Best of 2013-2014: Sometimes You Just Have to Be a Crazy Person…

We’ve all been there…

Students are staring off into the void…

You, the teacher, start noticing caffeine withdrawal headaches affecting even the brightest students…

They’re disengaged.

They’re sick of listening to you.

They’re sick of your unreasonable demands that they actually learn something today.

So that’s when you need to get out your crazy.


I’m a firm believer that sometimes you have to put on a show in the classroom.  Whether you like it or not, sometimes that’s what gets students engaged and drives the point home for them.

DISCLAIMER: Now, when I say be a crazy teacher, I do not mean be a “crazy difficult,” “crazy mean,” or mentally unstable teacher.  I mean that sometimes you need to be brave enough to do the unexpected–the unsettling or weird–to promote curiosity and thought.

Why sometimes acting like a nut works in education:

  • it’s fun.
  • It’s memorable.
  • It’s entertaining.
  • It adds excitement and energy to the class.
  • It usually adds humor to the class.
  • It makes students think about the material and life differently.
  • It has to potential to be an authentic experience you share with your students.
  • By putting yourself out of your comfort zone, more students are comfortable doing so.

Now, one of my favorite examples is from when I taught The Book Thief by Markus Zusak to my 10th graders.  My instruction was getting a bit stale.  Even though the students loved the story, I wanted to really drive home one of the major themes: that one could find beauty in brokenness and ugliness. 

I ended up checking out The Picky Girl and her AMAZING blog post on The Book Thief.  She offered some pretty crazy ideas, that I chose to emulate in my classroom.

Here Comes the Crazy:

Towards the middle of the novel, Max, one of the main characters, takes an old copy of Mein Kampf and uses it to create his own illustrations and stories.  Right around this time in the novel, I did something crazy:

I tore up a book in front of my students.

How I Went about It:

We were in the library and I had already talked to the librarians, procured a book they were going to recycle, and asked them to act shocked when I started tearing it up–it’s always fun to involve other people in your crazy.

After students were seated, I started to discuss with my students the theme of the importance of words and language in the novel.  We talked for a couple of minutes about the importance of words to Liesel, our protagonist, and to Max, a man who was saved by a book.

After a while, I started to disagree with them.  I played devil’s advocate and said that words were simply symbols, just scratches on paper.  I took my previously-planted book from the shelf and said that there was nothing special about words.

Then I started tearing it up.

Complete silence.

Shock on every face.

I started handing out pages, gliding around the room to the beat of torn pages.  That’s when they started to protest.

I kept ripping, but asked them to defend themselves.  “Why are books so important?”  “How are words meaningful?”

They started to get it, and eventually I broke and told them that the book would have been recycled anyway.  Then the learning began.

I discussed with students what inspired the “ruining” of this book.  I had them do a quick write about their reactions and how what I did connected to The Book Thief.  Then I assigned them their homework.

The Homework:

They had to take the ripped page and turn it into something beautiful.  They had to find the beauty in the ruin, just as our characters had and then explain it in tomorrow’s class.

I can’t tell you how awesome the results were.  They came in the next day with such interesting projects.  They truly transformed


We hung them all on the wall to remember the transformative power of words.

We hung them all on the wall to remember the power of words.


Look at the house!  I love it!

Look at the house! I love it!

Such a variety of ideas!

Such a variety of ideas!

The Bottom Line:  Sometimes it pays to act a little kooky in the classroom.  These “crazy” ideas and actions–like an English teacher sacrilegiously ripping up a book–can lead to some pretty balanced, engaging learning.


They Tried to Make Me Go to Vocab Rehab…I Said “Yes, Yes, Yes”

So, I think I am officially addicted to these little ASCD ARIAS books.

With Common Core looming over us all, one of my main goals for this summer is finally establishing a vocabulary routine for my students that works.

My Requirements for Vocabulary Routine:

  • It cannot take up more than 30 minutes of in-class instruction time (including testing) per week
  • It has to be organic, but still organized
  • I want to do about 5 new words a week
  • It needs to go beyond the old define, make a sentence, match them routine
  • It needs to be something sustainable all year long
  • I can’t kill myself with grading
  • It has to be fun and educational

I honestly thought it was too much to ask for.

And then in comes this handy little book by Marilee Sprenger.

You may have seen my review of another ASCD ARIAS book The Five-Minute Teacher by Mark Barnes–if not check it out here.    These little books pack a punch and attempt to give educators as much bang for their buck as possible.  They are relevant and could easily be read in on a Friday and incorporated into class on a Monday.  Vocab Rehab is definitely worth the 5.99 price!

