which makes this same point here, highlighting the film’s best moments:

Told with simplicity and grace, and a sensitivity to the pastoral Suffolk landscape of wide fields and wider skies, “The Dig” is often quite thrilling, particularly in the dig’s initial phases, when it’s just Basil and Edith discussing how to proceed. 

Sheila O’Malley | rogerebert.com
Sutton Hoo helmet
The famous Sutton Hoo helmet found at the site. The Sutton Hoo collection is found in Room 41 at the British Museum. | Photo: Jim Brewin of Pixabay

Need a text as you dive into the film?

Yes, there is the 2007 novel by John Preston (nephew to one of the site’s archaeologists) by the same name that the movie is based on.

And honestly, based on this review, it sounds like a great book to add to my summer reading list, so be watching for a review this summer.

However, for a shorter text to use in class, use Revisiting Sutton Hoo, Britain’s Mythical Ship Burial from The New Yorker to acquaint your students with the entire Sutton Hoo story.

I used this article to build an Article of the Week assignment last fall as my students were transitioning from Anglo-Saxon poetry to our Beowulf unit. The article will be a good introduction to Edith Pretty and Basil Brown and will provide your students with more archaeology background before viewing the film.

Side note: This article would also be an awesome “blended genre” mentor text that weaves narrative with exposition.

After the movie, take a virtual tour of the treasures

Here’s a quick shot of Room 41 at The British Museum. Students can take a virtual tour.

Have your students visit The British Museum via Google Arts and Culture Street View to tour Room 41, where the Sutton Hoo treasures are displayed. Loads of artifacts, including the famous Sutton Hoo helmet, are presented to further ground the film in history.

Whether you add the movie, the article, or the novel to your Anglo-Saxon poetry unit, know you’ll be helping students make useful connections as they experience the foundational texts of the English language.

Next fall, I’m adding more film to Brit Lit

My goal is to pair each of the texts we study with a quality film adaptation or a film as closely related to the text as The Dig is to Anglo-Saxon poetry.

It’s no secret that adding film can strengthen a text-heavy curriculum.

“Film can be used effectively in almost every English language arts classroom and elective. For example, you can easily pair movies with literature, such as a coming-of-age movie when you’re studying Catcher in the Rye.”

Education Week article by Nancy Barile

Offering a mix of media also meets standards intended to appeal to students with different learning styles. In short, adding quality layers of media (and film is just one) can enhance and strengthen our learning.

Photo: Unsplash

Similar text and movie combos should help me better engage my Brit Lit students in many of the classic texts that have formed the foundation of Western literature.

After all, Anglo-Saxon poetry is far removed from contemporary life.

Whisperings from an ancient seaborn past, the poetry seems inaccessible to many teens. However, when you incorporate contemporary media such as The Dig, you’ll help students make connections to their lives today. As a result, they’ll more likely appreciate the insights these ancient verses offer on universal themes and concerns such as isolation, loss, and grief.

See you at the movies!


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I work in a district with four-day weeks. I publish a new post every Monday when I’m at home writing, reading, doing laundry, you know the drill…

The Slice of Life Poem

Elevate everyday moments with this creative poetry idea

“Slice of Life” writing is one of my favorite genres. You take an ordinary moment — one you commonly do on a regular day — and elevate that moment by honoring it with about 250 words of prose. I first learned about “slicing” at Two Writing Teachers, where every Tuesday, writing teachers from all over the country post some personal writing of their own on the TWT blog.

Slice of Life writing logo from Two Writing Teachers website
Visit twowritingteachers.org for more information about slice of life writing.

I’ve enjoyed writing and posting several slices over the past couple of years, and have enjoyed even more sharing this genre with my middle school and high school students. (Read about slice of life essays for both middle school and high school students in these past posts from my blog.)

Recently, it occurred to me that slice of life prose writing would work equally well in poetic form. In fact, if generating a page of prose seems daunting for some of your students, perhaps suggest the option of writing a free verse poem instead.


Side note: Two Writing Teachers hosts a month-long slice of life story challenge every March for teachers and their students. Visit this site for more information. I haven’t tried it yet, but I keep mulling it over every year. Maybe in 2022?


Try these ideas to guide your students to awesome slice of life writing in poetic form:

  • For structure, suggest to your students that their slice of life poems should be from ten to twenty lines in length. Yes, that’s a fairly broad range, but it also differentiates for varying ability levels.
  • Remind students to write about an ordinary moment or task. An ordinary moment can be anything they do in the course of an ordinary day, such as feed a pet, grocery shop with a parent, or suit up for practice.
  • Steer them from the tired topic of “my morning routine.” The solution? Have students take one task from their morning routine and focus on it only. (If I don’t challenge students away from their morning routine as a topic, one-third of the poems I receive will start, Buzz!!! My alarm goes off and I hit the snooze button... blah blah blah.)
  • Ask students to title their poems. If they struggle thinking of titles, suggest they search within the lines of their poems for interesting phrases that would make provocative titles.
  • Provide a mentor text of a slice of life poem. Feel free to use the one below I wrote recently about handwashing Tupperware… or better yet, write one with them!

