Dramatic License

A few weeks ago, my dear friend and fellow Bruin alum teacher, Carmen shared pictures of her students reenacting scenes from Romeo and Juliet.  The students seemed so engaged in owning their unique spins on the Shakespearean classic that I had to ask her if I could share her class photos to inspire our English teacher community here at Simply Novel  to try a similar project with any drama on next year’s reading list. We are all about adding to the collective tool boxes of secondary English teachers and I think this is definitely a fun one to file away!

The Lesson in a nutshell: 

This lesson is intended to be a culminating project at the end of a play.  After students have read a play, they are assigned small groups, which are tasked with reenacting a particular scene in a cultural or chronological context other than that of the original play. Group sizes, group formation (teacher or student assigned) and scene choices depend on class size, maturity level, and choice of play. For older or more advanced classes, students can pick their own cultural/chronological adaptions, which would probably help them to get into the spirit of the project.  If that seems like a difficult task for a particular class, the teacher could make a grab bag of contexts for groups to draw from, which could include things like: 1920s Chicago mobsters, The Wild West, A Mars Colony in 3015, Beverly Hills in 2015, Gotham during Batman’s heyday, The Dust Bowl, The deep South during the Great Depression, The USSR during the Cold War, or any other interesting context the teacher can think of! Students should focus on ways in which language and action would change in their given context while remaining true to the spirit of the original scene and being careful not to oversimplify or stereotype any particular group of people.

Teacher Tip from Carmen: If you have access to a couple professionally directed versions of the play, it can be very helpful for students to systematically contrast the choices different directors made in style, language, and other dramatic conventions. For example, after reading Act 1, students can watch 2 versions of Act 1 taking note of cinematic techniques and their intended effect on the audience. Continuing this process of contrasting each interpretation for each Act can help students understand how to make the scenes their own: make it personal, make it fun, make it a representation of their views and style.

This lesson should have students dig deep into the author’s purpose for the scene and inspire them to research or think critically about the adapted context. They should be encouraged to take creative ownership over dialogue, props, costumes, casting, and other dramatic considerations.  Doesn’t it sound like so much fun?  Check out the pics below:

Action Shots: 


Carmen Collage

Note: This lesson was inspired by SpringBoard; details of the lesson and program can be found here.  Photos used with permission for the purpose of teacher instruction and inspiration. Carmen’s class was located in the Los Angeles area and worked on scenes from Romeo and Juliet, but  I think this lesson could easily be adapted for almost any play in almost any educational context.  My wheels are already turning thinking about how I could use this for Death of a Salesman next year!

Would you adapt this lesson for use in your classroom?  What play(s) would you try?

Summer Reading: Teacher Edition


Now that summer is officially here, let’s talk summer reading and professional development!  Most people know how hard teachers work during the school year, but not many people know how hard we work during our summers.  We attend conferences, teach summer school, work on our credentials, read, prepare, and do countless other things that help us to be better teachers every year.  Today I want to share five suggestions for teachers looking to do some relaxing, yet thoughtful summer reading this summer.  I’d love to hear your further suggestions or reviews in the comment section below!

1. Mindsets in the Classroom: Building a Culture of Success and Student Achievement in Schools by Mary Cay Ricci

  • Official Description: “When students believe that dedication and hard work can change their performance in school, they grow to become resilient, successful students. Inspired by the popular mindset idea that hard work and effort can lead to success, Mindsets in the Classroom provides educators with ideas for ways to build a growth mindset school culture, wherein students are challenged to change their thinking about their abilities and potential. The book includes a planning template, step-by-step description of a growth mindset culture, and “look-fors” for adopting a differentiated, responsive instruction model teachers can use immediately in their classrooms.”
  • Why teachers should read this book: So many teachers fall into the mindset that their students can’t or won’t succeed at high levels due to a variety of factors.  During the summer, we should work to re-frame that mindset to consider the positive growth potential.  This book offers practical solutions that can recharge us, inspire us, and help us make a plan before we hit the frustrations that will inevitably come in the fall.

2. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink

  • Official Description: “Forget everything you thought you knew about how to motivate people—at work, at school, at home. It’s wrong. As Daniel H. Pink (author of To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Motivating Others) explains in his paradigm-shattering book Drive, the secret to high performance and satisfaction in today’s world is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.”
  • Why teachers should read this book: Although maybe not as practical in terms of teaching strategies, I think this book will leave us with some really important things to think about in terms of motivating students and motivating ourselves as professionals.

3.  Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative by Ken Robinson

  • Official Description: “It is often said that education and training are the keys to the future. They are, but a key can be turned in two directions. Turn it one way and you lock resources away, even from those they belong to. Turn it the other way and you release resources and give people back to themselves. To realize our true creative potential—in our organizations, in our schools and in our communities—we need to think differently about ourselves and to act differently towards each other. We must learn to be creative.”
  • Why teachers should read this book: As teachers, creativity (and flexibility) are key job skills.  Even though I have never considered myself particularly artistic, this book helped me (and can collectively help us) to change the way we approach creativity in our craft and in our assignments.

4. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

  • Official Description: “In Lean In, Sandberg digs deeper into issues, combining personal anecdotes, hard data, and compelling research to cut through the layers of ambiguity and bias surrounding the lives and choices of working women. She recounts her own decisions, mistakes, and daily struggles to make the right choices for herself, her career, and her family. She provides practical advice on negotiation techniques, mentorship, and building a satisfying career, urging women to set boundaries and to abandon the myth of “having it all.”  She describes specific steps women can take to combine professional achievement with personal fulfillment and demonstrates how men can benefit by supporting women in the workplace and at home. Written with both humor and wisdom, Sandberg’s book is an inspiring call to action and a blueprint for individual growth. Lean In is destined to change the conversation from what women can’t do to what they can.”
  • Why teachers should read this book: Many teachers are women and almost all teachers teach young women.  I think this is an empowering read that can help us to be aware of the gender dynamics in our own classrooms and our own lives.

5. The Relevant Educator: How Connectedness Empowers Learning by Tom D. Whitby and Steven W. Anderson

  • Official Description: This information-packed resource from digital experts Anderson and Whitby makes it easy to build a thriving professional network using social media. Easy-to-implement ideas, essential tools, and real-life vignettes help teachers learn to:
    • Find and choose the best social media tools, products, and communities
    • Start and grow a collaborative, high-quality PLN using Twitter, blogging, LinkedIn, and more
    • Use social media to enhance 21st Century education

    Includes invaluable resources and an in-depth analysis of the social media landscape. Collaboration has never been easier with this must-have guide!

  • Why teachers should read this book: This is another practical, ready to use teacher book that can take us beyond the fear and uncertainty of using new technologies in the classroom and move us into the confidence to implement tech tools for all the right reasons.

What books would you add to this list? We’d love to hear from you in the comment section below!

5 Reasons I Love Simply Novel Literature Guides

11140016_10153365833464357_1287371046499769264_n-2Did you hear the news that Secondary Solutions and Elementary Solutions are now Simply Novel?  This week, I want to take a break from essay grading tips, tech tool reviews, and free lesson ideas to discuss the reasons that Simply Novel literature guides have been a mainstay in my classroom for 10 years.  We’d love to answer your questions and hear your experiences in the comment section below!

1. So many titles available: I love that when my grade level assignments and novel lists change over the years, I can trust that Simply Novel will very likely have the affordable and complete resources available in print and pdf so that I can get my unit rolling right away. (The pdf version is especially awesome when my to do lists get the best of me and I need immediate resources!)  To see complete title options, check out the following links:

2. Flexible and clear alignment to standards: Simply Novel keeps up with changing standards without losing  sight of best practices and the solid English teaching experience of Kristen and the other writers.  Simply Novel literature guides are aligned to common core, but can also be used very easily and successfully in classrooms that are opting out of common core.  For teachers re-focusing their classrooms for common core, Simply Novel also offers Common Core Question Stems and Annotated Standards designed for grades 3-12.

