Best ELA Lessons

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…

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

Plus: my top ten posts of 2022 I savor these last moments of the holidays. They’re the perfect time to reflect, rethink, and redirect my site’s content to better serve you, my dear readers, in the coming year. In doing so, it’s always interesting to learn which posts resonated most strongly with readers throughout the…

Last-Minute High School ELA Christmas Lesson Plan

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

When Students are Disengaged and Unable to Focus

We need to reclaim our ability to focus. Is it possible students are suffering more anxiety and stress because they know deep down inside they’re falling short of their potentials? Johann Hari discusses how to think deeply again in his book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention.

Four Fun Back-to-School First Day Activities

Let students reconnect as they transition from summer to school Need a fun way to ease into the new school year? One where students can catch up with their friends, get to know you, and share a little about themselves at the same time? I’ve got four awesome, low-tech activities to help your kids reconnect…

New Back-to-School First Day Activity

Arm in Arm by Remy Charlip gave me a world to fall into that didn’t always make sense, that was colorful, and full of possibility. And best of all… absurdity was allowed.

Five Bell-Ringers for Middle Grades and High School

A Week’s Worth of Bell-Ringers Bell-ringer activities are a great way to start class, get kids settled in, and ready to learn. And I should probably clarify that perhaps I’m not using the term “bell-ringer” accurately. While these five activities could be used as true bell-ringers, with students starting them independently as soon as they…

True Crime Unit: Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos

Planning for next year? Check out these multi-media resources If your students are into True Crime as a reading genre, or if you’re needing a “ripped from the headlines” unit to breathe new life into your upper-level high school ELA classes, do I have an idea for you! And the best thing about this idea…

The Book Bento

Have you tried book bentos yet? I’ve assembled a handful of my book bento articles in this post that I hope will introduce you to this new reading assessment project.

Book Bento Tip: The Art of Knolling

Always be knolling. Check out these videos to show your students how to “knoll” their book bento arrangements.

Book bento instructions and tips

Now that the semester is almost over, are you in need of a quick way to alternatively assess student reading? If so, try book bentos!

Taylor Mali’s Metaphor Dice

Metaphor Dice are excellent tools for inspiring evocative, poem-worthy ideas. The words set the stage for deeper, extended critical thinking. My poetry students loved them!

Back to School: Four Icebreaker Poems

Get to know your students with these poetry mentor texts School is starting soon in most locales of the United States and teachers are busy gearing up to find interesting. low-stakes ways to get students writing. Poetry is always a no-fail way to encourage students of all ages to get back in the swing of…

Three Back to School ELA Lesson Ideas

Needing some fresh ideas for the first day back at school? Want to avoid the ubiquitous “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” drudgery?

Back to School Poetry: The Sometimes Poem from YA Author Kate Messner

Young adult author Kate Messner inspired one of my favorite back-to-school poetry projects for middle schoolers! I’ve updated my post about this activity for the 2021-2022 school term with updated links and a free PDF presentation to download. I hope you try this project. It’s a keeper! Click below to read the post:

Candy Memoirs: A Sweet Assignment for 6th and 7th

Hey there! I’ve updated this post about candy memoirs… one of my favorite memoir projects for middle schoolers. I’ve also added a free PDF with three student-written mentor candy memoirs! Please let me know what you think by leaving a comment or sending me a message via my Contact page.

Movie Captions and Text Create Unique Poems

When text passages from a novel mingle with captions or subtitles from its accompanying movie, interesting things happen. Here’s what I mean: I always watch movies with the subtitles on. It helps me catch every word of dialogue and also catch every nuance given through the sound effects.

Switch Up Sketchnotes to Engage Distracted Students

I love sketchnotes. They’re engaging, colorful, and creative, and allow me to make illustrative connections while I listen to a book. But here’s the thing: I’m not a very good listener. I need to carefully concentrate on the words I’m hearing or my mind wanders to whatever’s going on in the hall, outside the window,…

Finally! One-pager success!

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

Book bentos: my first attempt

Book bentos are an alternative to the traditional book report. Here are resources and tips.