Tupperware and Diligence

Last night,

I washed a collection of

knock-off Tupperware:

ovals, squares, rectangles,

all the annoying, ill-fitting lids.

Now,

after sleep and as coffee brews,

I lift the geometry

from the drying rack.

Icy threads race from

wrist to elbow,

sloughing off water

that had secreted away

into plastic frontiers…

crouching inside peripheral grooves

and shallow recesses, lying low

within raised feet that harbor

capacity specs, country of origin logos,

washing instructions, recycle-me threats.

Now:

to dry fully with a cloth

or simply toss, still dripping,

into the designated drawer?

Diligent-but-not-too-diligent,

I toss and move on

to the next

kitchen task.

M. YUNG
Male students writes a poem in a library.
Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

In the Missouri Learning Standards for ELA, writing slice of life poems satisfies standards (W2A) that require students to craft narratives about real or imagined experiences. Skim through your state’s standards to see which ones you’ll meet with these engaging and very personal poems.

I’m sure it won’t take long to see that slice of life writing — whether prose or verse — helps you do your job, while showing your students another way to express themselves creatively.

Thanks for reading! Click like and feel free to follow my blog for future posts!


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Book bentos: 5 tips to make them better

Get the most out of your next book bento assignment

I now have two rounds of book bentos under my English teaching belt. Last fall, in my independent reading “Novels” class, I assigned book bentos for the first time. I learned quite a bit from that first encounter with this creative summative assessment and reflected on the whole experience with this blog post: Book Bentos: My First Attempt and What I’ll Do Differently Next Time. This post features links to resources, book bento examples, and a list of exactly what I decided to implement during my second attempt, which occurred at the end of third quarter.

A wall display of book bentos made by high school students.
My independent reading “Novels” classes created book bentos last fall and this spring. I displayed them in the hallway last week.

Two weeks ago, my spring semester “Novels” class tried their hand at book bentos. On this second encounter, I built on what I learned last fall. As a result, I truly feel the book bentos my students turned in this time were better designed and more meaningful. More importantly, they were still effective indicators of my students’ understanding of the themes and symbols found in their chosen books.

A stack of Jane Austen novels.
Photo: Leah Kelly on Pexels

In completing this second round of bentos, I can now confidently say that the book bento is a successful alternative to the traditional “book report.”

If you haven’t tried them yet, you should!

Here are my five tips for better books bentos:

  1. Schedule an in-class “photo day.” Last fall, my students created and photographed their bentos at home. While that was fine, I could tell some students likely waited until the last minute and rushed their photos.

Several were arranged in less-than-ideal ways or lacked objects that held significant meaning in their books. I vowed last fall to schedule an in-class “photo day” in the spring so students could have more guidance with photographing. I can see a big improvement over the fall bentos since I was able to help students arrange their objects and take their photos.

Here are two book bentos from my current spring “Novels” class… my second attempt at book bentos.

2. Use height to get a better photo. To take the photos, have students arrange their objects on a table and then take the photo while standing on a step ladder. Cell phones are great for these photos, but make sure students hold the phone perfectly level or be prepared to edit for the distorted angle.

3. Make sure students explain the significance of their bento items. As an alternative to using an app like ThingLink, I required each student to place their book bento photo into a Google Slides presentation and then follow up the photo slide with two more that explained the significance of each object followed by a student-written book review, respectively.

A photo of a Google Slide that contains an explanation of the objects in the student's book bento.
Here’s one student’s Google Slide that explains the objects in their book bento. This particular one is for Where the Crawdads Sing.

4. Place objects and books at ninety degree angles. Even though placing objects at ninety degree angles may seem like a natural thing to do, you might have to demonstrate exactly what you mean to your students. When the objects are haphazardly scattered in the bento, the result is merely a collection of items related to a book, and not a stylish interpretation.

5. Print out a colorful cover of the book. Not all books your students will be reading will have an eye-catching cover. This was the case with the two book bentos above. One student was reading an electronic version of Eighth Grade Bites and the other student had already returned Where the Crawdads Sing to the library. If you have a student without the physical book, find a colorful image online, print out a color copy, and tape it to another similar-sized book.

I hope these book bento tips come in handy for you!

Sometimes it seems that students might benefit more from showing their understanding in a more unconventional way than an essay. Book bentos are perfect for that and this spring, that’s especially the case as students look forward to the end of a most unusual school year.

A picture of a high school graduate.
Photo by Anand Sundram on Pexels.com

All of the book bentos shown in this post were created by seniors who will be graduating in about two short months!

As you can imagine, creating a book bento was a welcome option for these students in the final two months of their public school education.

If you have a similar situation, think about trying book bentos!

Happy bento-making!


