From November, 2013

Fighting Oppression: Julius Caesar Socratic Seminar Part I

Renee Jackson and I have been planning for a Socratic Seminar at the end of the Julius Caesar unit that will focus on the following essential questions:

“Is violence an effective means to resolve political oppression?”

•    Are there other methods?
•    Are they effective?

In order to prepare for this, I gathered some resources dealing with the theme of oppression, violence and non-violent forms of activism.  Here are the links to these resources:

These were the skills on which we wanted to focus for the unit:
•    Quote Integration
•    Gist statements and in-context vocabulary
•    Synthesis of multiple sources
•    Speaking and listening skills that require students to provide textual evidence

To this end, we decided to have students do a close reading and annotate non-fiction texts dealing with the essential questions as they read Casesar.  I created a “cover sheet” for each of the sources (see below).  These texts will be kept and utilized for the Socratic discussion, which we want to be evidence-based.  More on this process as it develops.

Vulnerability: “The Birthplace of Innovation, Creativity and Change”

“Don’t approach your history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruit…  Tell your stories, and your story will be revealed…  Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, immoral, amoral, calculating or anything else.  Take no care for your dignity.  Those were hard things for me to come by, and I offer them to you for what they may be worth.”

Lit, Mary Karr’s memoir documenting her struggles as a young wife, mother, and poet

A few weeks ago, PHSN had poets Ethan Rivera, Rachel Wiley and Hanif Abdurraqib visit to share their spoken-word poetry and talk about their inspiration and writing process.  (I will try to get some of this work on the blog as a video as soon as I can overcome the technical difficulties I am having with my ipad.)

Many of the poems presented were very personal.  Abdurraqib discussed watching members of his family suffer with depression, Rivera shared lamenting the loss of a high school sweetheart on her wedding day, and Wiley read works exploring how the designation of “fat” has been a struggle for her throughout her life, including how at one point an audience member went as far as to send her a critical letter shaming her after she read a work about body image.  (She later read a poem in response while he was in the audience.)

The honesty and human connection in these moments was hard to deny.  As an audience member, it was easy to feel the pang (or cringe) of recognition in the stories and poems shared.  This is not uncommon; each of the poets described the “connection” between the reader and audience as a major reason they take the emotional risk of stepping on the stage each time- even when it is one of the most difficult things one can do (especially in the early years of performing).

I can relate to this, and I am sure many students, teachers and writers can as well; creative writing is personal.  Poetry exposes feeling.  Narrative shares life and perspective.

However, the reward for being consciously vulnerable in order to build a connection with others can’t be underestimated as a tool for growth and development.  Writing, and sharing writing, is a way to facilitate this growth.

Brené Brown spent over a decade of her life researching what makes individuals “happy” and mentally “healthy.”  Her first TEDTalk was about the ability to be vulnerable and take emotional risks in order to find these things.  It got millions of views and can be seen here.

Conversely, she also found that “shame,” or the inability to share meaningfully of ourselves with others, is the root of many people’s unhappiness.  She shares these findings in a second TEDTalk focused on what holds people back from finding the things they seek.  It can be seen below.

In her second TEDTalk, she begins by talking about the aftermath and “vulnerability hangover” that resulted from her first talk.  She also discusses the speaking engagements in which she was asked to participate afterward,

“One of the weird things that’s happened is, after the TED explosion, I got a lot of offers to speak all over the country — everyone from schools and parent meetings to Fortune 500 companies. And so many of the calls went like this, ‘Hey, Dr. Brown. We loved your TEDTalk. We’d like you to come in and speak. We’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t mention vulnerability or shame.’  What would you like for me to talk about? There’s three big answers. This is mostly, to be honest with you, from the business sector: innovation, creativity and change. So let me go on the record and say, vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. To create is to make something that has never existed before. There’s nothing more vulnerable than that.  Adaptability to change is all about vulnerability.”

