New Article Pairing for Emerson’s “Nature” and AI

In the face of AI, humanity needs Emerson more than ever

Do you ever read an article and get goosebumps as you read it because you know you can use it in your classroom? Well, that happened this morning as I was reading my new printed copy of the July-August 2023 The Atlantic. And since my last post was way back in April, I decided to put together a short post to tell you about it. You really need to read “In Defense of Humanity” by the magazine’s executive editor Adrienne LaFrance. I think it would be a great pairing for Ralph Emerson’s Nature, Self-Reliance, and even Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer.

In short, as we grapple with the AI revolution and its unknown implications, LaFrance calls for a return to an exaltation of the human experience.

The July-August issue of The Atlantic features this outstanding article that pairs well with your Ralph Waldo Emerson and Transcendentalism units.

LaFrance starts with a short introduction to Emerson and his visit to the Jardin des Plantes in 1833 where he received his epiphany that inspired “Nature.” She then discusses Emerson’s 19th-century world and describes the proliferation of technologies that informed the national mood as “a mix of exuberance, anxiety, and dread.” Sound familiar? Drawing parallels to the rise of artificial superintelligence, LaFrance observes that many have simply accepted the growth and intrusion of technology into our lives. Among the “triple revolution of the internet, smartphones, and the social web,” she suggests many of us need to step back and reassess the power we have allowed technology to claim.

LaFrance’s thesis: “We would be wise to rectify the errors of the recent past, but also to anticipate — and proactively shape — what the far more radical technology now emerging will mean for our lives, and how it will come to remake our civilization.”

Read my previous post on how I refuse to embrace generative AI such as ChatGPT and other similar programs.

Obviously, you can read The Atlantic’s article for yourself. (It’s just under 2,500 words and fills three pages of the magazine.) However, LaFrance advocates that we follow six concrete “ideals” — she also calls them “cultural norms” — as we grapple with the new reality that AI is bringing to our lives, including our lives in academic settings.

  1. We should disclose when AI has been used in communication in order to “prompt more human (and human-only) spaces, as well as a less anonymous web.” Readers need to know when they’re reading AI-generated content.
  2. We should avoid anonymity by using their names. “Anonymity should be used as a last resort,” she writes, as “any journalist can tell you.” Anonymity should be reserved “for rare scenarios for the public good.”
  3. We should recommit to making deeper connections with other people in face-to-face meetings. “Relationships…should not be sustained in the digital realm alone, especially as AI further erodes our understanding of what is real,” LaFrance advises.
  4. We should stop recording and sharing everything. She says it simply: “Privacy is key to preserving our humanity.”
  5. “We should trust human ingenuity and creative intuition,” LaFrance adds to the list. We should also decrease our reliance on tech tools. In other words, we should see, feel, and discover for ourselves as we observe the world using our own senses. Yes, tech can be used to aid our senses, but we should not rely on “tools that dull the wisdom of our own…intellect.”
  6. Last, LaFrance writes we should “put more emphasis on contemplation as a way of being.” Students need to know that it’s okay to not know something, or to think about something and never arrive at an answer. After all, she adds, “We are mortal beings, driven to know more than we ever will or ever can.” There’s so much mystery to our universe that we should accept our limitations in solving that mystery.

LaFrance ends her piece with a return to Emerson’s home in Concord, Mass. (It’s still on my East Coast bucket list!) She lists ways that technologies (photos, memes, social media posts, holograms, et al) will never replace the face-to-face human experience. We should “make the trip, cross the ocean… watch the sunset,” she wraps up stirringly.

This article hit me hard. It’s poignant and hopeful. But it’s also a little bit sad. I say that because I fear that Silicon Valley isn’t listening.

However, this fall, my students will be listening. I’m collecting a stash of current articles to read with my freshmen and seniors at my new school. We’ll read and discuss this article, use it to launch into a chapter or two of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, and of course, use it to introduce Emerson, which I realize is usually reserved for junior-level English classes. That’s okay. There are plenty of other “nature” writers we can read.

Marilyn Yung

Thanks for reading!

I hope you take a few minutes to check out this article for your high school units on the transcendentalist writers. It’s worth a look when you find contemporary writers discussing the foundational thinkers of the nineteenth century and drawing direct parallels to our lives today.