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How to make student writing more specific

It means to “name things”

This week, I’m republishing one of the best posts from my blog… it’s all about how to make student writing more specific. However, even though it’s one of my best posts, it doesn’t rank in my Top 12. And if you’re wondering why, here’s the reason: searchability. Because there are so many ways that teachers can word their online searches for how to teach specificity in writing, I’ve found it hard to create a searchable title for this post. The title you see above is my latest iteration.

So that’s why I just keep publishing it about once a year, tweaking the title each time just a bit. Here’s a video to explain:

So, for the third time, here’s my post about the best way I’ve found to teach kids what “be specific” means.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written “Be specific” on my students’ essays, poems, and narratives. They know the importance of adding relevant details and crystal clear descriptions to their writing. We talk about it all the time, after all. In fact, “add more detail” and “be more descriptive” are the top two comments I hear them saying to each other during peer review groups. However, for some reason, kids still often neglect to be specific.

Maybe they don’t recognize “vagueness” in their own writing. Maybe they’re in a rush and don’t see the value in taking the extra time that being specific takes.

 Maybe it’s late the night before their essay is due and, as a result, they’ve lowered their standards.

The loosey-goosey thoughts that make it into their first drafts—however general and lackluster— are good enough to turn in at the last minute. Whatever.

Last fall, I came upon a chapter in Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories and discovered a helpful section on the merits of being specific in writing. By “being specific” Roorbach means putting a name to the objects, things and people in our writing.

Bill Roorbach's book, Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature
This is an awesome book that I’ve found helpful (like REALLY helpful) in my classroom.

For example, if one mentions a tree, Roorbach suggests being exact. Is it an oak? maple? pine? If possible, he suggests going further. Is it a chinquapin oak? silver-leaf maple? lodgepole pine? If one mentions Dad’s car, Roorbach suggests identifying the exact car: Dad’s brown 1995 Subaru Forester or his sleek, brand-new silver Prius.

Roorbach stresses that “naming is knowing.” Putting a clear and precise label to the objects in our writing lends credibility and a subtle authenticism to our writing. (He also discusses how determining the exact name of something—a particular flower, for example—may help writers discover unexpected revelations about their pasts. Seriously, check out this book!)

I notice that in my own writing I will often add the specific labels to things on the later drafts of a piece. I often do this work intentionally, taking care to notice generalities as I read and re-read, and re-read again.

It’s amazing how much richer and concrete and visible my writing is when I follow Roorbach’s advice and specifically name things in my own writing.

So with Roorbach’s book in hand, I created a mini-lesson for class. Maybe this time, I thought, with the help of Roorbach’s down-to-earth and eloquent text, students will understand what I mean when I write “Be specific” in the margins of their papers.

For the mini-lesson, I decided to read aloud from Roorbach’s “Naming is Knowing” exercise. Everyone agreed that the specific examples given in the text were effective revisions of the more general originals.

I asked the kids to keep this in mind as they wrote that day…

“Don’t just say that you put on your clothes; be specific. Name the clothes. Say you put on your bright white NASA hoodie and a faded pair of jeans. “

About two days later, a student named Jacob dropped a “Happiness Is When” poem into my second drafts box during writer’s workshop. I read it, noticing that it was about a trip to Florida he took last summer with his family. The poem mentioned finding “a coin,” “finding “a food,” and visiting “the museum” and finding “something” there.

Here we go again, I thought. More vague writing.

I asked Jacob, “Remember when we talked a couple of days ago about how it makes sense to be as specific as possible and put a name to things when we write so readers can visualize our stories better?” He nodded. I inquired what kind of coin he found; he replied “a Spanish medallion.” I asked him what exactly he found at the museum; he said “a Honus Wagner baseball card.” I asked him about the food mentioned in the poem; he replied “chicken Alfredo.”

Try naming those things in your poem, I suggested.

He returned several minutes later with another draft, this one much more specific, much more visual, and much more effective.

“Yes! You did it!” I told him after reading his revision. “This is what we were talking about!”

I asked him if I could use his drafts in class the next day to show everyone how much more visual his second draft was. He agreed and printed copies of his poem’s “before and after” versions.

I placed them side by side on a sheet of paper and ran off copies for everyone. The following day we revisited our “naming” lesson and with Jacob’s poems in front of them, everyone readily was able to see the difference between vague writing and specific writing: it all has to do with naming things.

A student's before and after poems. The after poem names things that were vaguely mentioned in the before poem.

The next day, I asked Jacob to read both poems aloud. After that, we all discussed how effective the changes were and the consensus was that the “after” version was definitely the draft we all preferred. Why? Because we could visualize the Spanish medallion (someone said it was probably all crusty and gross) much more clearly than we could visualize a coin. We could taste the chicken Alfredo. And of course, we all knew that a Lamborghini is the ultimate fancy car.

Of course, being seventh-graders, the added details spurred conversations about coins that kids had found or lost. Practically every kid in the room said they loved chicken Alfredo.

I guess all that conversation proves that specific writing resonates.

Being specific helps readers connect better with the writing and, in the end, that’s what it’s all about.

