Publicly Centered at the Student

After a couple of years, I got rid of the desk.  Now the groups have more room to move.

After a couple of years, I got rid of the desk. Now the groups have more room to move.

We can talk about having a “student-centered” classrooms all day, but how do we prove it to our students?

Over the past five years or so I’ve been looking for ways to make my classroom show that it’s a room where students are construct and share knowledge.  I did two things to make that happen:

1.  I left my posters at home. 

2.  I got rid of my teacher desk. 

What are the benefits?

  1. A Better Message.  When the room was decorated with my stuff, I sent a clear message to students:  The classroom is my space.  That message wasn’t bad, but I like the new message better:  This classroom is a space that we construct together, and everything that we do with the space demonstrates learning.
  2. More Flexibility.  By ditching my desk, I freed up 30 square feet of floor space.  So there’s more breathing room for group work.  There’s more space for performances.  And I’m forced to be mobile.
  3. Getting Closer.   If I’m sitting in the classroom, it’s at a student desk.  By opting out of the special furniture for me, I’m putting myself in the process with the students.
  4. Saving Time.  I don’t spend time decorating anymore.  Well, at the end of the day, I sometimes have to arrange the students’ work so that it’s more useful and accessible as a teaching tool.  But that “decorating time” is also planning time, because while I’m arranging, I’m also looking at what the students have accomplished and considering adjustments to tomorrow’s lessons.

Using the Walls

Students do better, more thorough work when they know that it will be read by an authentic audience.  When they know that they are producing notes, pictures, and records that will be on display for the duration of a unit, students tend to produce better, more thoughtful work.  Here are some examples:

  1. Collaborative, Public Annotations.   Years ago I required students to annotate their own textbooks, but I found that there were wide varieties of skill at the task of looking for things to comment on.  Some students had great annotations, others didn’t, and that was the end.  But when I went public with annotation, I found that the results were much more interesting.  And when I left them stuck to the wall, students could revisit them — especially during assessments.
Group Annotations on a passage from All Quiet on the Western Front.

Group Annotations on a passage from All Quiet on the Western Front.

  1. Sentence Collecting.  Every year I go to an office supply store and buy ten or twelve rolls of cash register tape.  When I want students to find phrases and sentences that reveal details about character, setting, or anything else, I send them searching, and then they copy these phrases onto the strips and stick them to the wall.


  1. Post Individual Artifacts.  Early in the year I like to have students respond to a poem or story that invites students to look at their own lives.  One piece that I like is “The Tally Stick” by Jarold Ramsey.  After spending a class period working with the poem, I invite students to create their own “Tally Sticks” for their lives, and then I left them stuck to the wall at the front of the room.  Each student then had part of himself on the wall, giving ownership to the students.
I covered the top of my front wall with students' life stories told in pictures.

I covered the top of my front wall with students’ life stories told in pictures.


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Remembering Maya Angelou


Today we lost one of the great voices in American language and literature.  Personally, I remember reading her novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when I was in ninth or tenth grade, and then coming back to it when I was starting to teach high school.  I was drawn to her writing by its immediacy and its truthfulness.

The biggest lesson that I remember from Ms. Angelou, however, is a very wise aphorism that I try to remember as a teacher:

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

I really believe that this one is completely true.  I can stand up and try to explain literature until I’m blue in the face, and no matter how hard I work, I probably won’t reach many students in a meaningful way.  But when I find a way for a student to feel the joy of reading something beautiful, or to experience the thrill of finding something interesting in a piece of writing — and sharing it with others — I know that the student will leave my class with a gift that she’ll always remember.    Below she is pictured giving a graduated address to George Washington University.  I don’t have any idea of what she said, but I did find more wisdom on a poetry website.  I like to think that she shared this one with the graduates:

“I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.”

Today I’ve been gratified to see so many people publishing their goodbyes and their memories of Ms. Angelou on their facebook pages, and it’s been a particular thrill to see former English students of mine sharing their memories of her work.  I’m not much of a scholar, so I’ll leave the real work of eulogizing Ms. Angelou to better, more capable minds.  Here are some links:

The NY Times Obituary, written by Margalit Fox

NPR’s Obituary by Lynn Neary

The Guardian’s Mary McCorquodale makes a case for including I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings in British schools.

