Classic Krakauer: an escape to the rugged outdoors for couch-bound students

Yesterday, I flipped through the newest book from Jon Krakauer, Classic Krakauer: Essays on Wilderness and Risk. Once again, I was transported to the far reaches of possibility. With Krakauer as my guide, I rappelled down 1,000 feet into Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico; I walked along the sulfur-scented volcanic rim of Mt. Rainier; I climbed beneath an overhanging “bulge of glacial ice” in Mt. Everest’s Khumbu Icefall.

In short, I was taken far away from my couch on yet another day at home during the month-long break my school is taking to control the spread of COVID-19. True, since I teach in a rural school, many of my students are fortunately able to get outside. Social distancing is easy to do out in the country. Still, Krakauer’s adventures allow readers to experience exotic sights and destinations they might never expect to see beyond their local environs.

I wish each of my students had a copy of this book to read at home during the break.

I’ve been a fan of Jon Krakauer ever since I read Into Thin Air, his eyewitness account of the 1996 Mt. Everest tragedy where eight climbers were killed in an unexpected snowstorm on their descent from the summit. Since then, I’ve read Into the Wild, the story of Chris McCandless and his fatal journey into the Alaskan wilderness; Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith; and Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.

Krakauer’s latest book, Classic Krakauer, is a 181-page compilation of ten essays and articles that he wrote early in his career as a freelancer for The New Yorker, Outside and Smithsonian magazines, and New Age Journal. I haven’t read them all yet, but here are those I have read so far:

  • Descent to Mars, the story of NASA research in Lechuguilla Cave
  • Death and Anger on Everest, an account of the 2014 tragedy that highlighted the dangers sherpas endure
  • Living Under the Volcano, a story about the prospects of living beneath Mt. Rainier
  • After the Fall, an account of the liability issues that have arisen with the rising popularity of mountain sports

Any one of these pieces would be excellent — and I mean EXCELLENT — readings for my junior and senior English students. Each is a riveting mix of narrative and expository prose that’s packed with compelling digressions that build thick, meaty tales that can be consumed in one — okay, maybe two — sittings.

Even studying Krakauer’s vocabulary would be beneficial for my students. While much of the book’s vocab is domain specific to, for example, mountaineering (such as belay) or geology (such as lahar), Krakauer also employs a healthy dose of rich Tier 2 words that my students need to read and hear (such as discombobulated or pique). Many of my students think writers use “big words” just to confuse readers; Krakauer’s sophisticated semantics are an essential and useful component to his prose.

I’m thinking about requisitioning a classroom set of this book for next year.

Any one of the writings within it would spark robust discussions not only about the subject matter, but also about the writing moves Krakauer makes. Yes, I see great potential in Krakauer’s latest offering.


Thanks for reading! Do you use any Krakauer books in your classroom? What has been your experience? Placed any orders for next year? It seems so far in the future to be thinking about next fall, but once the corona virus chaos is over, it will be back to normal before we know it. Leave a comment with your thoughts about your wish list for 2020-21.

Students should write about their lives right now: Life in the Time of Corona

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

I made this writing assignment last weekend. Here’s the link.

The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting our world in so many ways. It’s disrupting normal life routines including school and employment, and social activities such as weddings, prom, and graduations. In fact, the county next to mine just announced a thirty-day shelter-in-place order.

Nearly every aspect of American life has changed. It is truly a historic event.

So when California high school English educator Kelly Gallagher tweeted last week that students “should write daily about this time history,” I thought Yes, of course! What an awesome idea!

So I got busy creating an assignment sheet for students to use to capture this moment in time. (Full disclosure: In the end, actually, I summarized this sheet and made it part of a larger “distance learning packet” that students took home with them at the end of the day on Tuesday, March 17.)

Here’s the link to a Google Doc of my handout. You should be able to edit it to suit your needs and/or students. Get the link here: LIFE IN THE TIME OF CORONA writing assignment.

Again, credit goes to Gallagher for the inspiration for this assignment, which I have named “Life in the Time of Corona,” a play on words mimicking Love in the Time of Cholera, the 1985 novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

My assignment is a journaling and scrapbook project that encourages students to document their experiences, activities, and thoughts about the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic.

It also asks them to collect some artifacts… news stories, screenshots, a few squares of toilet paper (ha!), a list of cancelled events.