A slide with the author Bill Roorbach's advice, "Even the smallest exactitude can lead to greater revelation."
I made this slide on my Smartboard using ia quote from the exercise on “Naming is Knowing” in Bill Roorbach’s book, Writing Life Stories.

One student asked,  “What if the extra detail seems distracting?”

I acknowledged her smart observation and advised her to play around with being specific. Yes, it’s entirely possible to have misplaced detail, I told her. If that’s the case, she as the writer then has a decision to make. For example, if it seems distracting and irrelevant to know that you wore a bright white NASA hoodie, then leave it out and go general.

But try naming and being specific first, I told her because you never know until you try. Plus, you can always change it back later, I added.

I feel as if I’ve finally hit on something when it comes to teaching kids to write specifically: it’s about naming things.

Since teaching this “Naming is Knowing” mini-lesson—with the help of Roorbach and Jacob’s examples— my students better understand how to add relevant, visual details and names to the people and objects in their writing.

It’s nice to know that they finally understand what “Be specific” really means.


Thanks for reading again this week! If you’ve found this post helpful, drop a comment below or contact me via my Contact page. Who knew that having seventh graders write a “Happiness Is…” poem would yield such an effective lesson that transfers so easily to other genres!

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Reinforce reading with student photography

Photos show Emerson’s “perfect exhilaration”

A recent snow day activity has sparked my curiosity about the possibilities of combining student photography with reading.

Here’s the story. Our school was closed all week two weeks ago due to snow, rain, and sub-zero temperatures that descended on our region (and a large swath of the country) for several days.

For an area that might see only about three to four inches of snow in total during a typical winter, the extra snow plus the extreme temperatures made this particular storm one for the record books.

During our week at home, the Transcendentalism unit my juniors were studying was put on pause… except for the day I asked them to venture outside to find and photograph the “perfect exhilaration” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of in his essay titled, “Nature.”

Bulletin board of outdoor photos taken in an high school English classroom.
I printed out students’ photos and created this bulletin board for the duration of our unit on Transcendentalism.

In “Nature,” Emerson writes of the divine spirit each person experiences when they spend time in nature. I hoped that asking students to go outside, take a walk, and capture images of nature — in its beautiful as well as not so beautiful moments — would help them to connect better with Emerson’s influential essay.

Here’s a favorite passage:

“Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Nature”

Each student took a photo and submitted it on Google Classroom or emailed it to me. I was impressed with the variety of photos turned in and the compositions on several.

Nature doesn’t have to be beautiful to be appreciated. Even ordinary sights can be majestic when viewed through the lens of Transcendentalism. In fact, nature is where we can feel the most alive, perceptive, and part of a larger cosmos.

“I am not alone and unacknowledged.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature”

“The waving of the boughs in the storm is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me; when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature”

There are so many distractions to keep us indoors — such as writing this blog post on a Saturday afternoon LOL! And even though many of my students naturally go outside to tend livestock and perform other chores, encouraging them to notice nature seemed both necessary and appropriate considering our recent Emerson readings.

By now, obviously, all that snow has melted and magically disappeared. The temperatures have risen back to the mid-50s. It’s a different world… one that may appear more typically beautiful, but one that in Emerson’s eyes wouldn’t have been more beautiful, just different.

The possibilities of photography

This snow day activity has prompted me to further consider more possible uses of photography in my high school English classes. Are there other ways I can combine student photography with reading and writing?

Besides creativity, could photography provide another way to engage students, build relevancy, and add another medium to the ELA mix?

A student taking a photo of a forest on his cell phone.
Photo by Sid Verma on Unsplash

After all, with cell phones in nearly every student’s hand, the inclusion of photography seems like an obvious and convenient extension to reading and writing tasks. Here’s how Annenberg Learner’s PD website puts it:

“Photographs have changed the way we see ourselves — and the world. Whether a creative expression, a captured moment, or a deliberate document of a time, place, or event, images give us a way to see things we may otherwise not see — especially if we take the time to look closely.”

“Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum,”

To see things we may otherwise not see and to examine more closely… those were exactly my goals with this snow day activity. My new thoughts about photography and how to incorporate it more often in ELA was an unexpected bonus.

A copy of "The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson"

Do you incorporate photography in your ELA classes?

If so, feel free to share your ideas and experiences in a comment below or by leaving a message via my contact page!

Note: Student photos used with permission.


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Treasured Object Photo how-to guidesheet
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Ekphrastic Poetry Video Resources for Students

Inspire ekphrastic poetry with these virtual videos

Ekphrastic poetry is a fresh, creative way to integrate more art content into your English class. After all, for many students, art sits on the back burner in their academic world.

Think about it: there’s a reason art and music classes are called “specials.” They’re considered superfluous, “extra,” not really that necessary.

However, I beg to differ.

“The arts challenge us with different points of view, compel us to empathize with ‘others,’ and give us the opportunity to reflect on the human condition,” write Brian Kisida and Daniel Bowen of The Brookings Institution in their article, New Evidence of the Benefits of Arts Education. To be sure, empathy and other soft skills, such as understanding and tolerance for ideas different from our own, are always in demand.