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My Senior Speech

So here we are…

You’ve completed the requirements for graduation, and you’re walking out of this school with a diploma.  Or maybe you’re not… but regardless of whatever hoops you have or haven’t jumped through, you’ve reached an important milestone:  the end of school.  You can say goodbye to childhood.  For those of you who came from a different part of our planet, I’d like to say thank you for taking a year or more to learn about my home culture and language.  You took a big risk in coming here to live and learn.  I’m sure that you experienced many challenges during your time here. To all of you who have reached out to someone from a culture different from your own, congratulations!  You’ve chosen to make your lives a little richer by sharing yourself with someone else.  In order to make the world better, we all need to follow your example.  And to those of you who have been in my classes for the past three or four years, thank you.  You have taught me lessons in humility, in patience, and in life.  I’m a better teacher now than I was when we began this trip together, and you are the reason why.

Before you leave, I’d like to share a few things that I think are very important.  Thanks for indulging me.

  • Literature Matters.  It presents humanity at its worst and at its best, and it instructs us in how people feel.  Literature puts us inside of someone’s soul and allows us to live, for a time, that other person’s joy and suffering.  Looking back over four years, I remember discovering how cruel and evil people can be to each other in Lord of the Flies.  We watched Romeo, Juliet, and Friar Lawrence all reach too high, hoping their romantic dreams could win out over the petty quarrels of intractable enemies, and we saw how easy it was for a hero like Othello to become a victim of his own self-doubt.  We saw Gatsby soar to unimaginable heights of wealth and crash down to nothing when confronted with the cruel reality that he wasn’t born right.  Macbeth crashed in a similar way, and for me, his loneliness — while perhaps more deserved, was no less profound or sad.  We’ve seen how war can bring out unbelievable heroism and unspeakable sadness, and numbing regret, from the World War I tragedy of All Quiet on the Western Front to the lives of a 20th century platoon in Vietnam.  We watched people try to do the right thing — both Antigone and Creon — and how sometimes, as hard as we try to do good things, the opposite happens.  We have walked with some of the greatest heroes of all time, seeing Odysseus on his quest to return home, and Gilgamesh on his quest to discover the secret to eternal life (spoiler alert:  there’s no such thing).  We’ve also seen the much smaller quests of  Holden Caulfield and Willy and Biff Loman and, of course, the metamorphosis of young Gregor Samsa, who are all confronted with the reality that their lives are not “epic,” and that they’ve allowed themselves to be defined by what other people think they’re worth.  The theme got repeated this year in Merchant of Venice, and I hope that you noticed how difficult it can be for the wealthy outsiders (Antonio and Shylock) the wealthy insider (Portia) and for the people who try to play them all (Bassanio).  We also saw, on the other hand, that even a low-life, unfeeling, selfish nihilist like Meursault can wake up and defiantly stand up for life. After all of these difficult, and often sad stories, I’m glad that we ended the year with Master Harold and the Boys.  Sam suffers, but he gets to keep his dignity, and I think that Hally is bound to learn his lesson… eventually.  Besides which, we already know that at least to some extent, there’s a happy ending to that story.  And I believe that there will be happy endings in your futures, too.  Well, there you go.  Four years of English in one paragraph.  Hope you enjoyed the summary!  If you didn’t, well, I hope that some day you’ll give literature another chance.  I also hope that this class offered something to those of you who didn’t feel the direct benefits of the books.
  • Real life began a long time ago.  I’m struck by how often I hear phrases (especially around graduation time) like “we’re going off to the real world now.”  One thing that middle age has taught me is that my life now isn’t any more “real” than yours is now or than mine was 25 years ago.  The choices I make now aren’t any less “real” than the ones I made when I was 19.  Nobody will ever reach out with a magic wand and say, “your life is now real. Welcome to reality.”  Remember this:  Life’s short.  For some, shorter than for others.  The quicker you decide to start living it like it’s real, the more you’ll enjoy it.
  • You already know what to do.  At graduation time, you often hear people musing about how they don’t know what to do next.  But you do.  Trust thyself.  Every heart vibrates to that iron string.  When he said that, Emerson didn’t mean that you’ll be able to look back on every choice that you made and say, with the benefit of hindsight, “Gee I nailed that one!”  Rather, it means that life is a series of choices, and each choice you make will have some kind of effect on your life and on the lives of people around you.  Seek out advice, do your research, use your head, and listen to your heart.  Then commit to your decision.  And be ready for the next one.
  • Do Something Beautiful.  Draw, play basketball, paint, dance, make music,  cook, pitch, write.  Build something. Engage your creativity and produce.  By creating beauty, you make the world better.  You share the best of yourself with the rest of the world, and the world needs your best.  Beauty lifts us up, just as surely as ugliness brings us down.
  • Seek Out Beauty.  Great art won’t come to, because great art doesn’t want you to spend money that you don’t have on things you don’t need.  In order to find beauty, you have to go look for it.  Once you find it, though, you’ll be welcome.  I hope that at some point during our time together, you’ve felt the welcome that great art gives us when we reach out to it.  If you still haven’t been able to bring yourself to art, it’s never too late.  But the sooner you do, the better.
  • Because you’ll need it.  Very seldom is the adult life painless.  Wynton Marsalis explains this concept by quoting his grandmother, who told him, “Life’s got a board for every behind.”  And when life’s board finds your booty, when you are knocked down and suffering, it helps to have Shakespeare, Louis Armstrong, and those other geniuses to tell you that it’s all gonna be OK.
  • Now, about those choices… People sometimes ask me what it’s like to be a teacher.  These days, I usually say, “I’m livin’ the dream.”  Twenty five years ago, teaching was my choice, and while I sometimes grumble about making less money than any of my high school or college friends — and most of my students who have joined the working world — I also look back and see how this choice has brought my life in touch with some of the greatest ideas and thinkers in the history of the world.  I see that this choice has given me the chance to share an segment of life’s journey with thousands of students.  And I am hopeful that sharing those ideas and those books has helped students to lead rich lives.