Cool Ideas from Vocab Rehab 

  • Be purposeful about the words you choose
  • Ditch the 20 word a week lists
  • The goal is to teach vocab to the point where it is easily accessible…so that it actually becomes part of their working vocabulary
  • Ditch “Kid Language”
  • “Teach Up”–>aka use academic language and require your students to do so as well
  • Put words everywhere and celebrate them (I especially like the idea of putting words on the windows!)
  • Vocabulary can be taught and reinforced in 10-5 minute instructional blocks.  She has loads of ideas in the book.
  • Improving your vocabulary is all about connections: draw a picture, connect it to synonyms and antonyms, make it a song, act it out, play games, have fun with it!
  • Bring back the Word Wall–>I’m going to call mine the Wicked Word Wall for added alliteration.
  • Assessment should go beyond the small quiz and vocabulary should be incorporated in writing and oral assessment as well.

The Bottom Line:  Overall, I found this to be a perfect read for what I’ve been trying to do in my classroom next year.  I also think that some of her strategies could help with grammar instruction as well.  This book really made me believe that vocabulary instruction is important, fun, and doable!

The Best of 2013-2014: Web of Conversation

We all have our go-tos in our classrooms.  I thought I would share one of mine that has worked really well in discussion.  I call it a “Web of Conversation.”  When I was in student teaching, one of my fellow student teachers tossed the idea to me.  It wasn’t until last year that I ended up using it.

This is what it looks like:Image

I’m not claiming this as my idea or as a particular revolutionary idea, but it is a lot of fun and all my students look forward to this type of discussion.  As much as I love high-tech things, I also like low-tech options.  Some people use Harkness to moderate Socratic or full-class discussions.  I usually just sit us all in a circle, and throw around some yarn.   I usually sit down with a class list and tally people’s responses or write down particularly interesting comments from students.

What you need: 

  • Yarn ball
  • Group of students


  • Only the person with the yarn talks
  • Soft passes to other students
  • Give it slack when doing a long pass or it will fall in the middle of the web and start a debacle
  • Everyone needs to have at least 3 strings looped around their fingers (talk three times)
  • You only loop it around your finger if you contribute to the conversation (meaningful responses)


  • Socratic Seminar Discussion
  • To help track if students are responding in discussion
  • To make students feel literally and figuratively tied to the conversation
  • To notice patterns in conversation (lots of strings to only one or two kids means domination of conversation)

Things to Watch Out For:

  • Kids love bouncing the web up and down–it is a naturally reaction–nip it in the bud immediately
  • The yarn falls in the middle: everyone should then raise up the web and have a student walk underneath to retrieve
  • Wrapping it up: simply get the yarn towards the end of the discussion and just start rewinding it.  The students will let go of the yarn in the opposite order.
  • DO NOT HAVE ALL STUDENTS LET GO OF IT AT ONCE:  it will tangle, you will have to cut it.


The Best of 2013-2014: Carpe Diem!

Like many English teachers before me, I have had a secret/notsosecret dream for my teaching career.  I wanted to be Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society.  I wanted to inspire, push kids to be their best, and be a teacher they remembered.  I wanted to be that person who made them stand on their desks and question their perspective of the world. I acknowledge this is a little egotistical and pretty idealistic.  My response to that: who better than an English teacher to wish this then?

I showed Dead Poets Society to my seniors after our unit of British Romanticism.  On the chalkboard I wrote CARPE DIEM in broad, sweeping letters and left it up there for the rest of the unit.  We discussed the poetry taught by Keating, and the character development and symbolism in the movie.  After the movie wrapped up, we had a large group discussion over the themes, Neil’s suicide, and Keating’s teaching methods.

Their final assignment was to write a poem in response at the end of the movie.  They had to read them at the end of the week, and I was extremely impressed with their connection to the theme of CARPE DIEM.  These were a special group of seniors.  They were kids that thrived under nontraditional teaching methods, and tried to connect the literature to their lives.  I taught this is April…in May I started realizing what I started.

As the weather broke, I started notice CARPE DIEM all over the school: they painted in on the rock outside the school; it was on their lips in the hallways; one kid even got a tattoo of it.  Even the kids who hated English took it up as their personal motto.  Now, this is no novel motto or idea…but for those kids in small town, Ohio…it was novel, it was revolutionary.

At the end of the quarter, I received many letters from my students calling me their Keating, thanking me for an unforgettable senior year.  It was all them, I told them…they were the ones that made their lives, these lessons extraordinary.

At the end of their final test, I was doing some last minute grading trying to block out their chatter.  Then I heard it…

“O, Captain, My Captain”

He stood on his chair, huge smile, blonde hair, CARPE DIEM tattoo.

“O, Captain, My Captain”

His whole table said in rounds.

“O, Captain, My Captain”

The entire first period stood on their chairs, looked down on their bawling English teacher with faces I’ll never forget.

This was truly an extraordinary end of the year…my teacher dream fulfilled in simply five years of teaching.  How do you bottle that?  How do you recreate that?  Should you even try?  Just take it as a singular moment of greatness?  I’ll never forget my last days at my former school, those last days with my seniors who seized the day.