Enter ekphrastic poetry.

I’ve already experimented with ekphrastic poetry this school year by incorporating ekphrasis into my high school writer’s workshop and also in 50-minute lessons.

But recently, while searching for a variety of resources for a Transcendentalism unit, I wished to incorporate some artwork alongside the writing of the Transcendental trio, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman.

I wanted to do more than just read those foundational essays. I wanted students to experience beautiful landscape paintings and then merge those paintings with their own budding poetry skills.

Pairing Transcendental authors with the Hudson River School (HRS) artists was a no-brainer. After all, “…Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and the Hudson River School helped shape an emerging national identity,” writes Max Oelschlaeger in “The Roots of Preservation” from the National Humanities Center. 

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art offers virtual reality videos for ekphrastic poetry.
The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas | Read my Medium article, “There are no crystal bridges at Crystal Bridges… and other thoughts about the best art museum you’ve probably never heard of”

In my search for resources, I came across these three amazing virtual reality videos from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.

I was immediately taken by the quality and immersive experience of these videos. Plus, at three minutes in length, they’re practical for a mini-lesson or an extended lesson in a 50-60 minute class period.

These 3-min. virtual reality art videos allow your students to:

  • enter a painting to experience its history from the inside out, including the social context that influenced its creation
  • gain interesting details about artistic techniques
  • learn about the artists, their motivations, and creative processes
  • be inspired as they compose their own ekphrastic poems

While I’ll be posting soon on the ekphrastic poems my students will write based on Kindred Spirits, the masterpiece by HRS mainstay Asher B. Durand, I thought I would provide you this week with links to these incredible videos provided by the museum.

1. Our Town by Kerry James Marshall

Any of these videos would inspire an interesting poetry activity that could be used to supplement a related literature unit.

2. Kindred Spirits by Asher B. Durand

Each of these videos is three to four minutes in length… an ideal length for an initial “cold” viewing followed up by a second viewing before beginning to write.

3. Glass and Bottle by Suzy Frelinghuysen

The Glass and Bottle video discusses Cubism in an accessible way. Your students will be amazed at how the shapes in the painting are separated into 3-D layers before their eyes. It’s a mesmerizing three minutes!

By the way, if you’ve never visited Crystal Bridges…

…you should put it on your calendar for a future excursion.

It’s truly a world-class museum. Founded by Walmart-heiress Alice Walton, the museum brings world-class masterpieces to the underserved areas of northwestern Arkansas, northeastern Oklahoma, and southwest Missouri.

Fiber "We the People" artwork by Nari Ward hangs at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. This piece would make a great ekphrastic poem.
We the People by Nari Ward | Photo: Steven Zucker/Smarthistory | License

Side Note: About two years ago, I supervised a middle school field trip to Crystal Bridges. (It was a well-organized, thoughtful tour provided at no charge to students or our school, by the way.) The tour paired fascinating artworks with engaging, brief writing activities… plus lunch! I highly recommend.


So, after watching one of these videos, then what do students do?!

If you hear “Now what?” after watching one of these videos, suggest three approaches to your students for writing an ekphrastic poem. Here they are:

  1. Describe the artwork. Art blogger Martyn Crucefix suggests this simplest way of ekphrastic poetry writing. Describe what you see… colors, shapes, subject matter.
  2. Describe but also imagine. Crucefix suggests responding to questions posed by the painting. Is there a road in the painting? Write about where it might lead. Is there an interesting character in the painting? Make up a story about who he or she may be.
  3. Describe but also incorporate artist information. Do a quick Google search to discover the context of the work. Use those details in the poem.

There are many ways for students to connect “ekphrastically” with artworks, but for now, try these three to get your students started.

I hope this post offers you some practical and easy ways to explore ekphrastic poetry with your students. It’s an area that excites me. As the wife of a ceramic artist and college art professor, and mother to a budding portrait photographer (my son) and art history graduate student (my daughter), the arts are integral to my life.

Check out my other posts on ekphrastic poetry:



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Treasured Object Poem assignment sheet
Treasured Object Poems

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Holy on-time homework, Batman!

How I got my students to turn in their assignments on time

Do missing homework assignments drive you crazy? Yeah, me too.

Last fall, less than half of my students regularly turned in their homework on time.—even with the full week I give them to do it. (It’s assigned on a Tuesday and due the following Tuesday, and we’ll often have part of one class time to work on it.)

Y’know how it goes… a handful of students are always on time, if not early. Another handful wait until the last minute and turn in nearly everything the day before grades are due. And then a large swath of students in the middle consistently turn in their work a week or two late (and sometimes later than that).

I could blame Covid-19 for the low on-time rate last fall. However, my school is nearly entirely in-person. I only have about five students who have chosen to learn remotely.

And it’s been this way since August. In addition, during the previous school year, late work had been just as rampant.