ALSO: A note about my Site Shop. I have moved nearly all my resources to Teachers Pay Teachers. If you reach a broken link when accessing a resource on my Site Shop, please know you can find that resource on TpT. Thank you again for your continued readership!

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Make Better Poetry Chapbooks with This App

I made my own book using the app. Here it is.

Now that National Poetry Month is half over — and with the school year winding down, too — it’s a good time to think about ways to publish your students’ poems. Did you know students can make a professional book for around $8 using an app on their phones?

The app is Photobooks from Freeprints and, for the time and money involved, it offers a much better alternative than the Google Docs/Microsoft Word version I assigned last year (click here for that post).

Photobooks is a free app that creates a bound book using photos stored on a student’s smart phone.

Btw, I am not affiliated in any way with Freeprints — cue theme from Notting Hill — I’m just a teacher sitting in front of a computer trying to find a better way for students to make chapbooks. (In fact, Shutterfly or another vendor probably has a similar offering, but I’m familiar only with Freeprints.)

So, how did I discover Photobooks? I was already familiar with Freeprints and when I placed an order for their monthly deal of 85 free prints, I found out about their monthly deal of one free Photobook. I then created some books as mementos of my son’s wedding and college senior art show. As I thought about chapbooks and how to make them better for next time, it occurred to me that the Photobook concept might work for chapbooks as well.

To try out the app and to see how it would work for student chapbooks, I became my own guinea pig and made a chapbook using a collection of eighteen poems I wrote alongside my students in my poetry class at my previous school.

Here’s a photo of the cover of my Freeprints Photobook, which I titled, “Multiplicity.”

I picked “Multiplicity” as my title because the poetry in my book covers a lot of styles and genres, and I wanted to reflect that in a prominent way. After settling on the word “multiplicity,” I actually searched Unsplash using the keywords “multiplicity” and “multiples” and eventually settled on this photo of fluttering flags.

Here’s the thing: The Photobooks app works only with photos.

In other words, instead of typesetting like a conventional publisher would do, the entire book is a collection of photo files. Students take photos of their printed poems and then upload the photographed poems to the app. They should take care to center and align their poems within the frame of the photo, doing their best to avoid shadows and hot spots.

You may notice that in my book, some of the poems appear slightly crooked or wavy. That was to be expected, since I printed the poems on regular-weight copy paper and photographed them on my kitchen table under my dining room light. Students will likely have this same type of informal setup as well if they take their photographs on a desk or table or school or at home. Just have them do their best to have their poems appear as straight as possible on the page.

I decided to add photos to my book to accompany and/or illustrate my poems. I took some of these photos myself and found others on, a popular source for professional-quality copyright-free photography.

A quick tour of selected pages from my poetry chapbook:

I’m really happy with how my book turned out and I feel that this app offers an economical, yet professional, way for students to end the year with a tangible record of their creative poetic growth. There’s just something about having a printed book they can actually hold in their hands.

As you mull over whether Photobooks might work for your students, I’ve organized some more considerations below:

The Pros to Using Photobooks for Poetry Chapbooks

  • Low Cost: The books are free but do have a $7.99 shipping charge. What’s included at this level: a 6-inch by 6-inch square book, soft cover, twenty pages, plus lots of layout and color options (keep reading for those). Additional pages are 59 cents each. A hard cover costs $5 and is a larger size: 8-inch by 8-inch. For example, my Multiplicity book had a hard cover with 33 pages, and it cost $21.39 total. Here’s my invoice:

To keep a student’s cost to the minimum $7.99, have him or her select the basic twenty-page option. (Even better, keep in mind that one page can feature more than one photograph. See layout options below for more.)