As I look back on the past four years and think about what I’ve learned and tried to accomplish, I’m hopeful that you have found an opportunity, one way or another, to share in the celebration of the human condition – in all of its  beauty, horror, sadness and joy, and perhaps above all, in wonder.  Thank you all for giving English class a chance, for taking your own risks, and for sharing yourselves with me and with each other.

Have a great life!


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Going Low-Tech — And keeping things social

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Preview of my NCTE presentation: Mashup The Shakespeare!


Shakespeare's words are where the power lies.  Your students' active connection with these words is the greatest gift you can give them.

–Peggy O’Brien, Director of Education at the Folger Shakespeare Library


We teach Shakespeare so that students can experience Shakespeare’s Language.  Everything the students do, therefore, should bring them INTO the text.  Mashups are a technique to do just that.

Why Mashups?

Shakespeare wrote at the turn of the century.  Not 1999, not even 1899.  It was 1599.  So his language sounds different.  Our Students Can Deal with That, if we let them!  Often, however, in a misguided and counterproductive effort to make the texts “accessible” to students, we ask students to “translate” the scenes into modern language — or we provide them with these translation.  Doing so actually DISTANCES students from Shakespeare’s language.  Notice how far out “in the suburbs” paraphrasing falls in the illustration above.  Paraphrasing, if done as an end in itself, takes students away from the text and makes them worry.  They’ll worry about getting the translation “right,” or they study someone else’s modern version so that they remember the “correct” interpretation.  Rather than trying to “paraphrase” or “translate,” students have to bring themselves INTO the language.

So here’s an idea:

Rather than trying to drag Shakespeare forward, let’s bring ourselves to Shakespeare.  By bringing our own thoughts to the text — or by bringing lyrics or literature from our own time into contact with the Bard’s words — we connect to the text.  We see nuances of language that make Shakespeare Shakespeare, and we recognize multiple possibilities for performing the play.