In any case, most students just wouldn’t complete on-time the single homework task I assigned each week to my juniors and seniors: a one-page response to an Article of the Week.

So, in January, right at the beginning of this semester, I experimented with a new trick. (And I’m not sure how I came up with this idea, but it was probably while doing something totally unrelated to teaching like rolling the Dumpster to the curb or reaching for a new bottle of Gain at Walmart.)

Anyway, here’s my new trick, which everyone knows is my new normal:

I delete the assignment from Google Classroom at the end of the day.

Yes, it’s that simple. However, before deleting it, I also do this:

  1. I make sure I have both a printed hard copy of each student’s response as well as a digital file submitted on Google Classroom. For the time being, I ask students to turn in both. (I think responding to a paper copy is more effective and “real” than offering feedback on-screen in a Google doc. I know it’s redundant, but I simply prefer paper.)
  2. After making sure I have both a hard and soft copy, I return their digital file. There’s no grading at this point; I simply return it. (So, yes, there’s no real point in having students turn in their responses on Google Classroom, since I do receive a paper copy; however, when students know the opportunity to turn it in will go away, they’re more conscientious.)
  3. Then, I delete the assignment from Google Classroom.
  4. Finally, in our school’s Lumen Touch system, I award ten points to each student who turned in their assignment, which is essentially a first draft, by the end of the day.
Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

That evening or over the next day or two, I provide brief feedback on the printed hard copies of their responses. Over the next day or two, I return these to them personally in class. When I pass these back (usually while students are doing their bellwork), I can briefly conference with them regarding the changes that need to be made in their final drafts, which are due on or by the end of the week.

And if you’re wondering how I provide feedback on all those first drafts so quickly, here’s the thing:

Giving feedback on these first drafts is SO MUCH FASTER when I’m not assigning a grade.

I don’t know why, but it seems when I must assign a grade, I spend a significantly longer amount of time doing so.

At the end of the week, students turn in their revised final drafts ALONG WITH their marked-up first drafts. If I see a student has made the suggested improvements noted on their first draft, they earn full points. If not, I adjust accordingly by knocking off a point or two based on the rubric for that week.

Promise: it’s not as complicated as it may sound. But even if it was complicated, I guess I don’t care because…

— cue the angels — IT’S WORKING!

Image by LoggaWiggler from Pixabay

Since I’ve adopted this new method, 85 to 90 percent of my students (as in, for example, 27 out of 30 juniors and about that many seniors–yes, it’s a small school!) turn in those first drafts on time!

As a result, many more students are getting feedback on their writing.

In addition, they’re eager to turn in their final drafts at the end of the week where they know they’ll likely earn full credit, assuming they make the needed improvements.

It’s been a resounding success. Even those students who are perpetually late are turning their first drafts in on time. When students have a marked-up first draft to build on for their final draft, the quality of their writing can’t help but improve.

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

Apparently, there’s something about knowing an assignment will disappear.

It’s more urgent. When students know that an opportunity for a guaranteed 100% grade on their first draft will “go away” at the end of the day, it seems they don’t want to waste that opportunity. In short, they take notice.

Another note: in the past I’ve always allowed students the choice to revise their AOW responses to earn more points. Now, with a required final draft built into the process, each student automatically revises and generates a final draft.

So, in the end, more students are turning in first drafts, which means more students are revising and, as a result, turning in better quality final drafts.

My new policy isn’t rocket science. | John Carkeet, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This method isn’t rocket science, and it isn’t perfect or even novel. I could just be seriously behind the curve on figuring out this particular aspect of student accountability.

However, I do know it has increased the amount of on-time homework turned in by my students.

What about you? How do you encourage more timely homework assignments from your students? Leave a comment below or use my Contact page to share your ideas.


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New writing contest for students grades 6-12

Students explore “family” in this new writing contest

Attention U.S. and international teachers!

It’s super exciting to find a new student writing contest to tell you about, so last week, when I received word about a brand new one, I quickly penciled it into my blogging schedule.

I can’t tell you how big a fan I am of writing contests! In fact, there are all kinds of benefits to assigning an essay contest to your students. More like mini-PBL projects, writing contests encourage students to take advantage of the autonomy and creativity offered within the judges’ criteria. Read here for my gradually growing list of student writing contests.

Students prepares for writing contest.
More like mini-PBL projects, writing contests encourage students to take advantage of the autonomy and creativity offered within the judges’ criteria..

However, this school year has been a real bummer in that a couple of my go-to regional writing contests were cancelled due to Covid-19 complications.

That’s a shame, in my view, but it’s all the more reason to inform you about a new contest when one comes along. And here it is:

The Principia Perspectives Writing Contest

This new student writing contest is sponsored by McLean, Virginia-based Principia Tutors and Consultants, which offers test prep, academic classes and tutoring, and college consulting.

Principia Perspectives hosts this webpage about their middle and high school students.
This movie can help students test and practice their nonfiction muscles.