My post-COVID Follow-Up: Creative Vocabulary Resources

Here they are: the links for “Eight Ways to Explore New Vocabulary Words” Since COVID mixed things up a bit for me personally last week, I’m mixing things up a bit this week. I’ll explain in this quick video. Links: Please leave a comment with all the questions you have! And if you’re wondering about…

Eight Ways to Explore New Vocabulary Words

Plus free handouts to download “Vocabulary is about precision.” Those are the words of Sheridan Blau, author and Professor of Practice in English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. I heard Blau speak at the Writing & Thinking Conference hosted by the Ozarks Writing Project at Missouri State University two years ago. Blau’s concise statement…

Headline Poetry Reimagined and Redefined

My high school students take headline poems to the next level Again this year, I chose to start the school year with headline poetry. Both my in-school students and those learning at home created headline poems with words and phrases found and clipped from with a variety of printed materials, magazines, newspapers, and even junk…

Make a “Live” Word Cloud with This Super Easy App

I tried Mentimeter.com on the first day of school On the first day of school, I jumped in and tried something new: Mentimeter.com. It’s an interactive presentation software website that helps you increase engagement while gathering valuable information for teaching. I used its popular word cloud presentation, but there are many other presentation styles available…

Where I’m From Poem Templates

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

A Book Cover Analysis: A Fun Back-to-School Reading Task

When it’s too soon to ask questions about plot and character On Tuesdays in my independent reading class, I prepare a text-based question for students to answer in a paragraph or two on paper. I ask them to do their reading, keeping in mind the question, and then at the end of the house, they…

This Back-to-School One-Pager Works Wonders

Get to know your in-class and remote learners quickly Thanks to Spark Creativity! for this awesome “biographical one-pager” idea that I used last week when school started on Thursday. Read this blog post for all the details and printable downloads. As a mentor or example, I projected mine (see above) on the whiteboard and we…

The New York Times Announces Its 2020-21 Student Writing Contests

And get this: most are now open to middle school students! Yes! The student writing contests hosted by The New York Times’ Learning Network are back! In addition, most are now open to U.S. middle school students starting in sixth grade (for international students, ages 13-18). A couple of weeks ago, I wrote this post…

Use this ‘Hamilton’ article to teach six poetic devices

Thank you, Wall Street Journal, for this amazing resource Buckle up, poetry lovers! This Wall Street Journal article, written by Joel Eastwood and Erik Hinton and published on June 6, promises to brighten your poetry lessons with some Broadway style. The article showcases the hip-hop/musical theater/American history mashup known as Hamilton, written and created by…

The New York Times Announces Two New Writing Contests

Both ask students to record their lives in the year 2020 Last Thursday, I attended a webinar titled “Giving Students a Voice: Teaching with Learning Network Contests.” It was hosted by The New York Times’ Learning Network. Teachers from around the world gathered online to get the skinny on a total of ten student writing…

Six Writing Prompts for AOW Assignments

Offer students more ways to respond If you’re a fan of Article of the Week (AOW) assignments and student choice, then this post is for you. Side note: If you’re unfamiliar with the AOW assignment, scroll to the bottom first for a quick explanation and here’s a link to my post about how I use…

“Why Do We Read Such Depressing Stuff?!”

Especially in times like these??? My students have told me the following list of nonfiction books is depressing. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank Flesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass 102 Minutes by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn Night by Elie Wiesel…

Reading The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison… again

Reading it once is not enough. When author Toni Morrison died last August, I assigned an article about her life and career for our first weekly Article of the Week assignment of the year. I also read the first chapter of her first novel, The Bluest Eye, plus parts of the foreword to expose students…

New writing contest: Book blurbs!

Whether you’re distance learning or at school, start fall with this new contest With talk of a second corona virus wave coming late summer, knowing what “school” will look like in August or September is impossible right now. However, one thing I know for sure: on the first day of school, my creative writing class…

The Ten Percent Summary

Jazz up the typical summary assignment Ever get tired of having kids write summaries? If you’re like me, it’s easy to become tired of summary writing. However, I also know it’s a skill that students need to practice from time to time. Summary writing helps students comprehend a text, prioritize its ideas, and convey the…

When class discussions get controversial (and unfair)

I need this plan for better discussions in my classroom Because I am a writer first, and a speaker second, teaching via whole-class discussions does not come easily to me. When those class discussions involve racially-charged, controversial topics, it’s even more difficult. This difficulty can be blamed on two things: I teach at a nearly…

White Teacher Question: Are these race and social justice books enough?