Example 1 — Mashing Text with Subtext

No matter what people say, they’re often thinking something different.  Lady Macbeth tells her husband to “look like th’ Innocent flower, but Be the serpent under’t.  One way to bring students INTO the text, then, is to invite them to consider what the character is thinking but not saying.

Here’s an example.  Click here to see it on its own page:

In order to insert the character’s thoughts into the dialog, students have to know the context of the conversation, and they have to have a strong sense of its literal meaning.  By sharing their ideas of what the characters are thinking (without the obstacle of trying to get a “right answer”) they have to come back INTO the text — in order to justify their ideas and ultimately act out the conversation.  The comment feature of Google Docs works great for this exercise, because students can work simultaneously on the same excerpt, and their work can be public to the rest of the class and beyond.

Example 2 — The Modern Lyrics Mashup  

Back when I was closer to my students’ ages, I viewed the English teacher’s job as “explainer in chief.”  In this role, I tried to allude to pop culture to help students see relevance.  Now I let the students find their own connections.

Here’s a link that includes some examples of why my students did with the assignment.

In the left column, the student has a conversation between Othello and Desdemona.  It comes from the point in the play where Othello, convinced that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him, accuses her and strikes her.  On the right side, he has the lyrics from “Harder to Breathe” by Maroon 5.  Just by putting the two texts together, the student is already explaining the passage through analogy.

It gets even better when he combines the two:

Shakespeare’s lines (in blue) stay intact.  The lines from Maroon Five (in black) provide commentary.  When students explain their choices (both of the selections from Shakespeare and their modern lyrics) they connect their own experiences with Shakespeare’s language.

In the process, they Forget that Shakespeare is hard to understand.

Both of these exercises invite students to bring themselves into Shakespeare’s world and experience the characters and language in a way that is natural and relevant to them.  The natural connections that students discover are powerful ways to draw them closer to the texts.

And the ability to share these connections with others can transform the students into guides.

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Sharing the Joy of Reading

My Favorite Summer Reading Text of the year.

Our English department always required some summer reading.

…and historically, nobody did it.

…Well, OK.  Some students did it.  Some LOVED it!  and many, many more didn’t bother.

Then we got really good: we required students to ANNOTATE the summer reading.

…and again, nobody read the books… except for those few who loved it previously.  For them, we managed to suck whatever pleasure they got from the books from their experience.

For everyone else… well, I saw them sitting in the hallways.  They were flipping through pages, making random marks and writing sporadic, yet convincing notes, like “wow!” and “hmmmmm.”  Once I saw a student copiously flipping through a friend’s book, copying his peer’s pointless marks.

Hmmmmm… Note to self:

Required reading, for students who don’t like to read, is likely to be torture.  Required annotation, when done without direction or purpose, may be the worst assignment ever invented. 

At this point I extend heartfelt apologies to my students from this dark and misguided period of my teaching career.

And then…A better idea!

A couple of years ago the English department got together with the librarians to compose lists of works that would be engaging and interesting for students to read.  We learned an important lesson:  LIBRARIANS KNOW STUFF.  They particularly know about the hundreds of books that are published every year with a young audience in mind.  So this year’s book selection contained many Young Adult titles.  To be honest, I wasn’t sold on the idea at first… but then, I red the summer reading titles with my daughter, and it all made sense to me.

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

I left our summer reading titles lying around, and one day, my daughter picked up Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline.  For an entire July day, her eyes were glued to the text.  Since she liked it so much, I read it the next day.  It was fantastic!  I haven’t been so absorbed in a book since I sailing through The Odyssey on a Labor Day weekend back in the ’90’s.  I found Cline’s story so compelling — and so much fun — that I absolutely couldn’t put it down.  At 2:30 a.m. my dad came down to the kitchen and found me wide awake, reading the final chapter.

“What are you doing up”

“Just have to finish this book.”

I wouldn’t say that my daughter and I conducted a book club meeting, or that I led a literary discussion of the text, or even that I explained all of the wonderful references to ’80’s pop culture.  But we did share the real joy of having entered the world of this book, explored it for ourselves, interpreted it, and shared in the lives of Cline’s characters.  For a summer reading assignment, who could ask for anything more?

And we got rid of the annotation requirement.