3. Systematic chapter work and assessments: Units support student learning with systematic comprehension and critical thinking questions followed up with connected formative and summative assessments. Students know what to expect and the criteria for success, but the work still challenges them in critical thinking and keeps them interested in the text.

4. More than just comprehension: Literature guides include more than comprehension questions.  They also include resources like pre-reading activities, author studies, genre work, literary/rhetorical devices, note taking strategies, essay and project prompts/rubrics, grammar, vocabulary, and more! I love having so many options to engage students in successful novel study.

5. Planning time saved means more time for other important teacher responsibilities: Simply Novel guides save me so much time in planning that I am able to spend more time working directly with students, providing meaningful and timely feedback, communicating with parents, and thinking up creative supplemental activities based on my students’ needs. Simply put, Simply Novel helps me be a better teacher and have a better work-life balance.

Have you used Simple Novel (Secondary Solutions/Elementary Solutions) literature guides in your classroom? We’d love to answer your questions and hear your experiences in the comment section below!

5 of the Biggest Problems Facing English Teachers Today

English Problems

Warning: I will not claim to solve any of the problems listed below!  That being said, I think it is important for us to acknowledge the issues that we face so that we can work together to find some solutions.  I’d love to hear your struggles, thoughts, and solutions in the comment section below!

1. Refusal to read outside of class. Between the shortcuts of online summaries and the incredibly busy schedules kept by many of today’s teens, it is not surprising that English teachers are struggling to get students to read outside of class.  So what do we do?

  • Do we start reading during class time?  What will be the impact on curriculum and timing? What will be the long-term impact on creating authentic readers?
  • Do we start daily reading quizzes and other assessments that make it difficult to pass our classes without completing the reading?  Does that value comprehension over critical thinking?  Is it possible/feasible to assess true reading over summary reading?

2. Lack of parent support. This problem is not specific to English teachers, but it impacts us as much as anyone. It is incredibly hard to teach growth in the process of critical thinking and writing when some parents and students are obsessed with grades and refuse to accept teachers’ advice and criticism. How do we address parent support?

  • Do we actively recruit parent allies?  If so, how?  Does it have to be a bigger effort on the part of our schools and districts?
  • Do we work directly with students to improve accountability without parent intervention?  Is it a recipe for disaster to try to work around parents?

3. Plagiarism. The internet has such power to support critical thinkers and writers, but it also allows for a myriad of writing short cuts and academic dishonesty. How do we empower students to use the internet as a research tool and not as a vehicle for plagiarism?

  • Do we limit or shelter their internet use?  What will happen when they get into college and life without those limits?  Would that be a disservice?
  • Do we buy into plagiarism detection sites and software like Turnitin and Grammarly?   Can our strained school budgets afford them?

4. Current teacher time models.  With growing class sizes and demands of teacher time, how can we not struggle to meaningfully assess so many students in a meager prep period that is also full of IEP meetings, broken copy machines, planning, parent emails and a million other teacher tasks?

  • Is there any way to change the system so that teachers have more time for grading assessments and giving meaningful feedback?  Will independent study and online classrooms release some of this pressure?
  • Would flipping the classroom be the answer or at least part of the answer in a traditional classroom setting?

5. An over-emphasis on testing. Personally, I think that most of the ELA standards are well conceived and academically appropriate.  The problem of over-testing is another issue in my opinion.  When teachers and students are pressured to do well on tests or face consequences in job retention, college admission, and other important aspects of their lives, it is no wonder that we go into survival mode and test prep takes an overbearing part in our classrooms.

  • What is the role of opting out of testing?  Will that teach students effective activism or avoidance of the uncomfortable?
  • Is there a way to help students prepare for these tests without compromising other important parts of our curriculum?

Are these the 5 most significant problems you face or are there others more prominent?   What solutions have you found or do you plan to experiment with?  Please share below.

The Best and Worst Teaching Advice I’ve Received


Today I’m sharing some of the best and worst advice I’ve received as a teacher.  I would love to hear some of your good and bad advice in the comment section below!