Here’s a snapshot of what the assignment asks students to do:

Over the next week, keep a journal of your activities, thoughts, and experiences in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.  Here are some ideas:

  • Write about what you do know about the virus.
  • Write about what you don’t know.
  • Is it business as usual? (Describe business as usual… your normal routine.)
  • Are you going out? Where?
  • What have you cancelled?
  • How has COVID-19 affected your life so far?
  • Have you tried to shop for supplies in case of a lockdown? How did that go?
  • Do you know what to do if we are restricted?
  • Write about the contradictions or confusion that exists in the media.
  • Reflect on the memes that seem to be multiplying faster than the virus itself.
  • What news stories have you heard, read, or watched?
  • Has anything or anyone inspired you in the midst of the coronavirus?
  • In short, write about whatever you want to write about as it relates to the pandemic.

At the end of our break (or at some other time yet to be determined), turn in:

Five journal entries of at least one paragraph each, typed or handwritten.

–A media report, story, or timeline. Print out a news article or take a screenshot of an article about the virus and its spread.

One artifact of the epidemic…In twenty years, for example, when you’re nearing forty years of age, what item would remind you of today? A photo of empty store shelves? The label from a hand sanitizer bottle? A listing of cancelled events? Some squares of toilet paper?

Audience: Yourself, your future children??? Think of this as a scrapbook of sorts, or an entry in a memory book.

Again, get the link here: Life in the Time of Corona

If you try this assignment, please let me know how it goes. And, by the way, this is NOT road-tested, obviously. This is all new territory, so if I’ve left anything out, please let me know!


Thanks for reading again this week! Also, I will likely post again in a few days as the pandemic situation seems to change daily. If your school has cancelled and you’re busy writing up online instruction, share your thoughts in the comments. Here’s a link to a good book when students have to be inside: “A River Runs Through It: A fresh walk outside for students staying inside”

Something there is that doesn’t love a Coronavirus pandemic

Photo by Evgeny Dzhumaev on Unsplash

The coronavirus and Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”

Holed up at home at my dining room table, I’m continuing with my lesson planning as scheduled during our two-week school closing. After our recent Ernest Hemingway unit concluded last week, my plan was to introduce my juniors to Robert Frost.

Lucky them.

Frost’s poetry is poignant, honest, and direct and comments beautifully on personal wonderings, human relationships, and living in general. I always find Frost’s work to be rejuvenating and clarifying.

My plans call for students to first read Frost’s “Mending Wall,” and then “Birches,” and finally, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Once we return to school, we’ll tackle “The Road Not Taken.”

On my distance learning plan for today, I scheduled my juniors to read some short biographical background articles on Frost in our textbook.

Robert Frost in 1910 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Then, they were to freewrite in response to a prompt designed to prepare them for reading “Mending Wall.”

“Mending Wall” is one of Frost’s most well-known poems. It’s about the barriers that people use (and often work darn hard to maintain, by the way) to keep others at a distance. Here’s the freewriting prompt my students have for today:

“Think about the people who live near you. Do you see them often? Are you good friends, or do you barely speak? What activities, if any, bring you together? What things keep you apart?”

When I first read this prompt, I thought of the coronavirus.

What brings us together? Coronavirus. What keeps us apart? Coronavirus.

Yes, the coronavirus is literally keeping us apart. Social distancing is the new buzzword and best practice.

However, we can also say that the coronavirus pandemic and school closings are bringing us together. For example, I’m emailing regularly with one of our neighbors, an elderly woman who lives across the street. Before the social distancing began, even though she lives just across the way, our busy schedules prevented us from seeing her outside of our weekly meet-up at church (which is now cancelled indefinitely, of course). However, now, due to the coronavirus, we’ve had more contact with her this week than we usually do.

Bottom line: the walls that keep us from more regular contact with our neighbor — busy schedules — don’t have to exist. And that’s what Frost is getting at with “Mending Wall,” his little poem that questions why humans erect and then maintain barriers that distance themselves from those nearby.

And that brings me back (yet again) to another reason why I love Robert Frost. His work, and “Mending Wall” in particular, is as relevant today — possibly more so — than it was when it was written in 1914.

And that’s a good reason to stick to my regularly scheduled lesson plans during this two-week school closure.

My daughter took this picture of me visiting Robert Frost’s grave in Bennington, Vermont in 2002.