  • Background Color and Pattern Choices: There are literally hundreds of color and/or pattern backgrounds that students can choose. I would definitely tell students to make sure their poetry is the star of the show because they wouldn’t want a busy palm leaf pattern, for example, distracting from their poetry. I chose a grey-beige solid background color for my book.
    • Students can also switch their photos to black-and-white.
    • They can also change the shape of their photos. See my round photo above. I turned this photo (found on Unsplash) into a round shape, so it would crop out bottles and spice containers that were on the countertop below the cabinets.
    • Layout options: Students are not limited to one photo in the center of the page. There are LOTS of choices. See my page above that contains three photos of Venice, Italy. (Btw, this page still counts as a single page even though it contains three photos.) You can also bleed your photos, which means that the photo will extend over the entire page. I used this layout on every other page for variety.
  • Size Options: There are three book sizes available: a square 6-inch by 6-inch (the free one), an 8-inch by 8-inch book ($5 more), and a rectangular 6-inch by 8-inch book (also $5). I’ve used both the square and rectangle shapes, but I like the square better.
  • Easy Editing and Book Previews: It’s easy to proof the books before ordering. Students will be able to move pages around, delete pages, add pages, and see EXACTLY what their book will look like before ordering.
  • Extra Books! Students can order additional books as gifts for the same cost each as their original book. Mother’s Day is right around the corner!
There are lots of color and pattern options for a student’s Photobook. Encourage students to choose a solid color so their poetry is the “star of the show.”

The Cons to Using Photobooks for Poetry Chapbooks

  • Shipping time: Plan for about 8-14 days to receive the books. Students can track their orders using the app.
  • Screen time: This is really the only thing I don’t like about the app: that it’s an app — LOL. I spent about three to four hours on my book over the course of a few days. It did kinda drive me crazy spending that much time on my phone, but I’m also really picky, and I wanted this book to be as perfect as I could make it. For a classroom setting, I would think about having students work on their books for thirty minutes max at a time. Making this a year-long project may allow students to work on their books a little chunk at a time.
  • As with any “free” app, the user is the product being sold. Students and parents should know that if they use Photobooks, their activity is being used in some way by the app’s maker.

What I’d Change on My Next Poetry Photobook

  • Make it more specific. I think it would be fun to create a book of poetry around a central theme, instead of my catch-all theme of “multiplicity.”
  • Put photo credits at the end. Perhaps put them in smaller type below the last poem, or even on their own last page.
  • Encourage students to include their photo near or on their bio page.
  • Add a photo to the back cover. That’s another cool option.
Marilyn Yung

Thanks for reading! Let me know if you have questions about the app. I’ll do my best to clarify or edit this post if I’ve left something out. I hope you’ll consider this Photobooks idea if you assign poetry chapbooks to your students. Please let me know your experiences with the app if you decide to try it out. Use my Contact page to send a message.

I really think students will care more about their poems if they know that their work will eventually create a printed product. It’s an easy way to infuse some Project-Based Learning into ELA!

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The Magic of Memorizing for High School Students

Memorization creates meaning

I’ll admit it. There was a time that I disdained memorizing. For some reason, I believed that memorization was no more than something one did in order to regurgitate information later.

And I had experience to back up my prejudice. For example, I remember as a high school student memorizing dates and names for my social studies and history classes. As an undergraduate student, I remember staying up late memorizing lists of philosophers and theories for my Western civilization courses. For my graduate degree, I remember memorizing eligibility criteria for a special education class.

As a result, committing the data for those classes to memory had resulted in decent test grades. (And sure, without working to retain all that information, many of the facts were lost eventually.) However, as much as I knew from experience that memorizing had helped me to learn new material, it seems rather odd that I used to look down on “memory work.”

So why did I look down on memorization?

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains offers one reason that seems sensible. Carr observes that the rejection of memory work became a popular notion during the early 20th century. He writes, “…by the middle of the twentieth century memorization itself had begun to fall from favor. Progressive educators banished the practice from classrooms, dismissing it as a vestige of a less enlightened time.” It seems I had adopted this way of thinking, since many of my secondary education teachers in the late 1970s and early 1980s would have been the progressive educators Carr wrote about. I grew up simply during an era when memory work was out of vogue.

But I’ve had a change of heart, and now I think differently about the purpose and power of memorization. I attribute my change in thinking primarily to two things: 1) The Shallows and 2) my own experience with memorizing Shakespearean sonnets.

Based on these two things, I would like to share one key insight this week:

Memorization is more than storage. It creates meaning.

In other words, memorizing something isn’t just a useless, rote activity. It may seem that way at the outset, but the material being memorized takes on greater personal significance as the material is taken inside the mind, repeated and recalled time and again (repetition is key and worth another blog post!), and finally, recited orally to oneself or a listener.