These goals of industry: innovation, creativity, change, are also goals of education at this time.  It only makes sense that as we prepare students for the future, we would align with the economic climate in which they will be entering, and yet, there is more that education can do.  Teaching young people is a human enterprise, and beyond preparing for economic success, showing and sharing vulnerability in the classroom through modeling and promoting healthy risk-taking could help to build more well-rounded human beings.  This is not easy; exposing one’s thinking process, trying a new activity, being comfortable not knowing the answer, or modeling writing and process can feel uncomfortable.  Nevertheless, while creating happier and healthier people might not be the primary job of the educational system, it is surely the primary goal of those who value humanity and its potential.

Coming of Age Novels: Differentiation by Lexile/ATOS Level for Independent Reading

Carrie Eneix wanted to differentiate her independent reading groups using students’ ATOS levels from STAR for her “Coming of Age” unit.

Here is a quick summary of the planning work required to do this.

Finding Books by Theme

Good Reads is a website where books can be searched easily by theme/topic.  This is helpful for finding books for independent reading based on thematic units.

Finding Lexile/ATOS Levels for Books

Here is the website to look up Lexile levels.  You can search books using the “Quick Book Search” bar in the top right corner.  I was not able to find all of the books we wanted, so for some, I would use the Central’s Media Center website and under “A Brief Description,” you will see the reading level of books.  For example, here is the description listed under Catcher in the Rye:

  • Accelerated Reader AR UG- Level=4.7- Points=11.0 5978

The AR level is a grade level reading equivalent.  Lexile/ATOS levels can be converted to grade level.  Here is a link to a PDF with the conversion chart.

On a sub-note, the ATOS level and Lexile level are technically different measures; however, they are similar in that each provides a grade level equivalent.  For finding independent reading levels, I used ATOS and Lexile interchangeably because lists of ATOS levels are much harder to find.

Finding Students’ Reading Levels

To see students’ ATOS levels, teachers can login to STAR and go to “REPORTS,” select “SUMMARY REPORT,” and then select “SHOW ATOS 2000 SCORES” and sort by “RANK.”  From there, the report can be printed.

This report will show the students ATOS and Independent Reading Levels (IRL).  Using this information, teachers can determine tiered groupings based upon level.

Creating Groups

Eneix’s students were reading from a fifth grade to a post-high school level.  We chose the following tier groups based upon this information:

  • Tier 1: 3-5 grade reading level
  • Tier 2: 6-8 grade reading level
  • Tier 3: 9-10 grade reading level
  • Tier 4: 11-PHS reading level

We decided that students in each group would get only the book list for their tier.

Creating Final Book Lists for Groupings

We did not use only ATOS/Lexile level to choose books.  This is consistent with the suggestions made by Common Core because these levels do not take into account the content, engagement or length of the resources.  In addition, to get to eleventh grade and beyond, students would be reading Hamlet independently and very little else.  It is difficult to reach these higher reading levels using ATOS/Lexile alone.  Professional judgement must take a role when choosing texts appropriate to students.  We considered factors such as making sure that there were texts that appealed to males and females on each list, considering the length of the texts, and applying our own experience of the books difficulty and intended audience.

Final Book Lists

Tier 1- Grade 3-5

  1. The Absolute Diary of a Part-Time Indian
  2. Tears of a Tiger
  3. Stolen
  4. Thirteen Reasons Why
  5. The Fault in our Stars

Tier 2- Grade 6-8

  1. Nothing but the Truth
  2. The Book Thief
  3. Life of Pi
  4. My Sister’s Keeper
  5. The Bean Trees
  6. Postcards from No Man’s Land

Tier 3- Grade 9-10

  1. Kite Runner
  2. Diary of Anne Frank
  3. Glass Castle
  4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
  5. All the Pretty Horses

Tier 4- Grade 11-PHS

  1. The Bell Jar
  2. Into the Wild
  3. Little Women
  4. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time
  5. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings


The process of determining groupings based upon reading levels is time consuming.  In addition, once we saw the Lexile levels of the books, it seemed as if it would be difficult to find appropriate texts for the higher tiers that would foster a love of reading and also stretch the skills and abilities of the students.