According to the contest page on the company’s website, “At Principia, we’ve long heralded the importance of reflection through writing. After helping numerous students enter (and win!) many other writing contests, we’ve decided to start our first annual Principia Perspectives Writing Contest.”

During a year when so many events have been cancelled, it was nice to hear about one beginning from the Principia team! Consider adding this contest to your plans in the coming weeks.

Students write about "family" in this new high school writing contest.
Your students must somehow address “family” in their writing. | Photo by August de Richelieu on Pexels.com

But first, the basics about this contest:

  • Who’s eligible: Grades 6-8 in the middle school contest; 9-12 for high school
  • Open to U.S. and international students (Entries must be in English.)
  • Fee: None
  • Deadline: April 30
  • Word count: 400-600 for middle school; 500-800 for high school
  • Genre: Creative nonfiction
    • Use this contest to explore this fast-growing genre. According to the Creative Nonfiction Foundation, “In some ways, creative nonfiction is like jazz—it’s a rich mix of flavors, ideas, and techniques, some of which are newly invented and others as old as writing itself.
    • As defined on CNF’s About page, “Creative nonfiction can be an essay, a journal article, a research paper, a memoir, or a poem; it can be personal or not, or it can be all of these.
  • Theme or Prompt: Family

The prompt for this new contest centers on “family.”

“For the 2021 competition, reflect on the theme of family. What have you learned about the role of family? What stories define family for you? Creatively explore this topic using 400-600 words for middle school students and 500-800 words for high school students. A winner, runner-up, and honorable mentions will be selected for each category.”

Principia Perspectives Writing Contest

Notification and awards

Prizes: For both age divisions, winners will receive online publication plus a monetary award: $200 for first place and $50 for second place. In addition, honorable mention winners will receive ten “family-related works of fiction and non-fiction.” Click here for rules and guidelines.

Award Notification: June 1

For more information:

Consult the Principia Perspectives contest website and then… encourage all your students to participate. Contests can be a great way to instill writing confidence in all your students.

Thanks for reading again this week! Please leave a message in the comments below or reach me via my Contact page for more details or if you have a question. Or visit the Principia Perspectives contest page.


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My slightly odd teacher self-care routine

You gotta do what you gotta do.

Why is it that when you actually want students to talk, they won’t?

I can’t tell you how many times this year I’ve posed a question or idea to my high school students only to be met with anywhere from ten to twenty students staring back at me in silence.

And then they sink into their desks… and disappear under the Formica veneer.

When high school students hide behind a stack of books, it causes teachers to need teacher self-care.
The high school disappearing act. | Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash

And I’m not the only high school teacher to notice this. Other teachers in the private Facebook groups I follow have recently discussed this silent phenomenon among groups of students in their own classes. (Is it Covid-19? Do they text so much that they’re uncomfortable talking? Who knows.)

Trust me. I’m getting to the self-care part of this post.

Regardless, to a teacher new to high school like me (this is my second year teaching juniors and seniors), a student’s desire to be seemingly invisible can be mistaken for boredom and disinterest. And yes, some are bored. You can’t please everyone.

However, in general, I believe most high school students are not bored. In fact, I believe they want to be in school; some just don’t want to show it. That’s because if they show it, they might be called on.

And that would be bad, because then they might stand out, be different, or appear that they don’t have all the answers.

When I think back to my own high school years — forty years ago, mind you — I remember feeling this way at times. And because it was that long ago, I tend to believe this is not a Covid-19 or texting/social media phenomenon as much as it’s just teenagers being teenagers.

High school students sitting in a classroom.
These kids just haven’t sunk into their desks yet, but it’s comin’. | Photo: Unsplash

I also remember a teacher whom I now realize was probably experiencing this same issue: Ms. Sams. She was my freshman and sophomore English teacher and everyday at the beginning of third hour, she would bewilder me with her enthusiasm.

As the final bell rang, Ms. Sams would close the door and march across the room to her desk, chanting, “Okay, let’s go! Let’s go! Lots to do! Let’s hop to it!” I remember the “Ms. Sams strut” would happen nearly everyday. She wasn’t loud or obnoxious about it either.

This photo of a smiling teacher reminds me of Ms. Sams being in her "zone." Teacher self-care starts with having your own "zone."
This stock photo reminds me of Ms. Sams and her “zone.” | Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

In fact, it was almost as if her “show” was mainly for her own enjoyment.

At the time, I remember thinking, “Wow, she’s so energetic. That’s so weird.” And frankly, it was a little quirky, a little odd. She was so in her zone, I thought.

But now, as a high school teacher myself, I totally get what Ms. Sams was up to.

She was just doing what she had to do to generate some positive energy amidst a group of silent, unresponsive, mostly insecure high schoolers.

So now, many years later, I’m diving into my own Ms. Sams-inspired zone under the name of “teacher self-care.”

A woman with cucumber slices on her eyes practices teacher self-care.
Look! A trendy self-care photo. | Photo: Pixabay

And yes, I’ve got my bases covered to meet students halfway. I’m doing my best to provide relevant projects and assignments. I also make sure my students feel secure and confident in my classroom and able to freely speak their minds.