In Chapter 9 (titled “Search, Memory”) of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Carr has some interesting things to say about the value of memory work, including that it is much more than a mere rote activity.

A statute of Erasmus in Rotterdam. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Carr writes that the Dutch humanist and scholar Desiderius Erasmus believed that “memorizing is more than storing information. It’s the first step in the process of synthesizing, a process that led to deeper and more personal understanding of one’s reading” (179). In other words, we don’t memorize to merely pack more data into our brains; we memorize to understand better.

I have experienced this “synthesizing” in my own memorization work, which I began during my first year of teaching Shakespearean sonnets in my senior British literature classes at my previous school. Based on its beauty alone (and some difficulty I experienced while teaching it the first time), I decided to memorize Shakespeare’s beloved Sonnet 18, which begins, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

As I worked to memorize that sonnet, its fourteen lines became, iamb by iamb, imbued with deeper meaning. As I repeatedly read the lines, observed the meter, and referenced the rhyme to memorize the verse, that beautiful sonnet grew in significance and personal meaning. I began to internalize the sonnet, discovering nuances of emotion I had not experienced when I merely read it aloud earlier.

By the way, what does memorization have to do with student engagement? Nicholas Carr asserts that the more we use the Internet to recall information, the more we train our brain to be distracted.

Internalization is key. Carr writes that to the Roman philosopher Seneca, (4 BC-65 AD), memory was as much “crucible as container.” In other words, the act of memorizing something enabled one to construct new meaning as much as retain it. In my own mental crucible, what previously seemed murky about Sonnet 18 had become clarified as I committed it to memory.

As a consequence to my memorizing Sonnet 18, my teaching of Sonnet 18 improved. I could speak more confidently of, for example, its connotations and interpretations. I could relate it to my own personal experience and provide additional context to students as I saw the sonnet’s ideas reflected, for instance, in contemporary life and media.

After memorizing Sonnet 18, I added Sonnet 116. Then, I eventually added Sonnets 28, 55, and 130 to my repertoire. Right now, I’m working on Sonnet 73.

These are the cards I used to memorize these six Shakespearean sonnets. I’m currently working on Sonnet 73. I have these poems so firmly memorized that I can say they are now fully internalized. I still recite them orally about once every two weeks to maintain them in my memory. And yes, that’s a Whitman verse in the mix above; I’m working on that one, too.

Hidden in the shadows of obsolete vocabulary and early modern English syntax, it’s definitely true that I struggled to understand the meaning of significant portions of each sonnet prior to memorizing. However, the continued exposure to the poems over days, weeks, and months through repetitive reading and reciting (mostly done while driving my 40-minute commute) greatly informed my comprehension of them.

Eventually, by the time I had completely memorized them, those poems had achieved a personal and significant clarity that had not been possible by reading alone. Memorization had worked its magic.

I contend that knowing something and being able to recall it from memory has invaluable benefits. As Carr implies in The Shallows, we are cheating ourselves of greater meaning and pleasure when we bypass this often-dismissed tool.

Thanks for reading!

Have you heard this argument from a student: why try to remember something if we can just google it? The premise of this question is based on the notion that memorizing information is a pointless activity, since — as long as there’s a WiFi connection — we can always just go online for knowledge as we need it. I hope this post has offered a new perspective on the value of memorizing.

Leave your thoughts in the comments below or on my Contact page. Have a great week!

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Ekphrastic Poetry: New Website and Podcast

Add more ekphrasis to your ELA lessons

Need some ekphrastic inspiration? If you’ve tried ekphrastic poetry with your students, you’ve no doubt found it an amazing way to fuse art and creative writing. In my own experience, I’ve assigned or explored ekphrastic poetry with my junior American literature students once each semester.

I was pleased to present on the topic of ekphrastic poetry in January to colleagues at the Missouri Alliance for Arts Education in a virtual workshop. To find out more, please visit Missouri Arts Integration Network.

In those lessons, I’ve offered projects where students locate an artwork using Google Arts and Culture, and then write in response to those findings. And yes, those have been good, productive activities. Still, I’ve always thought students would benefit from another exposure to the form; however, I’ve wanted to offer that exposure in a different format to mix up the routine a bit.