The Worst (Yes, I have really been told all of the following):

  1. Keep the students quiet and you will avoid concerns from administrators. First off, I think we can all agree that constantly quiet students in neat little rows are a cultural and pedagogical thing of the past. I want my students to develop the skills to quietly read, analyze, and write about a text, but the process toward that goal mostly looks like collaboration, discussion, debate, and critical problem solving, none of which are very quiet in my experience. Second, my job is not to keep up appearances for administrators; it is to teach the students in front of me.   Great admins know what great teaching looks like; they applaud our efforts and continue to help us improve with meaningful dialogue. Mediocre or poor administrators may want to pleasantly walk down the silent halls without disruption, but that priority is not in line with my philosophy of education, so I cannot exert effort toward that goal. Luckily, in 10 years of teaching, I’ve had more positive than negative experiences with administrators once we have all gotten to know each other and value each other’s strengths.
  2. Don’t let them see you sweat. Over and over again as a 20 something new teacher, I was advised to never let students know that I didn’t know the answer, that I was new to teaching/content, or that I wasn’t sure how a lesson was going to turn out. Granted, it gets much easier to admit I don’t know everything now that I am a 30 something veteran teacher, but I my experience even at the beginning was that students know we are human and respect us much more when we admit it and move on.
  3. Don’t smile until Christmas. This age old classic piece of teacher advice needs to retire. Teaching can be stressful and overwhelming and exhausting, but it can also be so much fun! Having a sense of humor should be a credential requirement in my opinion.

The Best:

  1. Make your classroom your castle. A very wise teacher gave this advice to me right before her retirement. She told me to confidently build up the walls of my classroom castle with my best practices and my best efforts based on my particular students. She warned me to not get caught up in the drama of teachers or administrators. She said to come to collaboration as the strong, yet reasonable queen of my castle knowing that I know what is best for my people. I am open to new ideas and changing frameworks, but I should never completely throw away systems that work for my students in favor of systems that work for others.
  2. Say what you mean and mean what you say. This old adage is easier said than done. It has made me a teacher of fewer words and policies. For the most part, I’ve learned not to include idle threats or policies that I can’t enforce. I’ve also learned to craft parent emails very carefully and wait a few hours before I press send if there is any kind of negative emotion associated with it.
  3. File it appropriately (in the trash). Another wonderfully wise teacher taught me this little saying to help me stay calm when the inevitable drama of students, parents, teachers, administrators, curriculum policies, and other academic frustrations rear their ugly heads. I used to get so upset when an email would enter my inbox that included some inane complaint or senseless drama. She told me to take serious criticism seriously, but to file the rest of it in the round file (garbage). During a couple stressful school years, all she would have to do is tell me to “file it appropriately” and I would know exactly what she meant.  It was an awesome code phrase so that passing students wouldn’t pick up on the true advice to throw it away!

What are some of the best and worst pieces of advice you have received?

Activism vs. Slacktivism: A Lesson in Research and Informational Texts

Activism Lesson PlanIf you are like me, there are few things more exciting than introducing students to amazing novels and other works of fiction, but finding ways to engage students in informational texts can be a little trickier.  Today I want to share a lesson that I came upon recently that had students engaged in reading an informational text, researching credible sources, and discussing their findings.  I’ll outline the lesson below.  Please comment with questions, comments, and other informational texts that your students love!

The Lesson: 

1. Start by reading Malcolm Gladwell’s 2010 essay “Small Change: Why the Revolution Won’t be Tweeted”.  It is in my textbook and I’ve seen it popping up more and more in texts, but it is also widely available through an internet search.

2. Have students discuss the main assertion of the argument and the evidence Gladwell uses to support his thesis.  They should come to the conclusion that Gladwell’s main argument is that social media movements do not constitute real activism. I think it is also helpful to have students do a collaborative list of evidence.

3. Then the fun starts!  Start with asking students to share their preliminary ideas about whether or not social media movements are real activism.  Here are some points for discussion:

  • How can we define activism?  What are necessary elements?
  • What social media movements have you seen or participated in?  Were they real activism?
  • How have social media movements changed since 2010?