After all, I understand how introverts or quiet students may not be tuned into my need for excitement in the classroom. As educator Christina Torres writes in this Education Week article, teachers should not mistake silence for apathy. She adds that other factors may be at play in why students don’t contribute, such as family strife, mental health needs, or cultural norms.

But here’s the thing: I can’t wait on my students to talk. Whatever the reason for their silence, I need some pep.

It’s time for me to look after me. Y’know, emulate Ms. Sams, show a little oddball enthusiasm, and — in the words of Dory from Finding Nemo — just keep swimming.

So without further ado, here are the six slightly odd self-care things I do to energize my day with high schoolers:

1. Clap.

An audience clapping reminds me of how I clap... a form of my own brand of teacher self-care.
Definitely not my class. These people actually want to be noticed. | Photo: Unsplash

Simple enough, right? At the beginning of most classes, I do my best impression of Ms. Sams. After closing the door, I walk across the room, and clap a few times on the way to my desk to take roll. I add an “Okay! Let’s go! Lots to do today!” just to get things rolling.

Then as I scan through my lesson plan, I’ll sometimes do a series of five claps in a pattern something like this: clap-clap (pause) clap-clap-clap. It’s kinda catchy. And by that, I mean that it catches the attention of one or two students who raise their eyebrows and shake their heads as if to say There she goes again.

And often, all that clapping will even lead to (you guessed it) the occasional…

2. Cheer.

Cheerleaders cheering remind me of my own teacher self-care when I cheer in class.
This is definitely not me. | Photo by Rojan Maharjan on Unsplash

All that clapping makes me feel energetic. And we’ve made it to the beginning of another class, so why not acknowledge the moment?! In my senior British Literature class, there’s nothing like a little:

Faustus! (clap clap)

Faustus! (clap clap)

We (clap)

Want (clap)

Faustus! (clap clap)

Now, mind you, I don’t yell. (Or wear a cheer skirt, thank goodness.) But I do speak these cheery things out loud. In high school, and especially in a class full of silent seniors, you gotta do what you gotta do. And you know what? Cheering does help because occasionally someone sitting out there in their desk will acknowledge my enthusiasm with a return clap or a quiet “Woo-hoo!” and that is literally music to my ears.

3. Say the breakfast menu loudly in an Italian accent.

A plate of waffles. I announce the breakfast menu in an Italian accent... a weird kind of teacher self-care.
While our students do have waffles for breakfast, they do not look like this. Use your imagination, please. | Photo by Jodie Morgan on Unsplash

At our school, students eat breakfast in their first hour class. This is a change our district made a few years ago to encourage kids to fuel up for the day. Every morning right after the Pledge of Allegiance, Gloria from the kitchen enters the room and says, for example, “Pancakes and sausage!” And that’s when I follow up with “Pancakes-uh and Sausage-uh!” in my best (or worst, actually) appropriation of one of the world’s most beautiful languages.

And yep, this one’s all for me. No one says anything. They’re socializing, catching up on the previous night’s activities, or digging through their backpacks. No one is really even paying attention, thank goodness. It’s just me reminding myself to have fun amidst the business of “school.”

4. Moisturize.

A box of moisturizer is another kind of teacher self-care.
This is my box of moisturizers and aromatherapy lotions.

I religiously (okay, addictively) apply hand aromatherapeutic moisturizer. I keep a box of masculine and feminine “flavors” on my desk that students are welcome to use. It’s a simple, fragrance-filled pick-me-up whenever I need it, which is about four to fives times a day. My favorite scent lately has been Twisted Pepper Mint from Bath & Body Works.

5. Freshen up the room.

Assorted essential oils are another form of teacher self-care.
My favorite scent for my room is peppermint. | Photo by Jaron Whelan on Unsplash

Speaking of peppermint, I also sprinkle one or two drops of peppermint oil into a glowing oil diffuser in my classroom. Peppermint is a natural pick-me-up. It also helps with focus, clears one’s mind, “and is extremely uplifting,” according to New York City aromatherapist Amy Galper. As a result, my classroom smells clean and fresh. When students enter my room, they often comment on how good it smells and this makes me smile. It’s the little things, right?!

6. Play some jazz.

Cool jazz playlist is another form of teacher self-care.
Jazz in the Background playlist on Spotify

I’ve always liked to play instrumental jazz quietly (as in really, really quietly) in my classroom. Recently, my son recommended the perfect Spotify playlist: Jazz in the Background. The music is what I like to call “invisible.” It can play without being disruptive. In fact, nearly every song on the list is perfect. I skip only one or two saxophone-heavy songs if I can conveniently get to my computer to do so. But for the most part, this list is the ideal one to add some spirit to a slow-moving, quiet classroom, while adding a nice chill vibe at the same time.

And those are the six slightly odd steps in my self-care routine. What do you practice to make your teaching job more rewarding? Got any quirks that only your students know about? Feel free to share by leaving a comment!


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