As a result, through some good ol’ internet sleuthing, I discovered a website to share with you that’s totally devoted to ekphrasis (including poetry and other short writing modes) and a podcast produced by the same website.

These two resources are ones to be familiar with for your own creative writing classes.

Read on for a brief introduction to both of these ekphrastic treasure troves.

No. 1: The Ekphrastic Review

Use this website for daily prompts to fuel your ekphrasis… poetry, short fiction, or other creative writing, including creative nonfiction. Find this awesome resource at

With contests, submission opportunities in September (Yay! The very first month of school!), December, March, and June, students can send their work out into the publishing world for a nominal $5 fee that supports the volunteer-run website. See the website for criteria and other details, but know the main requirement is that the work be poetry, short fiction, microfiction, and/or creative nonfiction of 50-4,000 words. All work reviewed by the editors must also be ekphrastic, which means it must be “creative writing inspired by visual art.”

No. 2: TERcets Podcast

Incorporate listening standards by having students experience the ekphrastic poetry of others with a brief episode from the TERcets podcast from The Ekphrastic Review. “Each episode features three pieces selected by the host, Brian Salmons, from the Ekphrastic Review website,,” according to the Spotify listing. The poets read their poetry, which is always interesting. Episodes run from 10-15 minutes, the perfect length for a class opener or bell ringer.

Have students locate online the artwork on their phones or laptops before the poems are read, or you can project the artwork for the entire class. As they listen, have students write down three noticings that they can discuss after listening… imagery, rhyme, themes, word choice.

Ekphrastic poetry is probably one of the best kept secrets in ELA. If you haven’t tried it with your students, now is the best time, especially with National Poetry Month coming up in April.

If you need more resources, visit my Poetry Lessons page. For an Ekphrastic Poetry slide presentation to introduce the genre to your students complete with tips and student-written examples, visit my Site Shop for this resource.

Marilyn Yung

Thanks for reading again this week! While many of my U.S. readers have been enjoying spring break, I still felt it would be good to touch base during the break before we gear up for the final push of the school year.

And don’t forget… April is coming! National Poetry Month! I’ve run onto a cool way to help your students create professionally bound chapbooks. Stay tuned by entering your email below. (I only send about four emails per year, so don’t think your inbox will overflow!) In return, I’ll send you a Treasured Object Poetry handout to use to get your National Poetry Month celebrations off and running on April 1!

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ChatGPT and the Numbing of a Student’s Mind

No, I won’t be embracing ChatGPT

I’ve held off on writing about OpenAI’s ChatGPT because… well, it exasperates me. Frustrates me. Angers me. It makes me angry that software developers with little experience or interest in the provision of education have created a “tool” that replaces the very human activities of thinking and writing.

In the names of productivity, efficiency, and the bettering of humanity, software developers have relinquished an individual’s unique and nuanced thinking process to a program that mines the Internet’s storehouse of others’ ideas and then regurgitates those ideas as new content.

In short, we don’t have to think anymore.

Now, we can just ask ChatGPT to do it for us and, in turn, quicken the numbing of our minds. Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, writes, “The tools of the mind (a chatbot would qualify as one) amplify and in turn numb the most intimate, the most human, of our natural capacities — those for reason, perception, memory, emotion.” Based on Carr’s ideas and the wealth of research cited in The Shallows, I would venture to say that over time, if one even occasionally uses a chatbot or relies on one to perform various tasks, one’s ability to think deeply and wield words will decrease.

And that occasional use will likely become more frequent. We’re only human after all. Carr continues, “…as we grow more accustomed to and dependent on our computers we will be tempted to entrust to them ‘tasks that demand wisdom.’ And once we do that, there will be no turning back. The software will become indispensable to those tasks.”

Carr adds, “How sad it would be, particularly when it comes to the nurturing of our children’s minds, if we were to accept without question the idea that ‘human elements’ are outmoded and indispensable.” Carr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, written in 2010 no less, validates my skepticism of ChatGPT.

Use ChatGPT for essay outlines?

Still, while many teachers are skeptical of ChatGPT, others are embracing its potential with students. In one Facebook teaching group, one member posted she’ll encourage students to use ChatGPT to write outlines so they can “just get started” with the writing.