4. Challenge students to do some research about the topic. This can be an in class search if students have access or it can be homework.  Remind them about using credible sources! Here are some topics to get them started on their research, but they should be used as a jumping off point for lots of avenues for discussion:

  • Slacktivism vs. Activism
  • Social Media in the Arab Spring
  • Kony 2012
  • The ALS ice bucket challenge
  • Social Media campaigns regarding: police, sexuality, race, gender, bullying, suicide, etc.

5. After students have completed some research, structure a discussion. You could use socratic seminar, debate, or other discussion technique depending on students and time constraints.

Extension idea: After the discussion, students could formulate arguments that defend, qualify, or refute Gladwell’s assertion that social media movements are not real activism.

My students found this topic intriguing and easy to discuss in an academic setting.  I’d love to hear your questions, comments, and suggestions for other engaging informational texts in the comment section below!

8 Truthful (and Embarrassing) 4th Quarter Teacher Thoughts

I think TS Eliot and Ella Fitzgerald (among others) were speaking to teachers when they asserted that spring can really hang you up the most.  As the school year wraps up, here are eight truthful, yet embarrassing thoughts I’ve had this year and almost every 4th quarter of my career.  Can you relate?  What would you add?

1. I’d be happy to repeat my directions for the 400th time..after my coffee. I mean is it just me or do students forget how to listen at the end of the year?!?!                           Fourth Quarter Problems 1

2. These sandals have glitter, so they count as professional attire, right? This question is especially pertinent this year since I am 9 months pregnant! Haha.

Fourth Quarter Problems 7

3. Will that bell ever ring? Time flies when I am pushing my snooze button, but the middle of the school day, it feels like that clock is moving backward!

Fourth Quarter Problems 4

4. What would happen if I just gave everyone credit instead of meaningful feedback? I haven’t given in to this temptation yet, but I have come mighty close!  Here is a post with ideas for getting through the essay grading.

Fourth Quarter Problems 6

5. Spoiler Alert! By fourth quarter, my brain is so fried from simultaneously teaching multiple books to varied classes and levels that I have to make a conscious effort not to spoil novels for my students when I forget which chapter they are on.  Oops!

Fourth Quarter Problems 2

6. Do I really have to clean my room?  Organizing, cleaning, and packing at the end of the year can be cathartic, but it’s mostly just a pain in the rear.  Am I right?  Do you have to take down everything or can you leave things up during the summer?  Here’s a post about the some of the classroom decor that I have to assemble and disassemble each year.

Fourth Quarter Problems 5

7. Do I really have to justify that parent email with an answer? No, I cannot come up with a last minute extra credit assignment.  No, I will not accept late work from 4 months ago.  No, I do not hate your child.

Fourth Quarter Problems 8

8. You’re welcome! Even with all the craziness of fourth quarter, there is no career I would rather have.  Making an impact on the lives of students is the most rewarding career experience I can think of (and it doesn’t hurt when they remember to say thank you!)

fourth quarter problems 3


What thoughts run through your head during fourth quarter?  Share below!

Teach Students to Organize Research with Scrible!

scribleI’ve just finished another round of student research papers and as laborious as the grading can be, the process of curating research is one of the most valuable lessons that I teach students heading into our modern world.  For the rest of their lives at home and work, students will need to solve problems and reach conclusions based on the incredible expanse of information on the internet.  They will need to be able to determine the credibility of sources, understand multiple perspectives, and use resources to form educated responses to their world.  Academic research, including research papers can be one step along the path to digital proficiency. (For tips about research paper assignments, click here.  For more about teaching students to determine source credibility, click here.)

One of the major drawbacks of my recent research projects is excessive paper usage.  I have students collect a lot of research before they start writing and then we go through a process of source distillation.  Traditionally, I have done this process in hard copy with highlights and annotations. All that waste, not to mention the lost and damaged sources along the way, has always made me uncomfortable.  There was also the tedious process of double checking suspicious quotes and citations by sifting through huge stacks of paper.

Enter scrible.  Scrible is an online tool specifically created to help people manage online research. It is free to teachers and students with special features designed for academic use.  There are also plans and resources for non-student use, which makes this a tool that students can use long after they leave our class; I love that!