Thanks for reading! I’m writing daily about my Life in the Time of Corona along with my students. We are journaling and keeping artifacts from this time of school closings and social distancing to document this history. Since I think a great deal about school and lesson planning, my daily journaling about the pandemic and this blog naturally coincide.

Feel free to leave a comment about the lessons you have planned for the school closing.

Prepping for the Coronavirus break

Yes, I use technology in class, but I’m also an old-school fan of paper. Scroll down for a photo of what I sent home with students yesterday for the coronavirus break.

Paper paper everywhere. Distance learning doesn’t mean high-tech for me.

Yesterday at 3:35 pm, my school released until April 1st in an attempt to control the spread of the coronavirus. The night before, I was sitting at my dining room table preparing plans for students to accomplish over the break. Just because we’re not in school doesn’t mean we’re not learning.

My plans involve students creating a journal/scrapbook that will document their experience in this once-in-a-lifetime global event. About every other day, they will write a half-page to one page journal entry on what’s happening in their life, this local area, the nation, and world. They are also to collect some kind of artifact or memento each day they write… a photograph, a newspaper clipping, sheets of toilet paper???

I also sent them home with an AOW (article of the week) assignment on recent advances in bionic prosthetic limbs. No, it’s not pandemic-related, but that’s probably a good thing; we don’t need to dwell on the coronavirus 24/7.

My plans also call for good, old-fashioned textbook reading and response. Juniors are reading three classic Robert Frost poems, “Mending Wall,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and “Birches.” When we return, we’ll read the ultra-popular and oft-quoted “The Road Not Taken.” Seniors are beginning a study of Medieval Period literature. They’ll be reading “Sir Patrick Spens” and “Barbara Allen.” When we return, we’ll tackle some Chaucer. My Composition students are reading Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It over the break.

Taking a slightly different route, my Novels class is writing a Southern Gothic short story, the culminating activity in our study of this genre.

My school administrators encouraged teachers to send paper assignments home with students as 47.8% of our students do not have internet access at home using a computer, laptop,or Chromebook.

Here are some handouts I prepared at my dining room table Monday night. I arrived at school early enough Tuesday morning to make copies for my classes. I checked out textbooks “just in case” to students last Friday and gave them class codes for Remind messages on Monday.

I also like the idea of putting learning materials, a ten-day schedule, and instructions in their hot little hands instead of assuming all electronic messages will be received and/or acknowledged. I’m also keeping in touch with students via Remind, a messaging app that feels like a private Twitter for groups.


Thanks for reading! How are your “coronavirus break” distance learning plans going? Feel free to leave a comment below. I’ll be doing some writing alongside my students, so stay tuned for future posts about our journal/scrapbook activities.

Try this low-stakes writing activity called “Take a line for a walk”

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My juniors switch places around my room to “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 of tools and activities I received or learned about.

One of those activities is a low-stakes writing exercise called “Take a Line for a Walk.”  I used it in my junior and senior English classes last week. Here’s a link to the Google Doc I made for students to use for this activity.

Sort It! Map It! Exploring Critical Literacy

I received this handout during a session at the Write to Learn Conference called “Sort It! Map It! Exploring Critical Literacy, Pedagogy, & Writing Process.” The session was taught by Dr. Lara Dieckmann, a teacher at Harrisburg (Mo.) R-VIII School District and Dr. Christy Goldsmith, assistant director of the Campus Writing Program at the University of Missouri.

What makes this exercise a low-stakes exercise?

For one, students don’t edit themselves as they write. The writing is not revised later either. It’s not even graded. It’s simply an opportunity for students to put thoughts down on paper. Much of what students need is merely practice writing and low-stakes opportunities give students the practice they need.

According to this article on Edutopia.com, low-stakes writing:

  • Increases students’ comfort with expressing their ideas and empowers student voice
  • Creates more investment and ownership in student learning
  • Prepares students for high-stakes writing and testing
  • Is adaptable for any subject
  • Allows for differentiation

I like all these reasons for incorporating low-stakes writing into my teaching, and I do use a handful of activities such as the One-word Summary, Kelley Gallagher’s Ten Percent Summary, and First Impressions Free-Writes. Still, it never hurts to add to the repertoire. In addition to providing writing practice, “Take a Line for a Walk” provides an easy and effective way to help kids read a difficult text or establish prior knowledge about a particular subject.