However, I would argue that the thinking involved in outlining is paramount to the entire writing process. We must encourage the student to do the hard work of prioritizing topics, subtopics, supporting details, evidence, counter-arguments, and rebuttals. Yes, it’s difficult, especially in our age of distraction and inattention. Yes, it’s time-consuming.

As educator-author Kelly Gallagher says, he doesn’t necessarily enjoy writing, but he enjoys having written. I agree. After all, part of a teacher’s job is to show students they can accomplish difficult tasks and, for sure, writing is a difficult task.

No skin in the game

Hard work, humanity, and wisdom notwithstanding, there’s still more to consider. When a student’s argumentative framework or outline has been generated by a chatbot, the student loses the personal connection and intrinsic motivation to develop the argument.

In short, ChatGPT steals the student’s stakeholder status. The student has no skin in the game. The student has nothing to lose, and therefore, no desire to write to prove his or her point. Not doing the difficult work of thinking and writing destroys the student’s purpose for learning.

No, I will not be embracing ChatGPT. I’ll be embracing human wisdom, individual thinking, and original writing instead.

Marilyn Yung

Just when I’m starting to get the hang of teaching, along comes ChatGPT. I’ll be writing more on this — especially as I continue reading and learning about student disengagement — as the controversy over AI and ChatGPT continues to simmer.

Let me know your thoughts on ChatGPT. Encountered it yet in your teaching? Leave me a note on my Contact page.

Marilyn Yung

Need a new poetry idea?

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Checked Out: Student Disengagement in the High School Classroom

Is thinking deeply a thing of the past?

As I mentioned in my 2022 year-end post, I’ll be spending 2023 reading and researching on the loss of focus (and the disengagement it fosters) that we are witnessing in students today.

To that end, I’m on a personal quest to read more about the phenomena that many teachers are familiar with. It goes by many names: loss of student focus, lack of student attention, student distraction, student disengagement. Whichever phenomena you’ve witnessed in your classroom (and whatever you call it), I believe all these are interlinked. I would also venture that these explain in part why students struggle with anxiety and depression.

Further, student distraction is more than distraction; it’s dependency. I wrote recently about the first book I read that covers this topic: Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — and How to Think Deeply Again, by Johann Hari, the New York Times Best-Selling author. Read that article here.

In his book, one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2022, Hari often cited this source in his writing: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. Intrigued by Carr’s points that Hari ruminated on, I decided to make The Shallows second on my reading list. And I’m so glad I did.

In short, The Shallows, a 2011 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in General Nonfiction, captivated me. I did the double-whammy: I ordered a print copy and then one for my Kindle, so I can easily search the book to my heart’s content. And despite being more than a decade since it’s first printing in 2010, the book speaks to our current day, even including a chapter on AI and the ways tech companies, in the name of productivity, are leading the cause to merge humans with machines.

Carr also wrote the well-known article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” for the July 2008 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. If you’d like a primer before purchasing The Shallows, this article will give you a good feel for the book, its content, and tone.

Even though I’m a little embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of The Shallows before now, I’m so enamored with this text that it just may be the next classroom set of books I order. Carr’s classic contains so many interesting anecdotes and observations that I know it will make for some amazing bell-ringer readings as well as a great whole-class read. Here’s an example of one of Carr’s ideas: Oral cultures, such as the ancient Greeks, were as skeptical of writing as a new technology as many of us are of Chat GPT. This sort of tidbit took me aback. To think that writing was seen as a “dumbing down” of orally known works. Socrates, a proponent of preserving knowledge by keeping it safely locked in the mind, wondered why mankind would want to sacrifice our knowledge to a tablet or page. Interesting stuff, indeed.

This tidbit also shows that The Shallows isn’t an alarmist Oh, no, we’re doomed! tome. Instead, it’s a balanced look at how societies have adjusted throughout history when confronted with a new intellectual technology, such as the watch, the map, or Gutenberg’s letterpress. Carr provides just enough accessible historical context to pique the reader’s interest in following his primary argument: we may be sacrificing our ability to think deeply as we embrace all things “online.”

After all, we can talk about the importance of critical thinking skills all we want, but in our multi-tasking, non-stop notifications culture, why expect a student to think critically when he or she struggles to complete a thought?

So, if you’re frustrated with student disengagement in your classroom, especially after you’ve worked SO HARD to create relevant and meaningful lessons, read The Shallows. It just may help you understand what many of us see happening within our student populations.