Send me your contemporary social justice book suggestions I ordered these books for fall 2020 because I’m focusing on the power of literature to effect social change. Of course, recent events in response to the killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd make me wonder if there are more topical books I should have ordered instead…

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

The AOW can help you design targeted instruction in specific problem areas of writing Don’t you love it when a classroom activity teaches something not only to your students, but to you as well? That’s the case with my most effective writing assignment, the Article of the Week (AOW). Not only do Article of the…

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

For the most part, it’s an easy fix. It’s nice when a common issue you know your students have with writing can be easily remedied. This is one of them: avoiding unintentional and unnecessary first-person point of view in academic writing. For the most part, the first-person words can simply be removed with… wait for…

Corona virus journals foster creativity

A reminder that students can still thrive in uncertain times Don’t underestimate your students when it comes to distance learning. Some of them might surprise you and take your assignment to new heights, as my senior student Savannah B. did with her journal (shown in photos). Savannah took my Life in the Time of Corona…

Word clouds spice up distance learning

Have kids make word clouds about life during the pandemic My students have been home since March 17. As part of their distance learning, I’ve asked them to write a couple of paragraphs every other day or so for a “Life in the Time of Corona” journal. This journal, which we will finish in the…

Pros and Cons of Padlet

My first impressions of this app for my high school classroom Yesterday, I wrote about six assignments I am using to test-drive the discussion board app called Padlet. Click here for a link to that post. Read on for my first impressions in the form of pros and cons. While I’m using it now for…

I’m trying out Padlet during distance learning

Six assignments I’m using to test-drive Padlet Since so many aspects of teaching right now are new due to school closings amid COVID-19, what’s one more? As long as we’re entering unchartered territory, let’s not only learn how to Zoom, but let’s try Padlet as well. Padlet is basically an online discussion board application that…

When half your students don’t have internet access

Make Zoom optional About a week ago, I decided to host an optional meeting on Zoom so students could drop in to ask a question about an assignment, check on a grade, or just talk. One or two students dropped in momentarily to ask about their homework, and a half-dozen or so decided to chat…

How to get middle schoolers to write 16-page essays

Try “The 8th-Grade Human Rights Dissertation” Want to be impressed by your middle school ELA students? Want to see them rise to the writing occasion? Try this extended writing assignment that I call the 8th-Grade Human Rights Dissertation. Sidenote: Obviously, this is not an assignment for distance learning. It’s designed for a normal full-time schedule…

Photo Friday: Graphic Essays

Graphic essays break down theme into bite-size chunks Graphic essays break down theme into bite-size chunks of textual evidence, interpretation, and symbolism. Read this post to see how my juniors creatively demonstrated their knowledge of various themes found in Ernest Hemingway’s short story “In Another Country.” Thanks for stopping by! Become a follower for more…

Teach Theme with Graphic Essays: The Old Man and the Sea

Here’s how I’ve used graphic essays and what I’ll tweak for next time. My junior English classes recently read the short story, “In Another Country” by Ernest Hemingway as a follow-up to reading “The Old Man and the Sea.” Because they had just completed a traditional written thematic analysis of the novel, I opted to…

Try This Low-Stakes Writing Activity: “Take a line for a walk”

It’s a keeper. A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to the 2020 Write-to-Learn Conference sponsored by the Missouri State Council of the Int’. Literacy Association, The Missouri Writing Projects Network, and the Missouri Council of Teachers of English. Even though I attended only one day of the three-day conference, I’m happy with the handful…

Teaching students to write essays that answer the question: So what?!

Asking “So what?” makes the difference My juniors finished reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Instead of taking an objective culminating exam, they will show their learning by writing a literary analysis essay. However, each student will choose the content and the focus of their essays instead of selecting a topic from…

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell: A nonfiction contender for 2020-21

Thinking ahead to new class sets for next year Nonfiction is definitely my thing. Yes, I love novels and short stories, but nonfiction really captivates me. And I guess it’s because I truly believe that life is stranger than fiction. As a result, I’m starting to consider which nonfiction books I’d like to requisition for…

Sometimes Poetry Can Teach Better than I Can

Take word choice, for example Last December, when I read a student’s second draft of their Treasured Object poem and saw that it contained the word “get” four times, I thought Really? Get? Four times?  It surprised me because I thought I had taught not only sentence variety, but word variety as well. It’s good…

Dear Teachers: The Church of Scientology is one click away from your students

Be careful: the church’s Youth for Human Rights lessons are now available online.   A lot can happen in two years. Two years ago, I wrote on Medium.com about a variety of educational materials offered by Youth for Human Rights International, a Los Angeles, Calif.-based human rights advocacy group. Back then, after doing some quick…