For my senior English students, we used “Take a Line for a Walk” after an initial reading of the Anglo-Saxon poem, The Seafarer. For my junior English students, we used the activity to review and establish prior knowledge about World War I in preparation for our reading later this week of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “In Another Country.”

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One of my students responds to the writing already on the page in this low-stakes writing activity.

Here are the basic steps I used with my students to “Take a Line for a Walk”:

  1. Pass out copies of the text you will be reading, as well as the “Take a Line for a Walk” lined sheet.
  2. Have students read the text independently or read it aloud, whichever is customary for you.
  3. Once all are finished reading, ask students to find a line, sentence or two, or an idea from the text that stood out to them as they read and write it down word-for-word at the top of the sheet. For example, what line made them sit up and take notice? Which line or two jumped off the page as they read the text?
  4. Once all have recorded their “stand-out” sentence or two, ask students to respond to their passage on the lines below it. Write a sentence or two or three to reflect on: why the line stood out to them, what connections they made to the line, what the line made them think about or ask. This is very loose. All they need to do is respond in any way they see fit.
  5. Once everyone is finished, have students stand up, leave their own page at their desk, grab their pen, and move to another desk.
  6. Once everyone arrives at another desk, have all sit down, and continue the conversation that’s been started on the page at their new desk. Do they agree with the thoughts? Disagree? Have a connection to something that’s been written on the page? Does the writing remind them of another situation, text, or experience? Again, this is a loose activity. The point is to read, respond, connect, and write it down.
  7. Repeat step six two or three more times, depending on your class size and the length of time available.  I’ve used this strategy twice and I decided to have students move around the room three times on both occasions.
  8. Once you’ve finished, have students return to their original seats and skim through the writing that has been collected.
  9. Ask a few students to share their written conversations, including any especially interesting or insightful comments.

I liked using this activity because it added some variety to our normal reading and writing routine. It also got kids moving around the room, reading and writing informally, and then discussing the ideas as well. I definitely plan to continue to use it occasionally to add more low-stakes writing activities (and therefore, informal writing practice) to my classes. Like I said, it’s a keeper.


Thanks for reading again this week! Have you ever used “Take a Line for a Walk?”  Feel free to share your experience with this and any other low-stakes writing activities you’ve found effective in your literacy instruction. Become a follower and for more road-tested writing lesson ideas. In fact, here’s a link to a post titled “My Number One Most Effective Writing Assignment Ever: Gallagher’s AOW.”

Use this Alphabet Brainstorming Chart

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Teachers stack idea cards into like piles at one of the sessions I attended at Write-to-Learn 2020. This was part of another critical literacy activity that I’ll share with you soon.

This classic organizer worked for me at the 2020 Write-to-Learn Conference

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 of tools I’ll be using in my classroom soon.

One of those tools is the Alphabet Brainstorming Chart shown below. Here’s a link to a similar handout that’s ready to use.

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How to use this organizer:

  1. Find a new topic you need your students to explore. “Critical literacy” was the new topic used to demonstrate how to use this chart in the classroom by our presenters, Dr. Lara Dieckmann, a teacher at Harrisburg (Mo.) R-VIII School District and Dr. Christy Goldsmith, assistant director of the Campus Writing Program at the University of Missouri. Critical literacy was a term I knew nothing about; however, it was still a topic I could still ponder, as in “I don’t know what critical literacy is, but I think I know what it might be about.”
  2. Divide students into groups. Choose group size based on your needs.
  3. Tell students to think about their topic and write a word or phrase that they can connect with the topic — one for each letter of the alphabet. You can see the words I connected to critical literacy in the photo above.
  4. This activity encourages students to evaluate what they already know or think they know and enter their thinking into the squares.
  5. Let students talk among their groups and share their ideas or words. This activity is about more than prior knowledge. It’s also about sharing ideas and getting kids talking about the topic at hand.
  6. When students and groups are finished filling in the chart, go around the room and share out and discuss what students know about the new topic.

I like this chart much better than KWL charts, which have always seemed so boring to me. It has a game-like feel to it. And besides, with a KWL chart it’s really hard to come up with things you want to know about a new topic.

If I had been given a KWL chart to fill out about critical literacy, I would have been lost. With this ABC chart, I was able to come up with more ideas to discuss than I thought I could. I can see how it can be a confidence-booster with kids. It was also good to hear other ideas from my group members.

And finally, the best thing about this ABC Chart is you can make it a game!