The Best of 2013-2014: The Literary Banquet

I finished my last year of teaching AP this year.  I got a new job, and will probably not teach AP for a long time.  It’s pretty bittersweet to not be a part of this great class.

For those of you who haven’t taught it, AP English Literature is an English teacher’s dream.  Although you have to make a lot of decisions in terms of the curriculum, the caliber of student and the caliber of discussion are unparalleled. This is the class where students are able to connect personally with literature while still working on advanced analysis skills.  You can push kids to become so much more than they ever thought they could be. 


One of the best experiences of my teaching has been the three years I conducted The AP Literary Banquet.  AP students already took the test, and were usually pretty zonked by the end of the year.  So, I always made their final our class Literary Banquet.  We celebrated our literary accomplishments with food and fun.  Here are the major components of The Literary Banquet:

  • We would all dress up like characters from the novels we read as a class.  I tended to be something kind of humorous—a drowned Ophelia, Big Brother, the green light from The Great Gatsby. My seniors were so in to this.  They were so convincing, and some of them utterly REFUSED to get out of character—I’ve encountered some pretty intense Victor Frankensteins and O’Briens. 
  • Students write letters as their characters to other characters attending the banquet.  They also have to present these letters in a creative, fun way.
  • Students MUST bring a literary inspired dish.  I have tasted Nurse Ratchet’s “Vegetable” soup, Myrtle Wilson’s love potion, and even Siddartha’s “Om”meal  cookies—all delicious.

It has always been a lot of fun, and usually a pretty emotional time with my students.  It is also when I gave my final speech to them, and presented them with their final presents: a notebook specifically picked out for each student with a letter from me inside.  These will always be some of my favorite memories with my students, and it always solidified the learning community created in AP.  Hopefully you find these resources helpful and inspirational!


The Best of 2013-2014: Trust Thyself, Trust Thy Student

In general, I tend not to trust my students.  I trust they want to learn.  I trust youths in general.  However, I recognize that taking the easy way out is a pretty tempting option.  During tests, I take a lot of procedures to avoid cheating: testing folders, hand and arm checks, different versions of tests, putting all phones at the front of class, etc.  I usually level with them, make it a comical routine we go through, and hope that it avoids some sort of cheating.  Even my best students will take the SparkNotes way out, so I tend not to trust them and attempt to anticipate where they will try to cut corners.

However, today I want to talk about a time this year when I trusted students and it paid off immensely.

I taught Speech and Drama for the first time this year.  I had an exceptional class of kids who really put themselves out there in class.  They impressed me all year, and, so toward the end of the year, I made a ballsy decision: their final would be a one-act production (2 in all) that will be in front of the entire school.  The students would direct the production, cast it, memorize the lines, make the scenery…the whole shebang.  I gave them complete control of the class for about a month, and observed their progress.

Now, to give background, the Speech and Drama class was historically a blow-off class at my school.  They had people out of licensure teach the class, had few expectations for students, and most students didn’t take it seriously.  To go from that to what I expected the kids to do was quite a big step.  So, I took the leap, and crossed my fingers.  Now, the kids did a great job during class, but they were rusty even in the final week before the production.  We had no outside rehearsals, no outside prep time other than our in-class work.


I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to pull the plug—to say that we would just do it in front of each other.  Even up until the Wednesday before the performances (performed on a Friday), I didn’t know if we would go on.  I kept thinking that maybe I expected too much out of them.  In the end, against my “better” judgement, I trusted them.

They killed it.  Kids who had never set foot on stage brought the house down.  Even when we had some extra time at the end, they played rounds of the improv game “Party Quirks” to entertain the crowd.  They knew all the lines, acted with confidence, and handled themselves like professionals.  I made the stakes high, and they exceeded my expectations.

It’s teaching moments like this that make me so happy to be a teacher.  Sure, I didn’t have a huge hand in what they learned throughout this experience, but I afforded them the experience.  I trusted them.  Sometimes that’s all you need to do.  Students are so brave, so powerful, so capable, and sometimes you just have to trust that they will come through, that they will be extraordinary.

One School, One Book

I just finished R. J. Palacio’s Wonder, and I couldn’t be more please with this cute, moving novel about a young boy with a face abnormality.  Written at a middle school level, August’s struggle through fifth grade was not “babyish” as some may think, but actually an engaging tale of heroism and friendship.  My school is using this novel as their first “One School, One Book” initiative, and I couldn’t be more pleased.  As an adult I was engaged in August’s story, and could see all students 9-12 being engaged and empathetic for this young man’s struggle.  Told from many perspectives, this novel is an “easy-read”, but one that will stay with you.

I thought I would post some of the resources in case other people may want to use it.