This being said, once professional judgement was applied, we were both happy with the results.  The lists of books did vary greatly from the lowest to the highest tier of students, and we both agreed that this would better meet the needs of the populations in her classroom.

Also, once these book lists are created, the job becomes much easier.  Next year, Eneix would only have to print her reports and decide which book list the students would get, modifying and adding to the possible choices as needed.

Here are some resources created through this process:

PAGES Follow Up: Moments of Awe and Transformation

Miwa Matreyek performs her play This World Made Itself.  Here is a link to Matreyek's website

Miwa Matreyek performs her play This World Made Itself from Matreyek’s website.


After students’ field trip to the Wexner Center to see Miwa Matreyek, I visited Mandy Bruney and Dawn Brosnan’s class to reflect and introduce an assignment.

Here were the learning targets for the lesson:

  • I can reflect on an experience and create meaning from it.
  • I can engage in a collaborative conversation that includes both active listening and respectful participation.
  • I can gather real-world research to start the writing process.

Students began the lesson by reflecting on the play through writing (see the Power Point at the bottom of the post for prompt).  Then, we discussed what they had written.

Afterward, we introduced the assignment to gather real-world research for writing (see below) and discussed examples of “moments of awe” and “moments of transformation” in daily life.

The lesson would have ended with this video called The Beauty of a Second, which is a one-minute compilation of beautiful moments of daily life captured on film; however, technological difficulties inhibited this part of the lesson.

Here is the student outcome expected following the lesson:

Student Assignment

  • Awe: A feeling of wonder
  • Transformation: to change in form, appearance or character

Miwa Matreyek explains her process as “daydreaming” and gathering “abstract ideas” from her daily life before she actually begins to create her performances.  She describes how the piece we all saw was inspired by everything from her plane rides as she traveled for work to the dioramas she saw in a history museum.  This “real world” research eventually leads to a physical product, but the process always starts by information gathering through notes, sketches and pictures. 

For this assignment, you will begin by spending the next 48 hours gathering real world research that inspires you.  You can choose to either gather “moments of awe” or “moments of transformation” in your daily life.  You need to write notes about these things and record your:

  • Observations
  • Questions
  • Reflections
  • Sketches
  • Pictures
  • Poems   

All information you gather needs to be brought back to class tomorrow; you will continue to use it as the beginning of your creative process.   

This assignment would eventually lead into students creating a piece of writing related to these notes and observations and connected to themes in the play.  Bruney told me she plans on having students conduct a silent “gallery walk” in the classroom where student work is displayed and classmates leave post-it-note feedback for one another about the writing.  In addition, some of the students’ work might be submitted to potentially be published in the PAGES anthology.

Here are the resources for the lesson:

Three Narrative Arcs Video from Creator Bill Kenower

“What we call ‘the story’ really exists beneath the surface of events, or what is happening.  What we call the study of literature, the study of fiction, is really a process of seeing deeply into life.  And in my experience, the deeper we can see into life, the wiser we are, the more compassionate we are, the more empathetic we are.”

-Bill Kenower, from The Three Narrative Arcs, referring to the “Intentional Arc” of a story

This video is a continuation of the resources provided by Bill Kenower for teachers to use while analyzing narrative structure.  As mentioned previously in posts, Kenower has been using the arcs (physical, emotional and intentional) to teach writing and has recently become interested in helping teachers use them to analyze literature as well.  This video could be a precursor before delving more deeply into the intentional arc videos posted previously.

This analysis framework can help students to understand what writers do with intention to craft a story.  I often hear of teachers struggling to help students understand “theme,” and I think this is one effective way to get to that deeper understanding.  In addition, the more students are able to identify writer’s craft in others’ work, the more likely they will be to be able to utilize such tools as theme and character development in their own writing effectively.

