Monthly Archives: March 2014

BC 1.3: Favorite Website #BC20

I have numerous favorite websites; if you are a teacher of any subject looking for informational texts to incorporate into your curriculum (because it is NOT just the ELA teacher’s job to teach/practice/require literacy in the classroom), I strongly encourage you to check out Learning Blogs at The New York Times and NewsELA (both are linked below in my blogroll). If you are teaching any subject that can contact with history, check out the Library of Congress ( for primary sources. However, all three of these websites are well-known or well-linked in the education universe.

My new find this school year was Narratively ( or on Twitter @NarrativelyNY); I found it when Mental Floss (another great website–the articles tend to be interestingly quirky tweeted a link to an article on Narratively. Narratively publishes original narrative essays that they group by a single theme each week. At the high school level, CCSS suggests a 70%-30% split between informational texts and fiction texts. PARCC suggests that in the ELA classroom, this split should be 50%-50%, but most of the informational texts will be nonfiction narrative essays–exactly what Narratively provides (some personal narrative, some third-person narrative).

I carefully chose three essays during first semester to use as mentor texts for my students’ personal narrative essay assignment (Kelly Gallagher says that you cannot provide too many example or mentor texts). I found topics that I thought would interest my students, that would be no more than four printed pages (two pages front-to-back), and that I then edited for language if necessary. Over winter break, I received an email (because you can subscribe and receive weekly emails) stating that the next week’s theme (the first week after winter break) would be “American Dreamless.” What was the third quarter theme in junior English? American dream/American nightmare, with The Great Gatsby as the extended text. The five essays were wonderful! They provided a more realistic view of the theme but also provided textual evidence that the so-called American dream is not limited to America. (Again, a couple essays needed a word or two edited for appropriateness.)

Third quarter I used an essay about a soldier to illustrate a realistic example of the hero’s journey with my freshmen; this quarter, I have used one essay (rather than an entire weekly theme of essays) to provide a cultural/religious discussion of identity with my freshmen.

The essays also include illustrations; some are photographs of the people and places, while other illustrations are created by artists to accompany the essays. Finally, some of the essays are video essays.

The only drawback to the website is that it cannot be searched; to find an essay, one needs to scroll through the essays. I have made it a point to save essays the same week that they are published for my future use.

BC 1.2: Organization

This topic makes me laugh because I consider myself to be the least organized person–it’s all in my head! But my colleagues see me as incredibly organized. My style? Pack rat (because “hoarder” has a negative connotation). I rarely throw anything out because even if I didn’t use it this year, I may decide to use it another time or a colleague may be able to use it. In fact, I inherited a classroom twelve years ago with all the materials in file folders in file cabinets that the previous teacher had used; I just finally threw out (I actually recycled all the paper) the last drawer full of materials that I had not used in the previous years. And I had to do that to provide the drawer to my student teacher because my organizational techniques didn’t work for her.

I have a two-part system for unit organization and daily organization. For units, I use binders and the plastic sleeves; I don’t punch holes in papers because they could tear out, and I could punch through important words. Plus the plastic sleeves can also hold magazines, newspaper articles, notecards, bulletin board materials, etc. I keep both current materials and unused materials in the binder. (I just struggle with refiling materials each year, but I’m working on it.) I have amassed a binder collection by watching for clearance sales after the school year begins (when stores have too many back-to-school items left over to store until next school year), as well as weekly deals during back-to-school sales. The plastic sleeves are always a weekly deal during back-to-school sales.

The second part of my system is a rolling cart for hanging files. I bought it at Walmart a few years ago (probably during a back-to-school sale). It could be for office it classroom use; it fits nicely under a tall table that I have in my classroom. I have multiple hanging folders for each course that I teach. When I photocopy handouts a few weeks in advance, all of them go in a folder. After I have handed out papers, the leftovers go into a different folder for those students who were absent. I also have folders for reference handouts that I expect students to keep and use all year long. One folder has all the signed expectation sheets so that I can find them easily when a student or parent disputes consequences.

I think that these are obvious organizational tools, but as I found out a few months ago, organization is very personal–what works for one person may not work for another.

BC 1.1: My favorite book to teach

My favorite book to teach was The Scarlet Letter–the countless examples of symbolism, the past vs. present theme within the novel, the early references to the women’s rights movement, and my incredible compare/contrast assignment with The Village–but, in response to the approximately 25 juniors who failed English 3 every first semester (they identified the difficulty of the language in SL as one reason for failure), our department choose to only teach SL in honors English. We replaced it with The Crucible.

This year is my second without The Scarlet Letter, and I have not fallen in love with any of my extended text units. This semester, I have a student teacher who has been responsible for the lesson planning. And I quickly realized that The Great Gatsby, the novel that I have taught for years as an independent reading assignment using an online classroom (Nicenet) while we prepared the students for standardized testing, has much more complexity than I have taught in other years.

To explore the American nightmare theme, (I love this website!!) published a set of essays for the week of January 6th, 2014 (the theme was titled American Dreamless). I was able to use these five nonfiction essays (checkmark for CCSS) to provide students with contemporary examples of people who give everything to attempt the American dream but never achieve it as a preview before beginning the novel.

Two activities that my student teacher created for the novel that I had never used before were to read biographies of the real people that Fitzgerald based his characters on (I knew Arnold Rothstein, but not the others) and cite the textual evidence from the biographies and from the novel to compare and contrast the two (real person and character). To meet standard 7 (exploring different artisitc media/multiple interpretations), she showed different Gatsby movie trailers starting with the 1926 version (1926, 1949 1974, 1990’s made-for-tv, and, of course, 2013). The students analyzed what each director (or movie trailer editor) emphasized and what a viewer would expect from that movie; students then compared/contrasted each with the novel.

Being able to listen to the class discussion, I realized that the color references are much more detailed than I usually teach. For next year, I want to do more with the gold and not-gold references; I also just read a short story by Kim Edwards titled “Gold” that includes description of the allure of a gold-colored car. The entire story would relate well to the novel, but I plan to just use the excerpt about the car. In the same collection of short stories (The Secret of the Fire King), Edwards has a short story titled “In the Garden” that is set in the 1920’s and is about a man who believes that he has found the fountain of youth by drinking radium (it makes sense if you are familiar with the historical context); while the story has many similarities to Hawthorne’s “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” it shares the I-will-go-to-any-lengths-to-win-the-girl concept with Gatsby.

Finally, the other symbolism that I became aware of a couple years ago but have not been able to include in a lesson yet is the animal symbolism in the names of the party guests. If you search the names, East Egg and West Egg names, the majority of them are the names of animals. Klipspringer, for example, is a small species of African antelope. A couple names could be a fluke, but the majority of names must be intentional. I just haven’t figured out why Fitzgerald chose to use them (two older scholarly articles exist about the animal names but neither has a definitive conclusion).

While Gatsby has been an easy novel to teach, it hasn’t always been my favorite. However, I need to take advantage of the renewed cultural interest as a result of the 2013 movie, so I will make it my new favorite to focus on improving my unit. After a couple years, I will chose a different favorite book and focus my efforts on it.