Don’t Give Up on Improving Your Students’ Vocabulary Skills

Stick with your plan; give your lessons time to work I recently designed some daily bell-ringer activities to teach my students some new vocabulary words. To create these on-going brief lessons, I continue to use Vocab Gal’s “Power Words of the Week” from Sadlier’s ELA Blog, and “Vocabulary Words of the Day” from Prestwick House.…

Teaching transitions in writing, part 1 (updated 6/2021)

Don’t teach just transition words… teach transition ideas as well. Note added on June 5, 2021: I often go back to my previous blog posts and see the details of how I taught a certain book or writing mini-lesson. In fact, I recently did that with this post. In April, I was working with my…

Ditch the Dictionary

I’m trying these four short vocabulary bell-work tasks to help kids better learn new words I recently signed up to receive weekly email updates from the Sadlier School. As part of the email, I receive a free “Power Word of the Week” email from the Vocab Gal’s blog. I’ve been using these “slides” in my…

Focus Your Binoculars and Zoom In

A revision mini-lesson Because it seems my high school students would benefit from learning some revision strategies, I decided to do a search on Teachers Pay Teachers for any revision handouts featuring the work of Barry Lane. I found this one (it’s FREE from Texas ELAR Coach) entitled Writing Strategy: Adding Detail by Zooming In…

Slice-of-Life Writing: The Anti-Instagram Narrative

These short narratives celebrate the ordinary One result of a three-month summer break? Students out of practice with writing, especially creative writing. To remedy that last week, I decided to introduce my high school students to slice-of-life writing, a fairly new genre within the world of narrative non-fiction. In my former middle school ELA teaching position,…

When Anxious, Depressed Students Stare into Space

Don’t assume they aren’t listening Last spring in my middle school language arts classes, I taught the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave for the eighth year. It’s the autobiography of Douglass, who was born into slavery. In his formative years, he experienced an epiphany: literacy equaled freedom. As a result,…

A boy, a bird, and a bus station in Athens

Slice of Life writing is one of my favorite genres to do with young writers. Here’s a slice I wrote while waiting in a bus station in central Athens last week. It appeared first on my personal writing blog.

I teach kids it’s okay to be rejected

Rejection proves that my students are indeed writers I teach kids it’s okay to be rejected. I teach them it’s okay to fail and That it’s good to receive a rejection letter because That’s what writers do: They get turned down. I teach kids it’s okay to be rejected. I teach them to risk it…

My attempt at teaching kids how to add narration into their dialogue

Here’s a mini-lesson I created a few months ago Kids love to write dialogue, but it often ends up being just a series of spoken words… a lengthy showcase of spoken words followed by any one of the following: he said, she said, he replied, she stated. This year, in my AOW and EOW assignments,…

2019 Middle School Writing Conference…A Great Day!

I was finally able to take some students to this regional day of writing at MSU just for middle schoolers Last Friday, May 10, I took eight students on a field trip to the Middle School Writing Conference at Missouri State University in Springfield, Mo. The conference was hosted by Missouri State University’s Center for…

“Where I’m From” Poems

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

My Attempt at a STEM-Themed Activity: Exploring Coffee Lids

This project was a long time in the making… brewing, I mean This week, I’m posting several photos from a lesson and activity that’s been in the works for a few months, if not for a year. About a year ago, I found an article online on MentalFloss called “9 Facts about Coffee Lids You…

My students confuse the words “although” and “however” and I’m not sure why

So, as a teacher, how do I figure this one out? Lately, I’ve noticed a pattern in my students’ writing. The pattern I’m noticing may reveal some confusion that my students have regarding  the words “although” and “however.” It seems that some students will use “although” correctly in a guided writing prompt, but then in…

To the parent who told my student she’d never be a writer

Thanks but no thanks for the motherly advice. Yes, a student informed me about a month ago that her mother told her she wouldn’t ever be a writer. “Say that again?” I asked when I overheard Claire report to a friend what her mother had said the previous evening as she revised a narrative essay.…

When you finally visit a place you’ve taught your students about for years

I searched through lower Manhattan to find the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. building There’s nothing like visiting a place you’ve only read about in books. Last week during spring break, my daughter and I visited New York City primarily to visit the City College of New York, where my daughter will begin graduate school next fall.…

Write To Learn Conference Highlight: Sherry Swain’s Cumulative Sentence Workshop

I learned a ton from this session and walked away with a ready-to-use lesson plan and handouts. I attended Write to Learn 2019, a writing and teaching conference, held at Osage Beach, Mo. at Tan-Tar-A Resort and Conference Center. Write to Learn is sponsored by the Missouri State Council of ILA, the Missouri Reading Initiative,…