What scrible can do: 

  • Compile sources digitally to save paper and the agony of lost sources.
  • Easily annotate digital sources so that students don’t lose that valuable component.
  • Create citations and bibliographies to emphasize academic integrity.
  • Share libraries for collaboration or teacher review to ease grading support.
  • Search sources for key words/phrases to help students track down forgotten information and help teachers look into any academic discrepancies.

Learn more about scrible features here and specific student resources here. You can also watch the general overview here:

I am very excited to try this out next year!  I’d love to hear questions, comments, and suggestions for other research curator tools that you love with your students!

The Crucible: A Psychology Cross-Curricular Lesson

I’m in the midst of teaching Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, which I absolutely love for the end of the American Lit school year since it so eloquently ties together early and modern America.  We have been doing Streetcar Named Desire for the last few years, but made the switch back to The Crucible this year, so it was time to revamp my curriculum and dust off the cobwebs on my brain!  I’ve been using the newly released, 2015 Common Core Aligned Unit from Secondary Solutions, which has been saving my life (especially since I am almost 8 months pregnant)!  It is chock full of meaningful activities, assessments, and resources for teaching the play.  Today I want to share a supplemental, cross-curricular activity that I tried this year.  Where it works, the English department at my school likes to collaborate with the social science department to enrich both of our curricula and help students make connections.  The most obvious links in my class are between American literature and US History, but this activity links the Arthur Miller play with psychology,  a popular social science elective at my school.

The Crucible: A Psychology Cross-Curricular Lesson

I start by showing the Crash Course Psychology episode about social thinking.  If you are not familiar with Crash Course, it is an educational youtube channel, founded by John and Hank Green, that features fast-paced, engaging, and well-researched videos about literature, history, science, and more.  Many of my students are fans (even outside of school) of these vlog brothers because of crash course and also because of John Green’s best selling books, The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska.   You can find their youtube channel here and check out their patreon page here for more information about their funding source.  Going back to The Crucible lesson, here is the video I show my students:

After they watch, I pose the following questions:

(I used powerpoint to lead a class discussion, but this could also be an individual/group written assignment.  I also used this lesson after Act 1, but it could easily be adjusted to work later in the play)

  1. — Think about the attribution theory. Which characters do you think have acted mainly from disposition (personality) and which have acted mainly from situation? What evidence do you have to support your assertions? Note: Keep in mind the fundamental attribution error theory, which states that we overestimate disposition and underestimate situation.
  2. —What has been the role of persuasive arguments so far? —What evidence do you have to support your inferences?  (Central Route Persuasion: based on evidence and sound arguments. Peripheral Route Persuasion: based on incidental moods, attitudes, appearances, etc.)
  3. —Predict how you think the “foot in the door phenomenon” will effect the witch trials. (Getting people to agree to larger requests by first asking more modest ones.)
  4. Predict how the Stanford experiment will inform the psychology of the witch trials?(The power of the situation can easily override the individual personality.)
  5. —Which character(s) so far has experienced some cognitive dissonance? What do you think will be the effect? (Cognitive dissonance- a mismatch between who we think we are and how we behave.)

My students were engaged in this discussion and able to make connections about how the psychological phenomena in The Crucible are not unique to the Puritans, which was a major point that Arthur Miller makes in the play.

A Follow up Lesson:

Toward the end of the play we followed up with this video about social influence with the subsequent discussion questions:

  1. How does the Milgram experiment inform the behaviors of characters in The Crucible (Milgram experiment: Participants hurt others when authority figure asked them to.)
  2.  How does the Asch experiment inform the behaviors of characters in The Crucible? (1/3 of people answer obvious question wrong because others are also answering wrong.)
  3. —How did Puritan culture and historical context contribute to normative social influence? (Compliance and conformity in order to be liked or to belong)
  4. —Have you experienced social loafing? In what contexts? What does it look like? What are the effects? (This question is not related to The Crucible, but students have a lot to say about it!)

I really liked the way that these lessons turned out, but I would love to hear your comments, questions, and suggestions below!