Switch it up by…

  • Giving a prize (or just designating a winner) to the first group that fills in all the squares.
  • Giving a prize to the group that fills in the most squares in a designated number of minutes.
  • Giving a prize to the group that fills in “X” with the best phrase that fits the topic.

Sort It! Map It! Exploring Critical Literacy

I received this handout during a session called “Sort It! Map It! Exploring Critical Literacy, Pedagogy, & Writing Process” taught by Dieckmann and Goldsmith.

The presenters readily acknowledged the original source of this classic organizer.

It was adapted from The Key to Know “PAINE” Know Gain, a 1998 paper presented by  G. Ricci and C. Wahlgren at the 43rd annual convention of the International Reading Association.

I’m looking forward to using this organizer with my seniors in a few weeks when we begin our Medieval Age unit in British Literature. I’ll let you know how that goes in an upcoming post.


Thanks for reading again this week! Have you ever used this chart? Do tell! Feel free to share your experience in the comments. Follow my blog to catch my follow-up post on how the chart works in my classroom. Here’s a link to another post inspired by a session at last year’s Write to Learn conference.

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

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Image by Image by dragonkim29 from Pixabay

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 a list.

With this essay, I wanted to provide an assignment that would be individualized to reflect the lessons and insights they took personally from the novel.

To accomplish this in their essays, I asked students:

  • What do you want for us to see in the text that we might not have seen otherwise?
  • Even better, what does seeing such a thing DO to our reading and understanding of The Old Man and the Sea, or of Hemingway, or the time period, society at the time the books was published, society today, etc?

Based on their first drafts that they turned in a few days ago, I can tell that students have written on a variety of topics. Some have written about the theme of masculinity in the book, some have written about the correlation between Jesus Christ and Santiago, some have written about perseverance, and some have focused on the benefits of experience and wisdom.

But here’s another thing I can tell: most students haven’t explained the significance of those discussions. Another way to put it: they still need to explore their claims in the hopes of uncovering the greater significance of those claims.

In short, they need to ask themselves “So what?”

  • For example, it’s great that one student thinks that Hemingway wrote about a man with a fighting spirit and a firm determination to succeed,” as one student wrote. But so what? What was Hemingway trying to help readers understand by writing about that man with a fighting spirit and a firm determination to succeed?
  • It’s great to claim that Hemingway uses many examples of masculinity in the novella. But what was Hemingway’s point in doing that? So what? What does that DO to our understanding of the novel?
  • It’s great that you see a correlation between Jesus Christ and Santiago. But what’s the purpose? So what? What does seeing that symbolism do for our lives?

Read this explanation from the blog, Writing Power.net, which I think does a good job of explaining the importance of answering the So What question. For example…

“Three other ways to phrase the So What question are as follows:

  • What is significant about your claim?
  • How does this enrich my understanding?
  • What are the implications of your claim?

In each case, the reader is asking the writer to look beyond his or her own navel and connect the paper’s idea to a larger conversation in which both the writer and the reader are stakeholders…

The most compelling interpretations are the ones in which the reader feels that the writer’s claim is significant, that it matters.”

On my assignment sheet for the culminating essay, I included a rubric of sorts. It contains a list of needed items in the essay: three pages, MLA formatting, two sources, in-text parenthetical citations, two direct quotes, a counter-argument.

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Image by S K from Pixabay 

But really, I also have another purpose — a much greater purpose — to the assignment: I would like to challenge my students to answer the question, So what?

I want them to go further than writing a claim that shows they noticed something in the book. I want them to explain why it’s important to notice that thing in the book. How does noticing that thing affect our lives? What does it teach us? Basically, tell us why it matters. Answer the question, So what?!

And to be truthful, the meaning is more important than the rubric. If a student expounds on their claim, but is short a few paragraphs in length, that’s okay. It’s more important to answer the SO WHAT question than it is to cross off all the boxes.

My juniors will read and revise their first drafts during peer review groups later this week. Hopefully, reading and discussing their essays with their classmates will give them the opportunity to see the importance of  answering the So What? question.


Thanks for reading again this week! Meaning is more important than a rubric. That’s a really hard idea to teach. It’s always easier to focus on mechanics and grammar; it’s harder to help kids think on paper and then communicate their thinking clearly. Have you taught the So What question? If so, please leave a comment with your ideas and experiences.