The 2022 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards: Six tips for entering your students’ work

Your students need to enter this contest! In March of 2020 (just before shutdown), two of my students (out of three) received honorable mentions in the regional level of the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. The previous year, ten of my students’ entered their writing in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Two of those…

Don’t “dis” formulaic writing prompts

Use structure to develop ideas and writer’s voice   I’m pretty proud of the student’s written response in the photo above. It’s written by a seventh-grader who, while being a strong writer, struggles with turning in work, whether assigned as homework or completed during class. He is not doing well in my class “grade-wise”; however,…

When students don’t “follow along” in the book

“Following along” may not work for every student I’ve been reading Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James Swanson to my seventh-graders and we just finished it on Friday. About every two chapters or so, they’ve written a response to a question I’ve posed to help them comprehend the text as well as think critically about some…

Use this totally free source for movie and TV transcripts

Every so often, this website comes in really handy. Ever need to know exactly what a character said in a movie? Ever want to show your students how dialogue is done for film? I recently found a free —I repeat, FREE—source for any and every movie transcript. At the time, my class had just finished…

How not to feel guilty about showing videos before a break

Plus: the movies we watched the final two days before Christmas break Every teacher knows the feeling. You’re in the final week of school before Christmas break. There’s no point in starting something new, and often, you’re finishing up a project or unit and you need a couple of extra days for the late work…

One road-tested way to connect with your students

Put a “lotion station” on your desk   If you’re wanting another way to connect with your students, try adding a small box of lotions to your desk or wherever it might fit best in your classroom. Male English teachers (all five of you out there) can try this, too! Find a couple of macho-scented…

How I actually accomplished something in my classes the week before Christmas break

Students presented their writing contest entries for an end-of-semester critique   The last week before Christmas break was super productive. Oh, don’t get me wrong… we still watched videos late in the week, but we ACCOMPLISHED SO MUCH early in the week with our contest entry presentations that my self-inflicted and totally undeserved teacher guilt…

Dear Teachers: Thinking about the first day back at school after break?

Even though I wrote this post one year ago, it still holds true today. This post is one of my top articles on Medium.com, so I thought I would reblog it here again since many teachers are close to returning to school from Christmas break. Have a great second semester and know that many of…

It’s a Wrap! Three Take-Aways from Writer’s Workshop

Lessons learned from Writer’s Workshop On Friday, my seventh- and eighth-graders turned in their final Writer’s Workshop portfolios. In early November, students began choosing eight writing projects from a list of twelve. The list offered a range of projects ranging from poetry to arguments to narratives to informational works. The focus of WW was the…

NCTE’s Promising Young Writer’s 2019 Contest Prompt has been released

A writing contest just for 8th-graders! The long-awaited 2019 prompt for NCTE’s Promising Young Writer’s contest has been released. This year, NCTE invites students to write about instances in their lives when they “made a conscious choice to welcome or show hospitality to an experience, feeling, or person.” Click this link for more information. This contest’s purpose…

Outlines have a time and place; a personal essay isn’t one of them.

One of my students is learning that “Discovery is the thing.” Last week, I wrote about Writer’s Workshop and how I am really enjoying it this fall in my middle school language arts classes. I have a few books that I pull ideas from to use for mini-lessons before the kids transition to working on…

Writer’s Workshop for Middle School

I’m so glad I didn’t give up on what is now one of my favorite activities Since I began teaching seven years ago, I’ve learned that sometimes it may be necessary to try a new technique, a new curriculum unit, or simply a new idea more than once in order to fairly assess its effectiveness.…

I’m still using and really, really liking Planbook

Here’s my follow-up post about my online lesson planning I’m still using Planbook! Every day, I can enter my lesson plans for the next day, the next week, the next month, and even the next year. If I like how I did something, I just copy it into the future and voila! it’s done. (Click…

NaNoWriMo, my students, and my historical nonfiction project thingy

You gotta start somewhere.   I’m finally doing NaNoWriMo with my students. Well, sort of. All during November, about fifteen students ranging from fifth- through eighth-grade arrive in my room after school and write for forty-five minutes. I only know a little about what they’re writing. That’s because I’m busy working, too, on my own…

My one and only complaint with the Missouri Learning Standards

They just seem a little vague. Last week, one of my students came across the term “hyperbole” on a vocabulary assignment. “What does hyperbole mean?” he asked. Wow, I thought. Five years ago, my students knew that term. Why? Because I taught it to them, along with other common figurative language techniques. Why? Because they were…

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