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My Senior Speech

Congratulations!  You have just about finished your high school careers.  Your airplane has landed, and we’re on the runway, making the taxi to the terminal.  You may turn on your electronic devices now!

Actually, I’m kidding… I can’t tell you that.   I know that you already had them on, anyway.

And I also know that some of you are likely to peek at your phone at some point during this little talk.  Even though it’s totally riveting.  But I hope that you’ll pay more attention to me as I give this speech than you give to the flight attendant at the end of the trip… especially when I say DO NOT STAND UP UNTIL THE PLANE HAS COME TO A COMPLETE STOP AND THE SEATBELT SIGN HAS BEEN TURNED OFF.

Yes, we’re almost done.  But don’t get up and open the overhead bins just yet.  I won’t, since I’ll be staying on this plane for a bit longer than you.  Nevertheless, your imminent graduation presents an opportunity for me to reflect a bit on my own experience this year.  I hope that you’ll find my observations relevant to your own lives.

As you may remember, this year I finished my 20th year as a full-time educator.  During your lifetimes, I have learned a lot about teaching, and like you, I feel that this last year has represented a kind of graduation for me.  For the past four years, I’ve tried to focus lessons on your knowledge — on helping you to discover and share things about literature an language.  That’s a big shift from where I started — which was focusing on sharing MY knowledge with students.  And while I don’t think that I’ve become truly effective yet, I do believe that I managed to keep my focus on you, rather than on myself.

This year is also a bit different for me, because the classes have large numbers of students who don’t have English as their native language.  For those of you who have been learning English, I’d like to say Thank you for taking a year or more to learn about my home culture and language.  You took a big risk in coming here to live and learn.  I’m sure that you experienced a lot of challenges during your time here.  To all of you who have reached out to someone from a culture different from your own, congratulations!  You’ve chosen to make your lives a little richer by sharing yourself with someone else.  In order to make the world better, we all need to follow your example.

For some of you, the experience of English class may still leave you with a fundamental question:  Why do we do this?  For you, here’s is one final attempt at answering it:

All academic study gives us knowledge.  I hope that in English class, you have shared some of the joy that I get from knowing things.  I also hope that other classes have done the same for you.  Mathematics gives us order and provides models so that we can make reliable predictions.  History shows us where we came from and gives us a sense of where we may be going.  The sciences show us what we’re made of and how all of these forces and chemicals and atoms combine to make our world and our universe function as it does.  But what about English?

I believe that Literature is special because it gives us a kind of knowledge reserved for us humans:  It shows us how people feel.  Literature gives us a chance to get inside of someone’s soul and live, for a time, that other person’s joy and suffering.  I hope that over the year you have felt some of the joy that I find in reading great literature.  As I look back on the year, there are a few moments that shine for me, as I remember conversations with a few of you, where you have shown me that you’ve felt Olivia’s confusion, or Malvolio’s misery — where you have been shocked by the sadness of Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam experiences or puzzled through Albee’s social criticism.  If you didn’t, well, I hope that some day you’ll give literature another chance.  I also hope that this class offered something to those of you who didn’t feel the direct benefits of the books.

My biggest hope for each of you is that you see yourself as a contributor — as a person with something valuable to share with the rest of the world.  That’s why I set aside a lot of time for you to develop your blogs, and that’s also why I’ve tried to build a lot of activities that asked you to work together in groups.  Ultimately, I hope that as you move on — as you deplane from this leg of life’s journey — you take with you a sense of possibility, as well as a sense of responsibility.  You have the ability to learn, to accomplish, and to share with others.  As you continue on your journey, you’ll be expected to put that ability to good use.  So make sure that you check around your seats for any personal potential that you may have forgotten about — You’ll definitely need it wherever you’re going.

As I look back on this year, and think about what I’ve learned and tried to accomplish, I’m hopeful that you have found an opportunity, one way or another, to share in the celebration of the human condition – in all of its  beauty, horror, sadness and joy, and perhaps above all, in wonder.  Thank you all for giving English class a chance, for taking your own risks, and for sharing yourselves with me and with each other.  I feel privileged to have been your teacher for a year.

Have a great life!


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