PAGES Field Trip and Interview with Artist Miwa Matreyek

Miwa 2 for Blog JPEG

Miwa Matreyek performs in her play This World Made Itself.  Image from her website.



Mandy Bruney and Dawn Brosnan’s students were able to visit the Wexner Center a few weeks ago as part of the PAGES program mentioned in a previous post.

Miwa Matreyek is an artist who performs live, projecting her shadow into worlds created through digital animation.  Her work is very surreal and multifaceted; it includes elements of performing live, taking photographs, gathering information and research, curating music and creating digital animation among other things.

Students responded well to her performance of This World Made Itself (here is a clip).  As students watched, they were to focus on emotions, themes and moments of transformation in the play.  This would lead into a discussion and assignment later.

After the performance, Miwa answered student questions.  One of the PAGES teacher-partners took some notes over her process which can be viewed here.

I took some notes as well, and here are a few things I thought were interesting.

  • Matreyek started out as a physics major and was “amazed by the world and physics and wanted to ‘feel’ the process in a different way.”  She felt she could do this better through the arts instead of the sciences.
  • She then went to grad school for animation and was paired with a theater major through a class collaboration.
  • Her art is a process of experimentation where she takes several approaches to see what works.  It is a process of “tinkering, playing and inventing” with “plenty” of challenges.
  • She was inspired by natural history, the earth from the sky while traveling by plane, and dioramas in the Natural History museum.

Matreyek’s personal history is fascinating because it defies the stereotypes of the artist and the artistic process being disparate from “left-brained” fields.  In addition, her eclectic education provides an interesting context for considering the benefits of interdisciplinary studies.  Through art, she was able to experience science in a new and engaging way.

Her process is interesting because it shows the artist as a critical thinker, problem-solver and innovator.  These are all twenty-first century skills coveted by those in the field of education.  I think it was valuable for students to hear how these skills are used across fields to navigate issues and find success.

Building to a Literary Analysis of To Kill a Mockingbird

I watched Tim Starkey teach this Extended Looking lesson with his freshmen, leading to writing a literary analysis of To Kill a Mockingbird.

We had taught the lesson, which uses art by Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison to explore the process of gathering evidence to create meaning, a few weeks previous in his AP classes.  Starkey saw applications to writing a literary analysis essay, so we used the same lesson to scaffold students toward gathering evidence in text sources to reach thematic conclusions in his ninth grade classes.

To build a theme statement, he asked his students to write down a single word that captured what they thought the picture “meant.”

The next day, Starkey and his students further analyzed the image by going back and gathering evidence related to the “meaning word” (or topic) they had found the previous day.  Then, he had them go back and write a complete sentence (theme statement) describing what the artist/piece was saying about that topic.

This lead directly into the students literary analysis.  Starkey first brainstormed one-word “meanings” for To Kill and Mockingbird with students.  Then, they had to go back to the text and find evidence and passages that pertained to that theme.  Afterward, they used the evidence to turn the one-word meaning into a thesis for their paper.

To write a thesis and literary analysis without a prompt is a very high-level thinking activity, especially for freshmen.  This will be the first time that Starkey has tried such an open-ended assignment with freshmen, and we will be looking at his students’ work next week to see how they performed with the task.  However, anecdotal evidence suggests that students were better able to “see the connections” in the analysis process because they had already practiced with the image according to Starkey.  In addition, the students’ theme statements and evidence for the image were quite impressive in their level of sophistication.

I think Starkey’s strategic change from having students write a thesis statement then trying to “justify” it with evidence, to instead having students examine the evidence to build a theme is more authentic and will lead to more logical thinking by students when practicing analysis.

Here is the resource used to scaffold students to independent literary analysis:

Writer’s Workshop: Using and Reflecting on Peer Feedback

As stated in a previous Writer’s Workshop post, Leslie Harris and I planned a unit together focusing on the revision process and giving effective feedback.