10 Points The Shallows Makes (in no particular order)

  1. Education and the acquisition of knowledge has an image problem. Carr writes of a “fundamental shift taking place in society’s attitude toward intellectual achievement.” Those who prefer excerpts over full texts (and those who disdain reading altogether) “also make it a lot easier for people to justify that shift — to convince themselves that surfing the Web is a suitable, even superior, substitute for deep reading and other forms of calm and attentive thought.” (pg. 112)
  2. Online reading is not the same as printed page reading. “Skimming is becoming our dominant mode of reading.” (pg. 138)
  3. Memorizing is not a waste of time. Memorizing is “the first step in a process of synthesis, a process that led to a deeper and more personal understanding of one’s reading.” In other words, when we internalize information, we own it and build new knowledge with it. (pg. 179)
  4. Our vocabularies are suffering. “Our indulgence in the pleasures of informality and immediacy has led to a narrowing of expressiveness and a loss of eloquence.” (pg. 108)
  5. Fun fact: The first writing had no spaces between words. Scribes wrote down what they heard, i.e. they didn’t hear the spaces. (It’s also why we have to teach children to put spaces between their words when they learn to write.) This is another example of the fascinating history behind our intellectual technologies, from PCs to alphabets, that makes this such a fun book to read. (pg. 65)
  6. The Internet is a different media animal. “The Internet differs from most of the mass media it replaces in an obvious and very important way: it’s bidirectional.” We can both download information from it and upload our own ideas to it. This interactivity consumes us. (pg. 85)
  7. The Internet offers it all, and we’ve gladly accepted it. Until the Internet, media was fragmented. Books and magazines couldn’t offer sound. TV couldn’t offer text (except in small amounts). Radio was limited to sound. Calculators only handled numbers. Encyclopedias only provided facts. However, because it’s digitized, the Internet can do everything. (pg. 85)
  8. There’s a connection between the Internet as a medium and mental health. Carr writes, “…frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and anxious.” (pg. 132)
  9. Without the ability to think deeply on a topic, we are losing the ability to innovate and invent. “The Internet diminishes our ability to know, in depth, a subject for ourselves, to construct within our own minds the rich and idiosyncratic set of connections that give rise to a singular intelligence.” (pg. 143)
  10. We’ve known this all along, but Carr actually says it: “The Internet was not built by educators to optimize learning.” (pg. 131)

In chapters with titles such as Tools of the Mind, The Deepening Page, The Juggler’s Brain, The Church of Google, and A Thing Like Me, Carr has so much to say. My piddly little “shallow” blog post can’t begin to capture the breadth and depth of this important book. Do yourself (and your students) a favor and head to your library for The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

Marilyn Yung

Thanks for reading!

I’m adding to my storehouse of knowledge with each book I read on our students’ diminishing abilities to focus and engage. I am now reading Maggie Jackson’s Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. That sounds so ominous, doesn’t it?

And while I don’t want to dwell on the negatives, I do think teachers and administrators need to know how to address what we are actually seeing in the classroom with students and their dependency on Smart phones and online technologies. I’m ultimately looking for solutions and so far, here’s one: we need to put our phones away and find something else to do. To learn what that “something else” might be, subscribe below, and I’ll keep posting about what I’m learning.

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The Anthropocene Reviewed Essay for High Schoolers

Use John Green’s classic for awesome student essays

Author John Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The directions read as follows:

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

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

…including toe socks and drag racing!

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

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

Marilyn Yung

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

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

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

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The Great Gatsby: Chapter 1 Challenges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Gatsby Guide Cover

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

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

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

Here are the directions stated on my product description:

How to Use These Posters

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

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

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

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

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

Marilyn Yung

Thanks for reading!

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

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

Check out my other Gatsby posts:

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Frederick Douglass Final Project: The Graphic Essay

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

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

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

For my students, I felt graphic essays would:

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

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

A sampling of my students’ essays:

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

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

More student essays:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marilyn Yung

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

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

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Argument Writing: Stossel in the Classroom Contests

2023 deadline: March 31

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

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

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

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

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

Here are this year’s argument choices:

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

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

Here are a few other details to know:

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

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

Marilyn Yung

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

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

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