Based upon previous experience, I had realized the need for a more formalized product to come out of the workshopping sessions.  To this end, I created a resource where students were asked to do the following:

  • During workshop: Record feedback received
  • Immediately after workshop: Provide a summary of feedback and plan for improvement
  • After the final paper is completed: Provide a summary on specific changes made and a reflection on what was learned from the workshop process

Harris’ plan is to mandate the revision of papers after the workshop session is completed and have them turn in the draft and “Writer’s Workshop Reflection” with the final paper.

Here is the resource we used for this lesson:

Writer’s Workshop: Practicing Feedback through Storytelling

In preparation for a Writer’s Workshop (thoroughly explained in this post), Leslie Harris and I planned a lesson that utilized a “storytelling” technique and incorporated the use of the feedback stems for the Writer’s Workshop.

The learning targets for the lesson were as follows:

  • I can tell an engaging story that follows a narrative arc and uses well chosen details.
  • I can give useful feedback in the Writer’s Workshop format to help my partner improve his or her narrative skills.
  • I can reflect on someone feedback to improve my own narrative skills.

To begin the lesson, we reviewed the instructions handout (at the bottom of this post) with students to familiarize them with the process.  Then, Harris and I took turns modeling how to plan a story in writing (focusing on key moments that build the narrative arc) and then tell the story verbally.

During the teacher’s story, the students took notes, and then afterward, they gave positive and constructive feedback using the stems provided in the Writer’s Workshop process.

After modeling the process, students chose a story prompt, mapped out their own story in writing, and then shared their stories with a partner to receive feedback for improvement which they recorded on their worksheet.

Afterward, they reflected on the process, making connections to writing and feedback using an exit ticket (see bottom of the post).

The lesson was a successful introduction to peer feedback and a good review of narrative structure.  The exit ticket showed that students understood the need to “notice detail” when listening to give feedback and “be specific” about the sensory information they use in their own writing.

Here are the resources we used:

Here are some additional resources on verbal narrative (storytelling):

  • The Moth: a podcast and radio show where people tell “true stories, told live” without notes at “Moth” events.  There are many stories told by writers, actors, and performers.  Some are from people with jobs ranging from firefighter to teacher as well.
  • True Story: a podcast and radio show with the same premise as The Moth, but the storytelling events are usually smaller.  These events are not planned by a central organization, but instead by people who know about the show, plan an event themselves and then send the recording to the people at True Story

Artist Visit for the PAGES Program: Tableau and Narrative

PAGES icon jpeg

As part of PAGES, a literacy and arts integration program through the Wexner Center, a resident artist comes to the classroom before and after each of three art-integration field trips throughout the year.  The visiting artist has a direct, real-world connection to the experience the students have while at the Wex.  When I was part of the PAGES program, I had graffiti artists, cartoonists, actors, poets and others in my classroom working with students and co-teaching with me.

For Miwa Matreyek’s play This World Made Itself, theater educator Pam Decker came and worked with Mandy Bruney’s students using a technique called “tableau.”

Miwa Matreyek performs in her play This World Made Itself.  This image is from her website.

Miwa Matreyek performs in her play This World Made Itself. This image is from her website.

For the activity, Bruney had taken pieces of students’ narratives and distributed them to groups of three to four students.  They were asked to choose a beginning, middle and end of the story together.  After they have chosen the three moments, they had to decide how to create a “frozen” re-enactment of the scene using body language and facial expressions.  Each group then presented the three scenes to the rest of the class.

From watching Decker, I enjoyed how she “coached” students through the presentations.  For example, she asked questions of the students presented, modeled facial expressions for them and provided formative feedback for improvement.  This was a more “interactive” form of presentation that I had seen in the past.  I feel like students learned more from this style where the end product was about “process” and not a “product.”